Muzungus in the Mist

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Part I: The Slow Cyclists

“Run!”

“Run where, Papa?”

“Into the bush! Now!

Little seven-year old D’Artagnan had no idea what was going on. Was he supposed to run “into the bush” alone? Why? Rwanda had very little “bush”; it was all agricultural small holdings.

As soon as the plane went down, the Rwandan genocide began. It had been well planned for a long time.

That was the evening of April 6, 1994. That afternoon Rwandan Hutu dictator and president, Juvénal Habyarimana, along with Burundian President Cyprien Ntaryamira, also a Hutu, were shot down by missiles fired at close range as their plane was landing at the Kigali airport. Officially, the attackers remain unidentified. Though Hutu extremists blame the Rwandan Patriotic Forces (RPF) — Tutsi and moderate Hutu rebels opposed to Habyarimana’s dictatorship — RPF forces were nowhere near the area. Only the elite presidential guard was nearby, stationed at the Kigali airport, next door to the president’s compound — and they were armed with missiles.

Habyarimana was just returning from Tanzania after a regional summit. Three months prior he’d signed the Arusha Peace Accords, a power-sharing deal with the RPF that was supposed to put an end to the long-running civil war between the National Revolutionary Movement (MRND) and the RPF. A cabal of Hutu extremists in high government posts, reluctant to cede any power or spoils, opposed the deal. Habyarimana himself was no fan of it; the international community and the RPF’s military might forced it on him.

As soon as the plane went down, the Rwandan genocide began. It had been well planned for a long time. Machetes imported from China, grenades from France (military support of several kinds had been provided by the French government), and masus, clubs with protruding nails on their heads, had been stockpiled for this moment. Extremist Hutu militias, known as the interahamwe (those who attack together), had trained for this moment since 1990. Within hours of the downing of the plane the interahamwe went house-to-house killing Tutsis, set up road blocks demanding identity cards and chopping down Tutsis on the spot, and murdering moderate Hutu politicians — including the Prime Minister, Agathe Uwilingiyimana.

We’d gone to Rwanda to bike around the small country, our favorite way of discovering new places. With an undergraduate minor in primatology, I wanted to see gorillas up close. What better venue than the Virunga volcanoes where Dian Fossey had done her studies? And my wife Tina had never been to Africa. It was a bucket list thing.

Within hours the militias went house-to-house killing Tutsis, set up road blocks demanding identity cards and chopping down Tutsis on the spot, and murdering moderate Hutu politicians.

We signed up for an 8-day tour with Slow Cyclist, an outfit out of Britain. Having been an outdoor guide all my life, hiring a guide rankled. But the gorilla permits are difficult to acquire, there are no adequate maps of Rwanda’s back roads, my Kinyarwandan is non-existent, and Slow Cyclist promised a first-class mountain bike tour with a guaranteed gorilla trek at the end. So I held my nose and signed up for their Kigali to Virunga ride along the steepest, roughest backroads in East Africa (I was skeptical of their advertised nearly 5,000-foot altitude gain on a bike the first day, but wrote it off as a typo), with custom lodging at tea plantations, private homes, and reservation-only boutique inns.

After the Slow Cyclist tour, Tina and I would traverse the Congo-Nile Trail, a moderately hard world-class mountain bike trail along giant Lake Kivu on the Congo border. Because much of the single-track is difficult to follow and lodging scarce and variable, we planned on hiring a guide from Rwandan Adventures, a custom guide outfit. After that we’d be on our own across the southern half of the country and back up to Kigali. Our full route traced a circle around the western half of Rwanda, starting and ending in Kigali, which is approximately in the center of the country.

Even though we brought our bikes with us, entry formalities were search- and customs-free. The immigration official greeted us with a big smile and declared that we were VIPs. He asked my profession. I said I was a retired teacher. He responded, “My son says that teachers never retire.”

I was skeptical of their advertised nearly 5,000-foot altitude gain on a bike the first day, but wrote it off as a typo.

On the first day Slow Cyclist took us to the Kigali Genocide Memorial. Two hundred and fifty thousand people are buried there. Our guide around the small museum was D’Artagnan. Something about our small custom group — seven participants from the US, Switzerland and Germany — seemed to affect D’Artagnan’s stock presentation. When he recounted the events of that April 6 evening he couldn’t hold back his tears. Neither could we.

