It all boils down to water
By some estimates, more than two billion people, a third of the the world’s population, are threatened by a scarcity of clean, potable water. And in a tiny swath of highland rain forest smack in the center of Africa, the last of the mountain gorillas, some 350 in all, are threatened as well.
It may seem enigmatic that gorillas living on the slopes of fertile volcanoes that receive rainfall almost every day could be in jeopardy over water issues. Mountain gorillas don’t even drink – they slake their thirst from a salad bowl of wild celery, thistles, nettles, and bamboo, But it is the richness of the environment that has preserved this rare primate, and that same richness may be the vital cause of its demise.
Greg Cummings, the fifteen-year director of The Gorilla Organization, believes there may once have been 1,000 [there are now more than that – ed] gorillas that roamed the Virunga Mountains. Gentle vegetarians, they had no predators, knew no borders, and lived in tropical affluence, all their needs supplied from the swaddling forest.
That all changed in 1902. A German officer, Robert von Beringe, was the first to sight and shoot a mountain gorilla, setting off an era of trophy hunting. (In a rude bit of eponymous taxonomy, the primate is named Gorilla gorilla beringei for the man who may go down in history as the catalyst for its extinction.) By 1925, at least fifty gorillas had been taken, and in a moment of progressive sanity the Belgian government established Africa’s first national park in the Virungas as a sanctuary for the gorillas.
Today, that sanctuary is divided into three parks in three countries, Uganda, the Congo, and Rwanda, and it is a fraction of its original size. And while today sport hunting no longer exists, other, more insidious forces are pushing the gorillas to the edge of extinction. Habitat reduction is the modern curse. The area that butts against the park boundaries in Rwanda is the most densely populated in Africa, some 400 people per square kilometer, and those people are desperately poor, living on less than a dollar a day. When I fly over Rwanda, it is like flying over a circuit board, with little delineation between farm plots and cattle ranches, and only the cloud-eating Virungas the exception. When the mists clear, the volcanoes look as though they have been draped with ragged green tablecloths, the only uncultivated land in the country. Rwandans have an average of six children per family, and there is no place left to go. In 1958, the park was 340 square kilometers; by 1995, it was reduced to 125 square kilometers, the rest lost to the match, machete, and plow. And, as with the people, there is no other place for the gorillas to go. None has ever reproduced outside this unique afromontane lair, none live in captivity.
“Greg Cummings argues that gorillas in fact may be a savior to the disenfranchised”
Even after the madness of 1994, in which a million people were murdered in a hundred days and another 2 million fled the country, Rwanda remains Africa’s most overpopulated country, with some 8.5 million people in a landlocked tract the size of Vermont. Some accuse the wildlife conservationists of neocolonial myopia. Why make all these efforts to save 350 gorillas when millions of people are pounding at the door of survival? Greg Cummings argues that gorillas in fact may be a savior to the disenfranchised. Gorillas have become a major tourist attraction – Rwanda hosted 25,000 visitors in 2005, generating twenty-six million dollars, and a portion of the revenues went to community-based projects to improve crop yields, education, and health care. Greg’s own organization raises significant money from a raft of American billionaires and funnels the cash to local endeavors that improve lives. “When I first came to Rwanda in 1992, I picked up a postcard that showcased the country’s wildlife, and gorillas were conspicuous in their absence,” Greg remembers. Few Rwandans had ever seen a gorilla or even an image of one. One of Greg’s goals, he says with tongue only slightly in cheek, is to help usher in an “all-singing, all dancing, gorilla-loving nation.” Gorillas may be the country’s greatest natural resource, and Greg contends that “if people champion and defend the gorillas, their own future is secured. Gorillas are Rwanda’s gold.”
But there is a blight that may be the dreaded knell for the survival of the gorillas, and in a seemingly oblique way it has everything to do with water. As we drive through the tropical savagery of an afternoon rainstorm, Greg explains why.
