I’m sitting typing on a Ugandan bus, crawling up winding dirt roads towards Kisoro in the dawn light (after only 5 hours kip) with low mist in the valleys, a pink tinge in the sky behind and a distraught hen clucking in the arms of the passenger in front – I do so love Africa. I’m a bit behind in my blogs again, so although I’m now heading out of Uganda to fly across the great congo basin to Kinshasa, let me tell you about my arrival a few days ago.
19th August – The day after my visit to Group 13 , the British Embassy in Kigali kindly hosted a press conference on the Year of the Gorilla and why I was undertaking this journey across the ten gorilla range states. Although called at rather short notice, it was well attended by print, radio and local TV journalists.
After my presentation on how saving the gorillas (and other seed dispersal agents) will help to save the world (from dangerous climate change), I invited questions. The first was typically direct, “How much of this money you are raising is coming to Rwanda?”
Fortunately, I shared the platform with Rosette Rugamba of the Rwanda Development Board, who spoke eloquently of Rwanda’s plans for gorilla conservation, including the possibility being explored of developing a buffer zone of tree plantations around the park boundary, and even reclaiming some of the land excised in the 1970s by the notorious EC-backed pyrethrum scheme.
All options were being explored, including leasing privately owned land in key areas to allow regeneration of gorilla habitat – which brought to mind the private conservancies in southern Africa, where income per square km from wildlife tourism can be greater than from farming. The journalists took copious notes and indeed covered the issues well (see for example http://www.newtimes.co.rw/index.php?issue=13993&article=18988).
After doing my own interview with Rosette for the YoG Blog videos (DVDs are now winging their way to Bonn so should begin to appear on-line before too long), I headed down to the bus depot and bought a ticket on the next bus to Ruhengeri, sorry, Musanze – recently renamed as part of the attempt to move away from the negative connotations of the events of 15 years ago.
Like Kigali, Musanze is changing fast, especially with the construction of new hotels as local entrepreneurs seek to cash in on the tourism boom. I was pleased to see that the Hotel Muhabura (built in 1954, same as me) was still taking on the competition, and yesterday grabbed a quick YoG interview with the proprietor, Gogo. Reminiscing with her, I said I was surprised there was no plaque or display noting that Dian Fossey used to stay here.
I first stayed in the Muhabura in 1977 when Dian and I had come down the mountain for one of her occasional public lectures (yes, Dian did do outreach before the term was invented, though this is seldom remembered) and have stayed there many times since. Dian always asked for Room 11, and I suggested this might be used to raise funds if guests who stayed there were asked to pay a premium rate which could include a donation to the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International, the US-based NGO that continues the research and joint anti-poaching patrols (with the park guards) that Dian started.
It was dark by the time the bus pulled into Musanze, and as I stood beside my rucksack surrounded by curious faces, it took me right back to my first arrival in 1976. Dian had written saying Ruhengeri was a small town and if I waited with my luggage, her porters would soon find me. They didn’t, but the reason for that became clear when, as Dian had also requested, I picked up the post from the Post Office Box. Among the letters was the telegram with the date of my arrival… so I ended up delivering my own telegram.
This time, however, I was soon found by my good friend Francois Nkinziwikhe, conservationist, musician and choreographer, who strode out of the darkness wearing a comical gorilla woolly hat, made by women in the local community in another of his latest initiatives. Francois is a big, energetic man and a compulsive organiser. He trained the local dance troupe that my brother Chris and partners have twice brought to tour the UK (http://www.caribzones.com/balletinganzo.html), but there was never enough money in the shoestring budget for him to accompany them. This evening he’d enlisted the help of local businessman Faustin Musanganya (also building a new hotel, the Gorilla Twin Lakes) to give me a lift to Virunga Lodge, where Volcanoes Safaris had kindly offered to put me up for the night.
We had a useful meeting to discuss his various projects, one of which is eco-churches – which enlists the good environmental advice given in the Bible to raise awareness through religious communities of the need for conservation and sustainable development. I put him in touch with a similar group in Cameroon called REAP – the Religious Environmental Awareness Programme, and would encourage any church groups able to help to get in touch.
At the end of an affable and productive evening, I left him my single malt and he gave me one of his gorilla hats – maybe they could become the new fashion for winter sports? Do get in touch if you can make this happen..