“How did you survive?” we hesitantly but anxiously asked.

Little D’Artagnan had wandered lost for days until a kind old woman hid him. His entire family was annihilated. He added that the interahamwe grabbed small children by the feet and swung them against masonry walls to smash their heads; larger ones were decapitated by machete. No one left that museum tour without physically touching D’Artagnan, who nonetheless left us without ceremony.

In some ways the Rwandan genocide was much worse than the Nazi Holocaust. Patrick Mazimpaka, a minister in the 1997 RPF-led government reflected, “In Germany, the Jews were . . . moved to . . . distant locations, and killed there, almost anonymously. In Rwanda . . . your neighbors killed you. In Germany, if the population participated in the killing, it was not directly but indirectly.”

Little D’Artagnan had wandered lost for days until a kind old woman hid him. His entire family was annihilated.

Mahmood Mandami, in his scholarly analysis When Victims Become Killers: Colonialism, Nativism, and the Genocide in Rwanda, says:

The technology of the Holocaust allowed a few to kill many, but [in Rwanda] the machete had to be wielded by a single pair of hands. It required not one but many hacks to kill even one person. With a machete, killing was hard work; that is why there were often several killers for every single victim . . . The Rwandan genocide was very much an intimate affair. It was carried out by hundreds of thousands, perhaps even more, and witnessed by millions.

Then there are the raw numbers. Rwanda had seven million inhabitants before the genocide. Nearly one million were Tutsis. During the 100 days the genocide proper lasted, 800,000 to one million Tutsis and moderate Hutus were killed. That’s at least 333 1/3 murders per hour — or 5 1/2 lives terminated every minute. That the entire Tutsi population wasn’t annihilated is due to the many waves of Tutsi refugees that found asylum in Uganda, Zaire, Burundi, and Tanzania before and during the killing.

The disaster didn’t begin there. The Hutu-Tutsi rivalry became deadly in 1897 when the ruling class — mostly Tutsis — imposed heavy duties on the peasants — mostly Hutus. Then it took another turn in1933 when the Belgian authorities decided to issue mandatory identity cards to all Ruandan-Urundis (as residents of the colony were then called), thereby freezing ethnic and class identity. It was then that infrequent pogroms — by both sides — began taking place. Before then, the Hutu-Tutsi classes were not fixed: a Hutu could become a Tutsi and vice versa. Intermarriage was common, to such a degree that an observer could not visually distinguish an archetypal Hutu from a Tutsi. (Except for the king, who was 7’2” tall; height is a supposedly defining Tutsi trait.) Neither could we make such visual distinctions during our one-month sojourn and 700-kilometer bike ride around the country.

During the 100 days the genocide proper lasted, 800,000 to one million Tutsis and moderate Hutus were killed. That’s at least 333 1/3 murders per hour — or 5 1/2 lives terminated every minute.

Killings began in earnest in 1959, with subsequent waves in 1962, 1963, 1967, and continued periodically until 1994. In 1972 there was a 250,000 reverse massacre: of Hutus in neighboring Burundi by the Tutsi-dominated government (even though the Hutu-Tutsi proportion in Burundi was the same as in Rwanda: 85% to 15%).

The RPF started their advance south from Mulindi, headquarters next to the Ugandan border, on April 7. Though Kigali was only about 80 kilometers away, they began a three-pronged pincer movement targeting Byumba — the first big city on the road south — Kigali, and Butare, Rwanda’s number two city and intellectual capital, with the intent of breaking supply chains and laying siege to all three. They were well-disciplined, armed with both guns and morale, and were led by Paul Kagame, who has been described as the African Napoleon — a tactical and strategic genius. When government troops faced the RPF advance, they often ran away. The Interahamwe, armed only with machetes and masus, followed them, while the Hutu Power militias evaporated. The Presidential Guard, the best trained soldiers of the regime, put up the most resistance. As Lieutenant General Roméo Dallaire, head of the United Nations Assistance Mission for Rwanda, stated in his book Shake Hands with the Devil: The Failure of Humanity in Rwanda, “The RGF (Rwandan Government Forces) soldiers were killing for the sake of killing, not knowing or caring why. In this type of conflict, the men fighting for principles they believed in would inevitably win.”

