Archive for the ‘Rwanda’ Category

The Fulcrum

February 28, 2010

Ngara is a small, pretty hilltop town in northwest Tanzania, a region isolated from the rest of the country by the immensity of Lake Victoria and the bordering countries Burundi and Rwanda. The town sits in a shallow bowl on top of a long, wide ridge, high above the swampy border region. To the west, the view stretches across the last few kilometers of Tanzania and into Burundi, to the south, and Rwanda, to the north.

I was jogging along the western flank of the ridge one afternoon, relaxed and distracted by the watercolor sunset below me, when I passed a small field of piled stones a few miles north of town. They looked like old and untended cairns, some large and some small, all overgrown with grasses and weeds. It was a quiet, lonely scene suggesting an abandoned cemetery.

A few minutes later I passed a farmer walking home from his fields. At the time I was a recent arrival to East Africa, and I was studying Swahili with uncharacteristic earnestness and discipline. I was at what would prove to be the peak of my powers, and so I felt confident trying to communicate with the passing farmer. After a short series of banal niceties, I waved my hand towards the ridge and asked the farmer if there were any dead people that way. Interpreting my gesture to cover much more distance than I had intended, his eyes widened and he replied, “Ehh, Rwanda.” My language skills were not capable of any greater precision, so I had to use gestures to try to refine the meaning of my question. I made a motion that I hoped would signify a much nearer place, and I asked again if there were any dead people. Again his eyes sparked as he thought he understood my question, and this time he said, “Ehh, Burundi.”

Rwanda and Burundi, tiny though they are compared to some of their more conspicuous neighbors, are the fulcrum upon which a big, bulky mass of Africa pivots. Tucked together between giants in the middle of the continent like sickly twins in a bed too small to allow one to toss and turn without disturbing the other, one country sneezes, the other catches cold, and soon the whole region is sick with war.

Ethnically, the two countries are exactly alike; about 85% of the region is Hutu and about 15% is Tutsi. For the first several decades after independence, a Hutu government controlled Rwanda while a Tutsi military dominated Burundi. When either ruling party cracked down on its ethnic opposition, the other swiftly did the same. Rwandese Tutsi and Burundian Hutu refugees intermittently boiled over international borders.

Eric explains that it would be wrong to use the term war to describe what happened in Burundi in 1972. It was more like extermination, as the reactionary military systematically eliminated all potential opposition, generally taken to mean all educated Hutu. The Tutsi soldiers “killed the Hutu political leaders, and then they started to kill the Hutu civilians.” They did not concern themselves with ethnic nuance, “they just looked at your face to decide if you are Hutu or Tutsi.” Though Eric is Hutu, his wife is an ethnic Tutsi. Her father, also a Tutsi, was killed accidentally by the soldiers when they “shot everyone who was in front of their guns. The bullets do not know who is a Hutu and who is a Tutsi.”

Lili recalls that in 1972 the Tutsi soldiers “went into the villages and the streets and the schools and even the churches. They took people away who never came back. They were selecting Hutu citizens who were strong and beautiful and educated. They did not want Hutu to be successful.” Then, “after they killed the educated Hutu, they started taking the lower class Hutu to kill them also.”

Josephine, born in 1933, remembers that the ethnic killings began long before 1972. “There was a system. The leaders wrote the names of people who were required to report to the commune office. I never saw any Tutsi names to be killed, but I saw many Hutu names. This started in 1960.” By 1972, the killings were so frequent that the soldiers had to dig mass graves for their victims. “They dug big holes where they killed the people.”

Eric, Lili, and Josephine all fled from Burundi in 1972. Eric “crossed Lake Tangyanika in a canoe. I paid the Congolese who were carrying people from one side to the other. They were fishermen and they told me to act like a fisherman as well. We were about ten people in the small canoe, and the crossing took more than ten hours.” Because there was fighting in Congo as well, he continued to Rwanda. Lili fled with her father. They “passed through forests” to Tanzania, and from there they “crossed the river to Rwanda.” After seeing her husband killed, Josephine grabbed her children and ran with them “to the bush.” After three days of walking, they crossed the border to Rwanda.

