Golden Gorilla

Golden Gorilla

14Jul.Gorilla.Jim.462a.PdVOnly the rich can see wild animals. That’s the message – indeed, the policy – of Rwanda’s decision over the weekend to raise the permit fee for an hour with mountain gorillas to a staggering $1500 per person.

It’s really more profound. Not just seeing, but helping, conserving, understanding … all the components of saving our earth now become the purvey of the rich and the rich alone. Other implications are equally staggering.

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Economy Stupid

Economy Stupid

economy-stupidUnending protests continue in Ethiopia, South Africa and Zimbabwe, and though unique issues power each country’s turmoil, the fundamental driver is economic.

South Africa and Ethiopia are both experiencing healthy growth despite the protests, while Zimbabwe is tanking. Excluding Zim’s recent plunge, all three countries were performing very much like the U.S. over the last 4-5 years: modest but steady growth and improved employment. So what’s going on?

Let’s examine their individual situations, first.

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Flying Where?

Flying Where?

tcrwandairEvery country wants an airline, its own airline, and how that airline works characterizes the country as a whole.

In a month Rwandair begins flying a new modern Airbus 330, the ninth modern aircraft in its fleet. Today, the third iteration of Air Tanzania begins as the first of two new turbo prop aircraft are delivered from Canada. I wouldn’t rush to buy tickets on either airline. Here’s why:

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A Horrible Choice

A Horrible Choice

congotravailsThroughout most of the continent today, Africans confront a horrible choice: Peace & Prosperity… or Freedom & Democracy. Seventeen demonstrators dead overnight in the DRC’s capital, Kinshasa, is today’s best example.

Tanzania, Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi and the DRC are located in the Lake Victoria area, and each one sits on lots of precious natural materials like rare earths and gold amounting to enormous wealth. But only Rwanda has fully exploited this. Why?

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Dumb Historians

Dumb Historians

IraqIsNotRwandaErbil is not Rwanda.

Supporters of the U.S. air attacks in northern Iraq spent the weekend invoking the mistake the U.S. made in 1994 in Rwanda as a reason why we should restart the military campaign in Iraq.

They obviously don’t know the history.

Prior to the Rwandan genocide, the United Nations Security Council empowered a peace-keeping force with boots on the ground from more than a dozen countries including a number of Rwanda’s African neighbors.

This had occurred after the French had unilaterally sent a small military force to Rwanda. France was the lead nation in the intervention force.

But the general overseeing the UN troops was Canadian. And the troops that saw most of the active engagement were Dutch. And literally dozens of other countries were involved in air lifts and logistical support.

And the entire world, as represented in the Security Council, was behind the effort.

Right now, there is absolutely no international effort to support Kurdistan (Erbil) or to help the stranded refugees in the Sinjar mountains. Right now it is only the United States.

In Rwanda the genocide followed when the French enlisted the United States in blocking increased UN military involvement by the Security Council even as the situation worsened. That was the mistake in Rwanda: choosing sides and letting one side start massacring the other.

In Iraq today a genocide may already have happened, and the stranded refugees in the Sinjar mountains could be the next genocide.

That’s the tough question, but it has an answer however horrible. If I believe a genocide is possible, am I saying the U.S. should not go it alone to stop it?

In this specific case, yes.

Based on the recent history of the area, the effort by us alone to change history, to abate even temporarily a genocide is likely to cost thousands more lives and infinitely more misery in the future.

The question to me is quite simple. Do we react to the horror of the present by damning the future to an even more horrific destiny? Can we not refer to history?

Can we not stop rewriting history, as with the analogies to Rwanda?

This is not isolationism. If what is happening in the Sinjar mountains were happening in Puerto Vallarta then my orientation would change. If other countries in the Mideast and nearby Europe asked us for support, my support is available.

But to go it alone? No. Definitively and completely. Not only must Americans grow their sense of community, they must extend their human vision into the future and realize as nature’s greatest achievement we have the capability to fashion our future, not just react to our present like unintelligent animals.

A final subtle argument floating around the weekend talk shows was that yes, we were wrong to go into Iraq, but we did so, so we are now responsible for the mess we created.

Yes, we are completely responsible for the mess we created. So do we create a greater mess? The only responsible thing to do is stand back and let the area’s own social and historical equilibriums reappear however awful that may be.

We can’t fix it. We were unable to fix it in the beginning, and now we are unable to fix the mess we created. All we are capable of doing is making bad situations even more terrible.

Virtually every conflict that America has gone alone in my life time has been a disaster, starting with Vietnam. The world today would be so much better and happier if America had not blustered solo into those wars.

We shouldn’t feel unmasculine recognizing this fact. Power is never insurmountable, not even moral power. From my point of view, the only global power that will prevai is GLOBAL power, the combined efforts of multiple countries. We supply the warplanes. Sweden or Chile supplies the justification.

The conflicts in which we were only a part – like the Balkans War – had very good outcomes.

We are strong and should remain so. But we are dumb and should listen to the rest of the world before throwing our punches.

Israeli Fauxpolitik

Israeli Fauxpolitik

NotABowIsrael’s steamy response to Obama’s acceptance of the new Palestinian government reveals a massive hypocrisy in Israel’s dealings with Africa.