Finally, after the RPF victory on the Fourth of July, 1994, the Hutu militias, Interahamwe, and remnants of the previous government’s army fled to Congo and regrouped there, with hopes of overthrowing the new RPF government in Rwanda. Kagame, the defense chief of the RPF (and later president of the country) would have none of that. He enlisted the aid of Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, whom he’d helped to topple Ugandan dictator Milton Obote with the RPF forces, to neutralize the génocidaires.

The RPF were well-disciplined, armed with both guns and morale, and were led by Paul Kagame, who has been described as the African Napoleon — a tactical and strategic genius.

Counting the killings before the genocide, the genocide itself, and killings that continued in wars directly resultant from the genocide, the death toll topped six million.

* * *

In Kigali, Slow Cyclist ensconced us in the Heaven Chalet, next door but one to President Paul Kagame’s residence and about two blocks from the Hotel Mille des Collines, site of the events depicted in the movie Hotel Rwanda. If you think San Francisco is hilly, you haven’t been to Kigali, a city so much that way that it defies a grid system for roads. Each hill is overlaid with a paisley street pattern with connector avenues to the other hills.

Kigali is a spotlessly clean city. In fact, all of Rwanda is litter-free; plastic bags are even outlawed. Not only are the people proud of their country but on the last Saturday of every month all businesses shut down and a general cleanup ensues. Kigali is also a city without slums, beggars, homeless people, bare footedness, potholes, or animals — even dogs. Their curious absence drove home for us, more than anything, including the numbers of dead, how they died, and D’Artagnan’s tale, the enormity of the genocide.

If you think San Francisco is hilly, you haven’t been to Kigali, a city so much that way that it defies a grid system for roads.

When the genocide ended on July 4, 1994, a country of 10,000 square miles was peppered with one million dead. They lay both scattered and in clusters, many piled in churches where they’d sought refuge (although there were a few hastily dug mass graves). Rwanda’s neglected and hungry dogs dug into the corpses. As if carpets of corpses weren’t overwhelming enough, watching hungry dogs scavenging the dead was beyond anyone’s tolerance. All dogs were killed. Nearly 25 years later we encountered only two instances of dogs, both pets of foreigners.

The police, according to all accounts, are incorruptible. One informant told us that when offered a bribe, they are instructed to accept it and keep it — and then to write a citation for bribing. Emi, our driver and guide, said thieves and assaulters were lucky if caught by the police. Woe betide the miscreant who is set upon by witnessing passersby before the arrival of the cops.

Traffic laws are strictly enforced. One practice that wouldn’t pass muster in the US but makes the streets much safer for pedestrians and bikers is that any motorist who hits a pedestrian or biker is automatically incarcerated for six months before even facing a judge. Motorcycle taxis (moto-taxis), the most common mode of public transportation (along with buses and bicycles kitted up with a back seat), carry a spare helmet for fares. And they are scrupulously honest, with no price negotiation. Just flag one down, state your destination, and upon arrival hand over any denomination of Rwandan francs, and you’ll get the right change. How they figure the correct amount remains a mystery to me, but the fares for similar distances from different drivers remained consistent.

To avoid Kigali traffic — which isn’t particularly fast or outrageously dense — Slow Cyclist drove us to the outskirts of the city, and up the first thousand feet of our first day’s ride. With another 4,000 feet up to go, and 50 kilometers along impossibly steep and rugged dirt roads, we’d have been hard pressed to reach the Sorwathe Tea Plantation in Kinihira, our first night’s lodging, without that initial motorized boost.

Kinihira had been fought over in the civil war launched by the RPF in October 1990. It was here that much of the Arusha Peace Accords had been negotiated. It then became neutral ground and was the site of the official launch of the UNAMIR peace keeping force in October 1993. We slept on hallowed ground.

Any motorist who hits a pedestrian or biker is automatically incarcerated for six months before even facing a judge.

