Rwanda: reborn and rebuilt
Bracing herself for a Dian Fossey-style close encounter with Rwanda’s mountain gorillas, Marie Claire’s SARAH KOOPMAN sets off on a once-in-alifetime adventure and uncovers a country and people readying itself
for a new future
Rwanda is the land of a thousand hills, but it is also the land of sad stories and good people.’ This is how our guide, Amos, welcomed us to Kigali, Rwanda’s capital city, on my trip with True Africa safari company. The sad stories of a country torn apart by civil war and genocide are easy enough to be familiar with, but it is the good people that welcome me to their beautiful country who are the reason I want to go back for more. Kigali is unlike any other East African city I’ve visited. The ‘thousand hills’ nickname is evident from the moment I y in over the countryside, which seems to roll on in endless peaks and valleys towards the horizon. Arriving shortly after the rainy season, the views are lled with deep green, lush vegetation, with dusty roads snaking through the hills to the capital that sits in a valley at the centre of the country. On our drive from the airport, Amos tells us about the city, which is home to about one million of the 12.5 million who call this tiny country home. ‘You can say Rwanda is a new country,’ Amos says. And, having had the past 21 years to rebuild from the ground up, you can feel it. As we join the stream of cars moving around the city, with scooter taxis whizzing past us and construction happening all over, the newness is all around us. The country’s history has set the tone for a new spirit of togetherness and there is a sense of national pride in almost everyone I meet. Given its traumatic history, there has been a big push for equality and fairness and ensuring the best for all Rwandans, says Jacqui Sebageni, founder and owner of Thousand Hills Expeditions and Amber Expeditions (the company Amos works for) in Kigali. ‘My challenges in business are not unique to being a woman,’ she says, adding that Rwanda is ranked as one of the leading countries for gender equality, with parliament including more than 63% women.
Umuganda As we set o from Kigali the next day on the three-hour drive to Volcanoes National Park on the northwestern border – where our gorilla trek would begin – the roads are empty. All shops and businesses are closed and the city is quiet. Amos says it is umuganda (community work day). On the last Saturday of every month, all business operations close down and every citizen takes part in a day of community service. From cleaning schools and roads to planting trees or painting buildings, everyone bands together. ‘There are poor people here,’ says Amos. ‘But no poverty.’ With a strong sense of community responsibility for one another and subsistence farming in almost every backyard, everyone is taken care of. All along the route, with every village we pass through, there are smiling children who hear us coming and pop out of their houses to run alongside our 4x4 and wave, laughing and shouting out greetings – and requests for money and sweets – as we go. After overnighting at Mountain Gorilla View Lodge, we arrive for our gorilla trek at 7am. Volcanoes National Park, home to the mountain gorillas that are one of the country’s primary sources of tourism, forms part of the Virunga mountain range that also straddles the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Uganda. The 125km2 Virungas are a chain of eight volcanoes (two still active) and its rich, fertile soil also makes it prime farming land. There are more than 70 other tourists also undertaking this bucket-list adventure for the day and we are allocated to one of the 10 groups of eight people that will hike to see a habituated gorilla family. Our family – Isabukuru – is about a three-hour hike away, up in the remote hills. Before even reaching the forest, we hike through steep farmland, where families tend crops of potatoes and plantain and keep goats, sheep and the odd cow, too. The climb is steep, muddy and tough
on my coastal lungs as we continue gaining altitude. Once into the rainforest, we hike relatively quietly, the group concentrating on dodging low-hanging branches, not slipping on the wet ground or disturbing herds of bu alo and elephant and conserving energy as we breathe heavily. With no pre-determined trail to hike, the guides and trackers walk ahead with machetes and create a path as we go. About 20m before reaching the gorilla family, we leave our backpacks and walking sticks with the porters and walk into a clearing in absolute silence. Suddenly, the snap of bamboo being broken catches my attention. Sitting behind a small bush is a single silverback. Trying to sti e gasps, we quietly gather around him, with our guide beckoning us closer, and stand mesmerised, watching him eat. Just in time to snap me awake from what was feeling like a surreal daydream, the gigantic creature gets up and nearly brushes past me to join his family behind us. Quietly following the silverback, we are presented with a family of about 15 gorillas. Our guide, Francis, tells us that a family usually moves about 200m a day and will settle to eat and rest together in a clearing like this. There is a mother nursing her ve-month-old baby, surrounded by a few other female relatives. And a 10-month-old beating his chest and playfully tumbling all over the fallen trees. I can’t shake the feeling that he’s playing it up for his audience. The rest of the family sleeps, eats or grooms each other, as a three-year-old – just starting to gain some independence from its mother – tries and fails to resist joining in with the babies’ antics. We learn that every gorilla in every family has a traditional Kinyarwanda name and surname and that in July every year, the local villages hold a three-day naming ceremony for all the babies born in the previous year. The festival is another way for the local communities to feel included in conservation e orts. But my favourite part of the story is when Francis says that, since the babies can’t be removed from the forest, small children are dressed up in u y baby gorilla costumes! The time spent with the family feels like the shortest hour of my life – snapping as many photographs as possible while trying to soak it all in. Despite outdated King Kong-esque depictions of gorillas as hostile, aggressive and violent, they are some of the most peaceful and serene creatures I have encountered. There is no sense of threat as we watch them and join them in their space. Leaving feels dreamlike. We’d travelled all this way, and hiked for hours, to turn and leave again before I am ready. Remembering and belonging Even if the mountain gorillas are one of the things Rwanda is best known for, it is the country’s 1994 genocide that catapulted it into the international spotlight. We visit the Kigali Genocide Memorial for a tour through the 100 days of slaughter of about 800 000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus by members of the Hutu militia. The experience is di cult, but I cannot leave Rwanda without visiting it. The stories are told in detail and, walking through the museum, alone and in silence, I am reduced to tears and left contemplating the full extent of what this country has gone through, and just how remarkable their journey in the last 21 years has been. It is the story of this journey that has cemented Rwanda as a place I need to visit again. On our way to the airport, I convince Amos to take us to the local market so I can buy beautiful printed local fabric to add to my collection of skirts made of fabrics from African markets. Wandering past the closely packed stalls, piled high with fabric of every colour and print, I am met with local greetings in Kinyarwanda. Nodding and smiling as politely as possible in return, Amos tells me they’re doing so because I could pass for a local ‘city girl’. As I pay for my fabric and ask Amos to help me say thank you in Kinyarwanda, I can’t help but leave with a spring in my step, feeling like I belong in the tiny country that caught a small corner of my heart.
Sarah with a mountain gorilla family in Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda
Twin lakes: Lakes Bulera and Ruhondo on the border of Rwanda and Uganda