I didn’t want to go to Rwanda. Who wants to go anywhere in Central Africa? Isn’t it hot and sticky there, dusty and poor with miles of nothing to see and nothing to do? Aren’t there diseases there, and mosquitoes? Isn’t that where great waves of human beings go mad with heat and poverty and rise with machetes to kill each other?
But that’s where the mountain gorillas are, the greatest apes on Earth, roaming the silver-misted slopes of the nine volcanoes of the Virunga range, the Mountains of the Moon where Rwanda and Uganda and the Congo meet. I wanted with all my heart to see the gorillas in the wild so that’s where I was heading, on an Air Kenya flight from Nairobi, squeezed in beside a Tutsi priest and an Afrikaans entrepreneur looking to set up a potato chip factory.
Kigali is spread across seven green hilltops like Rome in its early days, neat and lovely. The first surprise on disembarking is how hot it isn’t: Kigali is too high above sea level to be too humid.
In the car to the hotel, I realised I’d left my camera on the bench outside the arrivals hall. I remembered all the people milling about and sitting beside me and I groaned and buried my head in my hands.
“We’ll go back,” said Patrick my driver.
“Don’t bother,” I said forlornly. “It’s long gone.”
He laughed and turned around. By the time we made it back to the airport it was nearly an hour since we’d left, and there were different people sitting on the bench, but they had all arranged themselves carefully to leave a clear space around my camera bag.
“It would still be there if we came back tomorrow,” said Patrick confidently.
Rwandans are proud of their plunging crime rate, and this is one of the great dilemmas people have in writing about Rwanda: it’s a problem that Paul Kagame has been president for 17 years and that his supporters want to change the constitution so that he can stay even longer, and it’s concerning that anti-Kagame activists have a habit of being silenced, often in suspicious and extreme ways, but as a visitor to Rwanda you don’t see opposition voices being muffled, you see spotless streets and good roads and new buildings and all the signs of an economy that has been growing by at least 6% per year since 2010. It’s a little like visiting a central African Singapore (also a country with a spotty democratic record and whose record of civil liberties is shakier than Rwanda’s).
Rwanda’s cleanliness isn’t based on Singaporean laws and fines, though, but a repurposing of the pre-colonial principle of umuganda – civic contribution. On the last Saturday of each month, all traffic stops for three hours and citizens – including cabinet ministers and the president himself – pitch in on the streets and clean up their communities. The law was introduced in 2010, and the longer it has been around, the less necessary it has become. People just don’t litter any more.
“What are the penalties for littering?” I asked my moto-man, one of the motorbike taxis that buzz you around. He wasn’t convinced there was any penalty at all. He just knew that people didn’t do it.
I liked Kigali a lot. I visited the Genocide Museum with its unflinching record of the 100 days in 1994 when the majority Hutus, encouraged by their government, murdered 800 000 of their Tutsi countrymen. The entire population of Rwanda is only 11.7 million, nearly 7% of the population. I wept in the final hall at the scraps of clothing and toys of some of the victims. Later I spoke to a photographer whose parents had died in the genocide. “The country went mad,” he said. “Now we try to make it right.”
Rwanda is tiny, the 149th largest country on Earth. In continental Africa, only Gambia, Swaziland and Djibouti are smaller. You can drive just about anywhere in half a day on the splendid new highways. We left Kigali before dawn, in the purple-black morning, lights from distant houses glimmered across the dark valleys like ships at sea. I met other travellers on the way who were heading to Lake Kivu or the Msanze Caves, but everyone, sooner or later, was going in search of gorillas.
It’s maybe two hours to the Trekking Centre in Kiningi in the Northern Province, on the edge of the Volcanoes National Park, spreading across 800 square kilometres of the Virungas. In the orange dawn we drove up a dirt track through chocolate-brown fields worked by women with scarlet headscarfs against a backdrop of hazy blue mountains.
Dian Fosse made her first observation camp here in 1967, between Mount Karisimbi and Mount Bisoke, and predicted that there would be no gorillas left in the wild by the turn of the century. In 1981 there were just 242 individuals left, but not all conservation stories are dismal: the most recent census puts their numbers close to 1,000. The turn-around happened by involving locals as guides and trackers, and ploughing tourist dollars back into the communities. Your trekking permit pays for hospitals and schools and police stations.
Children who grew up chasing away gorillas, knowing them by name, no longer become poachers but guides. When gorillas die the villagers mourn them like relatives. Each group of trekkers is assigned a gorilla family. The family groups roam on random orbits, making a nest overnight then moving on at dawn. Your group might be ten minutes away on the outskirts of the village or at the end of a half-day’s climb.
An Englishwoman named Sally in our group started wheezing just looking at the mountain slope. “I only have one lung,” she said.
“If necessary, we will carry you,” said Emmanuel the guide, gallantly but nervously.
We found the track that Dian Fosse made, and followed it up through bamboo thickets and cloud forest, beneath giant tree ferns and fronds, like the backdrop on Kong’s island. Birds whooped and trilled and red blossoms flashed through the green. The air was cool. From time to time the trackers stopped and listened to the distant cracking of forest elephants.
We were grateful to stop, leaning on our sticks and sucking deep breaths. The air grows thinner as you climb, the slope more steep. Sally was pale and doubled over, clinging to her porter’s hand like a small child. There was a faraway rumble and the light changed from white to dusty yellow to pearl: a storm coming. When it rains trekkers have to go back. You can’t climb in slippery mud, and anyway gorillas don’t like rain: they hunker down and pull leaves over their heads as a roof. They’re like people, or we’re like them.
I didn’t think we’d find them. They were too far away; probably on the move. It doesn’t matter, I told myself – it’s enough just to be here, out here, doing this. I’ll remember this all my life. Then Emmanuel started making a low series of grunts and hoots and moans. I thought something was wrong, but then I followed his eyes.
We climbed the hillside, off the track now, pushing through the foliage. There’s a species of stinging nettle that looks like normal nettle but when you grab it to steady yourself it’s like giving your hand a thousand paper cuts and dipping it in a jar of Tabasco and lemon juice, but you don’t howl and complain because right there in front of you, right there, is a family of gorillas.
The male silverback sits a little way up, brooding like Lincoln with his fists on his knees, looking out over the valley. He hardly even glances at you: you’re no threat or rival; you’re smooth and soft as an earthworm. He could break you like a twig. To prove his point, he breaks a twig and chews it like a farmer with a blade of grass. His family is scattered across the hillside: the stroppy young males, the pot-bellied wives, the small bundles of furry wrestling babies.
After all the anticipation it’s difficult to grasp: they’re right here. We sit and watch and they stretch and wander and move among us. A baby summits his mother’s shoulder and goes tumbling as she shrugs. He totters curiously toward me; his mother watches with one eye. He wants to touch me but Emmanuel gestures and I have to back away. I might have brought germs from the city: gorillas can catch the common cold from us and they have no immunity. They are so strong, lords of their world, but we can kill them with our breath.
In the hour you spend with them you become overwhelmed with the affection. Constantly, non-stop, they touch each other. Kids climb on moms, brothers tussle with sisters, grown males stroke their brothers just to let them know they’re still there. Only the big silverback stays aloof, but even he comes over and brushes against his children or offers himself to be groomed. The movement is incessant, a tidal surge of touching and loving and being touched. You think: this is how it should be. This is how it once was.
As we emerged at the foot of the volcano, into the fields of white flowers beneath slate-coloured clouds and distant flashes of lightning, I asked Sally if the long climb had been worth it.
She couldn’t answer me at first, not because she was out of breath but because she was crying too hard with happiness.