My Last Day

I’ve been home in Montreal for a week now and have finally settled back into the rhythm of things. Simple things like supermarkets and the metro are very odd to me. However, I’ve been so well treated at DFGFI that I feel this culture shock would be much bigger otherwise.

My last day in Rwanda was just as memorable as my past two months doing this internship. I was informed last minute that the Rwandan Office of Tourism and National Parks had found an open spot on one of the gorilla treks for the morning of my departure. Some would say that deciding to climb a volcano a few hours before boarding a plane is just a bit too rushed, flaky even. Others, however, would point out that passing up an opportunity to see the rare Mountain Gorillas that can only be found in the area I’ve been working in for the past two months would be just plain foolish. I agree.

I woke up at before dawn in order to make sure that everything I had was packed and ready to go for when I got back from my trek so I could make a mad dash to Kigali to catch my plane. I had been told that if I was going to slam down the serious cash to see the gorillas ($500!), that I should try to go see the Susa group that is the longest trek but the largest group. Alas, I didn’t have enough time to spend trekking all the way up the Karisimbi volcano and so I settled on a steeper but shorter hike up to the Amahoro group.

After a long drive along the usual rock strewn roads that my driver jokingly dubed “an African massage,” we arrived at the bottom of the Bisoke volcano. The trek was long, the group had moved further up the volcano to the dismay of the other tourists. The altitude is just a bit too tough for some people and when you are not young and spry, the climb can be a killer. I’ve been living in Ruhengeri for two months now and have no longer fallen victim to loud panting after climbing up a small hill.

The guide and I were a bit ahead of the group when we finally arrived at a massive crater half-way up the Bisoke volcano. Our guide began to make vocalizations to announce our arrival and that we meant to harm. “rrraaa-hummm, rrraaa-hummm.” All of a sudden, there was a huge amount of rustling in the trees next to us. The guide and I were suddenly face to face with a 600 pound gorilla. The silverback had come to say hi. Directly behind us was a sudden drop into the crater; squeezing my hand, the guide and I made ourselves as small as possible as the big guy brushed by us. After what seemed like an eternity, he went off in another direction to see what our next move would be.

With my heart racing, I was excited to see the rest of the group. Not far off, we could hear more rustling in the trees. Above us, another male gorilla climbed into one of the trees and started to peel the bark and chow down. Soon, a few young ones came round to see what all the commotion was about. Once they realized it was just some bald albinos come to stand and stare at them again, they went back to wrestling each other. I can’t imagine what they think of us. What strange behaviour for an animal to do nothing but stare at them with seemingly no purpose whatsoever? I know one thing for sure, these gorillas blew me away and I could have spent ages up there on that volcano with them Every thing they did mesmerized me. When I caught a glimpse of the recently newborn baby, I was absolutely elated. When they broke out in screams bickering over food, my adrenaline began pumping. Every second was amazing. If I had left Rwanda without having been able to experience this moment I would have been kicking myself forever.

Rwanda, I will miss you. I have come to love you and all the people within. I’ll be back to see these gorillas again.


Doctor Anny

Some people choose their careers because it pays the best or because their parents pushed them into it. Some people just stay in school because they cannot think of anything better to do. Doctor Kahindo Muyisa Anny became a doctor because she was fed up with the amount of people left to suffer in silence because the hospital system just could not care for them. One of these people was Anny’s mother.

Growing up, Anny remembers how her mother was always sick. She had three cesareans and her first two births were still born. She continued to suffer from fistorectomy which essential means she had acquired an extremely painful hole down there. In addition, she had hypertension to top it off. Anny’s own experience with the hospital was of frustration. At age twelve, Anny developed myopia. She arrived early in the morning and waited until the sun had set. She had been skipped on the list and never treated. She swore to herself that if she became a doctor she would fix the system.

