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Rwanda - The author’s take
Deep in the misty forest, you finally come upon your quarry. It might be a young female attempting to climb a liana, soft black coat comically fluffed-up as it demonstrates the arboreal incompetence of this most sedentary of apes. Or perhaps a barrel-headed silverback, no taller than an average human, but thrice as bulky, delicately shredding a succulent stick of bamboo as it sits peaceably on the forest floor. Or a curious mother, taking two paces forward then raising its head in your direction to stare questioningly into your eyes, as if seeking a connection. Or maybe a young male putting on a chest-beating display for your benefit, safe in the knowledge that this naked ape won’t challenge its dominance. No two gorilla encounters can be exactly the same but, as anybody who has looked into the liquid brown eyes of a wild mountain gorilla will confirm, it is always an awesome experience – inspirational, emotional, and profoundly satisfying.
The scenery around Lake Burera is stunning with the backdrop of the Virungas, where Gorillas in the Mist was filmed © Ariadne Van Zandbergen, Africa Image Library
Rwanda is the world’s premier gorilla-tracking destination. It was here, on the southern slopes of the Virungas, that the late Dian Fossey studied gorilla behaviour for almost 20 years, and on these very same bamboo-covered slopes that the acclaimed movie Gorillas in the Mist was shot in 1988. At that time, Rwanda was entrenched as the place to see mountain gorillas, and tourism had become its third main source of foreign revenue. All else being equal, that should have been the start of Rwanda’s emergence as a truly great ecotourism destination. Instead, the country was destabilised by a protracted civil war that started in 1990 and four years later reached its horrific climax: the 1994 genocide that claimed the lives of one-eighth of its population, and forced almost twice as many to flee into wretched makeshift refugee camps in Tanzania, Uganda or the Congo.
This is nature in the raw: the muddy forest floor scattered with elephant and buffalo spoor while birds and monkeys chatter overhead and spiteful nettles lie waiting in the margins.
In the restless eyes of the international mass media, the likes of Rwanda are deemed newsworthy only when disaster strikes. The moment things calm down, cameras and correspondents shift their attention to the next breaking crisis. And so it was that, once the genocide had been quelled by the Rwanda Patriotic Front after barely 100 days, interest faded and the world largely ignored the country as it embarked on its long and arduous road to normalisation – miraculously, a path from which it has barely deviated in 18 years. For a long while, like Uganda after Idi Amin or Ethiopia after the 1985 famine, it remained known to most outsiders only for the genocide. Today, with its energetic programmes of recovery and reconstruction, it is widely considered to be among the most economically buoyant and politically enlightened African countries.
Few could travel through Rwanda and not be cognisant of the terrible events of 1994. Indeed, almost every town and village houses a genocide memorial paying respect to the massacred, whilst also highlighting the survivors’ determination that such atrocities should be neither forgotten nor repeated. However, for potential visitors it is more important to dwell on the future and the capacity of tourism to stimulate economic growth and nurture political stability.
Some figures. In 1999, when Volcanoes National Park reopened for gorilla tracking, it attracted fewer than 2,000 visitors, most of them backpacking or on overland trucks making a pit-stop visit from Uganda. By contrast, in 2011 an estimated 666,000 tourists visited Rwanda and tourism is now the country’s largest source of foreign revenue, contributing more than US$200 million to the annual GDP and providing direct or indirect employment to over 350,000 people.
So if you’ve ever dreamed of tracking gorillas on the same misty slopes once trodden by Dian Fossey or Sigourney Weaver, go to Rwanda. And while you’re about it, don’t forget that there is much to see there besides gorillas. The mountain-ringed inland sea that is Lake Kivu; the immense Nyungwe Forest National Park with its chimpanzees, monkeys and rare birds; the wild savannah of Akagera National Park – and, perhaps above all, the endless succession of steep cultivated mountains that have justifiably earned Rwanda the soubriquets ‘Land of a Thousand Hills’ and ‘The Switzerland of Africa’. It’s a wonderful place to visit.
This should really be Philip’s story, as the guide is now his , but he’s allowing me to reminisce a little about how it all started. When I first went to Rwanda, in February 2000, I had no thought whatever of writing a travel guide. I was hoping to track down news of a Rwandan friend and his family; we’d been in touch for many years but since the 1994 genocide his letters had ceased. I assumed he was dead, and didn’t expect to enjoy my visit. The media were portraying a grim, damaged, inhospitable place, still volatile and dangerous.
In fact, as I jolted along twisty, pot-holed cross-country roads in battered public transport, I was captivated. Stunningly beautiful landscapes unfolded at every turn. People were still deeply traumatised and grieving, but friendly. I felt completely safe, and even visited the mountain gorillas. From Kigali I faxed Hilary Bradt and convinced her that a guidebook was essential. Luckily Philip was available to co-author it – and you’re now holding the fifth edition.
There’s no doubt how much it helped Rwanda as the country struggled to recover. Before the genocide, tourism had been an important source of foreign exchange, and regaining this income was vital. The guide’s existence reassured travellers and tour operators that the country was now safe and accessible. It was also read by aid workers, diplomats, investors – and even Rwandans, newly arrived from exile abroad.
Tourists came back, in increasing numbers. Each time I or Philip returned to prepare a new edition, we saw more hotels, restaurants, newly surfaced roads and other facilities. Tourism is now the top earner of foreign exchange. But – how much impact has this had on villagers at grass-roots level? Have the ‘small people’, away from the tourist areas, benefited from this influx of dollars, sterling and euros? Did our guidebook’s usefulness extend to them too? To find out, I made a ‘study visit’ to Rwanda in 2009.
Visiting remote hamlets deep in the green, hilly countryside, I saw the answers to my questions. From the fees paid by tourists visiting the national parks, around 5% is used to finance small-scale development in the surrounding areas: water-tanks, classrooms, bridges, beekeeping, brick-making, market gardening, livestock, and dozens of other practical projects at the heart of rural life. Visitors are thus helping to fund activities they may never see, but which are a life-line for local people beyond the tourist routes. It’s exactly the result I had hoped for.
My friend had indeed died in the genocide, as had his wife, child, brother, sister, father, cousins and more. That’s how it was in Rwanda then. But I found other members of his family who’d survived and have since rebuilt their lives; they’re doing well and we’re in regular touch. I’m so proud of their friendship. Their bright, confident children are part of the new, post-genocide generation that will carry Rwanda forward into the future. It is an astonishing – and humbling – country. I feel so privileged to have been involved.