Uganda Travel News

It offered a convenient stopping point for truck and taxi brousse drivers at the base of the long and dangerous escarpment road to the North. Here, Bill always stopped at an open air stand to buy a coke and an omelet, and then rolled the omelet in a burrito like wrap called a chapatti. Both the omelets, chapattis were stacked on plates by the cash register and usually sold cold. Bill called the town chapatti village. And the frail little boy with polio who lived there he called the chapatti kid. The boy first stared at bill from the back ground, leaning on his knotted wooden staff as other boys approached more closely to watch the umuzungu eat. Personal space is an unknown concept in Rwanda, whether one is white or black. But foreigners are a never ending source of unabashed in your face fascination for young Rwandans. Over time, the kid moved closer his wide eyes softened by long eyelashes. Bill bought an extra omelet chapatti for him one day but the kid turned it down under the withering looks and laughter of the other boys. On his next visit, as the Toyota pickup pulled away, he could see the boys defenseless body crumples under the mass assault of the other boys. Now with his own car and no time constraints, bill made sure that the chapatti kid sat at his side to eat his meal. He never spoke a word and was possibly mute. But the other boys didn’t disturb this arrangement, at least not while the big umuzungu was around.

THE SCHOOL TOUR was a great success. Students learned about the mountain gorillas, the park and the potentials benefits of both to Rwanda. In a curriculum dominated by a strong Eurocentric focus, they finally heard about something of international interest and value in their own country. In return we learned a great deal about the student’s perspectives on the world around them, their lives and their values. Their questions challenged us to answer why parkland was more important than the local people, why all researchers were white foreigners. If we were going to propose solutions, we needed to know and be able to answer their questions. And change some of our own thinking.

The school tour required us to spend more and more time apart. In addition to the school visits, Bill took advantage of each passage though centrally located in Kigali to meet eighth government and foreign officials. The cost of these layovers would have been prohibitive, especially since Rwandan officials repeatedly postponed meetings. Fortunately, European and American friends helped out with free room and board. They also provided another source of information and different views on life in Rwanda especially the Europeans. Still the seven to ten day separations were longer and far more frequent than any in our seven year old marriage.

At the end of one trip, bill finished his work in Kigali by early afternoon and felt the urge to return to our Karisoke cabin before nightfall. He made a quick shopping run, then hurled north in the Renault skipping his customary stop in chapatti village. He reached Ruhengeri in record time, and then drove more carefully along the final lava track to a small parking area at the base of the mountain. By 5:30 he was ready to climb. He knew he needed to shorten the usual fifty minute climb to our cabin if he was going to arrive before dark. It was certainly doable. In any event he didn’t have a sleeping bag or tent.

Ten minutes up the trail all plans went to hell. An enormous black cloud surged out from the saddle between Karisimbi and Visoke, snuffing out what little day little remained. Rain soon followed Bill picked up his pace and began to run up camp trail. With the premature arrival of complete darkness, he turned to his memory of the trail he had climbed dozens of times before even as he berated himself for not carrying a flash light. An irregular smoker at that time, he carried about a dozen of matches. These he rationed to shed light on critical junctions, sheltering the ridiculous but effective little torches within his cupped hands. By the trails midpoint though he was out of matches the rain was torrential and the cape buffalo were beginning their nocturnal promenades. Bill could no longer feel the trail beneath his feet which were numbered by the cold water coursing down the pathway. He then dropped to his hands and knees. Mud oozing between his fingers confirmed that he was still on the much used trail vegetation meant he was off course. Every stretch without familiar land marks brought on disquieting thoughts. Far worse were the thoughts of buffalo that go bump in the night. Bill began to sing at the top of his lungs, alternating the rolling stones and grateful dead with oldies and show tunes. Anything to make noise maintain sanity and not think about the cold that had already numbed all feeling in his hands.