Yesterday Palestine sort of came together, as Fatah (that recognizes Israel) formed a coalition with Hamas (that doesn’t).

The attempted amalgam was further complicated by the fact that Fatah is considered a wholesome government by the U.S. and much of the western world, and Hamas is considered a terrorist organization.

Complications hardly end there: mixtures of oil and water neither lubricate engines or quench thirst. It’s not clear to me the new coalition will be able to do anything but split up, again.

Be that as it may, Israel exploded diplomatically.

Israel spent 24×7 explaining to the media how hypocritical the U.S. was. On today’s Morning Edition, the Israeli ambassador to the U.S. fumed.

I applaud Obama’s action because governments rarely mean what they say, only what they do, and it made me think of Israel’s long and “hypocritical” relationship with Africa.

Apartheid was prolonged, the war in Rhodesia/Zimbabwe was prolonged, the dictatorship of Robert Mugabe is currently prolonged, the development of Ethiopia was inhibited and horrible men from today’s Kagame in Rwanda and Amin in Uganda were sustained … because of Israeli diplomacy, often secret, often not.

Israel’s justification in these and other similar African initiatives was basically two-fold: enhance their national security and protect and recover African Jews. And the dedication to these two missions was uncompromisable, even if it created a conflict with other established credos.

When I was guiding in a once peaceful eastern Congo (now the DRC) in the mid 1980s, I flew my clients south from Beni to Goma on DC3s that came from Israel carrying weapons to the then Rhodesia. I’ve never been clear which side they were destined for, but wherever they were headed it was illegal… and that didn’t matter to the Israelis.

The current dictatorship of the weirdo despot Robert Mugabe is legitimized by an Israeli firm, Nikuv, which “manages” the farce called national elections which keeps Mugabe in power. Many Israelis are themselves furious, calling Nikuv Mugabe’s “fixers.”

The arms shipments to Rhodesia in the 1980s were likely more political than commercial, but it seems Nikuv might be more commercial than political.

In the runup to his mass slaughters, Idi Amin was supported heavily by Israel when the rest of the world had abandoned him. Shortly after staging his coup, Amin visited Israel, since no one else would have him.

Today in neighboring Rwanda, another despot is supported heavily by Israel, president Paul Kagame. Apparently there are some in Israel who believe that Tutsis are ancient Jews.

That seems like a stretch, but it’s no stretch that many Ethiopians were ancient Jews. I’ve seen myself primitive huts 3 or 4 decades ago with Torahs in Hebrew the only book around, and totems of ancient Israeli personalities like the Queen of Sheebah. I’ve seen entire villages that speak only a local dialect and Hebrew.

The belief that these “Falasha” were the Lost Tribe of Dan resulted in 30 years of Israeli involvement in Ethiopia so that it could repatriate 40,000 of the Falasha. The mammoth undertaking ended last year.

In order to facilitate this undertaking, the government of Israel was the only government except the Soviet Union that supported the barbarism of ruthless Ethiopian leaders in the 1980s.

My point has nothing to do with whether these Israeli efforts were right or wrong, but that they were practical to an extreme.

Obama’s search for peace in The Mideast is not practical to an extreme, it’s just practical. Israel’s condemnation? The pot calling the kettle black.

Soldiers At Bay

Soldiers At Bay

Commie or DespotRevolutionaries make lousy politicians, and that’s why South Sudan is so unstable.

Five theoretically democratic countries in sub-Saharan Africa were born of revolution: Uganda, Zimbabwe, Ethiopia, South Africa and South Sudan.

(Modern Rwanda, which rose from the pyre of the 1994 genocide, never pretended to be democratic. Kenya’s election violence was too short-lived and geographically contained to be considered revolution. And The Congo and Somalia aren’t finished, yet.)

Of the five, South Africa is doing just fine if awkwardly so. Ethiopia is a far, far distant second, and Uganda and Zimbabwe are now lost causes. South Sudan, the newest, is still figuring out its peace land legs and right now, doesn’t look too good.

These five countries provide an excellent study of modern day transition from revolution and suggest what South Sudan must do to succeed.

All five countries sustained a revolution against their previous regime for a generation or more:

South Africa’s ANC was the revolutionary, fighting arm against the Nationalist government that blew up the factories and staged a couple fire bombs while figuring out ways from time to time to close the mines. The ANC is now in control of South Africa’s politics and has been since Independence twenty years ago.

The Ethiopian regime is composed of a segments of rebel groups pursued by the Terror Triumvirate, which assassinated Emperor Haile Selassie in 1974.

The current Ugandan and Zimbabwean regimes consolidated power after violent ousters of repressive regimes (Idi Amin in Uganda and Ian Smith’s UDI in Rhodesia).

The South Sudan is the newest, created from a 2005 peace deal with (north) The Sudan that led to independence in 2011.

All five countries pretend to be democratic and are founded on constitutions based on democracy. Only South Africa is.

Uganda and Zimbabwe are iron-clad dictatorships. Ethiopia is more communist than dictatorship albeit with a pretty wide net of political involvement across various segments of Ethiopian society.