By the end of 1972, all three found themselves among tens of thousands of refugees from Burundi living in Byumba province in northern Rwanda, not far from the border with Uganda. As Hutu, the Burundians were welcomed in Rwanda. They were given land to farm, and they were able to live safely and peacefully for nearly two decades.

In 1990, Rwanda’s own refugees returned to haunt it. Just before independence, in 1959, fighting in Rwanda forced many Tutsi to flee the country. The majority settled in southwestern Uganda among closely related local tribes who welcomed the refugees as something like distant cousins. Though they never naturalized, the refugees from Rwanda attained a degree of local integration in Uganda not far from citizenship. Many fought alongside the current government when it was a rebel movement trying to overthrow the previous tyrant. A number of the Rwandese eventually rose to high ranking positions within the Ugandan military.

Inevitably, there was a backlash. Many Ugandans resented the success of the refugees, who suffered a growing xenophobia and who started to yearn for a safer, more certain home. Though the world tends to remember only the genocide of 1994, the war in Rwanda started precisely on October 1, 1990, when nearly all of the thousands of Rwandese in the Ugandan military simultaneously defected with their weapons and amassed along the border. The next day they had their homecoming. For many, it was the first time they had returned to Rwanda since fleeing in 1959. Others, born in exile, had never been to Rwanda.

Living in Byumba, in the north near the border with Uganda, the Hutu refugees from Burundi were among the first to know of the surprise attack and the developing war. As Jean remembers it, “the war in Rwanda started in October of 1990. There were some refugees from Rwanda who fled a long time ago to Congo and Tanzania and mainly to Uganda. They wanted to come back at that time but the government refused to receive them. The government was for the Hutu and those people who wanted to come back were Tutsi.” Christophe has a similar memory of the war. “The fighting was between the inkontanyi and the government with the interahamwe. The inkontanyi were the rebels, the Tutsi who fled from Rwanda a long time ago. They were under Kagame. The government and the interahamwe were Hutu, under the president Habyarimanana.”

Most of the refugees from Burundi describe the first four years of the war, from 1990 to 1994, in similar terms. “We would escape from one place when the soldiers would come then we would go to a new place for a few days and then we would escape again.” As Hutu who had been welcomed in Rwanda, their allegiance was to the government and they had a natural fear of the invading Tutsi army. It is not the famed genocide of the Tutsi that they remember, but the many Hutu who were killed. “Many of the refugees from Burundi were killed in that war.”

In April of 1994, the war rapidly accelerated to its murderous climax. First a plane carrying both the presidents of Rwanda and Burundi was shot from the sky by unknown men, and then immediately afterwards Rwanda’s Hutu started slaughtering its Tutsi. The genocide lasted for three months before the invading Tutsi army, the Rwandese Patriotic Front, won a military victory.

Jean recounts, “In July, the inkontankyi found me in my house. They were standing on the road when they started shooting at the house while we were sleeping. They shot me and they shot my wife and they killed my son.” After the soldiers left, he and his wife were taken to a hospital, and they each had their right legs amputated. Christophe and his family were also caught by the advancing Tutsi. “My wife was killed by the inkontanyi in that war. They came with bush knives and they cut her in her neck. They did not care who they were killing. They killed the women and they killed the children.”

Josephine was more fortunate. “We were hiding in the bush for two months when the inkontanyi found us. They told us they were not concerned with the refugees from Burundi, but they told us we had to leave Rwanda.”

Like most of the Hutu in Rwanda, the refugees from Burundi fled in advance of the approaching Tutsi army. “We found roadblocks along the way where the interahamwe were asking for our identification cards. We had refugee cards so we gave them our cards. The others without cards, we left behind.” They traveled south, but not back to Burundi where the Tutsi still dominated the army. Instead, and along with hundreds of thousands of Rwandese Hutu, most of the Burundian refugees walked across the Kagera River to Tanzania. They were a part of one long, continuous river of survivors flowing over the bridge, and below them a stream of corpses poured over the Chutes de Rusumo.

Not all the refugees from Burundi were able to aim for the safety of Tanzania. Some, in a dash for then nearest border, had no choice but to return to Burundi. The border there is also marked by a river crossing, but there is no bridge. Eric’s younger brother “drowned in the water at the border because he did not know how to swim – we were being shot by the guns so he thought we were wasting time to wait for the boats.” Lili managed to hire a boat to cross the river, but “there I saw the soldiers were killing all the refugees coming from Rwanda. They were killing all the Hutu. I escaped from them by hiding myself in the shadows of the river. I was not in Burundi for even a single day because I knew I could be killed there.”

