December 22, 2008

A Year In Africa

This is not a full circle.
It's life carrying on.
It's the next breath we all take.
It's the choice we make to get on with it.
--Alexander Fuller
It has been one year, to the day, since I left Nairobi. I last posted on this blog after my trip to Ethiopia in October 2007. I missed telling you about another trip to Cape Town to say good-bye (again) to the children of Bap, about time in Tsavo, the Aberdares and Mt Kenya, Lamu again, Christmas and New Years in Morocco with my family...before heading back to New York City in January 2008.
Each trip, each experience, topped the previous. It always just got better. Until I had to leave.
I did not know what to write. How to end this blog. How to end this experience. My 15 months in Africa. However, it has not ended.
I was in Morocco, watching the news daily about the post-election violence in Kenya starting December 27, 2007. I continued to watch, read, talk to friends, in stunned disbelief about what happened there during the Presidential elections. About what happened to Kisumu. What could I say about that, then?
But a coalition was formed and is still working to right what went wrong. I hope. Rebuilding has begun. Kenya seems back on track. I am told. I visited Kisumu in October 0f this year and, except for one or two burned buildings remaining on Oginga Odinga Street, I could hardly tell what had happened. They are hopeful. Yet cautious.
I have remained in touch, and feel as connected to my life and friends there as I did. Some have moved on as well. Some have received promotions. New ones have arrived. Some have experienced life-altering events. But they are still there, one way or the other.
I was in Kisumu during the US presidential elections. There is a renewed sense of optimism. Anything is possible they also believe. But there is a lot of work to do. 2009 is the start of many changes for the better. I think.
I last left off the posting of my blog in Ethiopia. 2009 will bring for me a child. Adopted from Ethiopia. I have been waiting, back in New York, since July 10, 2008.
2009 will also continue to bring Africa to me, in New York for now.
Many people said to me, you will leave Africa, but Africa will not leave you. Maybe cliche. But true.
So what can I really say to end "a year in Africa"?
Only that, for me, there is yet no end. And I am grateful.

December 11, 2007

Children of Ethiopia

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November 30, 2007

Pictures of the Simien Mountains

Mohammed Contemplating

Endemic Gelada baboon

Simien Mountain National Park

Gech, Mohammed and Ababa relaxing with crowd of children
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Beautiful Ethiopia

In writing about the American southwest, Edward Abbey wrote: “This must be the most beautiful place on earth. There are many such places. Every man, every woman, carries in heart and mind the image of the ideal place, the right place, the one true home, known or unknown, actual or visionary.”

Ethiopia. I found many such beautiful and mystical places while there, in between stops at churches, monasteries and mosques.

At Bahir Dar, we hiked one morning to the Blue Nile Falls, flowing out of Lake Tana, which ushers forth the journey of the Blue Nile into Sudan where it meets the White Nile. Lake Tana, the largest lake in Ethiopia, has 37 islands, 30 of which contain large round churches and monasteries, each with a conical thatched roof, on top of which sits an intricate gold or bronze 7-pronged cross with 7 ostrich eggs placed on the prongs, to symbolize care for the church. These churches date from the 16th – 18th C A.D. The beautifully painted murals inside the churches have been well-preserved and tell Biblical stories, meant as a way to teach the illiterate. The figures have wide circular faces and huge dark eyes – a style I had seen in museums before, and considered cartoonish. Now being in Ethiopia, I see how true to life these figures have been painted – Ethiopians really do have huge, beautiful, bright, dark eyes.

Driving from Bahir Dar to Gondar and then from Gondar to the Simien Mountains, we passed through fields and fields of teff, a yellow, light and wispy grain. Ethiopians use teff to make their main staple food, the sponge-like injera bread eaten at almost every meal, used to scope up tibs of mutton or pork, usually cooked spicy with peppers and onions; or shiro, the red paste made with chili and peas that became my favorite; or an assortment of steamed vegetables, cabbage, carrots, beets. The rainy season had just ended when I arrived, so the fields were patchworks of bright yellows and greens. As we drove along, I noticed children standing on the tops of trees in the fields. They stand there from sunup to sundown, with sling shots, to shoot at the birds that land in their fields. That seems like some grueling work!