As avid bikers, Tina and I can hold our own in any group. But the four 26-year-old Swiss and one German, all experienced mountain bikers, made me feel my age; it was my birthday, and I’d turned 69 that day. Still, it was a tough day for us all: two flats, one lost biker, and a crash so bad it forced the German to ride in the four-wheel drive support vehicle for two days with a bandaged forearm. Was it going to be so difficult every day?

Pretty much. Fifty-five kilometers and 3,500 feet of altitude gain on the second day, all on rocky, rutted four-wheel drive back roads. We started, however, with a tour of the tea factory, with full-on hygienic suits. Observing the sophisticated operation, which was literally “in the middle of nowhere,”’ we were amazed that the entire factory was operated by four massive wood-burning boilers stoked round-the-clock.

During that day’s ride, Tim, one of the Swiss riders, and an economist by trade, with a take-no-prisoners approach to development economics, deigned to ride with this old fogy. He was open and friendly, with a confident arrogance that I found attractive. Since both of us were impatient with small talk, I told him I was an admirer of Hayek and Mises. He added Hernando de Soto, confirming that we shared some theoretical premises.

I then asked him what he thought of Jeffrey Sachs, the doyen of development economics. Tim found the man’s views deplorable and unrealistic, but had bought the main book that expounded his views. When he saw that the introduction was written by a rock star, Bono — Tim’s words were now dripping with sarcasm — he put off reading it.

On a roll, he moved on to a rant about “fair trade,” one of his favorite foils. Like the American economist Tyler Cowen, who observed that if you want to help the really poor, you don’t buy “fair trade,” Tim had his own beef with the concept, especially when thoughtlessly lumped in a basket of other trendy ideologies.

Was it going to be so difficult every day? Pretty much.

A friend back in Bern, an advocate of fair trade and sustainability, had been buying a “fair trade” avocado when Tim revealed to her that the inefficiencies behind that import did not fit a sustainable model — on any level. She sheepishly put the avocado back on the shelf. I sensed an opening to have fun by presenting a poser on economic inefficiencies, as follows.

Our biking guides, Olivier and Godfrey, came from Rwanda and Uganda respectively. Both were 23 years old, excellent competitive mountain bikers, personable and sensitive, with good English. Slow Cyclist also runs tours in Transylvania, Tuscany, and Greece that are manned by locals. Savannah, our Slow Cyclist head honcho on this tour, told me that Slow Cyclist was mulling over bringing Olivier and Godfrey to Transylvania as on-the-ground biking guides — initially on a training basis — and bringing Romanian guides to Rwanda. I told Tim about Savannah’s plans, drolly emphasizing how inefficient such a move would be.

Tim looked at me impishly and admitted that there were some things more important than economic efficiency. I could tell by his smile that a man who doesn’t suffer fools gladly, had found a new friend.

I elaborated: if you promise to stay together no matter what, there is a perverse incentive to become complacent and take each other for granted.

During the succeeding days we continued to enjoy various topics in economics. One evening after a couple of banana beers, I brought up a thought about incentives that I‘d been mulling over for a while when he asked me how long Tina and I had been married; a question, no doubt, precipitated by how well — and uninhibitedly — she and I got along.

I told him we weren’t married, but had been together for 30 years and had known each other for 40, adding that we thought marriage was premised on the wrong set of incentives. Tim was intrigued. I elaborated: if you promise to stay together no matter what, there is a perverse incentive to become complacent and take each other for granted. Better to promise to leave each other if not treated with love and respect; that way, you’re both always at your best and remain attractive to each other. Remember that love is a marketplace and that potential mates are everywhere and that we’re always comparing what we have to what we could have. So always be at your best so you remain your mate’s number one attraction.

Tim just stared at me, transfixed. There was little under the sun that he hadn’t thought about, but I could tell that what I had just said was new, really new, phrased in his economist’s language.

Tim’s fellow Swiss, all single and consisting of a lawyer, a tech whiz, and another economist — one whose work had been quoted in academic papers — were also of an intellectual bent. The following morning all four rode without their usual vigor; they’d stayed up most of the night drinking beer and discussing my views on marriage. Adrian, the other economist, thought me a bit cold, cynical, and outside the mainstream — hence the long discussion. But Tim was convinced of the soundness of my analysis and decided to approach relationships from a new perspective.

