Sunday April 20, 2014 Easter
Maureen Miruka and I ate a hearty breakfast, which is quite good at the Luxury Hotel Rwanda in Kigali: scrambled eggs, fresh pineapple, Africa tea (with freshly ground ginger which gives it a kick). Lucian, our driver, arrived and whisked us away to see the two famous memorial churches, where thousands were massacred in the genocide. The Genocide happened 20 years ago, from April 6 through July. Over 800,000 died in three months, in the most brutal ways possible, Hutu vs. Tutsi, with the Hutu extremists trying to exterminate the Tutsis, which they called inyenzi—“cockroaches.”
|Laurie Kelley at the Eternal Flame|
The first church is Nytarama, where 5,000 died. It is a small brick structure, a deep red, color of the earth of Rwanda. How can so small a building hold the sadness of the eternity?
Everything was solemn and respectful of the dead. Our guide was a pretty Rwandan lady, who was 36 but looked much younger; she was 16 when the genocide took place. We were told not to take photos, but she relented and I tipped her well. The Eternal Flame was slightly pitiful; just a tiki torch that someone fills now and then with oil. Inside the church it was breathtakingly horrid. The first sense is how small and dark the church is; then the smothering feeling as you see skulls and femurs and pelvises to your right neatly stacked on shelves as you enter, and then the actual clothing of the victims, dried and stiff with their 20-year-old blood, piled on the rafters, hanging over your head. It feels suffocating. There is an odd smell, a thickness to the air.
Fresh flowers wrapped in cellophane are placed by relatives on coffins that line the center aisle. At least some of the victims are remembered. What horrors took place in this church; what suffering. And their crime? They were Tutsis. Children were forced to watch their mothers be raped. Children killed children; pregnant women were disemboweled. On another shelf, some of the victims’ belongings, including one identification document stating that the victim was Hutu.
I look at the skulls, some of them children. Who were you? A man, a woman? Did you have a family? Such horrors. Whole families were removed from the face of the earth and for all time. No one will ever recall them, show videos or photos of them or build a memorial or scholarship in their name. It’s as though they never existed.
We somberly left and drove to the next church, Nyatama, where thousands more were slaughtered. The physical church is bigger and in better shape but inside…. The inside was completely filled with stacks of caked, moldy clothing of the victims, stiffened with blood. A chipped statue of the Virgin Mary looked down from the brick wall at the scene of carnage, hands outstretched, as though she were crying and asking why? It was a disturbing, startling contrast. The alter bore the instruments of death: machete, hammer, knife, as well a the artifacts of the victims: a watch, a wallet, a comb. The alter cloth was stained red with blood, and left untouched for 20 years. Downstairs, a glass enclosed display of skulls, with a glass floor, through which we could see straight through to the cellar. Under display was a coffin. In the coffin, unseen now, but originally displaying the body as it was found, a woman with a baby on her back, who had been gang raped, then had a spear shoved through her up towards her neck, and then was stabbed through the heart, which went through the baby. She was displayed like that, spear and all, for years until finally she was interred.
As we exited in shocked silence, a brightly dressed older woman, with strong features and a scowl, waited outside for us. The sister of the interred woman. Why was she suddenly here? Maybe because it was Easter, maybe because it was the 20th anniversary, but something in me somehow said she is here to try to earn a little cash from sympathetic Americans. We put some Rwandan dollars in the donation box.
Lucian offered to take us to the presidential palace, Habyarimana’s palace. Habyarimana's death in 1994 sparked the genocide. This was a boring tour, mostly because we couldn’t understand the guide well. The palace was not in great shape. There were photos on display from the genocide, which tore at my heart, especially the children with their hollow stares. The most interesting part was peering out the yard and seeing the actual wreckage of the plane crash which killed him. On April 6, 1994, someone (to this day no one claims responsibility) shot Habyarimana down (and the president of Burundi) as he flew back from attending the Arusha peace accords. His plane landed right in his own backyard, where his wife could see it. The wreckage is amazing.
Thursday April 24, 20014 Gorilla Trek.