Driving has become one of my favorite activities in Africa, to see so much beauty and life along the road. While driving to the Simien Mountains, we saw villagers carrying a sick person, stretcher-like, over their heads; a funeral procession, with the men walking first and carrying the body and the women following behind, all while wailing loudly; two women dragging a large, freshly-killed goat down the road; men dressed in robin hood green holding long staffs while walking their goats or cattle on the side of the road; and children idling around and appearing to watch over fields or herds. No, you can never be bored while driving in Africa.

Then we hit the Simien Mountains and a marvelous landscape opened up immediately before me. I looked across a huge gorge full of amethyst peaks and stupendous crags. The clouds formed shadows darkening, while around the corner the sunlight lightened, the many colors of the Simiens, ruby, sapphire, emerald. The formations seem alive, constantly changing color and shape with the shifting clouds and light of day. The Simien Mountain National Park is one of the most beautiful and peaceful places on Earth. Its many summits are hard cores of volcanic outlets from which the surrounding material eroded away. The highest summit, Ras Dashen, rises to 4,543 meters and is the fourth highest peak in Africa.

We walked for one full afternoon and the entire of the next morning. It was just me; my guide from Gondar, a young man called Gech; a local woman guide, named Ababa dressed to the nines; and a scout, named Mohammed, who carried an old British rifle that did not appear to work, but it made me feel safe nonetheless (although never quite certain “from what”). We mostly walked in silence for hours. You could tell how much they all loved this land, but especially Mohammed who had grown up living in the Simien Mountains. He looked out across the gorge as if looking at a lost lover. I always wondered what he must be thinking. We stopped at times and just sat, watching an eagle for a half hour, circle over our heads. We stopped at the end of the walk on our first day to rest, and all four of us laid down in the grass on our backs, looking up at the shifting clouds. Again, completely silent, but connected by what, I believe, we all felt being in the Simiens, something spiritual, peaceful, beautiful.

(Pictured: Me at the Blue Nile Falls; Ura Kidane Monastery on an island in Lake Tana; From Hotel in Gondar, fields of teff in the background beyond the city; boy in a tree guarding his field from birds)
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November 28, 2007

Historical and Religious Ethiopia

Life’s, and Africa’s, distractions have kept me away from this blog for the past month. I’m about to wrap up my time here in Africa, in a few weeks actually, but cannot do so without sharing a little more with you – starting with my trip to Ethiopia.

I spent the last two weeks of October traveling in Ethiopia, the only country on the continent of Africa that was not subjected to colonial rule (after defeating the Italians, who tried to colonize it, in 1896). It is a fascinating country, with beautiful and kind people. It is an old country with its culture and traditions dating back more than 3000 years – actually, even earlier than that lived “Lucy”, one of the earliest hominid fossils ever discovered, in Ethiopia. And, it is a land of extremes – of wild and remote places – and contrasts – with some of the highest points in Africa in the jagged Simian Mountains and some of the lowest in the Danakil Depression.

I began my trip in the capital of Addis Ababa, and spent almost the entire time on the “historical route” from Addis, in the center of the country, north to Axum, near the border with Eritrea. For most of the trip I flew from place to place in the government-owned Ethiopian Airlines (which has an excellent safety record!) and stayed in the government-owned hotel chain of the Ghion Hotels (which does not have an excellent upkeep record!).

Before leaving, I knew very little of Ethiopia’s history and grew amazed at discovering how much history there is, and how that history is so deeply rooted in Christianity. Ethiopia’s history spans several thousand years – no other region in Africa has seen such continuity of existence. Ethiopia has a favorable climate, largely as a result of the large amount of high ground to be found there (80% of Africa’s land above 3000 meters is in Ethiopia) and several rainy seasons in most of the country, both which contribute to favorable agricultural conditions. Its rugged escarpments form natural barriers which have protected the country from outside invasion. It is largely for these reasons that Ethiopia then fostered a literate civilization and rich culture for many thousands of years, with a trading empire that at times extended from the African hinterland across the Red Sea to southern Arabia. These factors, and the domination of the population to traditional Christian beliefs, have contributed to such a unique and long lasting civilization.

