From Cover Girl To Saving The World
As newly appointed Goodwill Ambassadors, Ben Stein and I went on our first official trip with the African Wildlife Foundation. Because 2009 was declared "The Year of the Gorilla" by the U.N., we thought it was appropriate to begin our mission in Rwanda.It was an incredible experience! First day in Kigali (the capital of Rwanda) we visited The Genocide Memorial Center. The people of Rwanda are proud of where they stand today. But the reality of genocide is still very much part of their everyday life. The horrific stories and memories of those we met in The Genocide Memorial Center just left us speechless.
However, the focus is on the future of Rwanda, not the past. This is a country with a stable political environment and enormous dedication and patriotism. The discrimination or division of ethnicity between Hutus and Tutsis has no place in their lives today. They all said to me: "Today we are simply Rwandans." A nd I had so much respect for that simplicity!We also experienced a taste of Kigali's nightlife and we had so much fun! We had a fantastic dinner at the restaurant "The Republika" and later we went dancing at "The B-club." I thought I knew how to dance, but soon I was taught by one of our new friends "Manzi" how to do the "African move" properly. I realize today, it will take many more dancing lessons, before I can go back to The B-club.
The following day was very exciting. With minor headaches, we were headed to The Virunga National Park. It took us a few hours to get there, but to my surprise the road was in good condition. The landscape is just breathtaking. For good reason Rwanda is called "the land of a thousand hills." It is very green, clean, and rich in agriculture! They plant crops on every open inch of hills and the soil is very rich in nutrients.We finally made it to our destination. The Sabyinyo Silverback Lodge is located right below one of the 5 volcanoes in the area, Sabyinyo volcano. It was built two years ago with the help of AWF, USAID, and other partners.
The next morning we went to track the mountain gorillas. It was 5:30am and we were up and going. I thought there was a very slim chance for us to find them as there is only 750 of them today, spread between Democratic Republic of Congo, Uganda, and Rwanda. But the rangers of the National Park have a great system in place and do this every day. So after two hours we got lucky! For the first time in my life I saw a mountain gorilla! And it was magical!
Yes, I was scared at one point because you get so close to them! But after awhile you realize they are peaceful creatures. The babies were very playful. The Silverback, largest male gorilla in the group, is very calm, yet always observing. He sits like the king. They eat so much! All the time! You can feel they physical power as they break the bamboo shoots. But their facial expressions are tender and on occasion flirtatious.
We had three days with three different mountain gorilla groups. They all behaved differently. I felt like Dianne Fossey at times.We have learned so much! One of the people who shared with us the most incredible stories about gorillas was AWF's own Craig Sholley. He is a wildlife biologist and conservationist who is renowned for his work with the International Mountain Gorilla Project in Rwanda. As mountain gorillas do attract a lot of tourists, Craig fought hard to protect the gorillas from over-exposure. He helped implement the rule where a vistor's group cannot exceed 8 people and the time spent with gorillas cannot be longer that 1 hour per day! He was "the super star" in Virunga. E veryone we met there just knew his name! E very ranger recognized him and had much respect for him and his work achievements in the Park.
We also spent time speaking with the members of the local community. In the Virunga mountains, tourist pay top dollar for the privilege of tracking mountain gorillas. When local communities benefit from tourism, they have more incentive to protect gorillas. The Sabyinyo Silverback Lodge is partially owned by the local community.
AWF helped structure a loan so that interest payments will only be triggered by income. In business terms, it is a subordinated equity deal. In conservation terms, it is a precedent that could open the way for conservation tourism development across the continent! The income from the Lodge is managed by SACOLA trust, that represent more than 6,000 households in the area. A fter our stroll through the village sitting right below the lodge we have realized how much the locals have benefited already only after two years! There is a brand new road which helps everyone to commute better. They have built new water wells in each village...and the aspirations are to bring electricity to their homes.All that thanks to Sabyniyo Silverback Lodge, and us tourists, who visit and pay!It was so sad to leave! But we had so many meetings the following day in Kigali and a plane to catch!We were kindly invited by the US Ambassador to Rwanda, W.Stuart Symington, to his home where we shared our views on protecting wild life, Rwanda's relations with USA, and Rwanda's future.
We also had the privilege to meet with Ms. Rosette Chantal Rugamba, Head of the National Office for Tourism and National Parks. We had an interesting discussion with her and Craig Sholley on securing the lives of the mountain gorillas and the influx of tourism due to safety and stability in the country. We also had the pleasure to meet with Mr. Francis Gatare who is the new Personal Representative of President Paul Kagame. Over nicely cooled, local beer, we shared with him our experience in Rwanda. He provided us with information about the country's achievements over the past 15 years, since the genocide. We talked about the presence of women in the local parliament and about the security situation in the county. We also discussed the system of community justice, called Gacaca, as well as the growing economy.
My fellow goodwill ambassador Ben Stein and I were at the end of our journey in Rwanda. But this shall not be our last visit! We've made so many friends there! We will be back:)