Posts Tagged ‘rwanda’

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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Now it’s hard to not have preconceptions about a country you hear so much about in the news.  For a country emerging from one of the most devastating events of the 20th century, you’d never expect the degree of normalcy that Rwanda gives off.  Now it’s easy to say such things as a Muzungu; the brevity of my stay just simply does not allow me the ability to delve much deeper than the superficial appearance of things.  Rwanda has progressed leaps and bounds since the 90s. One of the things that I was most surprised to discover when coming to Rwanda is the degree of gender equality.  Now I’m not saying this as if it is good in comparison to other African countries; Rwanda has a requirement that 30% of its government be made up of females and the actual number is above that. This is something not even Canada or the United States has ever achieved.  Because women are now seen as being breadwinners, poor families see a reason in sending a girl to school.  “Before, parents did not want to have girls; they were only good for having kids and cultivating,” says Hakuzimana Marcelline who is the coordinator of the clinic program for Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International, “Parents chose between kids to go to school and girls stayed home.”



Marcelline is one of the women who work at the Karisoke Research Center. She has worked as a nurse for 8 years and just started with DFGFI in May of 2008.  She trains other nurses and health animators on sanitation, nutrition and parasites.  Over sixty health animators go into the local population next to the Volcanoes National Park and check their health and talk to them about their living conditions.  Marcelline goes into the population as well and briefs people on toilets, washing hands, proper clothing and taking care of their bodies.




Today we are on the edge of the park in Bisate where we are going to see the water tank that was installed by the water and sanitation program of DFGFI.  The people who live next to the forest are the one with the most contact with gorillas. The need to ensure their health is a priority.  Because of the lack of clean water, parasites are common and it is Marcelline’s job is to make sure that anyone who is found with an infection be treated.



On the park frontier in Bisate, the well-off families have houses made of mud. The red mud that most houses are made from has to be shipped up by truck because the volcanic soil is too porous.  This can be a pricey endeavour so most houses are made of bamboo and covered in banana leaves.  When we arrive at the water tank there is a crowd gathered around the spout.  The dry season is just about to begin and I am aware that this crowd will be double the size once it does.   After walking around a bit, Marcelline pulls me over to show me something.  There has been a mischievous little one who has been defecating around the tank.  She gathers the kids together and gives them a small lecture on why it is so important to go in the latrine. “Parents have to teach their kids to protect themselves against parasites,” says Marcelline.



Marcelline is optimistic that the status of women will get even better with time. “For the moment, women are still low in society. There are not even many women who are nurses but now you see women in all different fields: there are women drivers, managers and politicians.”

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A Trek through the Hills


Today, Simon Childs from DFGFI, Claire, Tierra, Mike Cranfield who is in charge over at the Mountain Gorilla Veterinarian Project, Dr Denise who is volunteering with the local clinic and me decided to trek up some of the many hills of Rwanda to see if we could find a waterfall that is renowned for being spectacular.


We started our journey by clamouring into the MGVP truck and setting off in the direction we hoped would get us to where we wanted to go.  Heaving from one side to another, we drove along the treacherous dirt roads that weaved along cliff edges.  After about an hour of driving, our truck just couldn’t go any further.  This was due to the 5 meter gap that barred the way.  This gap could only be crossed by a 2 meter wide wood bridge that didn’t look like it could hold the hefty load that was our truck.


Despite not remembering this obstacle the last time Mike saw the waterfall, we plough on by foot.  White people in town always attract attention; white people on a rural trail in the middle of nowhere attract a mob.  We were quickly surrounded with children and adults alike asking us the few phrases they know in English.  “What is… your name, the time, your job, your church?”