While in Ethiopia, I was constantly moved by the deep religious convictions of everyone I met, from my tour guides to the man on the street always eager to engage a tourist in conversation. Traveling in the cities of the northern historical route – first to Bahir Dar, then to Gondar, on to Lalibela and finally to Axum – felt like stepping back into the Jerusalem of Biblical times. Everyone I met loved their history, their churches, and their religious stories. The women wear long white robes, as a symbol of their Christian beliefs. Priests, monks and religious students can be seen praying or reading the Bible at all times. Life in most of the northern cities seems to revolve around religion, and most of the touring there involved visiting churches and monasteries. All of these were beautiful, but none compared to the magnificence of the 11 monolithic churches in Lalibela, carved out of the pink granite rock in the 12th C A.D. by King Lalibela – Lalibela is truly an entire city dedicated to the glory of God by the King, and still seems as it must have been 1000 years ago.
The final stop on my historical route north was in Axum, a city that stood at the height of Ethiopian civilization in the 4-5th centuries A.D. Axum was a trading empire where Africa’s only indigenous script (Ge’ez) developed. It also was in Axum that Ethiopians adopted Christianity in the 4th century A.D. However, belief in Ethiopia dates its connection to the Bible back to the 9th century B.C., when the Queen of Sheba traveled from Axum to meet King Solomon in Jerusalem. According to Ethiopian tradition, Queen Sheba gave birth to the son of Solomon, David, later to become King Menelik I of Ethiopia. Legend has it that as a young man, David went to visit his father, Solomon, in Jerusalem and while there stole the Ark of the Covenant (a wooden box, lined with gold, in which the 2 stone tablets with the Ten Commandments were placed) and brought it back to Axum, where it is believed to still reside to this day, in a sanctuary guarded by monks. There are many historical inaccuracies in this story, but for Ethiopians, it is history, not legend, and a replica of the Ark is enshrined in each of Ethiopia’s thousands and thousands of churches.

After spending almost a week and a half in northern Ethiopia, I headed back to Addis for a day, then west to Harare, a much different type of place, being mostly Muslim. Harare is a labyrinth of small streets surrounded by old city walls – reminding me a lot of Lamu or Mombasa in Kenya or Stone Town in Zanzibar. It largely dates to the 16th century and its 80 or so mosques make it a pilgrimage destination for many Muslims, regarded as one of the most holy cities in the Horn of Africa. It was interesting to see the contrasts, from the northern cities and Christianity, to western Harare and Islam, however, the same theme predominated every single location - Ethiopia and its people are steeped in history and religion, which make it such a rich tourist destination in Eastern Africa I think!

(Pictured: Church of Bet Giyorgis in Lalibela; observing a Sunday outdoor church service in Lalibela; priest with Lalibela crosses; Sanctuary where the Ark of the Covenant supposedly rests, in Axum)
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October 20, 2007

Foreign Investors in Kisumu

After the trips to Zanzibar and Rwanda, I had a busy September and October with Millennium Cities. At the end of September, we launched the Kisumu Investor's Guide, the first investment guide for an African city. This guide will be used as a marketing tool to attract sustainable investment into Kisumu. Pictured here is the Mayor of Kisumu receiving the Investment Guide from the Permanent Secretary at the Ministry of Planning and National Development.

We followed this up with the first foreign investor mission to Kisumu, which began last Sunday and ended yesterday. With a group of 12 German investors and an equal number of foreign investors already established in Kenya, but not yet in Kisumu, we spent two days in Nairobi and three days in Kisumu. The purpose of the mission was for the foreign investors to visit local companies and meet with local business people and government officials to explore investment opportunities in the Kisumu area. We had cocktails with the German ambassador, lunch with the Mayor and Town Clerk of Kisumu, dinner again with members of various business associations in Kisumu and visited a geothermal plant, sugar mill, ethanol factory and rice farm, amongst doing many other things.

