Rwanda: re­born and re­built

Marie Claire (South Africa) - - CONTENTS - mc

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

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