As in much of the developing world, where the human population has burst beyond its seams, people have slashed and burned the forests to plant. With the arboreal root system gone, the rich topsoil quickly washes away, and a natural catchment is gone. Run-off from the rain is immediate, and despite two rainy seasons here, villages have found themselves with not enough water to endure. “Today, the greatest illegal human incursions into the gorilla park are not poachers, not firewood seekers, not planters, but water gatherers,” Greg explicates. “Every day, villagers walk for hours deep into the park to volcanic sills and streams to fetch water.”
But how does that harm the mountain gorillas? Because just as avian flu, Ebola, even AIDS may be the scourge of the human race, novel diseases are the biggest threat to the survival of the little kingdom of gorillas. “The gorillas have few immunities, and exposure to villagers on a water quest can have dire consequences. Not long ago, eight gorillas were lost to measles. Others have died of flu, scabies, and other human-borne diseases, far short of their forty-five-year life expectancy. Some seven million years ago, we evolved from a common ancestor of these great apes, whose DNA is 97 percent shared with our own. A miniplague could wipe out the remaining gorillas in a flash, a portent perhaps of our own fate writ small.
The solution? Greg thinks it is providing a reliable source of freshwater to the communities surrounding the park, forestalling water quests into gorilla zones, lessening unsupervised contact. (When tourists make the treks, they are screened for coughs and ill-health symptoms, obliged to keep a distance of several yards from the apes, and not permitted to defecate near water in the sanctuary.)
The UN has designated March 22 as World Water Day, with a different theme each year (“Coping with Water Scarcity” in 2007). In that spirit, my colleagues and I have invested in Greg Cummings’s vision for helping the mountain gorillas of Rwanda by building a cistern that will collect rainwater and supply a dependable source of clean water for one of the human communities just outside the park. It is but one coin in a vast and complicated coffer of coexistence and species survival, but like a reservoir that shines like silver, it will be an asset that makes a difference. Actress-turned-environmental-activist Daryl Hannah is make the long trek to this equatorial outpost, a village that straddles the watersheds of the Congo and the Nile, and she, along with Greg Cummings, hopes to see the water flow not away to giant rivers, not away from the realm of the mountain gorillas, but into the cooking pots and mouths of Rwandans in the mists.
As we make the long, bumpy ride to the headquarters of Parc National des Volcans, our driver, Alex, wrestles the wheel like a captain in a typhoon, trying to miss not only the ruts but also the river of people pouring down this track. A great many of them are carrying yellow plastic jerry cans, water jugs, looking for the precious element. Some are on rusted bicycles with as many as ten jerry cans strapped to every available bar. Many are headed into the park on an illegal hunt to find the water that will help feed their families.
At one point, near the Mountain Gorillas Nest lodge and golf course, we stall at the edge of a craterlike fissure caused by erosions, its twisted mouth looking as though waiting for a catch. As Alex shifts gears forward and reverse, a hundred children surround the vehicle and press their faces against the glass; most are smiling as they reach out, palms up for some sort of acknowledgement. But others look angry, as though we are insulting them by driving past, as foreigners do each day, on $1,000-a-day safaris to see the gorillas. I am swept away with disorientation, as though we have veered off into an illusion, and don’t know what to do. I roll down the window, and a dozen hands push through as though trying to claw their way out of poverty. I offer a plastic bottle of water, and it is snatched away by one of the boys, as though it were a thousand francs, a fortune in this terribly oversubscribed piece of the world.
There is a constant tug of conscience and imperative here. We’ve come to meet the mountain gorillas and understand their plight, but it is impossible to not be affected by the human stories, and there are so many it simply crushes the psyche. It’s almost some sort of reverse caste system at work: it is the tiny population of gorillas that gets all the world’s attention, and millions in donations, while the seething sea of people is, in relative terms, marginalized and ignored.
“The UN has designated March 22 as World Water Day”
Once at park headquarters, we meet our guide, François Bigirimana, who has been tracking gorillas for twenty-six years and knew the famously misanthropic Dian Fossey. While studying gorillas from the late 1960s to the mid-1980s, Dr Fossey made it a personal crusade to stop the poachers, a campaign that brought would attention and may have led to her own grisly murder when she was macheted six times to the head in her bed just after Christmas 1985.