When Anny started university, her parents were lucky enough to help her with her school fees. However, their funds quickly ran out and she was left to find money in other ways. With what money she had, she bought some baby pigs which ranged at ten dollars a piece. Before, after and between classes, Anny took care of her pigs. Soon she was making enough by selling baby pigs of her own that she could pay for her classes.

After graduating, she began working at the Kyondo hospital. Soon after, she met and fell in love with Pierre Kakule Vwirasihikya the coordinator of the Tayna Nature Reserve. When they got married, she moved to Goma and found a job at the Goma Provincial Hospital. In addition to working, she takes care of seven kids, five of which are Pierre’s from his late wife.

In 2003, she began working for the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International in charge of the ecosystem health program. In this position, she is responsible for a large amount of projects such as an orphanage that feeds and bathes children of war who go to school within the center. There is also a program for widows where the women are being trained to raise pigs just like Anny. She is also in charge of coordinating a program that ensures that communities around the reserves are getting enough protein. For each family, they are given either a sheep or a goat. In addition she is also in charge of theTayna Muyisa Primary School.

Despite the enormous amount of responsibility she has for the programs and her family, Doctor Anny is very satisfied with her job. “It is a pleasure for me to be a part of DFGFI. I can be a doctor and take care of many parts of the community,” she says, “Everyone has a place in the picture of conservation.”

A day and a half. I had a day and a half to interview a whole village.  There is so much going on at the Tayna Nature Reserve in the DR Congo that I could spend an eternity discovering all the different ways each individual helped out.  In essence, the reserve was created by the coming together of people dedicated to the success of the project; therefore, not one person could be overlooked when talking about its creation and expansion.



Guillaume  Kambale Kioma, Program Director for Research at Tayna Nature Reserve (TNR), worked alongside the TNR Program Coordinator Pierre Kakule Vwirisihikya at the Virunga National Park many years ago.  For ten years, Guillaume and Pierre worked through dangerous circumstances.  The Park is a battle ground between rebel groups, charcoal dealers and poachers.  Despite constant threat, Guillaume and Pierre stayed on often without pay.  When Pierre began the Tayna Nature Reserve Project with DFGFI, Guillaume immediately joined in.  “It is better to do community reserves because the population benefits,” he says, “People are less likely to attack the community based reserves because they have a vested interest in it.”  In contrast to his previous job, his post as Program Director of Research would require no guns.  Because the DR Congo is such a mountainous place, the Tayna Reserve survives largely undisturbed by the civil war waging to the south.  Tayna has grown so much in the past years that it now encompasses 90,000 hectares with four stations around the park for the trackers. 



While all the villages are committed to helping to making the reserve work, funds are always the main problem.  The trackers need brick houses because the current ones are made of mud and they do not have any electricity or potable water at all the stations.  They are also in need of more technical staff and more men in the field.



The feeling of community is overwhelming.  Everyone is dedicated to the success of the reserve.  I know that this month everyone is going to be working extra hard… the road needs to be repaired!

300 orphans

Unbeknownst to the rest of the world, over 300 orphans in the middle of the Democratic Republic of Congo were singing and dancing to their hearts content.  The sound was deafening and amazingly infatuating.  All I wanted to do was dance with them until the day was out.  “We say welcome to you. We say welcome to Tayna Reserve! We are happy, happy! We are happy, happy, happy, happy happy!” They sang to us in almost perfect unison.  One blow of the whistle: tweet “Ready!” tweet “Ready!” tweet “Ready! Ready! Ready! For conservation!” they all yelled their school motto excitedly.




The Muyisa Primary school is one of the many results of the Tayna Nature Reserve.  The school is funded by the entire community through the reserve with the help of the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International.  Each one of these students is an orphan of either war or AIDS.  They come from far and wide with some kids walking some 5km to school each day over mountainous terrain.  When they arrive they each pile into their classes.  There are around 60 kids all sharing a class where they learn about such subjects as math, French, English, science, geography, religion, culture and, of course, conservation.