We can predict what might happen to South Sudan based on what happened to the other four.

In all cases, the men (and it’s exclusively men) who shot guns and murdered adversaries of the ancien regime are now the political leaders. As George Washington summed it up when leaving a single term in office, soldiers do not make good democratic leaders.

Foreigners are eager to cast these country’s difficulties as ethnic, and to be sure the internal adversaries are clearly ethnically different. But I think as suggested by Hilary Matfess in an article in Think Africa Press, today, there are other more important reasons.

Once fault lines occur in a society, ethnic groups tend to congeal on one side or the other, and that’s certainly what’s happened in South Sudan. But that doesn’t mean the ethnicity or racism is the actual cause.

Ms. Matfess argues that it’s the constitutional makeup, but I argue that the constitution was made up by soldiers, and that’s the problem.

In a country as diverse, successful and developed as South Africa, soldiering onto the political stage worked well for the ANC, but soldiering into governance is not working so well. Nevertheless in South Africa, autocratic moves by politicians have been checked.

South Africa will do just fine as soon as these old soldiers go, and they are slowly but surely dying or being forced out.

Uganda and Zimbabwe, however, weren’t able to make the transition that I’m sure South Africa has, and both have devolved into despotic regimes.

I see Ethiopia as trying very hard not to slip into a despotic character, and the way it’s trying to do so is by a very restrictive, highly controlled mostly communist system that is forcing the old soldiers to stay at bay. Certainly without this very powerful central authority in Addis, the country would start fighting, again, and one or other of the soldiers would come to power as the despot exactly as Museveni and Mugabe have in Uganda and Zimbabwe.

This is South Sudan’s option, I’m afraid. Lacking the development and diversity that South Africa had historically, South Sudan must figure out “how to keep the old soldiers at bay.”

The only way is by a centrally restrictive “communist” government. All that democracy will do is facilitate war.

This is exactly the opposite of what Ms. Matfess believes, even though I’m using her argument to suggest it. But democracy cannot work until the population is educated enough to engage its mechanisms.

So if The West wants peace in South Sudan, it’s going to have to accept communism.

Now there’s a twist.

No More Grains of Rice

No More Grains of Rice

Susan Rice’s performance on the Sunday Talk Shows incorrectly explaining the Benghazi attacks is a perfect example of how she has historically allowed political considerations to trump more important foreign policy or human rights considerations in Africa.

She’s been acting like this for years. She seems incapable of intricate analysis and quiet diplomacy. She’s no engineer of foreign policy. She’s a cheerleader. Africans don’t like it. I don’t like it. Americans should not make her the Secretary of State.

Her list of failures in Africa is impressive: Blackhawk Down followed by the Rwandan genocide followed by the East African embassy bombings followed by the escalating instability of Darfur followed by the poorly created South Sudan and most recently, the mishandling of the growing violence in Kivu and Goma.

There are more, but these are the main ones.

Contrary to the Huffington Post that I usually love, there were plenty of warnings that the Kenyan embassy was going to be attacked in 1998.

An Egyptian agent, or double agent initially set up by the FBI gave warnings of the attack on East African embassies about nine months before it happened. The details were published long ago by the New York Times.

After years of further investigations, Frontline organized all the evidence in a way that was resounding proof that plenty of warning had been given, warning that had been ignored. At the time, Susan Rice was advising President Clinton on African affairs and had to have been involved in the decision (or lack of decision) to do something about the intelligence.

Today in Nairobi the “August 7 Memorial Park” stands as America’s remembrance of the bombing and in particular remembrance of the 238 Kenyans who were killed. I’ve visited the memorial often and it includes a short movie that also describes a workman who came into the embassy hours before the bombing and tried to warn everyone to leave, but who was ignored.

The memorial has had a website for years: The URL is confirmed by Google. But the website no longer works… for some reason.

I was in Nairobi and heard the bomb go off. It is a day I will never forget, and I will never forget what I’ve learned about it, even if websites die.

But worse than the 1998 bombing was the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. The U.S. and France are specifically responsible for having allowed the genocide to happen by their actions blocking the Security Council from sending in more peace-keeping troops as desperately requested by the Canadian General at the time.

France refused to increase peace-keeping because of a complex historical feud with Belgium and France’s blind support of the Hutu who at the time were plotting the genocide but had been seriously repressed by the existing Rwandan regime.

Clinton backed France because of his being burned by BlackHawk Down. It was a cowardly response, and one for which he has since apologized.

There is a wealth of literature on this. The two best are the movie “Hotel Rwanda“ and the book, “We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will be Killed With Our Families.”

According to a former President of GenocideWatch, Dr. Gregory Stanton of Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars:

“The U.S. government was forewarned of the impending genocide. Communications were sent by cable, e-mail, and secure telephone… [But] Policy makers in Washington, D.C., especially Anthony Lake, Dick Clarke and Susan Rice at the National Security Council… did not want the U.S. to get involved in another African “civil war.”

The decision to “not get involved” hooked America into a mind-boggling expensive refugee and human rights initiative, followed by billions for Rwanda aid that continues today. But beyond the expense, we’re talking of at least a million lives lost.

