Long Trek into Rwanda

Long Trek into Rwanda

The destruction of Bwindi is much more severe than Parcs de volcans.
A new road was supposed to be completed from Bwindi into Rwanda by now, and so a year ago that’s how we planned the trip. Oops.

When the new road is completed, it will be hardly a 4-hour journey from Bwindi to Parcs de volcans in Rwanda. In fact, it will be easier for people who want to trek Bwindi to fly in and out of Kigali (Rwanda) rather than Entebbe (Uganda) which is 7 hours minimum away.

But as luck wouldn’t have it, the road isn’t completed. The drive is fabulous for scenery and local culture, but it is one of the most twisting and turning mountainous roads in the world.

We left our lodge at 8 a.m. and didn’t reach the Rwandan border post until 1 p.m. In a sense that doesn’t seem so taxing, but the dust, the twists, and as Alex calculated, the 18k/hour speed did make it tedious.

From the Rwandan border to our Sabyinyo Silverback Lodge was hardly 35 minutes. Rwanda’s roads are much better than those slowly being replaced in southern Uganda.

Once in this most beautiful of all Parcs de volcans lodges, I think everyone was pretty happy. And for me, the most striking part of the whole trip was to see how much of the Bwindi Forest has been logged and clear cut.

I’ve come to Bwindi ever since my first trip with my wife, Kathleen Morgan, in 1974. There has been a slow erosion of the forest, but today, it’s unbelievable.

The park roads themselves are usually lined by hillsides that have been cleared for tea and other agriculture.

Far be it for we Americans – the most consumptive of the world’s resources – to criticize Uganda for trying to develop. I won’t, and I’m not. But the twangs of nostalgia and the undeniable regrets of melancholy struck me deeply.

To the jungles of the Gorilla

To the jungles of the Gorilla

As I leave for Africa to guide the Cleveland Zoo to see mountain gorillas, it’s worth repeating what a wonderful success story this is.

When EWT sent its first tourist into Rwanda’s Parcs de volcans in 1979, there were less than 320 mountain gorillas, a dangerously low number. At the time scientists had determined that if the population dipped below 280, it was likely the genetic diversity would not be great enough to sustain a long-term population.

There had been a lot of good science already completed back then, by such people as George Schaller and a bevy of Japanese researchers.

Dian Fossey was not a good researcher. Neither was she a good person. She was a media creation who in the end completed no good science and probably set the science of primates on a reverse track.

There’s no question that her media celebrity, though, helped the cause. Maybe even jump-started it.

But for the truth about early mountain gorilla science and the mountain gorilla program that began in earnest in the 1980s and which saved these great beasts, read In the Kingdom of Gorillas: The Quest to Save Rwanda’s Mountain Gorillas by husband/wife researchers Bill Weber and Amy Vedder. Bill and Amy were technically Dian’s first assistants, but as you will learn from reading their popular book, Dian needed almost more medical attention than the gorillas.

The gorilla project essentially begun by Bill and Amy is what saved these grand beasts. Today there are more than 750, despite a series of wars and natural disasters. It is a healthy, robust albeit still endangered population.

What happened?

Basically the business of tourism saved the gorillas. Today every visitor (and there are 56 daily in Rwanda and up to 42 daily in Uganda) pays $500 for an hour with habituated mountain gorilla families.

The enormous revenue this generated was transparently used first to help the gorillas and their habitat, and then, to help the human populations surrounding the habitats which for centuries had been understandably hostile to the animals.

This seed mountain generated more money. Money from research institutes, tangential organizations and even direct from governments.

The model of the mountain gorilla project is one of the most successful in the tourism/conservation arena…

Next week I’ll be blogging from Uganda and then Rwanda as a group of 12 others joins Cleveland Zoo Director, Steve Taylor, and myself as we explore the jungles for these grand beasts and some of their equally interesting cousins.

I hope you’ll follow us!

Victor & Still Champion

Victor & Still Champion

The victor and still champion, Paul Kagame, flanked by the two other candidates.
(Left) Kayumba Nyamwasa who is in exile. And (right) Victoire Ingabire who is in jail.
Rwanda’s national election occurs in 3 weeks. That has nothing to do with who will win.

President Paul Kagame, the leader of Rwanda for the last 16 years, and prior to that, the paramount general of the Tutsi led RPF army that stopped the 1994 genocide, is the winner and champion.

