While hordes of travellers visit Africa each year, few get to see the amazing mountain gorillas. Kate West expected this to be the highlight of her trip of a lifetime, but getting off the regular tourist route had greater impact than she anticipated…
“My trip to Rwanda was in search of the mountain gorilla. The mountain gorillas opened their home to us and allowed us to spend an hour with them, but my time in Rwanda was much more than that experience with those majestic creatures. Rwanda has touched my heart and I will carry her with me everywhere I go.
In 1994, Rwanda was every bit as disturbing as Nazi Germany. A million people lost their lives at the hands of their brothers, inspired by a corrupt state-run media in only 3 months. This dwarfs Hitler for efficiency in a past so recent that Bill Clinton was President of the United States. This is a very sad story. But I find great hope emerging from the sadness when I visit a country with a turbulent past and see it prospering.
I visited Rwanda in the closing stages of 2008 and it is almost impossible to imagine that only 14 years earlier the country was falling in on itself. The tribe culture has been abolished and now every man, woman and child from Rwanda is Rwandan first and foremost, not Tutsi or Hutu. The past haunts those who have survived it, but the new generations have a fresh start.
Driving into Rwanda I felt as though everyone was expecting me. I was sitting at the back of the Intrepid overland truck and waved to everyone for a 20km stretch. Rwandan people walk on the road, the road was given to the people and they are quite literal in that interpretation. They walk en masse down the street until a honk prompts them to reluctantly move aside. As each person watched our contraption zoom by they were mesmerised, then excited, then they would raise my wave with one of their own, an incredibly enthusiastic acknowledgement of my presence. It was overwhelming.
“People are always talking of bad things, I love my country but I want to see more, I want to be positive.” Kwizera Felly
At the unjust age of 3 weeks old Felly lost her mother to Aids, but not before it was passed onto her. She didn’t know her father either and was raised by her aunt. At 7 she was forced to flee to Birundi, as her country buckled under the weight of machine gun fire and swinging machetes during the genocide of her fellow countrymen. At 20 she gave birth to a little boy, Benzo, out of wedlock and was forced to give up her place in the Christian choir.
You would forgive her for complaining, but there is no need, as this incredible young lady of only 21 is nothing but grateful that she is alive. Praying at least 3 times a day, Felly is hopeful that God will see fit to change her fortune, so that she can build a future for her son.
Felly’s Bishop is a kind man and time spent at church is when she is most happy. Faith is a very powerful tool in the art of survival and I have drawn great inspiration from my brief encounter with Kwizera Felly.
Still basking in the glow of my meeting with Felly I met another young girl who touched my heart. Jacqueline, who lives on the Rwandan-Uganda border, is a 17 year old girl who works at a bar and lives with her family in the rear compound. At first I thought she was a facetious young girl who just wanted money, but I was delighted to find that all she wanted was some company to practice her English.
My new friend from the tour, Mel, had the genius idea of bringing a Polaroid camera on her trip. She took a Polaroid of Jacqueline and I, which Jacqueline was amazed to see come to life in front of her very eyes. As I was in the photograph I got all the credit.
After the photo was taken, Jacqueline refused to be further than a few feet away from me. I was invited to meet her grandmother in the compound, an invitation that rates as high as any other in my lifetime. Her grandmother cried at the sight of me, which was very moving. I was referred to as mother, friend and sister. Jacqueline’s brother Fabian was curious and came to meet us, he muttered something that I could not understand, to which Jacqueline responded with “NO, get your own Mzungu!”
It’s these experiences that are now my most precious memories of an amazing country and these encounters are what made my travels a true journey of a lifetime.”
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* photo by Ashlee Smart – Intrepid Photography Competition