Monthly Archives: February 2005

It’s so sad to realize

It’s so sad to realize I’m in Kigali International Airport on the way home from Africa. On balance, I think I was drawn as much to Rwanda as to Uganda in the end.

I was able to overcome the hotel without (hot)water and electricity, the absolutely miserable food, and the inevitable dust because Rwanda, like Uganda, can teach us so much about the power of family, community, and the human spirit.

After driving through some of the most beautiful farmland I have ever seen, all of it terraced and under cultivation because the country is densely populated and small in area, we entered the capital city of Kigali.

You can see the influence foreign aid ( let’s call it guilt) from the developing nations has had on Kigali: there’s lots of new construction, both commercial and residential. We went immediately to the Genocide Museum, which was (of course) financed by the Belgian Goverment and the Clinton Foundation among others.

The Belgians were the colonial power that promoted the differences between Hutus and Tutsis in the first place, issuing identity cards in 1932 that demarcated them by caste. Tutsis were taller, so the Catholic colonial government thought they would make better leaders. Unfortunately, they were a minority, and didn’t fare too well after Rwanda gained independence in 1962.

It was a pretty big mess even before the 1994 genocide, but when a million Tutsis were murdered in 100 days –with little interference from Kofi Annan OR Bill Clinton–we hit a new low in civilization. The Museum showed us mass graves, faces of slaughtered children, videos of tortured survivors, and memorial gardens all at once. Every one of us emerged crying. No wonder Bill Clinton has financed this memorial. I think of him as a very compassionate person, and I suspect he was just too new on the job to understand what was really happening in a little country so far away. In 1994 in America it was still “the economy, stupid.”

If you have not seen ” Hotel Rwanda,”you must. It is based on the true story of the Hotel Mille de Collines in Kigali, whose manager savewd 1000 people by hiding them inside the hotel. Paul Rusesabegina was (and still is) a Hutu married to a Tutsi, a hero to his people.

As a people, Americans have traditionally turned a blind eye on events in Asia and Africa until they hit us in the face. After all, pre-Internet they were pretty far away unless you like big animals or fine rugs.Asia now has our attention because of its growing economic power and its ability to make nuclear weapons. Africa will get our attention, too, and I just wonder how that will happen. I know that it will, because I sat next to many young people in Internet cafes across the countries I visited who were writing letters to friends across the world. The message is getting out.

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The gorilla was watching intently

The gorilla was watching intently as Daniel approached Samantha. The rest of the trekkers in Rwanda’s Volcano National Park stood by. Sam was shaking. Daniel put a bracelet on her hand, a gift for their two-year anniversary. She didn’t even look at it as she said to him “can’t you find a better time?” She was trembling because the gorilla seemed to be growling or yelling.

Thus,two of the participants on our East African Leadership Safari, my daughter and her boyfriend, got engaged in Rwanda, in the middle of a gorilla trekking expedition with fifteen other gorillas and eight other humans in attendance. Welcome to eco-romance.

Daniel made Sam read the bracelet –on which were written the words “Will you marry me?” before he gave her the engagement ring. The gorilla witnessed.
Yes, in my mind that stole the show from the gorillas, but the gorillas weren’t bad either. It’s clear that the theory of evolution has merit.

After we got up at 5 AM and discovered that our hotel turns the electricity off over night, we piled into the vans (again) and drove down perhaps the bumpiest roads yet to the park — and that’s saying something! (Have I told you this trip is not for wusses?)

Volcano Park is at the border of Congo, Rwanda and Uganda. We had to sleep in Rwanda because the Rwandans want the tourist dollars and won’t let you go trekking unless you spend one night there. Our hotel had armed guards patrolling the perimeter all night.

Clearly the political problems in Rwanda have made them need money, so the permit is pretty pricey, too: $350 USD. But it is worth it.

There is a Rwandan farming village in the park, where the residents grow daisies for their insect repellant value, as well as potatoes for food. There’s a rock wall at the edge of the village that abuts the mountains where the gorillas live; its purpose is to keep out the elephants and the buffalo from the forest so they won’t eat the products of the farm. (A buffalo wall has a narrow pass through which a human can fit but a buffalo cannot.)

We entered the forest with two armed guards whose duty was to protect us from animals other than gorillas that might cross our paths, although we didn’t see any. The guards also protect the gorillas from poachers who try to steal the babies and sell them to zoos in other countries.

Our first sighting was a mother with a baby, and she could not have cared less about us. She continued to feed herself and at one point even turned over on her back and laid down with the baby. We also saw an adult male who had lost a hand. And then, the “piece de resistance,” a silverback. We all had to duck under a fallen log, and when we came out the other side, we were a foot from his back. When we walked around to his front, we saw how enormous he was.

He just sat there feeding himself and ignoring us, as though we were in the presence of a deity. And then, after we had time to take pictures and study him, he got up, turned around, and walked away from us down through the same hole we came through to find him. We took a detour back.

Tomorrow is the last day of our trip, and we end up in the capital of Rwanda, Kigali, where we get on the plane for Nairobi and home. It has been a real eye-opener to see what is happening in East Africa — the beauty, the poverty, the community, the digital divide, and every other paradox you can imagine. I’m not sure it’s describable if you haven’t been there, although I plan to share my photos as soon as I get them downloaded and edited.

