Posts Tagged ‘ngo’

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.


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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.”

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Bisate School

“Muzungu! Muzingu!” all the children shouted as I arrived at the primary school in Bisate. My guide today, Joseph Karama, the manager of the Education Program for Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund international, turned to me and said, “Do you know what they mean? They are shouting: White person! White person!”  When travelling, most people resent the fact that locals will always treat them as an outsider and always will consider them as much  no matter how well they assimilate into the culture. I’ve felt this way many a time before but have come to accept the fact that my pale skin and blond hair makes me stick out like a sore thumb.

 Bisate kids

The kids swarmed us as we got out of the truck to meet the director of the school, Ndayambate Michel.  The school was split between several small buildings that housed the classrooms. It was built in 1972 by the ministry of education and provides schooling for 1,700 children, but until recently had few resources and poor sanitation.  There were only six toilets for the students and teachers to share, which meant there was one toilet for around 285 people.  The Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International has since funded 25 more toilets, bringing the number of people sharing a toilet down to 55.  This number is still high and there are plans to add more in the future once enough funding can be secured.

 New toilets







Water Tank


In addition, the Fund installed two water tanks last year. Water is hard to acquire around this area and the conditions are therefore very unsanitary.  These tanks collect and store rain water. This is very useful, since the area gets a great deal of rain throughout the year.


Fifth Grade 

With help from Partners in Conservation, the Fund has provided writing materials, notebooks, geometry kits, science books, an atlas and the Hobe newsletter that is written specifically for kids up to the age of 6. The soccer teams also have new uniforms and the school has received a suitcase filled with puppets of all the local animals to teach conservation education. Joseph added that the Fund has just ordered bicycles for all the teachers. This resulted in big congratulations all around and lots of excitement.  Plans also in the works include new solar panels that will provide electricity for the school.  The roofs also need to be replaced since the ones that don’t collect rain water are still made with asbestos and can also be used for collection in the future.  There is also a need for new classrooms, since the secondary school is presently borrowing several of their classrooms.  The construction will cost $75,000 in total.



Director of the School

The director of the school is fairly new and was very happy to work for a school supported by the Fund: “When I first came here, I was pleased to hear that it is supported by the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International.  The Karisoke Research Center has given over 12,000 books, which is an opportunity other schools don’t have.  This school will be excellent.”



Two Students


His hopes are high and he tells me that eventually he would like to see a computer lab built for the secondary school and to have a sheep cooperative for the teachers to improve their lives.  I too hope that these can become reality. It’s only a matter of money. It always is just a matter of money.

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BisateMany things can be said about Rwanda but it certainly is not flat. The drive to the Karisoke Research Center wound up and down the hills of the countryside. The driver knew the route well and sped past the many trucks that putted along the small road. Like a rag doll, I was thrust either towards the mountain or the cliff with each snaking turn. I lay back and took in the scenery as we raced along.


We arrived at the office just before noon. I was briefly introduced to everyone and allowed to put away my bag. Then I was off to Bisate, where I would be meeting Jean Peter, the water and sanitation consultant. Bisate is the community closest to the forest where the gorillas live and, therefore, also to the people who have the most contact with them. Gorillas are known to come into the area and human parasites can easily infest a gorilla.

CNN camera crew

When I arrived at the Bisate clinic, CNN camera crews were already there. Jean Peter apologised, saying that they had come at the last minute and would be gone soon. I couldn’t help but feel overwhelmed by the sudden change in my surroundings since I set out that morning. I had arrived in a much colder, rainier part of Rwanda where I knew practically no one. My French seemed to be of little help as well.