The school master and English teacher Kakule Nguru is very proud of his job.  The school was founded in 2005 and he took the position in 2007.  His biggest worry is that next year will mark the first graduates and they will need a secondary school.  “The people will help build the school but they are poor,” he says.  When something needs to be built in the community, every family helps out but the meagre funds they are able to pool often does not meet allow them to achieve their goals.  That is where DFGFI comes in. However, even with DFGFI’s help, there is often not enough.  There is also a need for an orphanage where the orphans can stay.  While the children are provided a meal and are cleaned when they get there, they are not always well cared for at their foster homes. “You can never truly be an orphan here; there is always some relative who will take them in but they are not cared for and as you can see they are very dirty,” he says.



With another beat of the drum, the children are dancing again and Nguru joins in.  It is very evident that he cares a great deal about these kids.  To be quite honest, being around them, it is quite hard not to.


Stepping out the door on my first morning in the Tayna Nature Reserve was breathtaking.  Everywhere I looked there were rolling hills covered in forest and mist.  In the distance, one could hear the dancers still dancing from the night before.


The Tayna Nature Reserve is at the forefront of conservation innovation.  The idea is simple: instead of forcing the population surrounding a park out with guns, give them reason to celebrate and embrace it.  Let the people become the benefactors and know why they need the reserve. This is called Community Based Conservation. The founder of this concept is Pierre Kakule Vwirasihikya.



Pierre was born and raised in the city of Butembo, which is the closest urban center to the reserve today.  After finishing high school, he left for Goma where he worked as a guard at the Virunga National Park.  Three years later he was chosen to go to Cameroon where he would study about conservation for the next two years.  His dedication to conservation fortified and when he returned to the Virunga National Park he became Chief Warden.  His job as Chief Warden put Pierre very often in grave danger; the civil war was waging and is continuing today.  The park was and still is under threat by rebel groups and poachers.  After ten years in this post, Pierre realized that if he truly wanted to make a change he would have to take charge. In 1997, Pierre quit his job in order to try and establish a community reserve for his home region.


His first step was to talk to the chiefs of two villages next to the forest.  “They said it is difficult and that benefits go elsewhere and are not recycled into the community,” says Pierre.  These were legitimate concerns, based upon previous conservation attempts in DRC, and Pierre decided that the only way the forest could be protected was if it benefited the community; thus, the concept of a community based nature reserve was born.  Batangi and Bamate became the first two villages to donate land for the reserve.  In 2000, the first general assembly for the Tayna Gorilla Reserve took place.   The assembly agreed that if the reserve was to exist, the finances must be used for development and that in no way should the rangers carry arms.  For the first time in the DR Congo, a forest was going to be protected without the use of guns.



In 2001, the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International was approached for help and offered to seek funding for the project and provide technical training and legal guidance.  By that time, the reserve was functioning.  The guards and guides were being funded completely by the coordinators and the chiefs.  With DFGFI financial and technical support, Pierre worked on a committee to expand the project.  By 2003, basic medical care, orphanages (needed because parents died from war and disease) and numerous other developmental projects were being supported.  In the same year, in order to ensure that the children of the chiefs and landowners were trained in conservation, a university was built.  The Tayna Center for Conservation Biology University (TCCB) was started with 21 professors on subjects relating to conservation and community development.  In 2006, the University was formally accepted by the DRC Ministry of Education and the subjects expanded to six faculties including medicine. In 2007, 67 students graduated with their bachelor’s degrees.


The Tayna reserve has been so successful that other communities have come to Tayna to learn about establishing similar reserves.  Pierre now sits as Executive Secretary of the Union of Associations for Gorilla Conservation and Community Development in Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (UGADEC).  The Union brings together eight community reserve association which all put money towards developing their area. Two of the eight community based reserves are recognized by the DRC government as “Protect Areas” which have the same rights as national parks but are managed by the communities. The other six reserves are in various stages of development to meet their conservation goals to be legally recognized as protected areas.