I couldn’t leave off without one serious comment: the UN has a very large presence in Africa, but I don’t see the results. It appears to be a very big bureaucracy full of people who want to tell the Africans what to do, but don’t weem to do anything themselves. The UN people drive all the new cars and have all the best facilities. Yes, this view is probably controversial, but I’ve spent a couple of weeks here and I feel entitled to an opinion.

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The rains came last night,

The rains came last night, within seconds. We were gathered on the patio of the lodge, ordering dinner and sipping South African wine, and all of a sudden the wind came up. Then lightning became visible. Then the wind became worse. Then all the glassware and napkins started flying across the table, the staff warned us to go inside, and the heavens opened. Unbelievable rain. We thought we would lose the electricity, but we didn’t. Everyone went inside and continued eating, although there were small leaks in the roof through which we could sample the rain.

After dinner, the manager came around to every table to see if we were all right and to reassure us. Apparently, the rainy season doesn’t always start as violently as it did last night, but “sometimes” it does. What a cool thing to be there! The warthogs disappeared from the grounds.

However, the lions came out to hunt. Four lions were prowling around the gates of our compound, forcing us to be under lock down for most of our meal — a fact we really didn’t know until the end. Men patrolled the perimeter with automatic rifles — not to kill the animals, but to scare them away and keep the guests safe.

The rain changed the entire landscape. The dust that had been getting in our noses and throats since we arrived was immediately gone. The temperature, which had been, to say it bluntly, equatorial, cooled to jacket weather over night.

Which meant that our drive to Rwanda where we will trek tomorrow with gorillas was more than pleasant. Once we left the bush and the animals, who all came out this morning (well, at least a baby hyena and the usual water buck)to say goodbye, we drove through the Green Hills of Africa. Beautiful rolling countryside terraced for agriculture and carefully cultivated by hand. It was quite a contrast from where we came from, and seemed to be less poor.

But the population of Uganda is slated to triple in the next fifty years, and there is concern about how the population will be fed. The president proposes to industrialize, because there isn’t enough land for agriculture. It will be interesting to see how he plans to do it.

We stopped for lunch at Travellers’ Rest, a 50-year-old haven for gorilla trekkers near the Uganda-Rwanda-Congo border. Dian Fossey used to stay there. Once again, children from a local orphanage danced for us to raise money. This orphanage, which takes children from the period of the genocide, is run by a man who is himself a teen-ager, and the children support themselves by doing odd jobs, helping out in the motel, and performing.

I’m now at an Internet cafe — no, at THE Internet cafe in Ruhengiri (I know that’s misspelled) Rwanda. We crossed the border, checked into a hotel, and I came into town to re-join the 21st century for an hour. I am surrounded by Rwandan kids listening to music, reading email, and talking on VOIP. It’s so cool how technology — especially the Internet and cell phones — has connected the world and brought the developing countries right up to our level in certain aspects.

Tomorrow, the gorillas.

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The guide told us that

The guide told us that on the primate trail, which heads into the jungle down a gorge, we would see five kinds of primates: babboons, globus monkeys (monkeys in tuxedos), vervet monkeys (taupe, standard), red-tailed monkeys, and chimps. The chimps are hardest to see, because they signal each other when danger is approaching and go underground.

Well, we hiked for over three hours, and never saw or heard hide or hair of a chimp. And why not? Twelve novices and a guide, tramping through the jungle singing songs from Broadway shows and giggling. Even a deaf chimp should have hid. But we did get a chance to try our luck at crossing a river on a big log, and we saw the babboons (who practically came out to greet us) and the tuxedoed monkeys. And a huge African python. And a million different vines. Several times I was Jane. It was a tough hike, and at the end of it we were ready for a swim.

So our van headed off to Jacana Safari Lodge, another lodge in the park, to have a drink and cool in the pool. Jacana, opened in 1998, has no air conditioning and has been built entirely of pine and eucalytpus in designs and materials that do as little as possible to impact the environment. It’s right on Jacana Lake, and it is gorgeous.

The other van loaded up for more fun and games on a forest walk, where they entered a bat cave and saw a cobra and two pythons. In the meantime, our lazy selves saw the vervet monkeys and the red-tailed monkeys.

And on the way home, a huge (in every sense) herd of elephants off for a swim in the river. Elephants do swim.

You get such a kick out of being so close to so many animals that you have only seen in books, that you totally forget about insects, dust and heat. Sort of

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Mweya Safari Lodge is, as

Mweya Safari Lodge is, as George MacDonald who has been here before says, “Ralph Lauren does Africa.” This morning we got up at 6 AM and left in a van with a roof that lifts up so we could stand to take photos. We saw a hyena resting in the grass, and untold number of deer, and the back ends of alot of hippos running away from us. Apparently, the hippo population has been decimated by anthrax lately; on the other hand, the elephant population has grown because refugee elephants from the Congo are coming to the southern sector of Queen Elizabeth National Park.