This morning I awoke at 5:30 am, and hastily dressed in the chilly air to prepare for the gorilla trek. I loved putting on my trekking clothes and gear, and it made me so content and happy inside to know I could go out exploring. The road to the gorilla sanctuary on the volcano was brutally ragged, all pitted magma rocks, mud and stones. A few precarious and narrow wood slat bridges. Out of the simple homes along the route poured out children, most in dirty clothes, they themselves dirty wearing a hodgepodge of clothes. All smiling and waving to us, “Allo!” they cheered!
|Laurie Kelley with hikers for gorilla trek|
The countryside was spectacular: heavy mist settling on the rich red earth upended in clumps in the carefully groomed fields, green trees stretching up toward a dominating volcano in the background. The Land Rovers pitched back and forth over the rough terrain. Finally we reached the spot and disembarked. We hiked about 30 minutes only, through the ploughed fields, through thick bamboo forests where one guide had to machete his way in, up mud hills, and over little streams. We met up with our trackers, who had found the “Hirwa” family, consisting of a nine gorillas: a silverback (“Lucky,” so-called as he gets all the females), three adult females, two sub-adult females (not able to mate yet), one one-month old, and three year old twins.
And there they were. Startling to be so close to this endangered animal, which is so like us. When our guide, Patrick, was telling us about the male gorilla’s habits— he gets drunk on one of the plants, fights with the other young males and then cheats with the females— I asked, “We are talking about gorillas, right?”
We first spied the mother with the one-month-old, just above our heads on a soft mound of earth. All around us is forest, or perhaps jungle? Thick, green, perfect cover for these gentle giants. We could get in close, and snapped many photos. No flash is allowed as this reminds the gorillas of lightning, of which they are afraid. Then another gorilla appeared, and another.
While we were busy snapping photos, the alpha male, his domed forehead so reminiscent of King Kong, appeared—Munyinya, the silverback. Our guides said he was the biggest silverback in both Uganda and Rwanda, making him the biggest living mountain gorilla. He issued deep, guttural grunts, and our guides responded. We snapped and videotaped for 15-20 minutes when suddenly Munyinya jumped down, and somehow commanded the entire troop to come to him. Each members obeyed and lowered themselves to stand next to him. He was only a few feet away from members of our group!
Together, the entire family climbed up to another spot above us, where they proceeded to settle in and eat everything in sight. Munyinya even bent an entire bamboo tree, broke it in half and stripped it of its leaves. His power is immense. The twins appeared and were fuzzy and playful.
Our guide signaled to me that he found another, a young female. She was wandering alone so we tracked her. I got ahead of the guide, and suddenly found myself too close to the gorilla. She stopped, and I stopped. Then she started towards me! “Don’t move!” my guide whispered. I couldn’t, as I was up against bamboo trees. The gorilla came within two feet of me. She looked right into the lens of my lowered camcorder. Then, caught on film, her eyes drifted upwards and looked straight into mine, as though she were checking me out. Then, she simply moved on. Walked ahead, plunked herself down and began eating bamboo shoots. Our group moved in for some great photos!
After one hour we had to leave. The gorillas only tolerate visitors so long. A happy walk back with lots of excitement at having seen these beautiful, intelligent, endangered animals.
Friday April 25, 2014 Dian Fossey’s Gravesite
The African rains pour down but I am in my lovely room, with a space heater on, drying my trekking socks, a cup of spicy African tea, and my laptop. We did a fantastic hike today.
I awoke at 5, and lay in bed enjoying the space heater I was given, and my soft bed. Then up to trek all morning. I washed, donned my trekking clothes, bandana, sunglasses, gaiters, boots, money, Camelback. Love being outside and hiking! I had internet at last and downloaded all the news, of which there was not much. Ate a breakfast of scrambled eggs, roll, mango and passion fruit.
The sky was clear and blue. Ahead of me, the magnificent volcano that has stood for millions of years. Last night I spotted Mars, its intense red light gives it a power that its little size belies.
We set off along the bumpiest road I have ever been on. These were magma rocks, spewed out in 1957, when the little volcano last erupted. The rocks were propped every which way, and our SUV had to maneuver them over a long while. Going at most 10 miles per hour, Chris navigated us while I enjoyed the pastoral countryside. Mud houses, clean and tidy; people of all descriptions walking everywhere. What’s that, a walking tree? No, a slim older Rwandan man carrying a tree on his back to replant. Mothers with babies tied to their backs with colorful cloth carried massive branches or potato sacks or water jugs on their head. Little children, dirty runny noses, barefoot, screeched out “Allo!” and waved frantically. I reciprocate!
And the backdrop behind this daily opening of a play are the Virunga range volcanoes, over million years old. The big one, Sabinio, is named after an “old man’s teeth” because of its ragged outline. It is stunning. The road we drive on is horrifically pitted with magma rocks: we pitch back and forth, as if we are climbing each rock separately. Our stomachs churn. Our slow speed of 3 mph give the children a chance to run alongside. And everywhere area people walking.
After 45 minutes of that ride, we pull into a small village where the army has men posted. Here’s where the trailhead begins. I meet Lois, our guide, a gorgeous Rwandan woman, and we head out.