Shoulder to shoulder with hundreds of thousands of Rwandese Hutu, Eric, Lili, Josephine, Jean, and Christophe straggled into the bulging refugee camps in western Tanzania, where they lived for more than a decade. Rwandans and Congolese came and went, but the Burundians remained. Many of them had not set foot in Burundi since fleeing in 1972; so much time has past that two generations have been born in exile. In 2006, international attention focused on finding durable solutions for the tens of thousands of Burundians in Tanzania; while some were being interviewed for resettlement to the United States, others were boarding buses bound for home.

Rwanda sneezed in 1959, and Uganda caught a cold. From Uganda, the Central African strain of the war bug merged with the strain from the Horn of Africa. The disease bleeds across borders, carried by infected rebels who roam the unpoliced badlands of remote frontier regions, sometimes in hiding but sometimes at the invitation of the neighboring governments. The virus has gone on to affect and infect conflicts in northern Congo, southern Sudan, Central African Republic, Ethiopia, Somalia, Darfur, and Chad. All the while, the bug has incubated in its homeland. Burundi sneezed in 1972 and in 1993. Rwanda sneezed again in 1994 and Burundi again in 1996. The Great Lakes region of Africa has remained chronically ill.

The Hutu refugees, many of them guilty of genocide, overwhelmed their host countries and the humanitarian agencies tasked with helping them. They formed a ring of hostile camps around the new Tutsi government in Rwanda, like an enemy army besieging a small city state. Confident in the strength of its experienced and tested military, Rwanda invaded its goliath neighbor, the Congo, where most of the Hutu were camped. Remarkably, for Rwanda is but a pimple on the eastern face of the Congo, the invaders, together with their Congolese allies and puppets, succeeded in toppling the ancient tyrant Mobutu Sese Seke, and in the process managed to route or kill many of the Hutu refugees in eastern Congo.

The invasion did not quash the war virus but instead spread it further. The war in the Congo became known as Africa’s World War, and Uganda, Angola, Zimbabwe, Zambia, and Chad were all exposed and contaminated. Even today, after the foreign governments have renounced the war, there is a vacuum of power, a culture of plunder, and a lot of weaponry in the Congo. The country has no immune system to defend it the next time Rwanda and Burundi fall ill.

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Taking Mom to the Mountain Gorillas

February 17, 2010

“She taught me how to ride a horse,” that’s how my mom likes to summarize her relationship with Dian Fossey.

We were talking to other guests at the Kinigi Guesthouse, just outside Ruhengeri, Rwanda on the slopes of the Virungas, a compact chain of eight forested volcanoes. The summit of Sabinyo defines the point where Congo, Uganda, and Rwanda converge. Following the chain to the east, Mgahinga and Muhavira mark the border between Uganda and Rwanda; to the west, Muside, Visoke, and Karisimbi divide Congo and Rwanda. The only two active volcanoes in the chain, Mikeno and Nyiragongo, are entirely within Congo. The Virunga chain is protected on all sides of the borders, by Parc National des Virungas in Congo, Mgahinga National Park in Uganda, and Parc National des Volcans in Rwanda. Population pressure, especially in Rwanda, has pushed the parks’ boundaries higher and higher up the slopes. The forest has receded from the bottom up like the forehead of an aging man. From a distance the volcanoes look comical, like eight balding, old men all wearing small, pointy, thick, green yarmulkes.

Sabinyo rose above us, its lower slopes covered in a hazy purple jungle, its summit a perfectly angular ramp to the jagged teeth of its ancient crater. Even at the hotel we were high on the mountain, and in the late afternoon it was cold and wet. In the morning we would be hiking higher into the mountain and deeper into the jungle, and it would be much colder and wetter. Our goal and our prize would be the ultimate marvel of the African safari, an hour with a family of Dian Fossey’s mountain gorillas.