Just before this trip, I breakfasted with Peter Guber, the producer of the Fossey biopic Gorillas in the Mist, which he cites as the film of which he is proudest in a long catalog of features. He remembered that when he pitched the movie, the executives at Warner Bros. were skeptical of his conceit. He wanted to film the lead, Sigourney Weaver, in situ with the authentic gorillas for six weeks and then write the script around what actually transpired. “That’s backwards,” Guber was told, “We write the script, then hire actors in gorilla suits and film on a soundstage in London. Nobody will know the difference.” Guber prevailed, and viewers were awed by the verisimilitude. The film went on to inspire millions, fund several gorilla conservation organizations, and influence the hosting governments to make efforts to eliminate poaching.
To a degree it has worked. During Fossey’s era, the gorilla population shrank to about two hundred fifty, teetering on the brink of extinction. Now there are about three hundred fifty, but there is still loss to poachers, who kill gorillas to sell their heads for wall mounts, their hands for ashtrays, and their babies as pets. François says he caught a poacher three weeks ago who had crossed over from the Congo. The poacher had snagged a baby, and François returned it to the forest and put the poacher in jail. The more menacing poacher, though, is the father looking for bush meat to feed his family. He lays snares inside the park to capture duiker and bushbuck, and the gorillas sometimes step into one and end up losing a limb or dying from infection. And then there are the bamboo poachers who cut down one of the major food sources for the gorillas. François says if caught, bamboo poachers get five years in jail, antelope poachers get ten, and a gorilla poacher goes to jail for life.
After an orientation in a tin hut in the midst of a rainstorm, we begin our trek up the volcano in search of the Sabyinyo group of eleven gorillas. It is a slosh wading through thick primary forest, screaming at the stinging nettles as they stick through pants, shirts, even gloves. We tuck our pants into socks to keep out the safari ants and stop every few minutes to catch our breath in the thin air. We’re at 9,000 feet, winching ourselves upward through a matrix of mud and montane jungle.
After ninety minutes, we lurch over a ridge and practically into the arms of the largest silverback in Rwanda, Guhonda, thirty-five years old and 400 pounds, the alpha male of the Sabyinyo group, who is sucking water from a wild celery stalk. François makes a rolling grunt-hum, “Mmmmm,” and I repeat, as he says this is gorilla language for “I’m a friendly visitor.”
Guhonda lopes to a glen where seven members of his group are resting after brunch, and François guides us down to a gallery just a few feet away. For the next hour we watch and photograph with our array of digital cameras as the gorillas do their thing. Two babies, looking like plush toys, tumble and bite and roll about just as my own son, Walker, used to do as a toddler. The mothers patiently discipline and groom their charges, while Guhonda lounges in the middle of it all, the king on his thistle couch. Individually, they stare at us with their large, knowing eyes, and it seems as though we’ve stumbled upon a neighborhood of mirrors, or of lenses to a different time in our lives. While below the park the eyes of the young seem to telegraph a winter landscape in a tropic paradise, the soft, brown eyes of the gorillas speak of an unfallen place and time.
As we trip down the slippery volcano, Greg Cummings, who has made some fifty treks to the mountain gorillas, sums it up: “You come here with all this high-tech gear and think the gorillas will be impressed; instead you are overwhelmed by how much we’ve lost.”
“We’ve come to meet the mountain gorillas and understand their plight, but it is impossible to not be affected by the human stories, and there are so many it simply crushes the psyche”
When Greg recently met Bill Gates Sr., father of the Microsoft cofounder, at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and Bill learned that the fee for an hour’s visitation with the gorillas is $375, he balked: “That’s more than I get as a lawyer.”
Donations and fees to save the gorillas are in the millions of dollars each year. One billionaire benefactor, when told how many gorillas were the recipients of his largess, remarked, “I just gave enough to put up all the gorillas in Claridge’s [hotel] for a year.”