On Wednesday of this past week, 17 October, we had a major event in Kisumu as part of this foreign investor mission, we called Kisumu Day - a day of highlighting Kisumu's investment potential. I had expected only 100 people to attend, but 200 showed up at the Imperial Hotel in Kisumu, including many top executives, government officials and members of NGOs or foreign missions. It was a full and lively day with discussions on Kisumu and its opportunities. We launched a new investment promotion office for the city during the day as well. All considered it a big success, and it was covered widely by the national press.

But then, that night at a dinner hosted by the Ministry of Planning at the Kisumu Yacht Club, something unexpected and very frightening happened. We were almost through eating dinner - 100 guests were enjoying a nice cool evening, sitting outside by the shores of Lake Victoria, mingling among foreigners and locals, listening to traditional Luo music played by a live band, while eating a mixture of Kenyan and Indian food - when we saw coming from the parking lot a group of men, towards our tables. Then, there was some shouting, rushing of men from around our tables towards the men in the parking lot and the pop pop pop pop of what seemed like fireworks. We saw running and movement in the dark. And more popping sounds. It happened withing split seconds and someone yelled to get on the ground. I had been sitting at a table with mostly the white foreigners, and a few Kenyans, near the front, closest to the parking lot from where the noise came. I turned around to look behind me, and saw the tables now completely empty, as the other 80 guests - all the Kenyans - had hit the ground, some were behind bushes, under the tables, hidden by table cloths. The band had stopped and were also on the ground. It was dark and silent for what must have been 10 minutes. It was surreal. Our table just sat there, not at all sure of what was happening, in stunned silence. Finally, more police arrived and the Provincial Comissioner made an announcement that all was under control now.

A group of armed thugs had approached the Kisumu Yacht Club to rob us. The Yacht Club guards were unarmed, but when attacked managed to alert, somehow, the 4 armed soldiers accompanying the Provincial Commissioner. If we had not had those soldiers, we would have been robbed at gun point. The soldiers chased after the men, into the parking lot where the gun fight ensued. One thug was killed, another captured. Last I heard, they had not caught the other 5. We believe we were targeted - of course - a group of investors with some dignitaries. It was an unfortunate event, as one of the positive aspects of Kisumu, versus Nairobi, is in how safe and secure it is - since January I have not heard of a single incident like what happened to us at the Yacht Club - it was a strange, freak occurrence for the area, but not a welcoming way to try to bring foreign investment into a community!


After two months of heavy work - yes, I am working - I'm now off again. I leave this afternoon for two weeks in Ethiopia, back on 3rd November. I'll post all about it when back!
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Yes, my blog is still back at the end of August, but I'm catching up quickly today. So...back in August, I took two weeks away - the first in Zanzibar with one of my best friends from the US, Kari, and the second in Rwanda.

Zanzibar, is paradise. We spent the first few days in Stonetown, shopping while navigating our way throughout the old twisted alleyways and eating incredible Swahili food, usually while seated on big pillows on the ground. We also saw a few obligatory tourist sights, such as the slave caves, and went on a spice tour.

After a few days in Stonetown, we headed to the beaches of Ras Nungwi, the north of the island, where the water is a beautiful turquoise blue and lends itself to walking on the beach, reading by the beach, sleeping on the beach, talking on the beach, and of course, eating fresh seafood on the beach.

After Ras Nungwi, we drove to the east side of the island, the beach town of Bweju, where we mistakenly went on dolphin swimming tour. Yes, we saw dolphins, lots of them...but so did the other 25 boats that were with us. We chased dolphins like crazy people and jumped into into the water. You could not help but be more worried about getting cut up by the motors of other boats than with seeing the dolphins. A completely ridiculous experience.

After Bweju, it was back to Stonetown for a night, where we took a drum lesson, just Kari and I an instructor, patting away on an old drum, while seated in an old arabic stone building, with windows open, breeze blowing in from the Indian Ocean, and sun setting. Yes, Zanzibar is paradise, but so is travelling in Africa with a good friend!