Ms Fossey, originally from California, lived in Louisville, Kentucky for several years, working as an occupational therapist at the local Kosair Children’s Hospital. Always a solitary and unsociable woman, she befriended exactly one person in Louisville, my mother’s aunt, Mary Henry. Through Mary, she became close to the entire Henry family. Indeed, the first acknowledgment in her book, Gorillas in the Mist, is to “the Henry family of Louisville, Kentucky, who loaned me the collateral for my first safari to Africa in 1963.”

My mom was still a young girl when Ms Fossey began her work in Africa. They did not know each other well or see each other often after that time, but it is clear that in her absence Ms Fossey became a towering figure in my mother’s family. She was “larger than life,” my mom says, “exotic.” My mom remembers Ms Fossey, during one visit to Louisville, “doing her entire repertoire” of gorilla noises. It is easy to imagine all the children in the family giggling at the feet of this strange and awesome woman who lived alone in a jungle on the side of a volcano in Africa. Though my mother never received any letters from Ms Fossey, two of her siblings did. My mom does not know what my uncle has done with his, but my aunt has given all of hers to the Louisville Zoo.

Given Ms Fossey’s stature in my family’s history, it is remarkable to me that no one in the family had traveled to Rwanda to visit her grave and her beloved mountain gorillas. My mom was about to be the first.

As required, we met at the park headquarters at seven in the morning: me, my mom, my sister Katie, and my girlfriend Natalie. We had made our reservations two months in advance, paying the required $500 per ticket by bank transfer from the United States to Rwanda, a process which had felt a little shady, like we were laundering drug money or hiding our wealth in an unregulated offshore account. Gorilla trekking is cheaper in Congo, where it is still possible to buy your tickets on the day of your trek, but it is also unsafe. Uganda, the other option, is disorganized, making you wonder if part of your ticket price is going directly into the pockets of the tourism minister. Rwanda is the responsible place to visit the mountain gorillas, and the only place where you can visit the same gorilla families that Dian Fossey knew.

It was July, peak tourist season, and we were among a soldout group of exactly 56 trekkers all giddily enthusiastic from a mix of adrenaline, cold showers, and early morning coffee. Mountain gorilla families have to be habituated to humans before they will accept daily visits from clumsy, gawking, whispering paparazzi tourists. There are currently seven habituated families in Parc National des Volcans, and each day a maximum of eight tourists are allowed to visit each family. Visits last exactly one hour, not a minute more. Children are not allowed.

It was an invigorating morning, sunny and crisp. Amid the cocktail party chatter of all the other visitors, we studied the few displays on the lawn outside the park headquarters –especially the eight meter measuring stick meant to indicate the minimum distance we were to keep at all time between ourselves and the gorillas – oblivious to the meaning of the jostling that seemed to be going on between the drivers. When their huddle broke, our driver, a man named Amos we had hired in Kampala, Uganda sauntered to us and said, “I think I have done good.”

Along with two American women, an Austrian man, and a German man, we had been assigned to trek the Susua family of gorillas. With three silverbacks and over thirty total members, it is the biggest of the habituated groups in the park. It is also the farthest and highest group, typically requiring as many as three hours of hiking through wet, steep, slippery jungle to reach. Having read about the different habituated families, I had secretly hoped that we would be assigned to the Susua group. At the same time I was nervous about how my mom would handle the hiking. She walks marathons at a brisk pace, but on the paved streets of San Francisco or the maintained trails of Anchorage. Bushwhacking in Africa at over 10,000 feet of elevation would be a very different challenge.

Gorilla families have large home ranges which may slightly overlap but which are mostly distinct territories. The Susua group lives on the eastern slope of the Karisimbi volcano, about a thirty minute drive from the park headquarters on Sabinyo. Despite the high price of a permit, there is no guarantee you will actually see the family you have been assigned to trek. Advance scouts leave early in the morning to locate the group, starting where they were known to nest the night before and tracking them to wherever they have roamed during their morning foraging. If something happened during the night to force the gorillas to break camp and move, it is possible that they might not be found until it is too late for you to reach them. Many visitors think of their permit as a ticket to see the mountain gorillas, which it is not. Your permit buys you only the right to hope and to try.