Kagame has imprisoned all his viable opponents. Members of his military – which are really the political and economic controllers of the country – who have dared to criticize him have either been demoted, exiled or killed. Newspapers have shut down or shut up.

This will not be a free election.

Frankly, I don’t know if there should be a free election. If there were, the Hutu-defined factions would win. The government would be in turmoil. Businessmen would flee the country. It would cause an extraordinarily awkward situation with regards to the brutal war going on in the eastern Congo (led by Rwandan exiled Hutu extremists).

And this tiny, currently peaceful country would go to pot.

Obviously no one knows this better than Kagame. Like so many African dictators before him, he has emerged over a good period of time as a leader who has painted himself into a box of eternity.

He has been essentially benevolent and fair. Particularly in the beginning few years after the genocide, he was remarkably tolerant and forgiving. He has adroitly danced on the world stage, criticizing his donors while getting more of their money (including the U.S.). And he has overseen a ravaged and poor country grow into one of Africa’s most successful economies.

Kagame’s life goal has been to reverse the powerful currents that separate his population into two factions that despise one another. Hutus call Tutsis “cockroaches.” Tutsis – now in firm control – are less derogatory about Hutus. Instead, they ignore them, hire them for slave wages and refuse to matriculate them up the political or business ladder.

So Kagame has suffered the biggest failure of his own stated goals: he has not brought together the warring factions that led to the genocide. If anything, he has presided over an increasing gap.

And as I’ve written before, deep down it is not an ethnic divide. And this incredibly unique and confusing aspect muddies the waters even more. Hutu and Tutsi speak the same language. They have intermarried for nearly a millennia. The physical differences of their ancestry are blurred at best.

But there was enough physical difference at the start of the colonial era, that the Belgians could attempt a differentiation, and that reenergized and refined the division that lasts until today. Still, it is less an ethnic divide than a typical political class divide. The rich and powerful against the poor and disenfranchised.

Were it simply ethnic, Kagame’s task would have been easier. But he entered the modern world like any leader, anywhere. It’s not only old scores that have to be settled, it’s .. Poverty.

So yes, Rwanda is safe, and yes, Rwanda is economically prosperous by African standards. But no, it’s not free.

Which is better?

Jiggedy-Jiggedy with the Gorillas!

Jiggedy-Jiggedy with the Gorillas!

Kwitonda silverback watching Mark!
The Cronan’s gorilla trek saw some jiggedy-jiggedy!

We were staying at Virunga Lodge, the first luxury lodge opened near the park. Although not very near. It still takes about 40-50 minutes to drive to the park gate. Of course this pales in comparison to the earliest days when decent accommodation was 90 minutes away on Lake Kivu adjacent Zaire.

Today, there are several more choices and an excellent luxury lodge near the park, but they were full. But the beautiful views from Virunga Lodge, including a full front face of Muhabura Volcano, are certainly worth the little longer drive.

Everyone is nervous the night before. I think Glen was most nervous as he walked up and down the paths in the hotel constantly missing his relatives, Emily was ridiculously determined to bring final closure on a little cold, Mark was buzzing through cloud nine certain he was dressed as any successful movie star, Debbie called home in the middle of the night here for a final confidence builder, and John – well, John, the Mzee and Dad, just seemed to be taking it all in with great relish.

It was very typical… nervousness. Concern that it would be too hard, or that you would be swallowed up by an anaconda or twilight vampire, or brushed over by giant poisonous plants or even kidnaped by aliens.

When I explained to them the night before that eating at this high altitude greatly increased the time of digestion, most stopped eating altogether. I tried my best to encourage them at our 530a breakfast to chow down, but I think cerebral antigens were winning the battle against hunger enzymes.

Just starting out?
Off they went at 6 a.m. It was an absolutely beautiful, perfect day, at least from the lodge’s perspective. Very cool but not cold and no rain. Streaks of sunlight even shown through the thick mist over Muhabura.

At the park gate at Kinigi at 7 a.m. the Cronan family was “assigned” the Kwitonda family on Gahinga volcano. This is considered a moderate trek of an interesting family that was divested of an earlier larger family with multiple silverbacks amalgamated during troubles in the Congo.

Today, the mountain gorilla project is so well run and organized that the often lengthy and difficult treks of the past are rare. “Intern hackers” are sent out around dawn to where the gorilla family was known to have been the night before, and they begin their work immediately.

So if the family has moved a lot, the trek will be more difficult than average, but a lot less difficult than it used to be, because the interns will have had several hours lead on the visitors trekking the family’s whereabouts.