* * *

Our little group was mobbed by locals at every tiny village and water, rest, and regrouping stop. Rwanda is densely populated; there are people everywhere, though white people are very uncommon. As soon as they spotted us, kids would cry out, “Muzungus, muzungus!” in glee and run towards us, big smiles on their faces, palms or fists outstretched for high-fives or knuckle bumps. But when the cameras came out, so — often — did their shyness. Adults would also crowd around curiously, inspect our bikes, shake our hands, and try to engage us with smatterings of French or English, such as “Good morning” or “What is your name?”

Tina and I, with Kinyarwandan phrases taped to our handlebar packs, would respond in Kinyarwandan, a difficult and unintuitive language for us. Often, just for fun and to elicit laughs from the kids, I’d respond nonsensically and unexpectedly with some words I’d memorized, such as inkoko (chicken), umukondo (belly button), and ingrube (pig) — ordinary words, but out of the ordinary in introductory conversations. One of the words I memorized was umwirabura, black person, which I’d lob back at being called a muzungu.The pitch-black African faces would break into broad grins with teeth so uniform and white that we began to wonder how such perfect dental health resulted in this third world country. And it wasn’t just the nearly universal perfect dentition that was noteworthy. Like the inhabitants of Lake Wobegon, Rwandans — men, women, and children — are good-looking and of above average intelligence. In a month and 700 kilometers, we saw perhaps a handful of smokers and even fewer overweight people. At the risk of losing further credibility, I’ll add that — in our experience — they are all friendly, transparent, outgoing, honest, and helpful. When faced with a hill too steep, roadside Rwandans would pitch in to help us push our bikes. They are a people to fall in love with.

Muzungu: originally a Swahili word meaning “aimless wanderer,” but now generally used as a term for white people. However, it can also be used for any foreigner, including American black people. Emi, our driver, told us he’d driven many American actors, including Harrison Ford, Leonardo DiCaprio, Ben Affleck, and Isaiah Washington (an actor in Grey’s Anatomy)to and from the gorilla trekking. Though singling out Washington, Emi generalized to other American stars (mostly black, but including some whites), saying that they were all nice but had a propensity to use “jive” language that included terms such as “bad-ass,” “fucking amazing,” and other obscenities used as intensifying modifiers for compliments. Emi had to gently censure them. Rwandans are conservative in deportment though generally liberal in attitudes. They found jive language offensive and offputting.

As soon as they spotted us, kids would cry out, “Muzungus, muzungus!” in glee and run towards us, big smiles on their faces, palms or fists outstretched for high-fives or knuckle bumps.

On our third day out we approached the Rift Valley in northern Rwanda, with its lakes and volcanoes swaddled in mists that added an air of mystery to our anticipation. After a half-day of riding, which included a single-track section composed of an eight-inch ridge flanked by foot-and-a-half-deep ruts on each side that only Olivier and Godfrey could ride, we arrived at Lake Ruhondo. Two wooden boats with canopies, close relatives of the African Queen, awaited to take our bikes and us to the Foyer de Charité, a Catholic convent on a distant shore. Poor Godfrey and Olivier. They couldn’t swim and were terrified of the boat ride, snuggled in their Mae Wests and begging us not to move from our seats for fear of unbalancing the boats. After their display of expertise on the single-track, their worry was an endearing counterpoint.

The following day began with a walk down to the lake and another boat ride to an even farther shore, followed by a steep 2.5-mile uphill walk to the tony Virunga Lodge for a lunch of pea soup and tenderloin steak.

A mile before the lodge, we hit a newly-built public library, again in the middle of nowhere (yes, I know, it’s getting old . . . all of Rwanda seems to be in the middle of nowhere). It was a modest structure, but well-planned and executed. At least half a dozen people were using the new computers or perusing the stacks. One budding artist was drawing a charcoal portrait of a silverback. They were thrilled to have muzungu visitors. We got a tour. All of us made generous contributions to its upkeep and expansion.

Bicycling in Rwanda is a national sport and pastime, akin to baseball in the US, and, aside from walking, probably the primary form of transportation.