Refunds are only given to visitors who admit they are sick, a way to encourage contagious tourists to come back another day when they are healthier. Gorillas are so closely related to humans that they are susceptible to many of the same diseases. With so few gorillas left in the world, it is feared that one outbreak might terminally cripple the entire remaining population. The unfortunate financial reality, however, is that the trekking permit is but one part of the cost of visiting the mountain gorillas. After paying for a once-in-a-lifetime vacation from Europe, North America, or Australia, few tourists are wealthy or flexible enough to come back a second time. No one voluntarily cancels.

Our party was led by a soft-spoken but confident and commanding young Rwandese man named Oliver and his apprentice Stephen. We were accompanied by a team of porters in matching blue coveralls and black rubber boots. One soldier walked at the front of our line and one walked at the rear, both wearing camouflage and armed with an automatic rifle. We were each given a walking stick with the face of a gorilla carved into the handle.

We ascended in single file through the cultivated terraces at the base of the volcano, the tree line above us marking the official entrance to the park more clearly than any gate, fence, or sign possibly could. The air was thin and anaerobic, and breathing was hard. Our lungs burned and the sharp, warm weight of lactic acid flooded our legs. My mom had to stop every few minutes to catch her breath and to let the fire in her legs subside. My excitement about trekking to the Susua group quickly turned into guilt as I worried that my mom might not get to see the gorillas after traveling so far and spending so much money. I wanted to be able to blame Amos, since he had negotiated our assignment to the most difficult group of gorillas without asking which family we wanted, but I had to admit to myself that I would have bargained for the same assignment. It is a mistake I always make when playing tour guide to my mom, making the trip more adventure than vacation.

Oliver, observing that my mom was struggling, placed her in the front of the line so that she could set the pace without worrying about how quickly the others were able to go. I could tell she wanted to object, not wanting to be a leading anchor or the center of everyone’s upward attention. It is not always easy to do what your guide is instructing, especially when you are tired and irritable and you feel like your know your body best. I had a heated argument with my guide on Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania when he suggested I put on an extra layer of clothes because we were approaching a cold bend in the mountain. I embarrassed myself by bickering, but in the same situation my mom was able to be more gracious. Quickly she understood Oliver’s strategy, as she admitted she did not care at all if the line behind her wanted to move faster. She set a pace which was comfortable for her, and she stopped to rest whenever she needed to. If the rest of us were honest, we would have admitted that the slow pace and the regular pauses were welcome. In this way, our small parade climbed the mountainside like an inchworm up an anthill.

We stopped for a longer snack break when we reached the tree line. We were already over 10,000 feet in elevation, and we had not yet entered the park. By this time my mom was drinking so much water that I feared we would run out. I had stopped drinking entirely, and I had to ask Katie and Natalie to cut back too. We ate nuts, fruits, and chocolate.

Inside the forest, the trail rapidly tapered to a narrow, muddy footpath lined on both sides by stinging nettles. Vines seemingly reached out to grab our ankles as we passed. Unseen birds chortled at our every misstep. The ants were marching at a faster pace than we were.

After three hours of strenuous hiking, we were at nearly 11,000 feet when Oliver halted our march for a final debriefing. He had been in radio contact throughout the morning with the advance scouts who had gone earlier to find and track the gorilla group. Their latest communication informed us that the gorillas had descended to just below our current location. Oliver instructed us to swallow one last snack and swig of water and to grab our cameras. Everything else we were to leave behind with the porters. We abandoned the trail and angled down through the dense jungle undergrowth, Oliver leading the way and using a machete to clear a minimal trail.

I was towards the rear of the line, giving me a clear view downhill at my mom in the front. I watched as Oliver came to a halt and held up his hand behind him. I saw my mom freeze and crane her neck to look over Oliver’s shoulder. And then I saw her spin silently and quickly, grinning and pointing like a giddy schoolgirl playing a game of hide and seek. She mouthed to my sister and Natalie, “He’s right here!”

Amazingly, given their size, mountain gorillas are hard to see in the thick, tangled mat of the jungle. We saw no more than ten of the group’s nearly forty members. We saw playful adolescents and wizened grandparents. We watched a mother suckle her young baby. We spent the longest part of our hour marveling at the enormous bulk of the dominant silverback and the obvious humanity of his facial expressions. Lying on his stomach with his massive chin resting in the palm of his hand, he looked like he was trying to figure out how he was going to pay next month’s bills. He looked exactly how a judicious and capable human responsible for a family of forty would look, preoccupied and a little stressed, but still utterly in control of the family’s fortunes.