In 2004, a Regional Health Clinic was built in order to treat students and local people.  It has since grow considerably and is able to service the entire community and functions to link rural smaller health clinics and provide essential regional life-saving treatment.  In addition, a radio was constructed so that students in journalism could practice their studies and could broadcast on information on conservation and health.  A year later, a primary school was established specifically for the many orphans caused by AIDS and war.


It’s almost impossible to exaggerate the impact Pierre has had on these communities.  He has persevered despite the destructiveness of war and poverty.  There is still a great need to invest in DFGFI community initiatives which can become sustainable to reward people for their commitment to conservation. Pierre says, “The point of Tayna was to alleviate poverty and for strangers to come visit through ecotourism initiatives,” says Pierre, “we are proud of our forests and their amazing biodiversity. We are grateful that DFGFI would help us when no one else was interested.”

Arriving in DRC

My first day in the Congo was a day of sitting in various seats while the world moved around me.  I’m not sure why travelling makes people so tired and cranky.  People sit in a chair all day most of the time anyway either in front of a computer or a T.V. Got up early in the morning so I could be fresh and prepared for when Dr. Alecia Lily came by to pick me up.  She is the Vice-President of the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International and the President of Africa Programs.  However, it turns out that getting up early was a bit optimistic since when the car finally did come round to pick me up it was over three hours late.  When travelling to other countries, I am always aware of the stark contrast between concepts of time.  North America is obsessed with punctuality and getting things done on time.  I have a particularly jumpy personality and so even I am too punctual for most people in Canada.  I have a knack for showing up to things way too early because I am always convinced that the bus into downtown Montreal will never show up and this is most often the case.  Just a side note for anyone interested, I have a deep loathing for the Société de Transport de Montréal.  At any rate, I have no reason to complain about people elsewhere being on Africa time.  Because the DR Congo is not a place for tourists, it’s pretty lucky that Alecia is allowing me to tag along while she visits the programs going on at the Tayna Nature Reserve.



Getting to Tayna takes time.  It’s about an hour’s drive to the Congolese border from Ruhengeri and about another hour just purchasing the visa and getting through immigration.  Once on the other side, you are in Goma which is a bustling city eclipsed by a volcano and sitting prettily next to Lake Kivu.  There are whole sectors of the city sitting atop black volcanic rock left over from the last time the lava flowed through a few years ago.  The thing that stands out the most in Goma is the sheer amount of UN forces stationed there.  Everywhere you look there is a jumble of blue turbans from the Sikh division of the peacekeepers who are being trucked around the various parts of the city.  While waiting for the car to bring me to the airport, I sat outside my hotel watching peacekeeper after peacekeeper jog by for their morning exercise.  Because of the insecurity occurring within and around the Virunga National Park, the next part of our journey was by plane.  A few hours later we arrived in Butembo where we all piled into a truck to drive the rest of the way.  Now by the time we got to this step, the sun had gone done and this made for an interesting journey.  To say the road was in disrepair is to put it lightly.  There were some holes in the road that were half the size of our vehicle.  Without any seatbelts or even proper seats, we were heaved from one side to the other for the next four hours.



Looking out the windows was certainly enough to concern anyone not used to the wilderness.  All you could see beside the blackness is the density of the trees.  We were truly in the deepest darkest Africa.  All of a sudden a light was seen in the darkness.  Then the soft sound of drums could be heard in the distance.  As the sound grew louder, voices could be heard as well.  Upon rounding a corner, we saw them: a group of dancers moving to the beat of the drums.  They had apparently been dancing all day waiting for our arrival.


After some supper, I settled right into bed.  I had arrived in the unknown.  I eagerly awaited the morning sun.

It’s about time

OK, OK. So I guess I should post something about my little trip to the Democratic Republic of Congo. Here is a very large article for your reading pleasure.  I know you all read these top to bottom and then go off and research exra information about it all… right?