We walk up a long “road” of lava rocks, dusty grey now but still pitted like most lava rocks are. Ahead are the green slopes of the volcano; on either side, the village. Mud homes, numerous and playful children, laundry laid out on shrubs, water pouring out of a pipe that comes from the mountains, and children filling buckets. The children pour out of their little homes to ogle us. I smile at each one. The adult are not so friendly. I have four army soldiers with me; two in front and two behind, to watch for wild buffalo, Lois tells me. And a man in blue, who I ignore at first but I guess he is part of the park service there to help me. As if I need help!
It’s a long hike that morning. The rocky road cutting through the village, then a grassy path twisting up the mountain, passing cows and sheep that don’t like me, then up straight alongside a rocky wall, then into the forest proper. It is cool but walking makes me hot and I shed my coat. The climb is almost vertical and slippery. Up past a little footbridge and we are in the forest!
It is primordial, lush, gorgeous. Behind us, downward, spreads the village then all of Rwanda. Far in the distance are the famous “thousand hills.” Now the walking is even more treacherous. For the entire time I have to watch my feet. The path has now been cleared but as it is the rainy season, it’s completely submerged in mud, covering all the roots and even the white cloth potato sacks placed there as stepping stones. My boots are able to balance on the roots and hit the sacks, but every now and then I miss and my feet are engulfed into the inches thick, black mud. But is feels great! Thick and slimy, it sucks loudly when I remove my boots or walking stick. Still, I am nimble and surefooted and keep up with Lois with no problem.
|Laurie Kelley hiking to Dian Fossey' gravesite|
For a while you can’t grab onto anything as the stinging nettles are the only thing lining the path. A few of these microscopic needles get lodged into my hand, and they sting and itch relentlessly but there’s nothing to be done. I had gloves with me in my daypack but neglected to put them on. Every so often I raise my eyes to gaze at the forest; it is magnificent. Every blade, every tree, every leaf, a miraculous wonder of an intertwined ecosystem. Lois breaks off a leaf that she says the gorillas love and I taste it. Nothing at first, then… bitter!
We trek for at least two solid hours, straight up hill, slipping on the rocks, getting stuck in the mud, avoiding the stinging nettles. Our path weaves in and out, back and forth to find the best support so we don’t sink in the mud. A few times my feet miss and I go in over my boots in the mud, and feel water rush into my socks. By now I have thick mud up to my shins, and a light mist starts to fall on me. It is glorious. I have never been happier!
Finally we reach the place, where Dian Fossey worked. There’s nothing left; her house and research station were destroyed. All that’s left of her house are a few posts; I sit on one and Lois snaps my picture. We see the grave and stand over it as Lois tells me more about Dian’s vicious death by machete.
The return trip is fast, probably less than one hour. I love the challenge of hiking. Descending is tricky; gravity pulls, while you are a bit tired and the rocks are slimy with mud. My boots are completely covered in mud, so I slip easily. Still, I keep a great pace. I love nature; love it, love it and always want to be outside.
Coming finally into the clearing, though still having to navigate some steep and rocky passes, I tell Lois, It ain't over yet, Most accidents happen on the way down. And sure enough, my ankles are tired; I can feel them give a bit. When we are almost down, already into the cultivated place and alongside the rock wall, I look up to catch the glorious view and slip suddenly, falling to earth in a split second. My right arm hits the rock wall heavily. In a second the man in blue, who had nothing to do, lurches forward, with “Sorry!” But I hop back up, checking the most important things: my camera lens (which hit hard) and my manicured nails. All’s good. My forearm has an 8-inch superficial gash in it and I have a scraped elbow and my hand has a puncture in it. A bit of blood here and there but I’m good to go.
Finally we are back; I tip everyone well, and we happily climb into the SUV. My guide says I am the first person ever to get back before 2 pm; it is only 12:15! We flew!
We cause a little riot at one street corner, giving away to a small crowd the soaps, toiletries and toothbrush I confiscated from all the hotels. They are so grateful for anything they get. I give another little boy who was running alongside the SUV my chocolate protein bar. When I said “chocolate,” his eyes widened!
|Muddy and bloody!|
The clouds have now rolled in, and the rain was pelting a while ago. My boots and gaiters have come back to me clean as can be. My wool hiking socks ran red for 20 minutes—I could not soak them enough to get the mud out. Now I sit, enjoying tea, a warm room, birds chirping outside, peace and quiet in this rich land of Africa.
“In the recycled carbon air of the long flight back, I physically long for Rwanda, its rich red earth, the smell of its wood fires and its vibrant humanity. “ Shake Hands with the Devil, Roméo Dallaire