The Virunga Lodge sits atop a hill with stunning views of the Virunga volcanoes. We were welcomed by a drummer and two Intore (“warrior”) dancers. It’s only accessible by bike, helicopter, or very long four-wheel drive. You can’t get there by car unless you have a four-wheel drive. Inside, the Dian Fossey map room beckoned.

Louis Leakey was important in recommending primatologists to the National Geographic. He favored women: Dian Fossey for gorillas, Jane Goodall for chimps, and Birute Galdikas for orangutans. But I sought credit in that map room for George Schaller, the pioneer of mountain gorilla studies in the Virungas, and without whose groundbreaking research Fossey might not have gotten anywhere. And, taking pride of place . . . there he was, in a large framed article crediting him with initiating the gorilla studies.

In the afternoon we rode 26 kilometers, downhill, on perfect tarmac to Ruhengeri. On the outskirts we passed the headquarters of Team Rwanda, the national cycling team, and stopped for a short visit. It was a first-class operation, with some bike frames weighing as little as three pounds. Bicycling in Rwanda is a national sport and pastime, akin to baseball in the US, and, aside from walking, probably the primary form of transportation. The first set of high-end bikes was donated to the team by President Paul Kagame. When the team rides, either for practice or for competition during the Tour de Rwanda, people line the streets and cheer as they pass — behavior our group experienced often as we rode.

Bikes even played a part in the development of Rwandan coffee (heirloom bourbon of an Arabica strain), to my taste the best in the world, comparable to Jamaican Blue Mountain. In 2002, the world discovered Rwandan coffee. But there was a big problem for the small holders who grew the beans. The beans need to be processed within eight hours of being picked, or they begin fermenting, developing rotten flavors. Some farmers, after picking the coffee in the morning, would have to walk up to 15 miles in the sun, carrying hundreds of pounds of fast-fermenting cherries — the red fruit that contains the beans — on a home-made wooden bike or on their heads, balanced on woven baskets.

We ran across some of these old wooden bikes, more akin to scooters (see picture). They could carry over 100 pounds, but weighed nearly 100 pounds themselves and were impossible on even the slightest incline. In the “Land of a Thousand Hills” they weren’t much of a solution.

In 2005, Tom Ritchey, the developer of the mountain bike — in partnership with Gary Fisher — decided to help the Rwandan coffee farmers. He designed a cargo bike that could haul 330 pounds — two bags of coffee cherries, two goats, or three children. He launched it in 2007, named it the “Hope Bicycle,” and priced it at $110 (still a steep price for a coffee farmer), and sold at a subsidized price.

The bikes were a big success, saving farmers time and effort and allowing them to maximize their profits. However, as is the bane of many development schemes, a shortage of parts — brake pads, derailleurs, chains, etc. — in time made the bikes undependable. And as President Kagame’s emphasis on developing Rwanda’s infrastructure bore fruit, Ritchey’s Project Rwanda’s time came to its end. We were lucky to come across a couple of these Project Rwanda bikes, the Humvees of the bicycle world, still in use. Parts are more available today.

In Ruhengeri — hometown of our guide Olivier, and the past headquarters of Hutu Power, President Habyarimana’s organization that engineered the genocide, we stayed at The Garden House, a private home with five guest rooms, owned by a Brit-Rwandan couple with three pet dogs.

* * * *

We awoke at 5 a.m. to joyous singing and clapping — the cadets’ morning routine at the nearby police and military academies. Today was gorilla tracking day. At Volcanoes National Park we were broken up into small groups according to ability, were assigned a ranger, and underwent an orientation. The park was established in 1925, encompasses five volcanoes, and extends into Uganda and Congo (the Congo side was closed because of rebel activity in the area). Today in Rwanda there are about 600+ gorillas (up from 400 in 2016) in about 30 family groups of about 20 individuals each. Some groups are harder to access than others, hence the division of the tourists into groups by varying degrees of ability. This was about the only place in Rwanda where we saw other muzungus.

At this point our hearts were palpably beating in expectation while our vocalizations were reduced to low grunts, a sound our ranger told us to produce as a calming signal to the gorillas.

