In Rwanda, we were confronted by our both our humanity and our animal nature: how similar we are to the majestic gorillas and how easily people can devolve into brutal behaviors. My visit to Rwanda raised these questions in my mind, but didn't help to resolve them.
Despite just 22 years ago going through the most brutal and efficient genocide in modern history, Kigali is a pristine picture of a modern and flourishing city. The modern roads and buildings abounded, yet despite all the recent development, there wasn’t a piece of garbage or tagged wall in sight. Yet with all this investment in the surface infrastructure, I questioned how the people were able to move on.
Every time we spoke to people at length, we tried to get them to share their stories. Despite hours in cars, on hikes, and sharing meals, none of our hosts shared their memories. In a rare exception, Alfred, the cab driver who picked us up from the national memorial and museum for the genocide, demonstrated what went on at the checkpoints that dotted around the city, which sorted between the two major “ethnicities” - Tutsi and Hutus - who shared the same country and language. At the checkpoints, official guards and even regular townspeople would check the identity documents of everyone trying to move along. Hutus were able to pass; Tutsis were murdered on the spot with a crack of a machete to the back of the neck, which Alfred gesticulated wildly.
But that’s not what happened to Alfred’s family. Alfred told us of standing in a nearby hiding spot as his mother, sister and brother were all murdered in their church, one of the most notable congregations in Kigali. There, where thousands of Tutsis sought sanctuary, one of their own priests betrayed the congregants and let murderers burn down the church with the congregants locked inside, they threw grenades and shot automatic rifles at into the crowds as they tried to escape.
While my face betrayed horror at his story, Alfred then pulled out his phone and showed me a picture of his beautiful new wife and two daughters. He explained that everyone in the country had such stories, but that they are all "One Rwanda" - without divisions between ethnicities. And, that was the world in which he and wife found each other, and were raising their two children. Alfred was the only person who shared his personal story. Despite the memorials in every town and village, it’s almost as though they countrymen are actively trying to forget, agreeing that it was a horrible atrocity and repeating the idea of “One Rwanda” over and over. And, there’s a whole generation of children like Alfred's who weren’t alive and have only heard stories.
As we moved north to the foothills of the Virunga Mountains, in Volcanoes National Park, we noticed the guards surrounding us. Holding automatic rifles, the guards weren’t there to protect us from the nearby danger from war-torn Democratic Republic of Congo; they were there to protect the 20+ families of gorillas who call the park home. Each family of gorillas has four trackers, a group of randomly assigned armed guards who follow them around each day. The trackers know everything about them - their names, ages, relations, behaviors, conflicts, and health. At 7am each day, tours arrive at the park checkpoint where drivers, guides and trackers divvy up gorilla family assignments. Here, tourists pony up almost the equivalent of the average annual salary for people in Rwanda, to spend an hour watching the gorillas. After getting our assigned group, we took a 2 hour hike into the park to search for the family with our guide and two armed guards. While the guides advise guests to keep 7m away from the gorillas (the equivalent of 20 feet), the gorillas don't respect those boundaries.
As we approached the group, a young male gorilla - just one and a half years old - somersaulted at our feet into the center our group. Yet this little guy, whose name translated to mean “crafty,” taunted us by climbing trees just overhead, swinging within arms’ length away. With his tribe’s alpha male Silverback within eyesight, Crafty felt confident to push the limits testing how far he could jump between trees and how close he could get to the humans. Nearby, two large females held newborns - just two and four weeks old - in the crook of their elbow. Even at just two weeks, the baby gorilla was covered in fur with a fully head of hair that was more lush than Donald Trump’s toupee. Meanwhile, in the midst of the protective eyes of the mothers and their newborns and the young adolescents testing the crowd, we couldn’t ignore the “vocalizations” of the Silverbacks - a mix of breath and sounds - that express their feelings to their tribe and to us - from noises that meant "step back" to "come here” or even just to show us and the rest of the gorilla tribe who was boss.
Being able to get so close was unbelievable - I don't know of any other experience where you're in an animal’s habitat yet able to observe and interact in such close proximity safely. Most of all, it feels like more than a tourist attraction - the guides and trackers have such a sense of awe and excitement that it's seems like they truly are inviting you to visit their family.
After our hour was up, we left the jungle and walked back through the nearby village, as young boys and girls waved and yelled “hi,” desperate for us to notice and wave back. We bid goodbye to the guides, guards, and the children, I thought how, despite their friendliness, they managed to create more of a barrier than the gorillas - keeping us at more than an arm’s length from their own personal experience. And so we left for our next leg - almost 10 days in Kenya.