The guilt of supporting Rwanda is something Susan Rice knows deeply and is deeply entrenched in. As the DRC Congo/Goma crisis deepened this fall, she specifically in her capacity as UN ambassador engineered multiple softenings of European led initiatives to impose sanctions on Rwanda to restrain its wanton support of the turbulence there.

A few weeks ago, America began reversing this overly cautious policy. It was terribly wrong in the beginning and has certainly led to more violence than was necessary.

Perhaps the best example of Rice’s inability to perform more than a political role was her performance in The Sudan, including Darfur and the creation of South Sudan.

The secession of South Sudan from the greater Sudan is overall a diplomatic victory for the world and most certainly a good move for the citizens there. It took more than 20 years and involved a serious civil war that the U.S. was deeply involved in.

But the creation of the new state was poorly done. Two years after independence, South Sudan is still mired in military difficulties with the north in a modern way, and with several ethnic groups in ways reminiscent of William of Orange. The untold oil wealth is not being mined because of this instability and a refugee problem within the country has grown severe.

Rice must shoulder much of the blame. She consistently created PR moments, sound bites and veneers of western institutions neglecting the much more difficult and intricate process of creating social institutions.

At a critical juncture in the negotiations that were leading to the two-country solution in The Sudan, Rice actually organized a rally of blurry-eye Juba citizens hurriedly rounded up for something more akin to an American political rally.

As reported by Matthew Russell Lee of InterCity Press who was traveling with Rice at the time:

“‘Are you ready to protect your country?’ [Rice shouted to the small crowd.]
‘Are you ready for independence?’
Yes! … Another diplomat … would later call it a “political rally” and deem Susan Rice’s organization of the Juba leg as inappropriate.”

Rice has never displayed the insight or vision of a Hillary Clinton. She is schooled in American bureaucracy where she has percolated through the ranks and become one of its best soldiers.

One of Obama’s most serious failings is his inability to freshen up government. Rice like Geithner and others in his close circle, are old boys/girls who have rarely lived on the outside. While you might say the same of Hillary Clinton, it could be that rising to the top as fast as she did insulated Hillary from the strictures of soldiering Rice has not liberated herself from.

I’ve come to believe that Obama chooses people like Rice and Geithner not completely from a lack of his own personal courage, but because he very deeply believes in the American government status quo. He eloquently describes government’s ups and downs, but he sees overall America as on the right path.

I’m more radical. I’d like a visionary who shakes up government and doesn’t rely exclusively on old people with old ideas to join him at the helm. Africa has changed so quickly and so radically in my lifetime, I don’t think someone schooled and processed through American bureaucracy for her entire life is how we as Americans should be represented to Africa.

“Susan Rice’s chances of succeeding Clinton as secretary of state look slim,” writes a respected South African analyst.

And he, and I, think that’s just the way it should be.

Better the Beast You Know

Better the Beast You Know

"Gorilla Taxes": original construct by pborgbarthet at
The second greatest conservation success story in my lifetime may be out of control. Mountain gorilla populations may be prospering because so are bribes and corruption.

The first mountain gorilla trek I brokered was in June, 1979. At the time Dian Fossey reigned on Karisoke volcano with no aplomb and great madness. But science had arrived and the population count was reliably put at 285.

That is a dangerously low number for any life form.

Last week a consortium of field biologists announced the current mountain gorilla count is right around 800. “Right around” is the euphemistic scientific phrase that means “we can’t get an exact count in The DRC Congo because there’s a war there.”

Nevertheless, the number is fabulous. The population of this awesome beast is not going extinct, at least not right now. And really the sole reason is tourism.

Mountain gorillas live in two places near to one another: Bwindi Forest almost entirely within Uganda, and the much larger Virunga Mountains (which is actually the highland forests connecting seven dormant volcanoes) which is mostly in Rwanda but a bit in Uganda and a bit more also in The DRC Congo.

Bwindi is separated from the Virungas by a 50 kilometer long forest corridor that gorillas likely could use to migrate, although little field science has confirmed this.

Three years ago when guiding a prominent American zoo group I experienced first-hand how a large portion of Bwindi “tourism” works: illegally. It had been often reported before, but this was my first personal experience. Years before, when Uganda tourism was not yet mature, I had a similar experience with my daughter that was actually far more dangerous. This zoo experience was not dangerous, it was simply corrupt.

I knew what we were doing from the getgo. Most tourists do not. A blog I found posted by an enthusiastic traveler last March is a perfect example of a tourist who doesn’t realize she’s engaging in the black market, and it’s a perfect blow-by-blow description of just such an experience.

I’m not want to extol the virtues of capitalism, but the dynamic is a perfect indicator in this case. In Rwanda’s Parc de Volcans, where mountain gorilla trekking has merged art, science and commerce to near perfection, the cost of seeing a mountain gorilla for an hour is $750. In Uganda’s Bwindi, permits are currently going for under $350.

It happens usually with “walk-in” tourists or tourists who have booked too late for a legitimate permit. Real gorilla permits are controlled in Uganda in a very nepotistic way: a mix of officials playing strictly by the rules and demanding full nonrefundable payment at the time of reserving, or by holding a few residual permits in reserve that are allocated to relatives and friends in the tourist industry.