(Pictured: Kari in the rooftop restaurant at our hotel, Emerson & Green, in Stonetown; Jaws corner, where men gather to drink tea, talk and play chest in Stonetown; Kari - dressed (as a joke, I am quite sure) as Bob Marley, on our deck in Ras Nungwi; our cottage, Evergreen Bungalows, at Bweju)

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Being in Rwanda

Besides the gorillas, I also went to Rwanda to learn more about its history and the genocide of 1994. An excellent book on the genocide is “We wish to inform you that tomorrow we will be killed by our families” by Philip Gourevitch. During the entire week there, the events of 1994 did not escape my mind. Only 13 years ago, 800,000 Rwandans (or, as some estimate, 1 million) out of a population of 7.5 million, mostly of Tutsis minority, were killed in only 100 days. Most were hacked to death by machete-wielding interahamwe, gangs of young Hutu men who killed with the joy of being in a carnival romp. But also, priests killed their flock; mayors killed their constituents; colleagues killed colleagues; neighbors killed neighbors. With every Rwandan with whom I spoke, every man and woman whom I watched till their fields, every child to whom I waved, I could not help but wonder if they were Hutu or Tutsis? What had they seen or done? How many deaths did they witness or effect? I had heard estimates that 4 out of 5 children had witnessed some brutality during 1994. What must that do to the psyche of an entire generation? I was incapable of finding these answers.

In between my two gorilla treks, I drove through the spectacular, terraced landscape of tea and banana plantations to Gisenyi, on the shores of Lake Kivu, right at the border with Goma, Democratic Republic of Congo. Along the way, girls in bright blue dresses and boys in khaki shorts and shirts, the national school uniform, stopped walking to wave as I passed. There seems to be more children in Rwanda than in most African countries in which I had driven through, I thought – scores of them lined the roadside.

While in Gisenyi, I stayed at the Lake Kivu Serena, which the Hutu Power government had used as its headquarters before fleeing into the DRC after the rebel Tutsis army, the Rwandese Patriotic Front (led by current President Paul Kagame), captured Kigali in the summer of 1994, just a few months after the start of the genocide. Lake Kivu is a beautiful lake – it looks like the sea – surrounded by volcanoes. One afternoon there, I went out for a walk along the lake shore, on a tree-lined avenue where homes of wealthy Rwandans sat. As usually happens when a white foreigner is out walking, children started following me. On this day, I was not really in the mood for company and wanted simply to walk on my own, but one young boy, aptly named Patience, stuck with me, talking and questioning me with great persistence.

Patience is 18 years old, articulate and bright. He is an orphan. He lost his entire family – mother, father and two sisters – in 1994, right before his eyes, he saw them killed by what he believes were Hutu neighbors. He wondered out loud to me why he had survived. They had just left him there alone in the house, he said, surrounded by his family’s blood. It brought tears to my eyes, which I tried to hide behind my sunglasses, but he sensed my crying. Don’t worry, he said to me, I feel lucky that I did survive. You should not feel sad for me, he said.

Then, he asked me if I had every heard of Harvard? Yes, I told him. And Oxford? Yes. That is where I want to study, he said. Although he had fallen behind in school by a few years due, naturally, to all that had happened in his life, he is working hard to do well in secondary school, then go to Harvard or Oxford, and become a lawyer. He did not know anything about me at that point, so I told him that I am a lawyer. He wanted to know what I was doing in Africa. I told him, and I also told him I was trying to decide whether to go back to the US and to the practice of law. This just astonished him, stopping him dead in his tracks to turn and stare at me for what seemed like 5 minutes. He could not believe that I would give up the opportunity to be in the US and to continue as a lawyer – his dreams. But, I said, I love Africa and want to help people here. As if I was talking to a wise 60-year old man, Patience then said to me, but you can, and I think you will be able to do more for people, and for orphans like me, by being there, not here. Point-blank he said, you should go back to the US.

After hitting the border with the DRC, we turned around and walked back, with Patience then playing tour guide to show me around the town of Gisenyi. At this point, we had also picked up another follower, a young beautiful girl, wearing a bright red thread-bare dress with a white lace collar. She walked behind us, never saying a word. When we stopped, she stopped. When I turned to look back at her and say hello, she smiled at me with wide-eyes and bright teeth, but said nothing. She walked with a pile of fire wood secured gingerly on top of her head with one hand. We turned off the lakeshore avenue into town. She continued to follow. Life for children in the US is easy, isn’t it, Patience asked me? Yes, it is, I said. Finally, we must have made one too many turns away from her path of destination, because she stopped and ceased following as we turned to walk up another street. When we got to the top, I turned back and she still stood there watching after us, with gleaming red dress, bright eyes, firewood. Did she want me to give her anything, I asked Patience? No, he said, she simply wanted to walk with you too. These two children, Patience and the girl with the red dress and firewood, touched my heart.