Mike, coming from the English part of Canada, often likes to make jabs at the fact that I come from the French side.  These jokes are harmless but the stuff that makes some French Canadians steam at the ears and go on tirades about the oppressive English.  However, on this occasion, he thought that perhaps my French may come in handy.  He instructs me to ask a few people if they might know anything about a waterfall nearby.  When I asked people if they speak French they almost always answered with an enthusiastic “Oui!” but only to receive blank stares when I asked about a waterfall.  I further explained that it was water that drips from the mountain with mike doing hand motions behind me that were meant to represent water falling down.  This inevitably got someone to start to show off his own dance moves once he saw Mike carrying on.  Hilltop farmers apparently do not feel the need to discuss about Descartes and croissants in French.


Despite not knowing where we were going, we happily trekked on through the mountain roads and enjoyed the scenery that being on a hill between two lakes provides.  As the sun begins to set, we were presented with a stunning view.  Tragically, as has always been my experience, photos just never do a landscape justice.  Obviously looking out of place, a very nice priest stops to ask us if we are lost.  His French is impeccable and he tells me very kindly that we have gone the wrong way to see the waterfall we seek.  After thanking him, we start to head back, not because we finally got confirmation of what we suspected to be true already but because the idea of a cold beer at this point was much too tempting.


When we get back to the truck after a gruelling uphill walk, we realize there is still one obstacle left on our journey: the trail we drove in on is only just wide enough to hold our truck.  At this point, kids are swarming around our truck and in an act of excitement; one kid completely breaks off our rear view mirror… on the driver’s side.  With a sigh, Mike takes the mirror and begins the difficult task of trying to navigate the rocky road in reverse.  We finally get to a fork in the road and turn the truck around.  After getting all the kids off our truck, we head off to the Virunga Lodge which sits atop the hill a little ways off.  The pricy lodge is absolutely stunning and the perfect place to have a beer and relax after a long day.  The price of the beer on the other hand is astronomical which is why everyone is relieved that Mike had offered to pay for all our drinks for leading us all in the wrong direction.  As the sun continues to set, we marvel at the view.  Mike, reflecting back on the day, tells us: “That waterfall is really beautiful though if you do get to see it.”  Waterfall or no, the day was really something in itself.


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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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So I can’t really post anything about the programs here for now but I can (I think) post maybe about how well I’m being treated.  I’ve got to post something because I’ve noticed that the number of people reading this has dwindled from around 50 or so to about 5. I assume those 5 consist of my mom, my roomate, and the people at Karisoke who are interested to see if I posted anything about them yet.  If you’re really wondering what I’ve been up to or just plain hate to read or are a big fan of travel slideshow reels, you just need to look at my Flickr Page to see what pretty pictures I’ve taken recently. But then again, you wouldn’t be able to read any of my witty banter.

the researchers' houseAnyway, I’ve been living at one of the Karisoke houses that are the home to the non-rwandan part of the staff. For the moment, I live with Veronica Vecellio and Simon Childs. Veronica is the program coordinator of the gorilla research program and the house is essentially her home. She’s very kind to me and has been someone I look towards when I have a problem. Simon is a smart-alec British guy who’s in charge of the confiscated gorillas program. He pretty much hangs out with orphan gorillas all day. He’s the man to talk to if you want to go out and have a “night on the town” or else known as going to have a beer at the Muhabura hotel. Weekday nights are exciting here in Ruhengeri.

Karisoke Research Center

The rest of my time is spent at the office where I sit in the lobby with my computer or have interviews with the staff. You’ll hear all about them when the interviews are put up.

my office

Luckily enough there have been two other volunteers who are in Ruhengeri during the exact same time as me. Tierra and Clare are two Americans who are working with the Mountain Gorilla Veterinarian Project and they only live a block away.  Having people to share the experience who are both new as you are and the same age helps tremendously. Being the only young white girl around creates quite a stir and having other girls around certainly helps deflect at least some of the attention.

Clare sorting through years of MGVP gossip

However, my main source of company and who isn’t busy at any point in time is Miss. Goma, the house cat.  I’ve never met a lazier cat in my life but it suits me just fine because she does nothing else but lie around in my lap all day.


Well, now  you know how hard my life is. It’s been a struggle being taken care of so well but I think I’ll survive.

My backyard at night

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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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