This means that if you book your trek through a reputable local ground handler far enough in advance, you’re probably playing by the rules. In my case three years ago, my choice of a “reputable operator” was flawed.

For a number of years I had relied on a small but extremely dignified man who had deep connections with the Ugandan government which gave me singular but above-board benefits. He had a heart attack only weeks before we arrived, long after we had fully paid him, and his tourist company fell into the control of his far less reputable nephew.

What the disreputable operators do is bribe soldiers or rangers to “guide” tourists to gorilla families that are not yet fully habituated, so to gorilla families that are not yet “on the list” to be visited. At a serious discount to the official permit price.

There are eight habituated gorilla families in Bwindi and nine (soon ten) in Rwanda’s Parc de volcans. With a maximum of 6-8 tourists allowed per family visit, that caps legal permits at right around 125 daily. The demand is far greater than this. It also means that only a fraction of the mountain gorillas alive today are a part of habituated groups. Most are wild animals ripe for exploitation.

Legitimate permits are usually sold out a year in advance. Walk-in tourists usually don’t have the funds, they are generally savvy on the internet, and they know that someone in Kampala will sell them a permit for much less. That wasn’t my unique situation of course, three years ago, but it’s the case most of the time.

There is danger in any black market, and in this one it’s physical as well as the risk that you won’t see gorillas at all. The physical danger comes from approaching a powerful wild animal before it wants you to. “Charging” very rarely happens with habituated gorillas, but you’ll note in the blog I’ve chosen above that this was central to her tourist experience. It’s not a good thing.

But missing the experience altogether is as great a risk. The chance of not encountering a gorilla family on a legitimate non-black market experience is today next to nil. But trekking to non-habituated families usually means it’s much longer, more difficult and easily aborted if weather turns bad. It also means the so-called “guide” probably knows how to shoot better than commune with a gorilla.

Ugandan society at large is much more corrupt than Rwanda, and the shenanigans in Bwindi is pretty typical of the whole range of Ugandan society from permits required to starting a business to parading in public.

The iron fist government in Rwanda, for which I have an equal tome of criticism of a different kind, is insurance that black marketeering of gorilla permits there won’t happen.

Nuff said? Almost, but there’s more. I can’t figure out if the Ugandan official response to the black marketeering was good or bad. That government response was to lower the official permit price to what the black market was commanding, $350.

(In my personal experience three years ago with eight other people, I discovered that the “guide” was given only $150 per person. We had of course paid $500 – the official rate at the time – so there was quite a profit in the capitalist chain that one morning.)

Lowering the price to the black market level is creative, but my assumption is that the black marketers will simply go lower still. Whatever the case, official Uganda is now considering raising the official price back to $500. This remains $250 below the Rwandan level.

What we have happening with mountain gorilla trekking in Uganda is a dangerously unregulated market, because official Ugandan control of Bwindi has been lost to racketeers and corrupt rangers. And I don’t think official fiddling with the price will stop it.

The free-for-all capitalism of Bwindi has led to all sorts of tourist attractions linked directly to less and less good science and wildlife management. Gorillas regularly wander into tourist lodge areas there, for example, something the Rwandans understand is neither good or safe.

Yet the fact is that the mountain gorilla population in Bwindi seems to be increasing faster than in the Virungas. Is ecology linked to an unfettered free market?

According to Uganda’s Minister of tourism, “’This result confirms beyond reasonable doubt that Uganda’s conservation efforts are paying off.”

Or something else.

Rwanda’s Choice: Gorillas or Guerillas

Rwanda’s Choice: Gorillas or Guerillas

Rwanda is beginning to boil. Genocide is not in cards, but tourism is definitely jeopardized.

Last month the UN issued a report clearly implicating Rwanda in the growing conflict in neighboring Congo. Western countries on the Security Council responded with reductions of aid and other sanctions, and the situation is growing tense.

The mountain gorillas live in an area that straddles the three countries of the Congo, Uganda and Rwanda. There is fighting in The Congo and it’s never achieved a level of safety capable of a stable tourism industry.

Uganda remains unstable for tourism, and the market has confirmed this. A mountain gorilla permit remains $750 in Rwanda and the 56 daily permits are often booked up a year in advance. In Uganda you can now obtain a permit for around $350 for the day before.

As the situation in the Congo escalates, the safety or more correctly, the well-being of tourists visiting Rwanda is jeopardized. I’m not warning tourists to avoid Rwanda, now, but it’s very important that those who now book gorilla ascents recognize that future events could impact the efficacy of their planned visit.

They should be prepared and willing to cancel at the last minute.

While violence is increasing in The Congo, there is no violence in either Uganda or Rwanda and nothing right now to suggest any. The point it that the same discomforts and apprehension tourists traveling to Uganda to see gorillas feel today might in the next year or so develop in Rwanda as well.

These discomforts and apprehensions are often minor. We as guides are effected by them much more than the tourist. They’re manifest mostly in a breakdown of park patrolling and authority, the increase in the necessity of bribes, and the breaking of conservation rules especially those applied particularly to tourists visiting the gorillas themselves.