Finally, the distinctive rock out cropping around bone ravine reassured Bill that he was on course. From there he knew that campaign stream would soon appear on the left channeling the trail as it passed within thirty feet of our cabin. He could not get lost now. In other five or ten minutes, bill rose up again on two feet, climbed the steps to the cabin, and pushed open the door. There caught in dinner delicto, Amy and David watts could only look in disbelief at the shivering, mud covered night crawler in the doorway. Shared laughter warmed that the heart, the body followed more slowly. This was not the last late day adventure in the Virunga, but in the future Bill always carried a flashlight.
WALKS ALONG THE PARK boundary presented a study in stark contrasts. Neat rows of white potatoes were planted right up to the sparse line of exotic cypress trees that marked the boundary. Frequently the cypress roots were hacked away on the downward side by the hoes of aggressive women farmers. Above that line, rain forest vegetation thrived in unrestrained exuberance. It was a binary world. All fields and people to one side all forest and wild animals in the other with no transition zone to buffer influences in either directions. Our sympathies usually lay with the forest and its denizens. It was from the forest that vast areas had been repeatedly carved and cleared. It was the forest that suffered from a thousand smaller wounds inflicted each day from cut bamboo to wire snared animals. People always gained in this relationship, the end of which for the gorillas seemed tragically clear. But there were also days when we reversed our perceptions and sought to understand how local people looked at the park days when the cold statistical findings of bills surveys could be woven into a portrait of hard human existence along the Virunga frontier.
The houses of the Virunga region looked like half buried acorns from a distance. Round dark, windowless walls of stick and adobe construction were topped with thick thatch shaped into a cone. Its tip the corn’s stem was replaced by an upside down clay pot, which covered a central vent in the roof. Most cool mornings, smoke seeped steadily from every roof. Inside the thatch was blackened and eyes reddened by the constant smoke of an open fire. We could only imagine the color of the occupant’s lungs. In towns like Ruhengiri and surrounding areas people were switching to rectangular houses with windows and tin roofs said to be better ventilated and better sheltered from rain. Near the park the traditional house was still the norm and its form blended better with the back drop of volcanic cones. Yet people knew that change was coming in their houses and their lives.
Bills surveys showed that most of the farmers who lived around the park produced enough food to support their families’ basic needs. Yet a majority felt that they didn’t have sufficient land to subdivide with their eldest sons as Hutu tradition required. Almost all were aware that Rwandans outside of the Virunga faced even more severe land shortages. Asked their solution to the lack of land many noted the ancient release value of emigration, though without specific ideas of where no emigrate. In fact, residents of Ruhengeri were already returning in the late 1970s from a failed resettlement program in Southern Rwanda. Others threw up their hands and called on God or government for help. Almost no one mentioned birth control.
Asked specifically about the park more than half of all local farmers thought that they could cultivate its land. This was an interesting perception since none of their crops were adapted to cultivation above the park boundary elevation of 8800 feet. Forty percent further felt that local people needed to hunt or cut wood in the park while recognizing that both activities were illegal. As for the natural forest itself, most local farmers couldn’t cite a single value of its existence if it couldn’t be cut. The same held for wildlife, if animals’ couldn’t be hunted. A notable exception was tourism. Notable because more than one third of those surveyed thought it was possible even more notable because there was no viable tourism program in the Parc des Volcans at that time.
The mountain gorilla fared well in Bills surveys. Informed that only 260 were left in the entire world, more than four out of five local frames thought the gorillas should be protected. The connection between protecting gorillas half of those same farmers thought that the entire park should be converted to agricultural purposes.
Other surveys of urban residents and university students in Rwanda showed greater support for both gorilla and park protection. Yet the farmers living closest to the park were the most critical population. Even if some of their beliefs were ill founded or inaccurate, their perceptions represented their reality. They were also reinforced and enhanced by government policies and regional politics. Rwanda’s tourism advisors at that time focused on the Akagera Park which fit the East African model of vehicular tourism in savanna parks. Hiking through green hell did not fit their model and so the Parc des Volcans was ignored. Not only was there no tourism, there were only eighty poorly paid, poorly trained and poorly equipped guards for the entire park. This policy of neglect resulted in the loss of more than half of the original Virunga parkland between 1959 and 1973 losses funded by European donors in the name of development. Rumors persisted of plans to clear more land.

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