Then after Lake Kivu and my second day of gorilla trekking, I went back to Kigali for two days before flying back to Nairobi. There, I stayed at the Hotel des Milles Collines – the famous Hotel Rwanda from the movie. It was in this hotel that the manager, Paul Rusesabagina, a Hutu, sheltered hundreds of Tutsis from the Hutu Power and the roaming interahamwe. Again, being in the hotel, looking out from my balcony to the swimming pool that had been used for drinking and bathing, down to the streets below where in 1994 I would have witnessed a blood-bath, gave me an eery feeling. In Kigali I visited the Genocide Memorial sight and museum. Although informative and well-done, it was a heavy experience – with many Rwandans openly crying. There is a room filled entirely with skulls, all of which had suffered some blunt trauma. There is a room devoted only to the children that had died, brutally. I cried there as well, and it made me sick to my stomach. Although being in Rwanda was an amazing experience, I could not grasp it all and know I will never fully understand how something the genocide took place and how, most amazingly, a country and its people are able to pick up and move on from it.

(Pictured: Lake Kivu; Avenue along Lake Kivu shore; Genocide Memorial with Kigali in the background)
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October 11, 2007

More pictures from the second day of trekking

Karisimbi, one of the Virungas volcanoes
Being briefed on the Susa group by our guides
Crowd of children waiting for us when we returned from the trek
The Virungas at sunset, we made it down just before dark
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Second Day with the Gorillas – The Susa Group

High fives went around by a few people when they learned that they, like me, had been assigned to view the Susa group. I was a little embarrassed by my group’s outright display of competitive behavior, but also very glad to be able to view this group. The Susa group is popular because it is the largest of the gorilla groups, with 36 gorillas, including 3 silverbacks and many young ones, a few of the gorillas were part of Dian Fossey’s research groups and, for the more adventurous tourist, seeing them involves a more difficult trek through the mountain forest.

After my first visit (Saturday 25 August) with the Kwitonda group, I decided that, while in Rwanda, I had to try to see the mountain gorillas again. So I went on to Lake Kivu on Saturday afternoon, where I spent all of Sunday, and worked to procure another permit. This was not easy, as most days the permits are sold-out, requiring booking months in advance. But with a lot of phone calls, I landed one and then headed back to Ruhengeri on Monday afternoon to spend the night there, and view the gorillas in the Parc National Des Volcans on Tuesday morning.

After being assigned to the Susa group and briefed by our guides, we drove an hour to the base of Karisimbi, the highest volcano in the Parc at 4507 metres. We began our trek at 8:30 a.m., first walking up gently sloping Irish potato fields – neat rows planted in dark black soil along the hillside – until we hit the start of a bamboo forest – beautiful and surreal looking We kept climbing up and up, and on this day, so did the Susa group. One of the younger silverbacks had recently been abandoned by the rest of group after he remained sick for too long and could not keep up as the group moved throughout Karisimbi for food each day. That morning, the trekkers spotted him, alone, and following the rest of the group from a short distance. They believed this might have spooked the rest and caused them to move within their home range further, and more quickly, than usual.

The group kept moving. After passing through the bamboo forest, we hit dense, swampy forest of Hagenia trees. The guides used machetes to help us push through thick brush and crawling vines. Stinging nettles were everywhere and burned our skin through our clothes. Noon came, then 1:00, and still we kept climbing up, and so did Susa. I became a little worried with the passing time, as I had carried little food and water, mistakenly expecting us to find the gorillas within an hour or two. But finally, the trekkers radioed our guides to tell them that the group had turned around and was heading back down the volcano slopes. We were lucky, at just that moment we were discussing whether to continue on or turn and head back down. Upon this news, we continued and at 2:45, the trekkers radioed us again to tell us we were now very close and should be prepared to stop, leave our belongings and move closer to the Susa group.