When the Cronans left the park headquarters, their guide was already in communication with the intern hackers and knew exactly how far they should drive before starting up the volcano.

“The damn trails were so friable,” John later explained with enthusiasm, meaning the trails were very slippery and the base noncompactable by hikers in the front. And after about 80 minutes of trail walking, the family had to begin hacking through jungle.

Debbie photographed this magnificent silverback Kwitonda.
But just around two hours after beginning the hike, the Kwitonda family was met in the high jungles of Mgahinga. Trekkers took off their backpacks, laid down their walking sticks and moved in for morning tea with the greatest of the great apes!

Their were adults, silverbacks and juveniles goofing around, their giant black eyes googling at the day’s visitors. The guide routinely moved hikers forward and backwards, but trying to keep the suggested 7 meter distance was impossible.

And much of the hour was dominated by an 8-year female just coming into puberty, in active if humorous solicitation of a junior male just growing his magnificent silver back.

Then the guide whispered enthusiastically, “They’re making jiggedy-jiggedy.”

Normally, the silverback would pulverize any young male trying to breed with his selected brood, but in this case it could have been Birds-and-Bees 101 for mountain gorillas!

It was a very lucky day. There was no rain or mist, and even the overcast was light. The group came down quickly, enjoyed their picnic lunch, and returned to our lodge before 3 p.m.

That night was a night of celebration! It began with really entertaining Itore dances by kids from a local school and ended as do most nights in gorilla lodges, with the sharing of stories and wine between the guests.

The sense of personal physical accomplishment I know is always a big factor in people enjoying the mountain gorillas, but equally is the unique ability to get so close to a wild animal, to step out of your safari car and away from your safari guide with a gun, and commune best our great differences will allow with the greatest of the Great Apes.

Peace, Freedom, Tranquility, Ambition

Peace, Freedom, Tranquility, Ambition

Sabyinyo, Gahinga, Muhabura volcanoes behind our Virunga Lodge.
Rwanda and Uganda, although distinctly East African, display very stark differences to Kenya and Tanzania.

Today, we flew from Nairobi to Kigali, and from my point of view, it was entering a different world. There is no question that the economies of East African countries are inextricably linked – we passed a bus traveling from the Congo to Nairobi on the only road that connects this vast African interior to a port – but the cultures are extremely different.

Rwandans and Ugandans (Hutus, Tutsi, Bugandans and others) have lived in this interior of Africa around Lake Victoria for almost 1500 years. There is evidence that iron ore cultures developed in Rwanda in the 6th Century before they did in Europe.

Kenyans and Tanzanians, with a few important exceptions such as the coastal cultures, are all relatively new arrivals when compared to Rwandans and Ugandans. The Nilotic cultures, such as the Maasai, may have arrived only as recently as 350 years ago.

I think this has led to a fundamental difference in how colonialism effected these areas. Kenya and Tanzania are in many ways as European and colonial, now, as their conquerors were hardly a century ago. Many of the problems they face, such as corruption, poverty and political maturity, are addressed just as their colonial masters did.

As foreigners immigrating to a new land they were as impressionable as a culture as a recent immigrant to the United States. Extremely quickly they adopted the characteristics of their new culture : in this case as their colonizers.

Kenyans and Tanzanians are open, critical, often blunderbusses when trying out new ideas, very capitalistic and like their colonizers, proud of power. Nairobi’s three daily newspapers and two highly competitive TV channels – not to mention the increasingly popular talk radio channels – uncover the tiniest piece of dirt they can find and give no quarry to the offenders.

Ugandans and Rwandans are 180-degrees different. They evince that patience (wrongly called “fatalism” by many early observers) that can be so infuriating to high-tech, modern world people like my fellow Americans… and, for that matter, Kenyans and Tanzanians.

Ugandans and Rwandans are practical to the point of enslavement. Whether it is the Chinese building roads in Rwanda or oil companies encroaching on Ugandan national parks, there is simply no sense of urgency in evaluating long-term effects. They’ve been around for millennia – what could possibly go wrong?!

This passivity and patience is what leads the Ugandan and Rwandan into the incessant ethnic conflict the greater world simply will not ignore any longer. They are easily led and easily misled. While the brazen if rash moves by Kenya and Tanzania – spearheaded mostly by the youth – is what leads these folks into their violent confrontations.