The money for gorilla salvation goes to many good works, such as training trackers, clothing and arming antipoaching squads, removing snares, researching behavior, even giving inoculations. But The Gorilla Organization, which Greg heads, is devoted to what he calls “a holistic solution,” one that invests in community development surrounding the park. His theory is that if the lives of the two and a half million people who live in the shadow of the Virungas are improved because of the presence of the great apes, they will come to say to the more shortsighted, “Hell, no. You’re not coming into the gorilla habitat. The gorillas are our bread and butter here.” And the gorillas’ presence is the reason for a local supply of clean water, as we are to witness.
“I think that sometimes environmentalists can be out of touch with the reality of poverty, of the challenges that face people who have just emerged from civil war. Wildlife conservation can’t happen in isolation,” Greg postulates as we trundle toward the village of Gitaraga, just below the 13,540-foot-high Muhabura volcano, home to several gorilla groups.
Greg’s organization employs what he calls gorilla tactics, investing in a number of community projects, such as farmer training for better crop yields, artisan schools so villagers can make handicrafts to sell to tourists, microcredit loans to entrepreneurs, environmental education, poacher reform, school building, and, especially significant today, the building of cisterns. “We’ve built twenty-six cisterns, all attached to the long roofs of schools, all within two kilometers of the park.” It’s the children who make the long, illegal journeys into the park to fetch water, the children who put the gorillas most at risk with exposure.
And as we grind up the last muddy hill to Gitaraga, it is the children who meet us, some fifteen hundred in all who attend this tiny, tin-roofed school. They come swarming to our vehicles, a sea of smiles, backdropped by the storybook volcano that looks lifted from a Japanese silk. None recognizes Daryl Hannah, who has lent her name and energy to this day and this project. But they make the connection between our presence and the construction that has been going on for the past fifteen days next to their school, a twenty-five-cubic-meter cistern that is in its final moments of fashioning, here in a village with no springs, no source of clean water within five kilometers.
Out of the ruck of cheering children emerges Peter Celestin Muvunyi, the lead engineer for the building of the cistern. He leads us down a path littered with yellow jerry cans to the new cistern. Peter is proud of his work, built in record time, and it is only the second in the series built with stones rather than brick. “It’s more expensive to build with stones, but it is better for our environment,” Peter boasts. “The bricks need to be cooked, and that requires cutting down trees to fuel the kiln, and fewer trees mean less catchment.”
The circular cistern is a beautiful sight, almost elegant in its simple design, bordering on art. A plastic pipe runs from the school roof eaves, feeding rainwater to the contained reservoir, which then releases its bounty through a spigot three meters from the base. It is here the children who used to walk so far each morning, missing school, will now find the water for their families, and that is more beautiful than art.
Like the black space between stars, the effectiveness of one more cistern on saving gorillas is difficult to measure. But at least one star is willing to believe theory over imprecise data. Daryl Hannah has flown halfway around the world to participate in the opening of this cistern because she is a supporter of World Water Day, and because the concept of being involved in a project that could contribute to the future well-being of mountain gorillas is irresistible. Daryl has most of her life been involved in saving animals. She grew up on the forty-second floor of a high-rise in Chicago, but even there when she found broken-winged birds and other small creatures in need, she would take them home and nurse them to health. When she was seven, her family was on a road trip and stopped at a restaurant off the freeway. She wasn’t hungry so she stayed in the car, but when she saw a trailer of cattle she wandered over and began to commune with a big-eyed calf. She spent a half hour petting and speaking with the young cow, and when the driver emerged she turned to him and asked the name of the animal. “At seven o’clock tomorrow, ‘Veal,’” the driver replied. Daryl never ate meat again and became a lifelong friend and savior to animals.