I’ll never get used to the feeling I had upon first seeing the gorillas each of the two treks, cannot imagine how my heart would not ever race, or my breathing would ever remain steady – it is overwhelming. Susa did not disappoint, and the trek was worth every muddy uphill step and stinging nettle to get to them. There were gorillas everywhere, so many of them sitting together, playing or eating. Most gorillas consume about 50 pounds of roots, stems and leaves every day – bamboo, celery, blackberries. We followed the dominant silverback as he moved through the brush. When he moved the rest of the group did, and so did we. He tore apart branches, pulled down trees. One startling moment came as I crouched on a “path” only a few feet from the silverback, watching him. He then stood up – a giant beast towering over me – I stumbled over backwards, worried he was about to come crushing down on me, and covered my head. He grabbed onto a tree limb over his head – over my head – and lifted himself up off the ground, using his entire weight to pull down the tree. Leaves and branches covered me. He sat back down, and ate. And I sat back up, exhilarated, and continued to snap pictures – him not paying much attention to me, but me completely fascinated by this male silverback mountain gorilla, and his large family, in the Parc National Des Volcans, Rwanda.

(Pictured: Gorillas of the Susa Group; the third picture was taken by me on my back, after I fell backwards as the dominant male silverback stood up to grab a tree limb over my head; the fourth picture is the aftermath of this, the silverback sitting and eating after he pulled down the tree)
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October 02, 2007

Mountain Gorillas in Rwanda

I spent the last two weeks of August in Zanzibar and Rwanda. I will begin with Rwanda. I had been interested in Rwanda’s terrible recent history – the 1994 genocide – for some time, but also intrigued by what I had heard about its present. Friends who had visited described it as clean, safe and beautiful, with nice roads, steady economic growth and good governance. One friend here in Kenya who travels there frequently on UN missions told me, “you will find it hard to believe that what happened there, in 1994, happened.” Nicholas Kristof, in a July NY Times editorial, described it as “the little nation that could” and its President, Paul Kagame, as “honest, intelligent and capable.”
Also, Rwanda has the mountain gorillas, spread over reserves established in the Virunga volcanoes, located in three countries: Rwanda, Democratic Republic of Congo and Uganda. But, Rwanda is the place to see them I had been told – where Dian Fossey conducted her research, in the Parc National Des Volcans. This would be my first destination after arriving in Kigali on Friday morning, 24 August. I had a friend’s driver, Sabiti, pick me up at the Kigali airport. Sabiti, like most Rwandans I discovered, spoke only French and Kinyarwanda, and little English. But we managed as he drove me to pick up my gorilla trekking permit at the tourism office; make some hotel bookings for later in the week; grab lunch and head to the bus terminal to take a 2-hour drive to the town of Ruhengeri, just outside the Parc National Des Volcans.

The bus, or actually an oversized mini-van, cost only $2. It was a memorable ride – the roads are fantastic, best I’ve seen outside South Africa; and the countryside is beautiful, being the land of 1000 hills, there truly is not a flat piece of land anywhere. But, what really made the trip worth the money was the woman seated next to me who threw-up, either in a bag or outside the window, for the entire second-half of the drive up and down the twisting mountain roads; the man seated behind me who belted out French pop songs in an off-key voice the entire way; and the crowd which awaited, as we pulled into the stop at Ruhengeri, to board the bus back to Kigali, and aggressively pushed on before I could get off, leaving me trapped in the back until I shouted out the window to the driver for help.

We made it to Ruhengeri shortly before sunset and I then found a taxi to take me another 15 km to a small guesthouse located in Kinigi, right outside the Parc National Des Volcans headquarters. It was a beautiful evening as the sun set behind the shadowy, bluish-grey outline of the Virungas, into Congo and beyond. I ate an early dinner and went to bed, very excited for my first day of gorilla trekking the next morning.

