Archive for June, 2022

Dispatch from Rwanda – May 23-25, 2022

June 5, 2022

On the 23rd of May, we transited west from Kigali along one of Rwanda’s radial asphalt spokes, past the royal seat of the abolished Mwami, from the merely hilly into the properly mountainous, and descended into the nebulous Albertine Rift among shoeless men who straddled the frames of their bicycles downhill at breakneck speeds (no feet on the pedals, striking exaggerated poses of thoughtfulness), children kicking soccer balls made from inflated condoms wrapped in plastic bags and covered with stitched banana peels, Alpha and Omega buses dangerously careening the s-curves, flipped freight trucks being uprighted, survivorless, with crowds of thick ropes. Colobus monkeys and duikers sheltered from rain on the roadside, punctuated by uniformed soldiers armed with AK-47s or tactical shotguns who patrolled the edge of the Nyungwe forest, and looked up at us from WhatsApp occasionally, disinterestedly, as we flashed by. 

We were ultimately deposited on top of a lush local topographic maximum overlooking Lake Kivu and, across it, the Democratic Republic of Congo. 

We spent the next morning (literally) running up and down mountain steeps behind a wizened, machete-wielding pygmy, tracking camera-shy chimpanzees through a barely penetrable fragment of the oldest, largest montane rain forest in Africa. 

Driving back down to the Top View, I had what I thought was a (mystic? Suprematist?) vision of a giant black cross floating among achromatic clouds in the distance. As it turns out, it was a cruciform methane extraction plant in the middle of Lake Kivu: a pilot project meant to tap hydrocarbon gasses that are dangerously pressurizing its lacustrine depths to the brink of limnic eruption for purposes of local energy production. 

That afternoon, we returned to Nyungwe proper. In the building where we hired our guides, they have the skull of the last elephant to have lived in the forest – shot to death in a bog by poachers in 1999 – mounted on a dais. The plan, now that they have poaching under control in that area (as they do throughout most of the country), is to reintroduce elephants within the next few years. Swapping snake stories and spotting an occasional Rift endemic, we set out in a downspatter for some sweet new sky bridges the park has slung up seventy meters (i.e., twenty-three stories) high in the canopy – which makes them either the tallest or second-tallest structures in Rwanda, depending on whether you count the spire on a skyscraper in Kigali.

Either way, they afford a hell of a view. 

Our last morning in-country, we 4x4ed a narrow, treacherous track of busted rocks and (soon-to-be-flowing) mud up and around a mountain on the edge of Nyungwe that 60,000 people were slaughtered on the flanks of in just one hundred days during the 1994 genocide – past menthol orchards and tea plantations caffeinating the Commonwealthy everywhere (else), and community work parties, and tiny kids with baby goats on verges overlooking our vehicular folly screaming, “Mzungu!” (“White people!”) or, open-palmed, “Money!”, and the occasional bare-chested man shuffling downhill with a whole tree balanced on his head, or people pushing old bicycles laden with hundreds of pounds of whatever uphill through mud crevasses, or heaping piles of sun-baked bricks pitched onto the path because who the fuck is going to drive up _that_?! 

We parked in a meadow at 2300 meters and plunged into a buffer forest of exotics grown by the government as an arboreal sacrifice zone – to offer locals something other than the incredibly slow-growing indigenous trees to illegally log when,  in their acute poverty, they need to make ends meet. At the far edge, where the vegetation blurs back into Nyungwe’s, surrounded by a once-a-fifteen-year bloom of flowering trees, there is a muddy upwelling – a mere burble – beneath some dark green ground cover and a white orchid that is the farthest source of the Nile. 

A few feet past it, the water is already gaining stream. We each drank cupped handfuls of the river’s cold clear beginning. And that was that.

Dispatch from Rwanda – May 22, 2022

June 4, 2022

Having followed a female tracker (wearing a Coco Chanel backpack and carrying an AK-47) and a former poacher turned porter who hacked through tangled jungle up the flank of a volcano with his machete, our legs and arms burning with stinging nettles (and a spirit level of burst blood vessels bisecting my right eye where I’d caught a whipped branch) – at the portal to a densely thicketed enclosure near the tripartite juncture of Rwanda, Uganda, and the Democratic Republic of Congo – a 500-pound gorilla named Agashya stood in front of us and basically said, “I will fuck you up.” The guides vocalized gorilla sounds for a while. He thought about it and replied with “fine.” Then trundled off and let us hang out with his enormous 23-individual family without beating us to death.

So, permission asked, and explicit consent given.

Photo by Nicky Twilley.

Throughout the experience that followed we made noises like we were clearing our throats, to indicate we were homies. Whenever the babies got too close, we made a different gorilla noise to indicate they should move away. They mostly did.

Gorillas getting pissed.

That said, I was playfully, repeatedly, punched and kicked by the larger juveniles feeling their oats. All of them were drunk as lords from chewing bamboo shoots that ferment in their guts. As I told Eva, who asked if they were scary: they were, sometimes, but they were also tender, and mischievous, and – at the risk of mistranslating their emotions into our own based on false cognates – loving. Of each other – not of us, of course. We were just a troop of scrawny, wretched-looking, occasionally amusing primates they put up with during their siesta.

After an hour, it was time for us to clear out. The second largest silverback, who the guides call “VP”, let us know this in no uncertain terms. First by charging me.

Wait for it…

Then, his final pronouncement. Crank your audio for this one. It might win me a Pulitzer.