Eventually tourists begin to feel these, though, and that’s the reason for Uganda’s huge market decline right now.

Rwandan Tutsi seem to be throwing down the mantel, and that’s not good for tourists. Popular local journalists are growing increasingly offensive to Americans, especially.

Sensitive American tourists are now reporting the unease themselves.

The complicated problem in the area is the same as it’s been for centuries: Hutus versus Tutsis. The violence has a colonial culpability to it, and the inability for any lessons to have been learned from the great genocide of 1994 is squarely the blame of western countries, particularly France and the U.S.

I find it singularly ironic that Bill Clinton, the principal reason the 1994 genocide was not curtailed (and he has admitted this as his greatest foreign policy failure) was in Kigali a few weeks ago acting totally oblivious to the storm clouds gathering.

The UN experts determined last month that Rwanda was directly funding and in other ways supporting the main Tutsi militia group that has successfully beaten the UN peace keeping forces in several battles in the last several weeks.

M23 has taken control of considerable territory in Kivu Province and is threatening the major town of Goma. Refugees are fleeing by the thousands. The UN is in an enormous dilemma as the current peace-keeping force will be unable to curtail further M23 advances.

Following the Rwandan genocide in 1994, perhaps a million Rwandan hutus fled into the less stable eastern Congo. At first they were treated as refugees and supported by the UN but over time they became a powerful militia known as the Interamwe.

Rwanda and to a lesser extent, Uganda, supported any armed group that could push back against the growing power of the Interamwe. As time passed allegiances grew complicated, as did the politics of the greater Congo nation. In an attempt to establish authority in the far eastern Kivu province, Kinshasa essentially provoked more war in Kivu, stirring up the pot further.

Out of this extraordinarily complicated mess emerged “M23,” a militia group decidedly Tutsi. One of its first commanders is currently on trial in The Hague for crimes against humanity, specifically the conscription of children as soldiers. But M23 continued and is today the single greatest threat for stability in Kivu.

And the UN with western nations’ affirmation has charged that Rwanda is illegally supporting M23.

This will not be solved soon. Rwanda is one of the most dictatorial countries on earth, but that alone shouldn’t stop aware tourists. Safety is the paramount issue. And “well-being” which includes being able to have fun, is intrinsic to any valuable travel experience.

Rwanda’s teetering on the fence. Stay tuned.

The End of the Gacaca Era

The End of the Gacaca Era

By Conor Godfrey
Earlier this month the last of the Rwandan Gacaca (‘Lawn’) courts closed down.

These communal tribunals, chaired by a council of elders in each community, have processed over 100,000 cases pertaining to the Rwandan genocide.

Since 2001, almost all of the civilian cases have been heard in Gacaca courts, while the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda has dealt with abuses committed by the military and other high-ranking officials.

The closure of this judicial chapter has prompted a number of retrospectives from supporters and detractors alike.

If you are unfamiliar with the Gacaca system, read the first two pages of this report for a very evocative depiction of a typical proceeding.

Imagine 9 village leaders elected for their ‘moral character’ arrayed in the village square.

A proposed genocidaire is then marched in front of the elders, with the entire community looking on.

The perpetrator confesses to one or several acts of violence, and then the elders query the crowd to see if anyone else has any other charges to bring against the accused.

After the community has weighed in, the elders determine the punishment and the matter is closed.

These courts were empowered to level sentences of up to life in prison.

My “made in America” mind immediately jumps to all the possible ways that this arrangement could go wrong, but the more I think about it, the less confident I feel condemning the Gacaca system.

Sure- the opportunities for local corruption are huge.

Witness intimidation and other forms of extra-judicial pressure, along with highly variable sentencing, probably led to many miscarriages of justice.

Read this Human Rights Watch report for a really negative view of the whole affair.

And yes, I think it is a rather horrid idea to deal with sexual violence in such a public manner.

However – how else could a country process hundreds of thousands of victims and hundreds of thousands of perpetrators?

Also, as flawed as this process might have been, the public airing of accusations seems to have had a cathartic effect on Rwandan society.

This largely laudatory article points specifically to the fact that many relatives were able to learn where their relatives were buried—a long festering obstacle to reconciliation.

When Americans use the word justice in an international context they really mean western justice.

Western countries also financially underwrite many of the international community’s judicial institutions, thus further entrenching one form of justice as the international norm.

However, that particular system’s focus on free will, individual responsibility and retribution jive poorly with communal conflicts and systemic abuse of any particular group. (Just think of how poorly the U.S. justice system has dealt with racial issues over the last century.)

The truth and reconciliation model allows more people to participate, lends itself to resolving communal conflicts as opposed to punishing aberrant individuals, and, on a more mundane level, is financially and logistically feasible in a country with hundreds of thousands of cases and very limited legal resources

Gacaca courts were far from perfect, but I am glad that 130,000 ex-combatants are no longer rotting in jail waiting for a trial, and hundreds of thousands of victims have been able to yell their accusations out in public.