So to an outsider seeing only the outcomes, it all seems the same. But it isn’t at all. As we drove from the Norfolk in the morning to the airport in the opposite direction of Nairobi’s unbelievable traffic congestion, I saw road rage bubble up from impatience with traffic signals, patient if overworked policemen wink at me in a gesture of absurdity, ridiculously happy street vendors smiling as they walked through lines of traffic hawking sun glasses, maps, scratch pads and even vacuum cleaners! It was chaos to be sure, but not out of control and fired by real personal enthusiasm and ambition, and I think, optimism.

But as we drove from Kigali to Parcs de volcans near the Congolese border I saw a placid, peaceful land. But it was so clear that what I was seeing was the tightly organized surface tension of a troubled culture unable to carry its thousand years of social organization into the modern world.

Kigali’s traffic lights all work and everyone obeys them. When we all left our car, no one bothered to lock the doors. Compared to Kenya and Tanzania crime hardly exists in Rwanda, because the punishments are so harsh. Indeed, an American lawyer who flew into the country to defend a current presidential candidate against charges of treason was imprisoned, because his client had been charged with denying the genocide.

This type of social control – mostly through fear and innuendo rather than clear law – is what people of my generation ascribed to the early socialist experiments in Russia and China. Yet defenders of those old regimes claim even today that it kept the peace.

Peace vs. Freedom. Tranquility vs. Ambition. There’s no easy choice, here, although my own cowboy genes lean towards Freedom and Ambition, Kenya and Tanzania.

Defense means Racism?

Defense means Racism?

Paul Kagame, President, Hutu, Tutsi or Dictator?
It has been 15 years since the genocide in Rwanda, but tensions are building not lessening. The runup to the August elections doesn’t look good.

I was in next-door Zaire when the genocide began. I have friends whose lives were severely effected by the genocide. My daughter and I with a couple close friends were nearly kidnaped by powerful Hutus in Zaire (now The Congo) who took control of precious metal mines and established their own mini-states within the DRC.

But until this year all the possible bad news about Rwanda’s future was eclipsed by all the good news. That’s changed.

Wednesday the last of the promising Hutu political leaders in the country was arrested. There are no viable candidates left to challenge the current president in the August elections.

This followed Tuesday’s arrest of two prominent Tutsi generals, suggesting once again the machinations of this country’s diabolical ethnicity was gearing up for something bad.

It’s all in the runup to the August elections. The billions and billions of dollars that mostly France and the U.S. have injected into Rwandan society to build shopping malls and fine roads came with the price of “free and fair elections.”

Down payments were made. Hutus who had fled the country, like activist Victoire Inagbire were allowed to return (from The Netherlands), and disgruntled Tutsi who increasingly criticized the militarization of society, like Frank Habineza, were given a wide birth to criticize the government in the media.

But then things went south earlier this year, when the new educated class in Rwanda, much wealthier and more savvy than their parents, began to actually cross ethnic lines in support of social movements.

Anyone criticizing the government was suspect, and now most are in jail.

Both Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have sounded alarms.

Habineza heads the Rwanda Green Party. True to its name, its agenda is mostly nonpolitical, but with time its membership grew with disgruntled Tutsi including many former military officers concerned with too many resources being used for guns rather than trees. Inagbire – fully educated in the west – started pointing out publicly that there were many Hutus who suffered in the genocide as well as Tutsi.

Her own brother was mistaken during the genocide for a Tutsi and killed.

And therein lies the quagmire of Rwanda. Tutsi and Hutu are linked by a common language and many, many intermarriages especially in Kigali. The old notion that the Tutsi is lean and tall and the Hutu short and stubby is especially not true, today, where the melting pot is bigger than the tradition.

Yet the animosity is intense, and since the 1994 genocide it has morphed into something political rather than ethnic.

The Hutus who fled and didn’t come back are now a powerful, onerous force in The Congo mostly known as The Interamwe. They are brutal, ruthless cowboys almost exclusively men controlling important Congolese mineral deposits by guns and terror. Read John Le Carre’s fabulous book, Mission Song.

The Interamwe has beat back Rwandan, Ugandan and even UN forces trying to suppress them. In the long time since the genocide this movement has attracted a number of eastern Congolese movements, some of them actually Tutsi. So this Hutu ethnic movement has become a renegade but powerful political source sitting on tons of titanium that buys arsenals of weapons.