Oliver was constantly communicating in two languages. With soft, firm commands he herded us exactly where he wanted us. With deep, calm grunts he alerted the gorillas to our presence and reassured them that we intended no harmful surprises. Exactly one hour after our first contact with the family, he told us our time was up. He led us slightly downhill and back to the point on the trail where the porters had moved all our bags. The last gorilla we saw was an acrobatic juvenile climbing and crashing through a low tree.

For the second day in a row, there was no hot water at the guesthouse. Compounding the problem, the showerhead in the room my mom and sister shared did not work, forcing them to squat under the waist high faucet to clean. I felt a little angry, but after our triumphant day it seemed insignificant.


The next day Katie, Natalie, and I hiked to Ms Fossey’s grave in the saddle area between the Karisimbi and Visoke volcanoes. Her grave is on the site of her former camp, which she called Karisoke after the two peaks. The plan had been for my mom to join us, but she seemed truly happy to rest at the guesthouse. In her own words, “Dian would rather people visit her gorillas than her own dead body.”

Though not as difficult as the previous day’s hike, the climb was more challenging that we had expected. It was a reminder of how overwhelming Ms Fossey’s assignment was. There were no trails on the mountain when she arrived and there was no shelter to shield her from the cold, wet mountaintop climate. There was no system for habituating and studying gorillas. She was a true pioneer.

Dian Fossey was murdered in Rwanda in 1985, hacked to death in her bed. She was an obsessive and possessive woman, willing to alienate any number of humans in order to protect her gorillas. It is presumed that she was killed by local poachers, with whom she was constantly fighting. She is buried in the same cemetery where she herself had buried several of her favorite gorillas.

Though she had many local enemies, she also had many supporters. Today she is remembered in Rwanda as a hero. On the day we visited, a large team of park staff was reclaiming her rotten, overgrown research station from the jungle. They were staking shiny, new signposts to mark where different buildings had been. One of the men mentioned that he had worked with Ms Fossey when he was a teenager. When I tried to bait him into complaining about how tyrannical she could be, he became offended that I would slander her name.

One of the new signs contains “A Brief History of Dian Fossey.” In most countries in Africa, her name would be misspelled, but Rwanda got it right, omitting the final –e. The text mentions Louisville prominently. It does not mention the Henry family, but it is easy for a partial reader to read between the lines. It explains that Ms Fossey needed a bank loan to fund her first safari to Africa, in 1963, and it was presumably the collateral for this loan that she thanks “the Henry family” for in the opening pages of her book.

“Dian” is a name I hear dropped occasionally at family parties, alongside the names of other colorful extras in the family narrative, like Father Raymond, Thomas Merton, and the Trappist monastery at Gethsamane. Once, so the story goes, Father Raymond asked my grandfather to bust him out of the cloistered monastery in order to see the World Series in Cincinnati. Our narrative is a complex thread tying together the Schwartzle, Maginnis, and Henry families in ways that no one has adequately explained to me. My mom likes to refer to them as her cousins, but when pressed she admits she has no idea how or even if the families are related. From my perspective, a generation removed from the actual bonds, the connection is in the warmth and humor of the stories they tell. Obviously I remember the sensational ones best, the ones about a runaway living on the Haight, a teenage boy hitchhiking to India, a rubber bullet in the back in Northern Ireland. As a teenager I always found it hopeful that nearly all of them finally chose, and managed, to come home and live a calm adult life. I was hardly a potential runaway, but it was simultaneously encouraging and comforting to think that if I ever wanted to be I too might manage to find way my home.

Eventually I did leave my home in Louisville, not as a runaway but first as a Peace Corps volunteer in Madagascar and later as a refugee caseworker in Kenya. I have spent most of the last decade abroad, away from home, and I have always acutely felt the expansive gap between my home in Louisville and my life and work in Africa. Taking mom to the mountain gorillas felt like building a bridge; it felt like a journey into the African chapter of the family narrative.

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January 22, 2010

Nyungwe National Park, Rwanda

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