Saturday, June 7, 2008

On This Day Last Year...

Before leaving Rwanda I put down my $375 to trek into the mountains of Parc National es Volcans to see the mountain gorillas made famous by Dian Fossey. I was able to see the group of gorillas that she had studied, the Susa group.

When I arrived in Rwanda I was excited to see the gorillas but as I read more about Rwanda's tourist structure and Fossey's death, I became reluctant.

She was brutally murdered in 1985, her head cracked open with a machete, and the blame first placed on her crew, then on "poachers". Many suspect that her death was at the hand of the Rwandan government. Fossey was a vocal opponent of the government's lucrative tourism plans for the gorillas and feared that their habitat would become a "zoo". Before her murder, she had just returned to the mountains after a brief time away and nearly did not make it back into the country because the government refused her visa request. It is a particularly sad and brutal story of the management of tourism in Africa.

Seeing the gorillas was thrilling: coming within five feet of wild animals in their natural habitat, large wild animals whose physical characteristics and mannerisms are so similar to our own, is thrilling and disturbing. My impression was that the animals were irritated by our presence. The silverback, the large male of the group, charged and scared the hell out of us and our trackers. The trackers ran and yelled and waved their machetes.

I was disheartened to think that this was exactly what Fossey did not want and that sadly, the organizations that so criticized her efforts to preserve the gorillas now use her name to promote their tourism. Most justify this tourism as the only way to preserve the mountain gorilla population. Yet, disease from visiting tourists continues to kill them. Less than a week after my visit the fee was raised to $500.

I took a bus from Kigali, Rwanda to Tanzania and walked across the border, over the cascading brown river that one local described to me as "a river of bodies during the genocide", and caught a little taxi (with only one door) to the next town in Tanzania. The following day, a ratty bus carried me through the refugee camps that spread across the northwestern part of the country, full of Congolese and Burundians.

Animosity is high in the region and all passenger buses must carry armed guards against rebel and bandit attacks. Local Tanzanians are angry that refugees receive land and resources (aid in the form of food and water and shelter) from international organizations while their own situations are often so deserpate. The refugees have suffered some of the worst horrors on the continent; they have no personal items, nothing to do but survive, and no futures.

I arrived back in Kigoma along Lake Tanganyika late in the evening and caught the next available boat, the 90 year old German-built steamer, Liemba, south on the lake. The Liemba was made famous in the 1951 Katharine Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart movie by John Huston, The African Queen, but it is well past its prime now. At all hours of the night and day, little wooden boats pull up alongside the pausing, puffing steamer to load and unload pineapples, grain and women with babies tied on their backs.

Next stop Malawi.

Photos: Our trackers pose for a photo with me; the mountain gorillas of the Susa group; the tukuls (homes) and terraced hills of Rwanda (land of a thousand hills); the pink bus I rode through northwestern Tanzania with an armed guard; aboard the Liemba on Lake Tanganyika; passengers leaving the Liemba; a boat with a sail made of flour sacks on Lake Tanganyika.