A silverback mountain gorilla is a massive

Going ape in Rwanda

We’d spent three days with Amon before he talked about the 1994 genocide.

We’d spent three days with Amon before he talked about the 1994 genocide.

A month earlier, arrangements had been made via email for him to pick us up at the airport in Kigali, Rwanda’s capital. A glitch arose on arrival. We were unaware that a pre-issued visa was mandatory. A plea of ignorance was offered to the stone-faced authorities. They were unimpressed and threatened to put us back on a plane to Burundi from whence we had arrived. I employed some Irish Blarney and talked our way past the irritable immigration officials, down to the luggage carousel where Amon Habimana patiently waited.

“I’m sorry,” I apologized, “we didn’t know Canadians needed a visa to visit Rwanda.”

“Hakuna matata,” replied Amon. “No worries.”

I knew I was going to like this guy. He was to be our guide and near constant companion for seven days.

Rwanda is the most densely populated nation in mainland Africa. Eleven million people live in 26,000 crowded square kilometres. That’s four hundred humans for every square kilometre of land. And Rwanda’s terrain is mountainous. It’s known as “mille de collines,” land of a thousand hills. Every arable acre is occupied, a terraced lacework of tiny farms reaching skyward toward extinct volcanic summits.

Rwanda is shrouded in a permanent pall. Charcoal cooking fires and car exhaust fumes meld together into a uniform choking haze. Ironically, the bluish air creates a gorgeous view toward every hilly horizon.

On the roads one is confronted with a steady stream of humanity, everyone going about a daily task: brightly dressed women balancing a heavy load of green bananas or sugarcane atop the head (many with an infant wrapped astern); young boys pushing bicycles up a steep hill toting bags of charcoal tied awkwardly to a rusting frame; men strolling arm in arm, arguing amicably. And children, everywhere children, playing precariously near the chaotic traffic.

To a Canadian accustomed to miles of open prairie, the endless spectacle of mankind is overwhelming.

I’ve written about helping Africans in need: building schools, supplying clean water and attending to the infirm. This is the laudable vision of “A Better World.” But tiny Rwanda is crowded to bursting and soon headed for unimaginable pressure on its limited resources. I think family planning is in order.

Then there’s the roads. Rwanda has pavement, but outside Kigali and a few other towns connected to the main highway, asphalt is sorrowfully lacking. Side roads quickly deteriorate into volcanic rubble. When Amon tantalized us one morning with the promise of a massage, I envisioned lying in a beach chair, coconut oil slathered on my weary Western back. Instead, we endured a Land Rover laundromat while lurching up a mountain.

A multitude of such vehicular “African massages” greeted us throughout our time in what was once known as the Dark Continent.

As we drove, we felt like curiosities. Kids would run alongside, laughing and shouting, “Muzungu . . . Muzungu.” In Mexico it’s Gringo. Here it’s Muzungu: rich person, traveller or just white man; probably not a term of endearment.

Most of us are familiar with the horrors of the Rwandan genocide. Historically, there are two Rwandan tribes: the Tutsis and the Hutus. During the “100 days” of 1994, more than one million Rwandans were slaughtered — Tutsis and sympathetic Hutus — under a plan orchestrated by the Hutu-dominated army.

Today, remarkably, President Paul Kigame appears to have unified the country. Tribes are passé. Amon explained, “Now we are all just Rwandans.”

The people exude pride. Rwanda is clean. Even the humblest plot of earth is swept spotless. Tourists are returning.

Our quest in Rwanda was to see the endangered mountain gorillas of Parc Nationale de Volcans. There are 700 of these creatures remaining on the planet. That’s 16,000 Rwandans for every lucky gorilla. A pre-paid $500 permit authorized our one-hour encounter with one of man’s closest relatives.

We awoke at 5:30 a.m. I like my sleep and was shocked to discover that all of Rwanda was already up and at ’em, bananas on their heads and all. But by the time we’d driven to park headquarters, completed the mandatory briefing, been assigned our gorilla group, driven to the dropoff point, hiked for an hour and a half through terraced fields of eucalyptus trees and hopped the stone wall into Parc Volcans, it was closing in on noon. I was ready for a nap when the sudden grunt of nearby gorillas evaporated my lethargy.

Have you ever seen a silverback up close, in the wild?

This is a massive, majestic, frighteningly powerful creature; capable of bending a bamboo tree sideway with one arm while casually enjoying the plant’s tender shoots with the other.

Gorilla terrain is steep and challenging. Rainforest obstacles — stinging nettles are a rookie treat — await the unwary. While almost human-like in their mannerisms, gorillas haven’t yet discovered jungle sanitation. In my exuberance, filming a mother suckling her newborn on a precipitous slope, I stepped where I shouldn’t have. My feet flew from under me.

I slipped downhill toward the waiting arms of an agitated silverback.

Fortunately, I regained my balance and retreated before he mistook me for albino bamboo.

“Please stay in position,” our guide chided. He didn’t have to tell me twice.

For the remainder of the hour, I kept a keen eye on where the gorillas had tread.

When we returned from our incredible gorilla experience, Amon was quiet, pensive. “How did you enjoy the gorillas?” he asked. I was excited to tell him but it was obvious he had something else on his mind. We hadn’t pried but the effects of the genocide were written in his expression, in the songs he sang as we drove the country and in the way he optimistically described Rwanda’s progress.

The next day he took us to the Genocide Memorial in Kigali.

“This man,” he said pointing to one of hundreds of anonymous photographs taped to a wall, “this is my father.” He looked down and quietly said, “250,000 people are buried in this place.”

“Do you have other family?” I asked. We had met Amon’s sister at the airport. She is in her 40s and studies tourism at the University of Kigali.

“There was my mother and my father. And 10 children. Now there are two.”

He said this without emotion, neither sad nor bitter. Then he took us to Ntarama and Nyamata, tiny rural Catholic churches where the faithful sought refuge in early May 1994. Many thousands were slaughtered in three days. Stained clothing, skulls and bones, all neatly stacked, are permanent reminders of the atrocities that occurred here. Ask me sometime and I’ll tell you the details. What man can do to his fellow man is not fit for print.

The day we left Rwanda, Amon took us shopping in a poor Kigali neighbourhood. We bartered mercilessly with a shabbily dressed woman over two fine hand-woven rope and raffia baskets. Eventually we agreed on 2000 Rwandan francs (about $3) for the pair. As the money passed from my hand to hers, the worn bills exuded the smell of Africa: red earth, burning charcoal, the acrid odour of wet smog. And the hard toil of human sweat.

I wish we’d paid that woman the six dollars she was asking.

Gerry Feehan is a retired lawyer, avid traveller and photographer, who is also master of ceremonies at the Red Deer Justice Film Festival that started on Friday and runs today and Sunday. He lives in Red Deer. For more of Gerry’s travel adventures, please visit www.gnfeehan.blogspot.com.

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