The gorilla was watching intently

by francine Hardaway on February 27, 2005

The gorilla was watching intently as Daniel approached Samantha. The rest of the trekkers in Rwanda’s Volcano National Park stood by. Sam was shaking. Daniel put a bracelet on her hand, a gift for their two-year anniversary. She didn’t even look at it as she said to him “can’t you find a better time?” She was trembling because the gorilla seemed to be growling or yelling.

Thus,two of the participants on our East African Leadership Safari, my daughter and her boyfriend, got engaged in Rwanda, in the middle of a gorilla trekking expedition with fifteen other gorillas and eight other humans in attendance. Welcome to eco-romance.

Daniel made Sam read the bracelet –on which were written the words “Will you marry me?” before he gave her the engagement ring. The gorilla witnessed.
Yes, in my mind that stole the show from the gorillas, but the gorillas weren’t bad either. It’s clear that the theory of evolution has merit.

After we got up at 5 AM and discovered that our hotel turns the electricity off over night, we piled into the vans (again) and drove down perhaps the bumpiest roads yet to the park — and that’s saying something! (Have I told you this trip is not for wusses?)

Volcano Park is at the border of Congo, Rwanda and Uganda. We had to sleep in Rwanda because the Rwandans want the tourist dollars and won’t let you go trekking unless you spend one night there. Our hotel had armed guards patrolling the perimeter all night.

Clearly the political problems in Rwanda have made them need money, so the permit is pretty pricey, too: $350 USD. But it is worth it.

There is a Rwandan farming village in the park, where the residents grow daisies for their insect repellant value, as well as potatoes for food. There’s a rock wall at the edge of the village that abuts the mountains where the gorillas live; its purpose is to keep out the elephants and the buffalo from the forest so they won’t eat the products of the farm. (A buffalo wall has a narrow pass through which a human can fit but a buffalo cannot.)

We entered the forest with two armed guards whose duty was to protect us from animals other than gorillas that might cross our paths, although we didn’t see any. The guards also protect the gorillas from poachers who try to steal the babies and sell them to zoos in other countries.

Our first sighting was a mother with a baby, and she could not have cared less about us. She continued to feed herself and at one point even turned over on her back and laid down with the baby. We also saw an adult male who had lost a hand. And then, the “piece de resistance,” a silverback. We all had to duck under a fallen log, and when we came out the other side, we were a foot from his back. When we walked around to his front, we saw how enormous he was.

He just sat there feeding himself and ignoring us, as though we were in the presence of a deity. And then, after we had time to take pictures and study him, he got up, turned around, and walked away from us down through the same hole we came through to find him. We took a detour back.

Tomorrow is the last day of our trip, and we end up in the capital of Rwanda, Kigali, where we get on the plane for Nairobi and home. It has been a real eye-opener to see what is happening in East Africa — the beauty, the poverty, the community, the digital divide, and every other paradox you can imagine. I’m not sure it’s describable if you haven’t been there, although I plan to share my photos as soon as I get them downloaded and edited.

I couldn’t leave off without one serious comment: the UN has a very large presence in Africa, but I don’t see the results. It appears to be a very big bureaucracy full of people who want to tell the Africans what to do, but don’t weem to do anything themselves. The UN people drive all the new cars and have all the best facilities. Yes, this view is probably controversial, but I’ve spent a couple of weeks here and I feel entitled to an opinion.

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