Earlier this year I went to Rwanda with my family. We travelled to the Parc National des Volcans to see the gorillas.
We got up early to drive to the centre where a local dance troupe beat drums and sing and dance. My cynicism is washed away in the music, in their obvious enjoyment of of the dance: jumping and grinning.
We are put in a group with two couples and alloted to a Gorilla family, drive to the beginning of the trail. There are two guides and we engage three porters from a nearby village to carry our small daypacks. Paying $10 to a porter means that men who used to poach gorillas are employed in their protection, and money goes straight into the local community. The gorillas are critically endangered so from a conservation point of view it’s important that the local community is convinced in the value of their protection. But it’s hard, when there’s such an unequal web of economic forces at play. For example, just for the pass, (excluding flights, accommodation and our guide) we paid over $2000 for a family of four (passes recently went up to $700), even our relatively well off guide shakes his head at the cost. What do the people in the local village – mud houses, the women tilling the soil with a baby tied to their back –think of our extravagance? When you’re struggling to survive it makes sense that you would weigh up the gorillas and your own children and pick your children. In that equation poaching makes sense. In that little pocket of forest and mountain everyone’s on the edge of something.
We climb through terraced farmland, where the crush of our feet releases the scent of herbs. When we reach the border of the forest we are joined by four trackers with guns to scare awawy buffalo or bush elephants. My first jungle: mud and stinging nettles, the path straight up over rocks and slush. Mist. The porters turn out to be a godsend on the muddy, nearly vertical slope. One holds my hand the whole way, carrying my camera under his jacket like an injured bird. We hear the gorillas, leave our bags and continue on. and then, in a thicket of stinging nettles, a little black face.