Uganda Travel News

Gorilla trackers enjoy the highest status among the various karisoke workers. They own their own rain gears and boots, they always carried a machete or curved umuhoro, and they walked with the swagger and self assurance of fighter pilots. Their work also took them away from camp and the watchful eyes and strange ways of Mademoiselli, as they referred to Dian. Yet while their standing was primarily due to their work with gorillas, karisoke’s raison d’être, they had very little contact with the gorillas themselves. This was a camp rule: trackers were to lead researchers to the gorillas, but remain out of sight. Dian did not want the gorillas to feel comfortable a round any black people, only white researcher, ostensibly to limit the threat of poaching. However, this rule was necessarily violated on a regular basis at a critical point when the trackers would come upon the gorillas –just as poachers might come upon the group. Still, the karisoke trackers would then back away and either return to the camp or stay for several hours under cover until the researcher was finished.

Especially in our early months, when the trackers skill and familiarity with the terrain were most needed, the time on the trail was a great opportunity for discussion. Swahili was the working language in the virungas, since none of the staff spoke French and none of us had yet mastered the intricities of Kinyarwanda – one of the most complexes of the Bantu family of languages. Swahili, though, was a regional lingua franca, and one that we were fortunate to have learned during our two years in neighboring Congo. We covered a range of topics in our walking talks. Some were about gorillas; the creatures they only knew from trail sign, swaying bushes, vocalizations, and all-too-brief sightings. Many discussions had to do with life in America. Over time, we could ask more questions about Rwanda. Politics subjects were generally off-limits, even though all the men were Hutu, the ethnic group that made up president Habyarimana’s power base in northwestern Rwanda. Political decisions were often referred to as maneno ya Mungu, or ‘’God’s will’’, reflecting the men’s apparent acceptance of matters beyond their control.

Several trackers worked at karisoke while we were there, their number at any one time depending on need. Generally there was one full-time tracker’s position, as for housekeepers, split into two twenty-day shifts. Little Nemeye always took one of those shifts. He was a short, thin young man of about twenty-five, with time, and an excellent tracker. Able to focus on the most subtle of signs, Nemeye rarely followed a dead-end trail. When it came to the gorillas themselves, though, he seemed less interested than some others in the details of their lives. It was a job, and he did it very well.

Vatiri was a frequent partner to little Nemeye‘s. Named for the rare passage of automobile, or virtue, at the time of his birth, varirti was the trackers’ tracker. Acknowledged by all for his skills, his successful location of a researcher lost at night became a karisoke legend. So, too, was his recovery of a car key dropped along a three hour trail through thick bush. Yet as good as he was with gorillas and lost scientists, vatiri’s true passion was tracking down poachers. Called up from the valley whenever suspicious signs or sounds were detected, he seemed to relish the chase. While captures were rare, he often returned with a load of wire taros, machetes and other contraband seized from poachers’ camps. Also suited variti’s interest in interest in spending more time on his farm than in the forest.

Rwelekana, who helped Amy pursue Group 5 across the floated Susa, was another exceptional tracker who proffered to be at home. Although wages were never high at karisoke –roughly one dollar per day in 1978- this was still more than what camp staff could earn in the agricultural sector. Rwelekana converted his meager earnings into a series of land purchases. This strategic acquisition of farmland was extremely shrewd in the face of the growing Rwanda land shortage, and a reflection of Rwelekana’s wisdom and industriousness. He was also the tracker most curious about life in other African countries, in Europe, and in the United States. We would come to know him much better while doing census work, but he was always an enjoyable companion at karisoke.

Big Nemeye, so name for his precedence over little Nemeye as well as his solid physical stature, was a former tracker who was fukaza or fired, by Dian. His banishment could be lifted under certain conditions, but his temperament and more limited skills made him less attractive regular employee than the others. Big Nemeye, too, would later help with census work, where Bill would learn that his character was greatly tempered by abstinence from alcohol.

Whichever trackers were in the camp were most likely to be found around the main fire as the day came to a close. Fieldwork finished, the smokers would dry their tobacco before rolling it in whatever paper they could find. Often these were the lined and ink-stained pages from their own children’s used school notebooks. When Bill sometimes offered the men factory wrapped impala cigarettes, he would joke that he was improving their health. Besides, far more smoke entered their lungs each day from the smoldering wet wood of the pit than from any number of cigarettes.

Smoke or no, the fire was warm as the cold night air rolled down off the mountain and the pit was warm as the center of Rwandan staff life. Discussions were not that different from those at workplace s around the world, including the right to complain. With time, the topic would invariably return to the central focus of all life at karisoke: the increasingly strange and reclusive Dian Fossey. Rarely seen outside her cabin, Dian almost never visited the gorillas anymore. Regardless, her presence was felt in many ways. A single name shouted across the compound would send the housekeeper or wood-cutter running, and even the most hardened trackers had learned to heed the call. Failure to respond could result in summery suspensions, usually rescinded within the month. More serious infractions might cause someone’s hard-earned mushahara or salary of $10 to $20 worth of Rwandan francs, to be waved in his face and then tossed in the fire. The victim rarely responded until he returned to the pit, where the others would console him with the reminder that Mademoiselli ana kichwa sawa toto. All would agree that the strange white woman was, indeed, childlike. They also knew the with little education and no French, they had few if any employment alternatives outside her camp.

THE DENSE TREE COVER, frequently low clouds, and Dian’s dark moods could make karisoke a foreboding place. Cold and wet were constant companions. Shades of grey sky, the height of clouds, and the intensity of rainfall distinguished days from each other. The equatorial day length hardly varied, and sunrise and sunset were blocked by massive volcanoes to the east and west. Yet karisoke was also a magical spot that could stir the imaginations and passions of those of us fortunate enough to live and work there

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