Guided by a Child’s Remembrance

Guided by a Child’s Remembrance

Clemantine Wamariya, a 23-year old Yale student and Tutsi who lived through the Rwandan genocide when she was 6 years old, has been appointed by President Obama to the board of the Holocaust Museum. Is this wise?

Ms. Wamariya’s life is a fairy tale story, and I mean her no ill will. In time she may mature into this role thrust upon her and become one of the most vital advocates of justice in the world. But that’s going to be a singular challenge likely greater than her escape from being hacked to death in Rwanda in 1994.

Ms. Wamariya appears a gifted person, so there’s hope. But I am concerned that her unusual prominence displaces the masses to such a degree that she will fall prey to conceptualizing the disaster and ultimately rationalizing it … the American way, so to speak.

Because preserving facts that cannot be altered with time is the first important step to understanding genocide. Look at what a mess we have right now between Turkey and Armenia, between teams of scholars arguing what actually happened.

Even the mass slaughter of Jews in World War II comes under constant challenge.

So fixing reality in time is fundamental to any attempt to analyze and ultimately reverse the evil. Ms. Wamariya cannot do that. She was too little.

Ms. Wamariya was only 6 years old when she escaped the Rwandan genocide. No six-year old anywhere on earth has enough continuous memory of the time to be a true witness. I think it much more likely that she honestly and hopefully rigorously has worked to confirm that what she would have been told by others older than her with her at the time, was true.

Step two is to assess blame. In such massive exterminations as took place in Armenia, Germany, Russia and Rwanda, there is blame enough for virtually everyone who was living at the time. Ms. Wamariya’s capacity for functional analysis might be stellar. It’s hard to know that of a 23-year old.

Step three: prevent its recurrence.

Ms. Wamariya may be the smartest person on earth. She may have an intellect uniquely capable of piloting us away from self-destruction. Her infancy in Rwanda may provide some subconscious authenticity to her reasoning, and that would be invaluable.

But she is not a witness. And she is not yet capable of rigorous analysis. She is a product of Oprah Winfrey. And I for one could nominate many others who I know personally, also nationalized American Watutsis, who would be better for the board. Much older at the time, their memory was mature and remains in tact. Reality is preserved with them. It simply cannot be with Ms. Wamariya.

Her subsequent years in refugee camps before being rescued is that part of her story I’ve been unable to establish completely. All that’s in the record is that she was granted asylum in 2000 and came to Chicago and entered a Christian grade school.

Who brought her? Who picked her out of hundreds of thousands?

That’s the red herring, folks. And this has nothing to do with Ms. Wamariya, nor is it a commentary alone on Ms. Wamariya’s performance since or potential from this point on. But as I’ve often written of the many plagues on Africa, perhaps the greatest was the proselytizing by Christianity.

Livingstone’s famous “3 C’s” – Christianity, Commerce and Civilization – says it all. The old explorer was one of the first to know you needed buzz words to raise money, and those three ideas were interchangeable in the European mind at the time. They remain so, today, particularly among the Christian community.

Christianity as redefined by the world’s superpower elite was an untouchable first principal of how to live life. Commerce is capitalism is the paradigm by which Christians condone greed. Civilization is a presumptive elevation of self-esteem, the notion that I know what is right for you.

This soup of ideas is the perfect formula for genocide.

Christianity as carried into Africa was bad for Africa. It’s one of the most important causes of Africa’s floundering in contrast to Asia’s blooming. But Christianity seems to be an important reason Ms. Wamariya bloomed in America.

From then all it took was an Oprah to find her, nurture her and escort her into prominence.

Today’s Morning Edition on NPR featured the touching story. And it did so with all the American proclivity to redefine the past in a better light. I was annoyed, for example, that Renee Montagne claimed the genocide in Rwanda happened during its “spring.” There is no spring on the equator. There is no universal rebirth as in New York city in April. The contrast is meaningless, but was not intended to be.

Americans are wont to deny that anything is wrong. On the one hand that’s probably a positive component of optimism. But when things do go wrong, Americans more than others retreat into the fantasy that “everything will be ok.”

In my early grade school days, there was a lesson as a common denominator that was carried from grade to grade and after school from aunt to aunt. “Don’t complain, child!” (I guess I did.) And that polemic has its own good and bad inferences, but as I lived in different parts of the world I came to see America more and more as a place where if it weren’t true that things were the best in the world, we had to believe so, anyway.

The appointment of a yet to fully develop Mozart as a custodian of one of the most horrendous moments of mankind’s past may make us feel warm and fuzzy. But it misses the mark by a good decade or more.

Another Safari Ends

Another Safari Ends

Sabyino volcano behind Sabyinyo Silverback Lodge.
After a gala farewell dinner preceded by raucous limericks about the trip, the group began the journey home.

Sarah Taylor summarized the trip during dinner, and I was impressed! From the surprise backstage visit to the Entebbe Zoo, through chimps and lions and gorillas, we covered much of Uganda and a bit of Rwanda.

Of our 13 travelers, only one had not been to Africa before. This is not usually a first-timer’s trip, unless the first-timer is specifically interested in primates or birds. The big game normally associated with an African safari is actually quite limited.