I had to be at the Parc headquarters at 7 a.m. on 25 August to be assigned a gorilla group and start the trek to find them. Currently, there are 7 habituated gorilla groups that can be visited by tourists in Rwanda. The groups vary in size and characteristics, and are scattered throughout different parts of the Parc. 8 tourists per day can visit each gorilla group and each trekking permit costs a very pricey $500 – part of which (I was told) goes to the local communities and the rest goes to pay the guides and trekkers and help with conservation – and as a personal experience, I found this amount more than worth it. Besides Dian Fossey’s book, “Gorillas in the Mist,” another book I have enjoyed reading about the Rwanda mountain gorillas is “In the Kingdom of Gorillas” by Bill Weber and Amy Vedder, a husband and wife team who also helped begin this gorilla tourism project in Rwanda.

I was assigned to the Kwitonda group, a group of 16 gorillas which originated on the Congo side of the mountains before migrating over to Rwanda. The Kwitonda group is led by a dominant silverback male and also included two blackback males, a few adult females and lots of juveniles, including twins. We had two guides who first briefed us on the gorilla group (names, ages, personalities, distinguishing nose patterns of each, etc.) and on the rules and procedures (only one hour with the gorillas once we find them, no flash photography, do not touch them, etc.). We then piled back into our cars and drove 30 minutes to a northern part of the Parc where we would begin the trek to locate the Kwitonda group.

Professional Rwandan trekkers follow each gorilla group every day, from the time they awake in the morning until they nest at night, partly to protect the gorillas against poachers, but for tourists, the trekkers help guide us along on our hike so we can meet up with the gorillas. Some days the trek to the gorillas can be difficult (as it was on my second day), but on this day, we hiked only a short 45 minutes through dense forest before we received a call from the trekkers to tell us that the gorillas had stopped to enjoy their mid-morning breakfast and that we were very close to them. We then stopped, left our backpacks and everything but our cameras behind, and walked another 10 minutes until we arrived to a small clearing in the trees where the 16 gorillas of Kwitonda had stopped to eat, rest and play.

“That must be a man dressed in a gorilla costume,” I thought, “That cannot be a real gorilla!!!” My heart beat fast. There he was, the silverback of Kwitonda, only 10 feet from me, as I broke into the clearing. He sat there by himself, pulling down tree limbs and gnawing away at branches and roots. Huge. Bare chest just like King Kong. He did not seem to mind us and, despite his size and the fact I knew that he could easily tear me into pieces, there was something so peaceful about him. I sat down on the ground and watched.

Only a few feet away from the silverback, one of the adult females groomed and played with an energetic baby boy gorilla. They rolled around on the grass just a few yards from me. The young gorilla then noticed me, sitting now mere feet from him, holding my camera up. “Oh, he’s coming towards me,” I whispered to the guide standing behind me. “Stay still,” he said. I did, and the curious gorilla moved ever closer. “He’s going to take my camera,” I said to the guide, who then reached over me and took my camera, just in time, as the young gorilla extended his hairy, human-like arm towards me and grabbed hold of my jacket. The guide then pulled me back – not out of any concern for my safety, but to keep the humans as separate as possible from the gorillas. I CANNOT believe this, I thought, and, boy, did I want to pick the little guy up and hold him.

The silverback then got up to move to a slightly different location, crossing in front of me so close I could have reached out and touched him. In low branches right over my head, a few of the juveniles swung around, coming down the tree trunks towards us to take a closer look. I wondered who was observing whom here. While most of the adults paid no attention to us, the young were ever curious, trying to come as close as they could. We moved around in the bushes, to get better views of the blackback males, to follow the silverback around, to get closer to the females. And for an hour, we just sat, took pictures (hundreds) and watched. I could have watched for hours. Their eyes are transfixing. They are gentle, playful, caring, funny. I cannot even begin to describe fully to you what it is like to see and be so close to these beautiful animals. I had not intended to go for a second day of trekking, but after this amazing experience visiting the Kwitonda group, I headed back to the Parc headquarters to scramble around for another permit to go back and visit a different group while in Rwanda.

(Pictured – all taken just feet from the gorillas, no zooming necessary!: The silverback of Kwitonda; the young baby boy gorilla right before he reached out to try to grab my camera, but got my jacket instead; the young baby boy gorilla behind me; one of the juveniles playing in the path in front of me.)
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