I missed photographing every animal due to slow reflexes, but my daughter has some photos that are unreal in their resemblance to the Discovery Channel in HDTV. She actually caught a baby elephant in close up with his trunk raised to our van.

There are hundreds of varieties of birds here, some of whom migrate back and forth from Europe (they are banded, so the park can tell). There are also 56 kinds of animal, although I’m told we will not see a giraffe.

On the other hand, this afternoon I saw everybody in the park — hippos, buffalo, a gazillion birds, elephants, and even a male and female lion — at distances as close as ten feet. We were on a cruise through the Kazinga Channel, which connects Lake Edward and Lake George (how British). Everybody has a happy hour in the afternoon when they come down to the lake to have a drink, and we joined them from our boat.

The hippos are basically submerged, except for every six or seven minutes when they come up to breathe. They flap their ears in a little circle (range of motion exercises?) and flare their nostrils, and then they go back under. The water buffalo stare at you, not even bothering to run away.

The female lion was behind a bush, and when she saw our boat she retired to her tent. The male, however, with his big mane, stared at us from behind the bush, refusing to give up the shade for us interlopers. Eventually, we pissed him off and he vacated for a while, but he wanted to go back to his spot, so he did. He looks and acts just like my chow Emmitt, the scourge of Esplanade Place.

The elephants were the best. According to Sam, they’re enormous and wrinkly. I thought they were surprisingly agile for something so large. Yes, they have wrinkles, but don’t we all?

The cormorants sat in large groups facing the wind, cooling themselves by flapping their throats. I found this bizarre the first few times, but then it got to look natural.

It is wonderful to be so close to the animals. On the cruise we saw a fishing village, where men were bathing in the river about a dozen feet from a half-submerged hippo. There are also crocodiles, but we didn’t see them.

Now we’re at the patio part of the day. where you sip your vodka and passion fruit juice while looking at the water. Are you jealous?

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Driving west across Uganda to

Driving west across Uganda to the Mweya Game Reserve, after bidding our friends in Kampala a festive farewell (we treated all our hosts to an Indian restaurant dinner and made some donations), we saw both the good and the bad: the terrible environmental pollution caused by cars and diesel trucks in poor repair and the rolling green tea plantations near Lakes Edward and George.

As we passed through village after village, we saw the same lifestyle — the market and strip center along the road, the children in their bare feet and colorful school uniforms walking to and from the schools, the women carrying bowls of bananas on their heads. We made a stop at a gift shop at the Equator, and I bought a wood print by a Ugandan woodcut printer who had been a Fulbright scholar in the US. Coincidentally, he showed up at the shop as I was leaving and explained to me that when he was in the US he had trouble painting because he couldn’t find the same inspiration he finds at home. His inspiration comes from the sense of community and family, and he thinks it’s being ruined by development.

We arrive at the Mweya Game Reserve at lunchtime, and were led to a patio right out of a British colonial movie. The outdoor dining overlooks the channel between Lakes Edward and George, and there were elephants drinking below us, and yellow birds eating the leftover food of the diners. I guess Uganda is one of the world’s best bird watching sites.

Me, I have already seen elephants, water buck, and baboons, as well as a room with old time mosquito netting. Very elegant, in-house massage therapist included, and a pool. What a difference a day makes.

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Women are the entrepreneurs of

Women are the entrepreneurs of Uganda. Today we visited a microloan fund whose mission was to instill godliness and wealth into every Ugandan household. In the mornings, they pray that their work will bear fruit.

And when we saw three of their “success stories, ” it appears it does. We visited one woman who started with a $50 loan ten years ago and has leveraged it to 600 chickens, laying 30 trays of eggs a day, at an income of $800 per month. With this money she has sent her two children to the university, and sent one to a master’s program. She mixes her own chickenfeed, from maize, millet, and fish and greens. For the baby chicks she includes more fish. For the hens that lay eggs she includes more greens so the yolks are yellow and have more iron.

Another group of women have formed a consortium to borrow money together. They meet once a week to make their payments. The treasurer of the consortium collects the money from all the women and takes it to the bank, where she gets a receipt and brings it back to the others. The women grow all kinds of crops, including aloe vera, vanilla, coffee, and flowers. The leader also has chickens, pigs, and cows, and now owns 80 acres of land on one of the hills outside Kampala. It’s gorgeous!

The last group of women weave baskets and make clothes as well as growing things. They, too, meet once a week to make their payments. It creates a kind of social pressure that raises their average repayment rate to 98%.

Godfrey, the branch manager of the fund, told us that 75% of his loans are to women, because they are the ones who make the households. They do lend to married women, but they lend to the women. The businesses — at least the ones we saw — are home-based.

I was thinking of how little we can do with $5000, let alone $50, to further entrepreneurship in America. It’s partly the costs of doing business, partly the costs of compliance, legal systems, and all the added issues that arise when you get far from the land and the family (hiring, travel, etc). Not that I think we should be Uganda, but it’s something to think about. Would a group of Americans (men OR women) get together and borrow together? Do we have enough trust?

Tomorrow we leave the cities for the game park. I wont be sorry to leave the traffic and pollution of Kampala, although I have loved the people. Animals, here I come!

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