The Two Faces of Rwanda

There is continued concern over political stability in Rwanda. The contrast of peaceful mountain gorillas and horrors of a genocide were imprinted on my mind during a 2009 visit.


Rwanda, a central African republic no bigger than Belgium, piques the interest of avid travelers for many reasons. Perhaps they are interested in the lakes surrounded by mostly tilled hills ranging from 2,952 feet to more than 13,000 feet above sea level. Others may come with binoculars and tripod cameras in hand to view the diverse flora and fauna, paying special attention to the gorillas in the northern part of Rwanda. Some people may think that they know this country based on news of the genocide or after having viewed the movie, Hotel Rwanda. The movie showed how Paul Rusesabagina, played by Don Cheadle, saved more than a thousand people during the genocide by sheltering them in a hotel in the capital, Kigali.

For this traveler, the mountain gorillas native to the  National Volcano Park provided one impetus for a visit. A combination of studying the American naturalist, Dian Fossey’s work as described in the movie,Gorillas in the Mist, and reading about successful efforts to teach gorillas sign language fueled my fascination with these primates.

The chain of extinct volcanoes known as Birunga–or Virunga as it is referred to in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC)–forms a natural barrier between Rwanda, Uganda and the DRC. It also serves as one of the few remaining habitats for mountain gorillas. Here, on the slopes of  Mounts Gahinga (11,397 feet), Sabyinyo (11,922 feet), Bushokoro/Bisoke (12,175 feet) and Mount Karisimbe (14,786 feet), gorillas can live freely thanks to conservation programs. Rwandan authorities, international aid, and involvement of the locals have buffered the negative effects of poachers.  

Gorillas live in groups led by a dominant male, which is a silverback with signature gray hair, and the remaining gorillas are typically blackbacks (younger males), females, and newborns The 400 plus-pound silverback leader of the Sabyinyo group provided me with the thrill of a lifetime upon first sighting. Our guides had prepared us on gorilla etiquette and with stories about this group that had been habituated to humans; however, nothing could quite prepare us for the thrill of seeing these gentle creatures supplementing their largely vegetarian diet with insects and going about their daily business. Crouched just beyond the twenty-two feet gorilla "personal boundary" line, we watched in awe and amusement as the  silverback "womanizer" interacted with his seven wives. His offspring, playing with raucous abandon near their mothers, had our cameras working overtime.

I learned first hand the value of interspecies communication, when grunts exchanged between the guides and the silverback kept him at bay. The human group agreed that seeing their non-human brethren made the arduous trek up the rain-drenched mountain slopes worthwhile. Subsequent fireside chats included tales of one human group being charged by a blackback, while another person related a more positive form of communication in the form of a gorilla tapping him on the shoulder. Viewing golden monkeys, other wildlife, and raptors such as ogre buzzards performing an aerial mating ritual provided an added bonus.


When one winds one's way back down roads and is occasionally mobbed by smiling children shouting "muzungu" (white/light-skinned person), one might imagine having stumbled upon a hidden paradise. However, the grinding poverty, lack of potable water and sanitation, sacks of USAID food donations being sold at markets, and Kanyarwandan (national language) signs describing the genocide point to the harsher realities of living in Rwanda.

The Kigali Genocide Memorial Center, built on a site where more than 250,000 people are buried and guarded by armed soldiers, drove home the impact of this recent tragedy. Manicured gardens encircled these mass graves and exhibits outlined the genocide story.  Briefly, physical features/changing personal circumstances among the Hutu, Tutsi, and Twa peoples of Rwanda were legally codified by colonial powers in the form of identity documents (reminiscent of apartheid) in 1932. The Tutsi-Hutu distinction differed from the prior system where differences among them were viewed as more akin to livestock versus agricultural farmers. The positive development and practical benefits of European occupation were therefore counterbalanced by the negative influence of socially enforcing a distinction between the Tutsi and Hutu peoples. Simmering tensions finally boiled over on April 6, 1994, when the jet carrying Presidents Habyarimana (Rwanda) and Ntaryamira (Burundi) was shot down over Kigali by unknown assailants.

Today, ten million Rwandans struggle to cope with the knowledge of almost a million deaths, displacement of two million people and the consequences of tending to rape victims and countless orphans. Stories about thousands of bodies washing down from the Kagera River into Lake Victoria in Uganda highlighted the horrors of the genocide to this traveler. A growing body of literature, art, medicine and the involvement of the justice system on local and international fronts have begun to address the genocide. Recently, the Canadian Supreme Curt sentenced a genocide fugitive, Desire Munyaneza, under its “Crimes against Humanity and War Crimes Act.”

Although political leadership, international aid, and economic growth have revitalized post-genocide Rwanda, much remains to be done. Destabilizing influences in neighboring countries are warning signals that the current peace should not be taken for granted.

As we departed, I was left with the scent of eucalyptus trees and the juxtaposition of magnificent natural beauty against a backdrop of sadness still etched in my memory.


1. Dian Fossey Foundation: http://www.gorillafund.org/

2. The Gorilla Foundation: http://www.koko.org/index.php

3. Lorch D.: Thousands of Rwanda Dead Wash Down to Lake Victoria


4. Kigali Memorial Centre: http://www.kigalimemorialcentre.org/old/index.html

5. Desire Munyaneza:


6. J.C., Klotchkoff. and F., Letourneaux.: Rwanda Today, Jaguar, June 30,


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