And the primates did not disappoint. Everyone enjoyed two treks for chimps and two treks for mountain gorillas. And the list continued. We saw two species of black-and-white colobus, a subspecies of sykes, red-tailed, grey-cheeked mangabey, red colobus and of course, vervet and baboon.

The exotic bird list is too large to enumerate, but I’ll summarize it this way: the Great Blue Turaco is one of the most sought-after sightings by birders worldwide. It’s as large as a wild turkey, as funky as Groucho Marx, and looks like it just dipped itself in neon-colored paint.

We saw them in several places, but my great joy was when I stepped out of my tent in Ishasha to open the backside flaps and flushed five of them from the tree above me.

We had the chance to compare – as so many potential travelers wish they could – the differences between mountain gorilla trekking in Rwanda and Uganda. I’ll be blogging more about this in the future, but suffice it to say, now, that I think most on this safari would choose Rwanda over Uganda, if both countries in a single trip as we did were not practical.

And everywhere we were impressed with the local guides: from the enthusiasts at Semliki to the guide on the boat on the Kazinga Channel, to the chimp and mountain gorilla guides. Striking a bond with foreigners on short trips is very difficult, but when a deep interest – like conservation – is so dearly shared, the bond forms quickly.

Although we did start with a charter flight, flying from place to place in Uganda and Rwanda is quite difficult and usually impractical. So we drove. And we drove. And we drove. There are certainly rewards to overland travel: you see things locally that fliers miss completely.

But for the most part these roads are pretty bad compared to what today is available in Kenya and Tanzania. So everyone earned boot camp stripes they had never intended to get!

We left outstanding Sabyinyo Silverback Lodge just after 8 a.m. on Saturday morning. By Saturday night everyone was on their way home: to Cleveland, to New York, to Chicago and to Philadelphia.

Farewell Africa; I’ll be back, soon!

So Who’s Smarter?

So Who’s Smarter?

Doreen Yashen photographing Baldy in Parcs de volcans.
Sixty-four people with broken legs and open wounds gather at Kinigi headquarters everyday to see 8 mountain gorilla families. We were no different.

I love Parcs de volcans. I love the guides, the organization, the scenery, and most of all I love the artifice we guides bring to the daily planning session with the chief guide to decide which clients will visit which families.

Some families are almost always hard, like Sousa. Some families are almost always easy, like Hilwa.

“Hard” means a trek of an hour or more, and more than once my treks have exceeded four hours. It’s not uncommon to return at dark from a day that begins just after 8:30a.

“Easy” means you’re back at your lodge before lunch.


Left to right: Bill, Doreen, Alex, Sarah & Stephen

So today I – like every other guide – pleaded in guide pow-wow that I had five people with broken limbs and failing organs. Other guides had brought one-eyed clients, the deaf, and the recently released insane. One guide even claimed his client was 90 years old but knew how to wear cosmetics well.

That over, the implacable chief guide politely began to filter the pool.

Stage one: all those who had trekked yesterday over to the side. These included two women who had been vomiting most of their lives and an old man who couldn’t remember his name.

Stage two was a general separation by age. The 90-year old was excised and presumed 60, and the under fifties with insured ailments were lumped together.

In beautiful African undertones, artifice gave way to smiles and streaks of honesty. My five were assigned to one of the easiest groups, Hilwa, in return for taking moderately hard group, Sabyinyo, for the rest of us eight.

And off we went.

We eight to Sabyinyo saw the largest silverback, Gahonda, and a week-old baby, along with what seemed to be a drunken 5-year old and others in the family of 11. The day was spectacular, the experience as always thrilling, the trek took about 16 minutes, and we were back at the lodge at 11:30a.

The five to Hilwa saw one of the most impressive silverbacks, a year-old kid, and were not the requisite 7 meters from several family members, but more like 7 millimeters. The day was spectacular, their experience particularly thrilling as they scaled 80% inclines, hung from rocks by their fingernails, and tiptoed across a 1″ ledge of the Great Rift Valley.

And the five assigned to the easy group got home at 4 p.m. Haggard is not sufficient to explain their condition. Daniel Pomerantz, a refugee into the group of five from the youth corps, arrived with most of the left leg of his pants trailing his feet.

The low road was the high road and the antics in trying to predetermine which would be which now seemed patently absurd. Cathy Colt and Hope Koncal were turned into champions, their positive and unrelenting attitudes taking them to heights they could never imagine scaling.

It’s really amazing as you sit for that short hour among these monoliths of pre-humanity. You know that they know a lot more than you think. Are they entertaining us? Are they earning their security this way, cognitively? Or, are they just having fun brushing by us and rolling out of trees?

Seeing distant reflections of our humanness in these gentle creatures makes war and aggressive capitalism and obsessions with success seem utterly trivial. They are so simple, so supremely self-confident and so survival savvy that they’ve manipulated us to preserve them.

So all the questions about what they’re doing out there turn back around onto us. It isn’t why are they so fascinating, but why have we dedicated so much of our resources to preserve them?

Is it, maybe, that we want to find the justification for preserving ourselves?

Existentialism aside, you big brutes bested us, today! And I suspect you always will.

Left to right:
Silverback Gahonda, ZooDirector Steve