Our group consisted of four Slow Cyclists and one lady from New York. Our objective was the Hirwa or “Lucky” family group, up on “Old Man’s Teeth,” a volcano whose carapace had eroded and only its core, jagged and multi-summited, remained. We were escorted by an armed ranger, three trackers with walkie-talkies, and one porter who distributed hand-carved walking sticks, essential in the steep, muddy, and foliage-thick tracks that passed for “trails.”

A gorilla sighting is not guaranteed, even after one has paid $1,500 per person for the permit, and I resigned myself to our fate, whatever it turned out to be. Along the way the ranger explained that his gun was for protection against Cape buffalo, not gorillas. After about half an hour of uphill trudging, stumbling, machete hacking, losing shoes in the mud, and much walkie-talkie back-and-forth in Kinyarwandan, the ranger gathered us around a large tree and had us remove our backpacks and walking sticks and cache them there. One tracker had reported a member of the Lucky group up ahead. The removal of our extraneous gear made us more familiar to the primates and avoided their snatching our stuff, however playfully. At this point our hearts were palpably beating in expectation while our vocalizations were reduced to low grunts, a sound our ranger told us to produce as a calming signal to the gorillas.

Our first encounter was lightning fast — a young male surfaced above the undergrowth and gave three or four chest beats directed our way before quickly disappearing. Fiddling with my camera, I’d almost missed him. Nearby, an intermittent procession of gorillas wandered in one direction, a pattern I didn’t discern but which the trackers did. They directed us to a tiny clearing where females and youngsters were congregating. Finally the silverback male — papa — lumbered through, gave us a glance, and sat on his haunches about 30 feet from our little group, which was by now crouched on its haunches. The trackers and porter remained almost out of sight; I suppose to visually minimize the size of our group.

We remained in close proximity for over an hour, watching mothers and children interact, mothers and others groom each other, juveniles brachiate and chase each other around trees, and babies try to get papa to play (a hopeless task). At one point Tina put down her camera and phone in front of her, and lay down on the ground to just enjoy the show. That’s when a young juvenile gave her an impish glance and began approaching within two feet of her. “Take that phone away!” shouted the ranger in a muted voice.

Not a few minutes later, the same juvenile grabbed a stick and approached her again to play. “Do not engage!” came the ranger again. Contact is prohibited. Gorillas share about 97% of our DNA and so are susceptible to our pathogens. We were all vetted for coughs, sneezes, or any other visible signs of sickness before going.

Contact is prohibited. Gorillas share about 97% of our DNA and so are susceptible to our pathogens.

On the way back I felt the same way I had after listening to the Westminster Abbey choir performing their Christmas service — overwhelmed yet exalted, moist-eyed with respectful elation, quietly contemplative at the remarkable hour we’d just experienced with our closest primate relatives, our extraordinary and compelling creature cousins. Emi, our driver, broke our reverie, asking for our reaction. He’d visited the gorillas eight times, and each time he’d felt the same way we did.

“At $1,500 a pop each?” I exclaimed incredulously. He responded that each time, his clients had paid his way.

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Rwandans love their gorillas. At the base of Old Man’s Teeth volcano a beautiful outdoor ceremonial area has been built to hold “Gorilla Namings.” A three-story high silverback sculpted out of dry vines holds court over a promenade, a manicured courtyard, and other staging ornamentation. When a new gorilla is born, a naming ceremony is held at this arena — the newborn is not required to attend.

We brought up the disparity in gorilla trekking prices between Rwanda and Uganda, where a permit costs only $750. In 2017, Rwanda had doubled its price to $1,500. The price change has hit the Rwandan gorilla tourist industry hard. So the Rwandan Development Board has provided a 30% discount between November and May, the low season. Emi said that Rwanda wants to make its gorilla sanctuary fully sustainable and that the rangers and trackers are well paid. He added that each gorilla family in Rwanda is exposed to tourists for only one hour each day so as to minimize any possible stress. By contrast, in Uganda, even if permits are “sold out”, it is possible to approach “someone” and get a permit outside the normal channels. The result is that Uganda’s gorilla families are exposed to tourists all day, every day. Who knows where those last minute permit fees end up?

Rwanda is a fascinating place to visit — as I continued to find, in the second half of my journey.

This is Part I of a two-part article. The second and final installment may be found here.




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