Sunday, May 30, 2010

Muzungu in the Mist

Last weekend we went with friends to hang with gorillas at the foot of the volcanoes of Ruhengeri in northern Rwanda. Uganda, Democratic Republic of Congo, and Rwanda share this magnificent land and the groups of mountain gorillas in them.  Here are a few pictures!

On Friday afternoon, after a 2-1/2 hour drive through typically stunning country, we arrived at the Virunga Lodge, an eco-lodge which provides (and you pay for) comfort, beauty, and incredible food.  While sitting on our patio, looking out at the view and sipping a cup of tea, I said to myself, "If I fell ill and had to go to a perfect place to recover, this would be the place."

We were treated that evening to a private performance by Intore dancers.  The dancers and singers were locals, mostly school children, and while their performance was less polished than you might have seen from older, more experienced dancers, they were full of heart and joy, and we loved watching them. Pictures are in the link above.

Unfortunately, Bill had a cold, and had to stay back at the lodge the following day.  If you are sick with a cold or flu, you are not allowed to visit the gorillas because you might infect them.  At least Bill was in a perfect place to recuperate.

We were awakened the next morning at 5 a.m. with coffee at our door, and by 6 a.m. the rest of us were on the road in a huge 4x4 to the meeting spot for gorilla-lovers.  By 7:30 a.m. we were part of a group of 8 people and our guide, Francois.  (Sorry, I can't find the thing that makes the correct 'c' for Francois!)  By 8:00 we were on the road to the foot of one of the volcanoes which comprise the Virunga mountains and the Volcanoes National Park.  "Road" here is a loose term for wide path with a lot of rocks, ruts, and mud.  The farmers walking along the road were sometimes faster than our 4x4.  I kind of wanted to get out and walk, but eventually the road evened out a little, and we bumped along so that the kids following us had to jog to keep up.

There are trackers in the mountains that keep track of the five or so gorilla clans there.  We arrived at a drop point nearest our designated clan, and soon we were tramping across a field to the foothill of one of the volcanoes.  It's beautiful country, by the way.  So as to stimulate the local economy, we were encouraged to hire "porters" (for ~ $9) who would carry our stuff and help us along the way.  I acquiesced, even though I would have preferred to carry my own day pack.

I have heard horror stories about people tramping through the cold rain for hours before they happened upon a clan.  We were about as lucky as they come.  The day was sunny; even the mud was kind of pleasant in that it wasn't cold. After 15 minutes of schplopping through thick black mud, we heard a grunting sound.  I thought it might be our guide Francois calling them, but he turned quickly to us, told us to be quiet, to relinquish our packs, etc, to the porters, and to follow him.  The following hour was nothing but up-close gorillas.

Francois is a gorilla-whisperer.  Well, really he is a gorilla-grunter.  (Diane Fossey taught him all he knows!) He would grunt to them, and sometimes they responded.  Sometimes he interpreted their noises for us.  Once, when a female walked past the third-in-line male, the male made a low grunt, looking in the other direction, like he wasn't really talking to any one in particular.  She made her own noise, something like a high-pitched "hmmph".  Francois said, "He is asking her if she wants to do the jiggy-jiggy.  She is telling him she has a headache."  Number Three took it in stride and got up to go find some more leaves to chew on.

I had heard the mountain gorillas were used to humans, but these guys just plain ignored us.  They pretty much only ambled about looking for things to chew on.  I guess if you're a 400-pound leaf-eater, you need to conserve your strength for the important stuff.  We were not the least bit interesting to them.  Except that I did have a brush with a juvenile about my size:  I was walking along a path, trying to catch up to the guide, when this little-ish guy came scurrying down a path to my left.  I scooted ahead so that he could get by behind me easily, and that would have been that, except that he decided to have some fun and went out of his way to whop me from behind with a body check.  I did not fall down, but I was surprised enough to make one of those housewife "ooh!"  noises.  Some people are touched by an angel; I got whomped by a gorilla.

Afterwards, we stayed in yet another (over-priced) beautiful lodge at the foot of the mountains.  We were planning on seeing the golden monkeys the following day, but we were all grooving so much our lovely accommodations, and the thought of getting up again at 5 a.m. was so unpleasant, we decided to stay put and loll about for another day.  One of the workers there took pity on Bill and made a steaming tea out of eucalyptus leaves to put in a bowl for him to inhale.  Bill felt much better after that, and I brought some leaves back to Kigali to continue the therapy.  He's much better now.

We've heard from other people that visiting the mountain gorillas is a life-changing event.  As much as I enjoyed it, I wouldn't say I'm a different person for the experience.  My companions agreed, and we found ourselves wondering how this change would show itself.  Would a person grunt more?  Move less?  Become raw-vegan?  Anybody reading this who did have their lives changed, please share with us in the comments!  We want to know!

