Christmas in Hell? Gorillas and Genocide in Rwanda

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meet your cousinA couple of the emails said, “Rwanda . . . huh”. The skepticism was palpable. The messages plainly implied that this decision was significant in so far as it indicated deteriorating mental capacities and an alarming uptick in questionable decision making.

Oprava’s email was more blunt: “Christmas in Rwanda sounds like, well, hell, but what does the white man know.”

Precisely. What does the white man know? The media’s business is infotainment. It breathlessly recounts the horrific apocalyptic flavor of the moment for riveted audiences before rushing on to the next catastrophe in the heart of darkness. The news’ steady diet of natural disaster, civil war, famine, disease, and public uprising liberally indulges the schadenfreude of the fickle observer. Consequently, the Rwanda of public imagination is, and perhaps forever will be, rooted in the undeniably hellish Rwanda of the mid-90s.

In a hundred day murderous orgy in 1994, up to one million predominately ethnic Tutsis were zealously butchered by their Hutu neighbors. Meanwhile, the world did little to stop the slaughter. As a sign in the Kigali Genocide Memorial Centre read, “The genocide had accomplished its goal. Rwanda was dead”. (I rather doubt most people want to think tea plantations and patchwork hills of Rwandaabout, let alone read, unpleasantries about the Rwandan genocide, but the book ‘We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families’ by Philip Gourevitch is highly recommended).

Perhaps if I were a better person, I would have gone to Rwanda to see how a country tries to heal from such atrocity or like Clinton to say ‘oops, we should have done more, but you know, the US had just gotten bitch slapped on the streets of Mogadishu and to call genocide genocide would have compelled us to act.‘ But I am not a better person. I went to Rwanda because they saw fit not to kill all of their silver back gorillas.

Virungas National Park, part of the first national park in Africa, encompasses a chain of mist crowned volcanoes and straddles the borders of Uganda, the DRC, and Rwanda. The park is a green island surrounded by a crushing sea of humanity and mosaiced hills rippling out toward the horizon. Despite the densest human population in Africa, the number of mountain gorillas is growing. Why? Tourism. Although the word tourism in Kinyarwanda, the local language, means ‘wandering around aimlessly’1, gawking tourists are bachman sees the gorillasprobably why the gorillas are not extinct. Pure economic incentive keeps humanity at bay and the gorillas’ mountain sanctuary protected. Daily permits generate about US$27,000 dollars a day in Rwanda, a portion of which funnels back into conservation as well as funding local education, health, and infrastructure projects. Purists may whinge about habituating gorillas to their hairless cousins, but purity is for saints and fools. Survival of the fittest may be fight, flight, or habituate.

For two hours or so, the guide and the armed guards lead us through terraced fields and up a steep muddy trail crowded with nettles, fern, and dense broadleaved vegetation. The armed guards are compulsory. They are there not for gorillas, but for the buffalo, which are known as the ‘widow maker’ and ‘black death’ in parts of Africa. “So what happens if a buffalo attacks a gorilla?” carly asks. The guide scoffs. “A buffalo attack a gorilla? Then the silverback grabs the buffalo by its horns, forces its head into the ground, and beats the buffalo to death.” A comforting thought. Exactly how habituated are these gorillas? If king kong can pummel a buffalo four times its size to death, an annoying human grooming and socializingwould be like swatting a very slow stupid fly.

Suddenly, trackers appear, and something very very large crashes through the underbrush. For an eternal second, the silence is electric. It is broken by progressively quickening hooting and a rhythmic hollow sound like two coconuts being struck together. Deep in the ancestral limbic system of the brain, which knows better than to go looking for mountain gorillas, the warning resonates. Loudly. The gorillas know we are here. The guide signals down the line for everyone to drop their daypacks and walking sticks and silently follow. Moments later, eight tourists stand in a clearing staring slack jawed at the ten or so gorillas of the Itambura group. These animals are massive, powerfully built, black fur balls with cone heads and bad spike haircuts. Surprisingly gentle eyes peer at us curiously. Clearly unconcerned, the alpha male stretches out to nap. The others munch contentedly on leaves and stems while young juveniles somersault over each other down the hill. For an hour, we sit in the gorillas’ living room, a carnival mirror reflecting ourselves. Despite the imprisoning fantasies of religious superstition, it is impossible not to intuitively sense our deeply entwined evolutionary history. watching

So Rwanda wasn’t hell. In addition to gorillas and genocide, the antipodes of preservation and destruction, there are chimps in Nyungewe National Park, the inland sea of Lake Kivu, the immaculately clean streets of Kigali, and the attempts to create a new society. One where plastic bags are illegal, corruption is almost non-existent, and the parliament has the world’s only female majority. But it is also a society threatened by the fault lines of ethnic tension, population density, political uncertainty, and the immense challenges of reconstruction and reconciliation.

To the outsider, limited by a static anachronistic perception, imagining light beyond the long shadow of the genocide is impossible. Nevertheless, Rwanda has made extraordinary strides in rebuilding its social, economic, and political structures. Rwanda gives hope that people can emancipate themselves from the chains of history, re-imagining the societies they inhabit and sustain. By collectively and individually redefining the contours of their world, there may be a way out of the shadow.

1 Nielson, H. & Spenceley, A. “The success of tourism in Rwanda: Gorillas and more”; Background paper for the African Success Stories Study, April 2010

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