And within Rwanda, Paul Kagame, President, has controlled Rwanda since he liberated it from the Hutu massacre in 1994. There has actually been a growing number of Hutus integrated into his government, and in the last several years, even into Rwanda’s Army, which is the real force in the country.

And so this “Tutsi” government has morphed, too, into an iron-handed government that many now call a dictatorship. Kagame says government policy is necessary as a defense against the huge Interamwe threat on his border.

Trouble is, as always happens, contemporary political motives erupt into old feuds. Our Arizona’s legislature’s honest interest in stemming illegal immigration seems to me fast transforming into a birther and racist movement.

And so will it in Rwanda if anything blows. Strong government against external threats will once again become Tutsi versus Hutu.

France Apologizes, America’s Turn

France Apologizes, America’s Turn

President Sarkozy at Rwanda's Genocide Memorial
President Sarkozy at Rwanda's Genocide Memorial

Apologizing is hard and noble. It’s America’s turn.

Today, France apologized to Rwanda for its actions that contributed to the Rwandan genocide of 1994. Like the Belgian Parliament’s historic apology to the Congo for its ancient king, Leopold, (which included substantial reparations) these are difficult and noble acts.

“What happened here is unacceptable and …forces the international community… to reflect on the mistakes that prevented it from anticipating and stopping this terrible crime,” French President Nicolas Sarkozy told Reuters today.

It’s now America’s turn; Bill Clinton’s in particular.

The Rwandan genocide of 1994 could have been stopped. Numerous books and hundreds of pages of oath-sworn testimony, not to mention popular films, have documented the neglect of western countries, mostly the U.S. and France, from taking action earlier enough.

The UN general on the ground commanding a pitiful 500 troops saw it all coming. He pleaded with the General Assembly to do something.

The U.S. and France blocked his requests.

The genocide began.

France’s explanation was born of a long colonial involvement in the area. In a nutshell, there have always been little Hutus; they were the aboriginal hunter-gatherers of the area. In about the 6th or 7th centuries, the tall Watutsis (Tutsis) invaded the area.

The Tutsi herders represented about 15% of the population; the Hutus about 85%, but for more than a millennia the Tutsis over lorded the Hutus in a remarkably European feudal system.

During the colonial era France wanted to remedy this. That, too, was noble, but a half century of colonial rule is not enough to change the life ways of thousands of years.

The European colonial era ended not on any noble proposition. It ended because the colonial powers, Europe, were devastated by World War II and could no longer afford their colonies.

Belgium and France were the colonial powers in this region, and they raced to end their involvement with little recognition that all they had done during their occupation was make matters worse between the Hutus and Tutsis.

The first major massacre was 1972. Six more followed before the catastrophic genocide of 1994. Even today in Hutu/Tutsi conflicted Burundi, war rages. Not even Nelson Mandela’s decade long involvement in Burundi has stopped the fighting.

But in Rwanda it could have been stopped. But France ever championing the underdog, talked itself into believing that the event which started the genocide, the missile strike of the Hutu President’s plane returning to Kigali from a peace conference, was a deliberate act of the Tutsi.

Until today, in fact, France contended that the current President Paul Kagame of Rwanda was principally responsible for the missile strike.

He may have been. I don’t think we’ll ever know, several lower judges in France continue to bring charges against Kagame and others. Recently, a Rwanda government official was arrested when she entered Rwanda and charged with events leading to the genocide.

But French President Sarkozy is cutting to the chase. Whether it was Kagame’s gang or not who shot down the plane, France and the U.S. could have stopped the genocide, and they didn’t.

France contended for too many days after the fighting started that it was the Hutus fault, and it blindsided itself to the fact that in the beginning it was the Hutus who were the murderers.

Sarkozy has now admitted all of this. And apologized.

And America?

Well it was different with us. Bill Clinton was burned beyond belief by the defeat of Blackhawk Down in Somalia. We know much less about Africa than France. The one defeat-fits-all syndrome made Clinton believe we could be burned again in Rwanda.

We wouldn’t have been. The UN on the ground could have stopped the genocide. I think that some critics who claim Clinton was just being mean are ridiculous. I think he was just… dumb.

The world is grossly interconnected. We need our leaders to be aware as much of tiny places of trouble like Tblisi and Kigali, as they are fixated on Tehran.

After the genocide, France spent $900 million dollars in helping Rwanda recover. The U.S. spent $1.1 billion. Even from the crass business cost perspective, we both made very bad decisions.

Thank you, France.

And now, America? I wouldn’t hold your breath.