Uganda Travel News

MOUNTAIN GORILLAS are not yet vocal. Their most common sound is the flatulent by product of their vegetarian diet. Actions and body language play a large role in gorilla communication, reinforced by perhaps fifteen distinct vocalization. Most of these vocalizations are quiet brief and appear to serve clearly understood functions. Belch vocalizations contrary to their name are soft rumbling sounds used by gorillas and human observers to acknowledge each other’s presence. Cough grunts are staccato barks from deep within the chest that warm of displeasure. A wraagh is a prolonged loud vocalization, more like a roar that serious anger. Singing however is entirely different.

Every few months more frequently during dry spells, Group 5 would break into song. Usually in an area where the entire family was feeding on abundant high quality food, one individual would start a low rumbling sound breathing loudly in and out in a modulated tone. This might remain a solo performance and last no more than a minute, often, however others would join in adding gender and age specific basses baritones, tenors and sopranos to the mix. The result was a chorus of intertwined melodies, rising and falling in a natural rhythm that might continue for several minutes a gorilla Gregorian chant in the Virunga cathedral. These impressive performances doubtless served some other function but we chose to enjoy them as unrestrained expressions of individual happiness and group harmony.

THERE IS NO PRIVACY in Rwanda. Wherever we walked out of the park, there were women working their fields or children tending goats. A drive in any direction passed a steady stream of pedestrian traffic. If we sought relief behind some bushes, the eyes of curious children would appear on the other side. People were spread everywhere across the country, not concentrated in the cities. In 1978 the combined populations of Kigali Ruhengeri, Gisenyi, Butare and Cyangugu totaled less than 200,000.The other 4.6 Million Rwandans lived in a uniquely dispersed settlement pattern in which isolated households dotted the landscape. The lives of these people depended almost entirely on what they could grow or graze on increasingly small and fragmented parcels. In a poor nation the size of Vermont, land hunger was intense and the country’s wild lands were at risk.

ATLEAST TWO THOUSAND YEARS AGO, the ancestors of today’s Hutu farmers arrived in the highlands among the great lakes of East central Africa. There they found a favorable climate and a mosaic of natural wet hills and rugged mountains. As they had throughout their long migration from the other side of the Congo Basin, these Bantu farmers probably first settled along the forest fringe in what is now Eastern Rwanda. Using both fire and the Iron Age tools that they brought from West Africa, they began to clear the moist montane forest to expose its rich soils. Perhaps as important as their iron axes and hoes, the immigrants brought the domesticated banana a highly nutritious perennial food source. The natural forest retreated, replaced by a blanket of banana stands broken by open fields of finger millet and peas.

The proto-Hutu was alone in Rwanda. Twa pygmies predated them by millennia, though their low population density and hunter gatherer practices left little mark upon the land. They too preferred to live along the forest savanna edge a transition zone between two key habitat types that was rich in the plants and animals that supported their way of life. With the arrival of Bantu farmers, the Twa likely entered into barter arrangements with their new neighbors, exchanging bush meat for produce or iron products. But as the forest frontier gave way to the banana, the Twa were pushed higher and higher into the mountains, where they were forced to adapt to a harsher climate and ales abundant larder.

Seven or eight hundred years after the Bantu expansion Eastward cross central Africa, a second great migratory wave spilled out of the highlands of North Eastern Africa. This time the migrants were not farmers but pastoralists. As they spread to the west and South, they established the distinctive cattle based cultures of the Fulani, Samburu, Masai, Zulu and Tutsi, among others. Some of these groups went no farther than the Interlake highlands where modern pollen studies show evidence of cattle grazing around mountain lakes and marshes by AD 100.Outside of the highest mountains, however, these ancestral Tutsi found most of the modern Rwanda settled by the Hutu, who were already organized into small kingdoms.

The Tusti and their cattle avoided conflicts with the Hutu by moving into open ecological niches. Hutu farmers had developed sophiscated ways of using the lower, middle and upper slopes of the hillsides that dominated the Rwandan landscape, Tutsi herders were drawn to hilltops and valley. Some African pastoral groups had to move hundreds of miles in search of forage on a seasonal basis, but Rwanda offered much shorter altitudinal migrations. During the long rainy season, cattle could graze on grassy hilltops, then move a few hundred yards down into nearby valleys to browse in lush wetlands during the dry season. In neither instance did the Tutsi compete with the established Hutu for prime farmland an ecological separation that facilitated political coexistence.

Over the next several centuries the Tutsi settled permanently in the region. Their tall, thin frames distinguished them from the stocky Hutu and much shorter Twa. Yet the Tutsi took the remarkable linguistic step of dropping their ancestral Nilotic tongue I favor of the Bantu language Kinyarwanda spoken by the Hutu. The Tutsi exchanged milk and other cattle products for Hutu farm produce. Cattle were allowed to browse on crop residues, leaving manure to enrich the soil in return. Ultimately these systems use and exchange evolved into more formal relationship between patrons and clients. Tutsi were apparently better able to convert their cattle wealth to arrange clientage relationships in their favor, although arrangements were flexible and many Hutu were patrons too. By the fifteenth or sixteenth century, the minority Tutsi had bargained, fought or maneuvered their way into control over a significant part of Rwanda. Again ecology played a role because the Tusi did not have to follow long and variable migrations on a seasonal basis like most pastoral societies but could instead remain in one place and consolidate their power. Under a succession of Tutsi kings or Mwamis, a highly centralized and hierarchical kingdom evolved. Combining the human and agricultural resources of the Tutsi and Hutu, this kingdom aggressively expanded to conquer much of modern Rwanda. It also entered into a series of shifting alliances with neighboring states in what are now the nations of Uganda, Congo, Burundi and Tanzania.

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