Once Jean Peter was done with the reporters, he came over to show me around. The clinic is small but fully functional. It was a miracle it was there at all. Originally, the clinic did not have clean water or adequate sanitation. In addition, it had a rat infestation caused by improper disposal of placentas and body parts, and only 15 to 20 people could be served per day.


wound dressing room, Emmanuel Mpabwanimana

Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International became involved with the clinic in 2006. Jean Peter explained that conservation could not work unless the communities surrounding the conservation area were taken care of. Lack of medical care is directly related to gorilla welfare and it is essential to “break down this channel of transmissions.”

toiletsThe clinic has seen huge improvements since the Fund began to implement its Ecosystem Health Programs which help fund new equipment and the training of the medical staff. Every bed has a mattress, and the maternity roomWater tanks has new equipment and is getting a new delivery table. There is a consultation room, laboratory services where HIV/AIDS tests can be performed, a wound dressing room, a pharmacy, a maternity room, a delivery room and a room for hospitalized patients. The clinic does vaccinations, prenatal consultation, family planning, health education and a nutritional program. The clinic now serves 50-70 people per day and 17,401 people in the entire community. There are nine new toilets, with two reserved for hospitalized patients. Many universities have come to work with the clinic: MIT helped install the water tanks that collect rainfall; Dartmouth University installed a biogas project that would use the gas created by the latrines to heat a stove; and most exciting of all, Columbia University is helping the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International to install solar panels.

Even with all these improvements, conditions are still cramped. All patients in hospitalization are lumped into one room right next to the maternity room. Plans for the future are to build a new house that would separate men, women, and children, but it requires funding. Hopefully, the clinic will be able grow much more . The people of Bisate as well as the gorillas can only benefit.

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31st May – 1st June

My room at the DFGFI office 

I was tired. It had been a whirlwind past few days. I had flown to Amsterdam from my hometown Montreal in Canada and a few days later I rode in to Brussels by train. In comparison to the vibrant and bright city of Amsterdam, Brussels was drab and filled with tourists in fancy restaurants next to even fancier old buildings. It made me even more tired and disoriented. The flight took 7 hours and it was not until the warm air of Kigali hit my face that I truly realized I was here: I was in Africa. Rwanda will be my home for the next two months as I intern for Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International. It is my duty to record what I find and let the outside world know how the program works.


When I arrived at the office, I was greeted by Dr. Alecia Lilly who is the V. P. of Africa Programs.  With a warm greeting and an even warmer smile, she immediately made me feel at home. I’ve never been so at ease in a foreign country before and I slept easily that night.


Normally I am an early riser but the travelling had taken its toll and I woke up only an hour before my tour. After a nice breakfast, my tour guide, William showed up to escort me around town.  He pointed out all that may be of interest to me. Every now and then I would see a construction site, which was evidence of a country still in the process of rebuilding itself. A million people live in Kigali and I couldn’t imagine how the city must have looked before the genocide.  Everywhere you looked there would be a motorbike taxi ready to transport you where you needed to go past the billboards that were reproductions of traditional art made from chalk, charcoal and cow dung. It’s a Sunday today and since the majority of the populace is Catholic or born-again Christians, most people are off to church.


William pointed out a building on a nearby hill with a black roof: That was the genocide memorial. Not only is understanding the genocide essential to my stay here but it is also essential to understand the people. The Rwandans people had been unified under one culture and language. It was not until the colonial powers came that a socio-economic divide was defined.  The classification by Belgians of who was a Hutu and who was a Tutsi would forever change the way Rwandan society functioned.  I was introduced to Serge who showed me around the memorial. The place was calm and peaceful which was in stark contrast to the reality of its symbolism. Beautiful gardens surrounded the mass graves where victims were given a proper burial. After the tour, I thanked Serge for his time and continued on my journey.


Me, Rachel and MikaWilliam drove me to meet Mika and her daughter Rachel for lunch. Mika is someone I am going to be working with a lot and I’m glad that is so. She and Rachel were great fun to meet and talk to. Rachel is an intelligent and well behaved girl who I became fast friends with. I work a lot with kids and have, as a result, quite a few opinions on what constitutes a good parent… which is arrogant, I know. At any rate, the way Mika behaves with her daughter is the ideal mother-daughter relationship. She encourages curiosity and guides her in a way that allows Rachel to retain her independence. I look forward to spending many a day with these two.

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