Monday, May 17, 2010


During the first week of May, Bill and I traveled with our friends Kathy and Gerise to Ethiopia.  In a nutshell:  what a place!  We flew to Addis Ababa, one of the craziest cities in the world (so they say), and from there we visited Bahir Dar, Gondar, and Lalibela.  This is the historic Ethiopian Orthodox Church Crawl.  If we had had a few more days, we might have included Axum, which has some serious history going on, but we didn't.

Ethiopia has the distinction of being the only country in Africa that was never a colony of anyone.  The first occupation was by the Italians leading up to WWII.  The northern part of the country (where we visited) is mountainous and severe.  It is also very beautiful.

I could hold forth on the varying quality of the accomodations, taxis, attempts to overcharge foreigners, but I don't feel like it.  As in any developing country, if a hotel says they have hot water, that means they try and sometimes succeed in providing hot water.  Sometimes not.  Reliable electricity is also subject to the whims of the gods, but the better hotels have generators.  Which are not attached to the hot water heaters.

Here are pictures from our trip.  I have a new camera, and I got kind of snap-happy, but these are the highlights.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Memorial Week

March to remember the victims of the genocide from the 
district of Nyarungenge (our neighborhood)

The month of April is devoted to remembering the victims of the 1994 genocide.  Here the government and local press do not just refer to it as "the 1994 genocide", but "the 1994 genocide against the Tutsis".  During this month, celebrations are strongly discouraged--no weddings, parties, etc.  It is a very somber time.  There is one particular day and one particular week this month which get extra attention.  

April 7, 1994 is the day that President Habyarimana's plane was shot down, sparking the genocide that had been brewing for some time.  The 100 days that followed saw the slaughter of nearly a million Tutsis and moderate Hutus who refused to join in the killing of their Tutsi neighbors and family members.  It is difficult for me (and perhaps redundant) to go into the details of those horrors.  Here is a video with footage that can say and show more that any words I could provide:  I'll Never Understand  

April 7 of each year is a national holiday, the only day during the academic year that the KIST campus is completely closed, and the buildings' doors are locked.  On this day, people gather in their communities to remember and to promise to each other that such things will never, ever happen again.  (This was actually the third time in Rwanda's history that Tutsis had been singled out for violence.  The first two were in 1961 and 1973.)  This April 7th, the stadium in Kigali was filled to capacity for a morning service and then again in the evening for a vigil.  At the morning gathering, which Bill and I watched on TV, there were performers singing, survivors bearing witness, and officials holding forth. Kagame spoke, half in English, half in Kinyarwanda.  [It was perhaps not surprising that he used the event as a political pulpit to bash the increasing call from other countries for a more open press and the freedom to oppose the government without fear of being put in jail for "divisionism". (He has a special dislike for  Human Rights Watch) Still, in the context of remembering, it was a weird speech.]

April 7th plus the following six days comprise Memorial Week, when businesses are open until noon, but closed for the afternoon so that people can attend memorial services.  During this week, Rwanda Television (the only Rwandan TV channel) showed one music video after another devoted to remembering.  The videos vary greatly in production quality, but they have in common that each is devoted to remembering individuals from particular towns and showing memorial ceremonies from those towns.  Photos and the naming of lost loved ones are part of the songs.  Here's one example:  Mbahobere Bwa Nyuma

Each town has a mass grave site and memorial for the victims of that town.  During Memorial Week, the bones of victims that have been found over the course of the past year are laid to rest in their town's mass grave.  Every year they find more bones.   Here's a video of a memorial service from 2009, the genocide's 15th anniversary: Nyanza Commemoration.  

Needless to say, this is a very difficult time for everyone.  Our students had Memorial Week off from school.  Some went home to their villages, others could not afford the $4 trip home and stayed on campus to remember with each other.  It is estimated that 90% of all Rwandan children observed at least one violent murder during the genocide.  My students are those children, but you wouldn't know it to see them during the rest of the year. They generally act happy and upbeat.  During this month though, they've been subdued.  Several have missed appointments with me because they were "sick".  I've come to understand that "sick" is code for sad, depressed, and not able to sleep at night.  I do not ask about their experiences because it seems hard enough on them to dredge it up for each other on an annual basis.  

Even I had a few days where I just didn't want to get out of bed, and I could only blame the sad air about me.  Trying to wrap my mind around the fact that the vast majority of the adults around me collectively suffered so much violence and hatred gives a headache.  Tutsis and moderate Hutus were hunted down and murdered, but no one escaped the terror of the times. The entire country completely fell apart.  Hutu families fled to neighboring countries to escape what they felt would be certain Tutsi revenge killings.   It took years to convince them that they could come home safely.  Many died on the road and in refugee camps of disease and starvation.  Some are still in the DRC jungles, nominally members of but essentially held captive by Hutu rebel army forces.  Defectors are shot on sight.

Part of healing is confrontation and forgiveness of the murderers.  The gacaca courts are where the people themselves try the cases of accused genocidaires.  Here's a video from last year about gacaca courts:  Gacaca Justice.   It will take generations for the people of this country to recover, but they have made a magnificent start.