Updated: Nov 19
Downtown Kigali is alive. It's a teaming mass of humanity whose chaos of movement coalesces into a curious order of things. Despite all of the people walking, the people driving small cars and trucks, and those motorcycles weaving in and out of all of the traffic, people get where they are going efficiently and do it in a friendly and cordial way.
Just a few hours ago, I landed in Rwanda's capital city. Now, the group and I head to our lodge at the foothills of Volcanoes National Park in the northwestern part of the country.
We tour the city but eventually make our way to the more rural regions of Western Rwanda. Along the way, I stare out the window and watch the city slowly turn to farmland. Cities are cities, but I've always maintained that a country's soul is found in rural areas. It doesn't take long before potato and pyrethrum fields fold out across rolling fields and terraced hills. Farming is efficient here, and it seems that every square inch of available land is utilized for food production in one of the most densely populated countries on the planet.
In overall area, Rwanda is small. It's roughly the size of Connecticut and Rhode Island combined. However, mountainous terrain and winding roads make travel slow. Therefore, I have time to reflect. I think back to just shy of three decades earlier when genocide and political unrest caught the world's attention. In 100 days, about one million people were killed for immutable characteristics seemingly made up of whole cloth. While the causes of the genocide are a bit complex and deeply rooted in a socio-political system that's since been eradicated, it's a history that the Rwandans are adamant to learn from and never repeat. Therefore a spirit of reconciliation is always at the forefront in today's Rwanda.
Gone is the hate of days past. There is an overwhelming spirit of cooperation and reconciliation amongst those who forge today's modern and welcoming culture here in this tiny African nation. Everywhere we travel - from the city to the villages - the people are warm and welcoming.
Therefore, with anticipation, we arrive at our lodge and settle into our rooms. From outside the dining hall, I look to the north and see Mount Sabyinyo looming. The dormant volcano is one of four volcanic peaks over 12,000-foot tall that makes up Volcanoes National Park. This park is why we're here, as it is home to the endangered mountain gorilla. If you've ever heard of Dian Fossey or watched the movie Gorillas in the Mist, this is where her research took place. Soon after we arrive, we are treated to traditional dancers who put on a show for us. Their diamond is kind, and their music and dancing are inspiring. The exposition sets the mood right for the group and what we'll see the rest of the week.
Each day the plan is relatively formulaic: a trek to see the gorillas in the morning and then some cultural activity that afternoon. The cultural activities range from seeing the Ellen DeGeneres Campus of the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund, taking a tour of a local lake, and visiting the Gorilla Guardians' village. The Gorilla Guardians are a group of former poachers who've found more value in educating people about the local culture and protecting the gorillas against poaching. Each cultural experience is uplifting in its own right, as it gives us a direct insight into how the locals live and what inspires them.
When the day finally came to see the gorillas, we met our guide at Volcanoes National Park Headquarters. Jolie [spoken with a French pronunciation] greets us with a smile and a gregarious nature. In a stone seating area arranged in the round, she educates us about the history of mountain gorillas, the biology of mammals, and how to behave around them. She tells us that the mountain gorilla population is growing, and the park plans to expand and conserve more land around the mountains. Her presentation is enthralling, and we all hang on to her every word. Before long, however, we are on the road to a small village nearby.
At the village, we meet our porters. They are part of a local collective that provides jobs for the villagers. The porters are indispensable as they carry our gear into the mountains. Our first hike isn't that strenuous as we venture into a low-altitude bamboo forest where the Sabinyo group lives. Each family group is given a name and occupies a specific region of the park. The gorillas will roam within that region, where they feed, sleep, and reproduce. The sex and age makeup of each group is different as well.
We get into an open area of the jungle and leave our gear with the porters and take only our cameras. From there, it's a short hike to where the gorillas are feeding. When we arrive where the trackers think they are, there is no gorilla. Then from out of nowhere, a silverback walks nonchalantly past us. I freeze in my tracks, and the big male makes eye contact with me as he walks past. It's a surreal moment.
The next day, we head back to another family group: Umubano. The Umubano group lives high on a mountain, so we must ascend to around 10,000 feet to find them. Umubano has two new babies in their group, so we are anxious to see them. Today, our guide is Edward. He's one of the most experienced guides in the park, and his friendly nature makes him a natural for taking foreigners like us into gorilla country.
When we reach an open area on the mountainside, again, we leave our porters behind and walk a short distance with Edward to the gorillas.
“UH mmmmm…. UH mmmmmm…" Edward says in a guttural way. It's gorilla speak saying that we're friends. We ease from behind Edward and see a big silverback lounging in the vegetation. To his left, a few females and a newborn baby feed. The group stands in silence and watches for a while. Looking at a species like this is like looking into the eyes of God and all he's created. The moment is spiritual, at the least.
We can only spend an hour with the gorillas before we descend the mountain. The trek was challenging but worth it. On our way down the hill, we wave and speak to children working in the farm fields with their parents. While the gorillas are astounding, the Rwandan people are the real treasure here.
"HALLO!" a child, maybe eight years old, says with a distinct Kinyarwandan accent. She and a few other children run down the hill to greet us.
Edward speaks to her and asks her name. She answers. They talk for a bit and then he asks, "Urashaka gukora iki iyo ukuze?"
She answers. Edward smiles.
"She wants to be a gorilla guide," Edward tells us with a big smile. "She reminds me of myself when I was her age. Being a gorilla guide is all I've ever wanted to do."
With good people like Edward and the young girl who take such a significant interest in these mountain gorillas, they'll be in good hands for a long time to come.