“Daryl Hannah has flown halfway around the world to participate in the opening of this cistern”
As an adult, Daryl has hugged a manatee, swum with dolphins, petted a moose, and been kissed by a wild wolf. Now she takes in strays and rescues animals of all stripes – dogs, cats, horses, turtles, tropical birds, even a South American tree frog she found in a Los Angeles swimming pool. So when, just a few weeks ago, I told her of our project to help finance a cistern at the edge of the gorilla habitat, working with Greg Cummings and The Gorilla Organization, she volunteered to help. “I’ve always wanted to see the gorillas!”
Now it is time. It is a preternaturally sunny day in a part of the world usually swirling in mist. There is a ribbon across the entrance to the cistern, and Daryl is presented with a china plate covered with embroidered linen. Inside is a pair of scissors, which she gently removes, and with which she attempts to cut the ribbon, which is stubbornly resistant. But after a few attempts, it falls away, and Daryl and the mayor and the governor and the director general of tourism and national parks, and all sorts of other keen parties, walk to the basin below the cistern, where a shiny silver tap awaits. Daryl is handed a plastic petrol container, which she positions to drink, As she turns the spigot, there is a sound like compression brakes. All of Gitaraga holds its breath; we all sense an intangible atmosphere of imminence, as though a huge charge of lightening is building up within a thundercloud. Then, a whoosh, and cool, clean, clear water issues forth. The sun strikes, the water bursts into a million gems… it is pure, pure magic. I reach my hand into the cascade and feel the vitality and power as it courses up my arm, into my chest, and up into my brain. The lives of several hundred families, and perhaps as many gorillas, are at this moment changed, even if by but a bucket’s worth in a wide and stormy sea.
And the gorillas themselves are too shrewd to talk…They have a healthy wariness about people in general and government people in particular. As one of them told me once, “If it got out that we can talk, the conservatives would exterminate most of us and make the rest pay rent to live on our own land; and the liberals would try to train us to be engine-lathe operators.”
– Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson, The Golden Apple
As a storm of people gathers to celebrate the cistern, I imagine the gorillas on the volcano above looking down in amusement, wondering among themselves what all the fuss is about.
More than two thousand Rwandans have come to the grounds of Gitaraga Primary School near the Ugandan border to rejoice in the new cistern, some from as far away as the capital, Kigali. There are film crews, photographers, dignitaries, a move star – is this the biggest thing to ever hit town.
There is a crude PA system with a swarm of feedback. There s an entire Goodwill store of fashion. There are speeches (they could use the Academy Award rules for duration) and thank-yous and acknowledgements. Failure is an orphan, success has many fathers, and we seem to have a whole haunt of silverbacks here today.
The governor, like the mayor before him, cites gorillas as the great natural asset that generates money for community projects such as this, and he stresses the gorilla habitat must be kept sacred. when the governor asks if anyone still hunts in the forest, an old man raises his hand and says he has been culling his subsistence from the park his whole life. The governor asks him to come forward and offers to buy him a hoe if he promises to stay out of the park. The old man is suspicious, but agrees only if the governor gives him the money right there, right now, and to the amusement of the crowd the governor reaches deep into his pocket and produces a few thousand francs.
This is an auditory country. There are no movie theaters in the shadow of the Virungas, no video stores, and the few televisions are in hotels for foreigners. Magazines and newspapers are rare; most people don’t even read. So the primary source for information is the radio. It was the radio that served as the critical tool to incite the genocide of 1994, provoking the ruling Hutu to kill neighbors, families, and friends, anyone with rival Tutsi heritage, up to a million in little more than three months. Now the radio is used to spread a different kind of propaganda, that of conservation and celebration of the gorillas, and it has infused itself into school curricula and the consciousnesses of young minds as the golden rule has for western schoolchildren.
When the speeches are done, the music and dancing begins. There are ingoma drums, choruses, and a one-stringed instrument called an indingidi, a sisal-snared fiddle whose sawer could beat Charlie Daniels to Georgia. All the songs are themed with water as the source of life. There is a kind of Rwandan rap, wherein a young girl from the wildlife club challenges her peers:
“You children, what is your plan now?”
“We want to live in a healthy Rwanda with clean water and a protected environment. Conservation is the only way we can protect the sources of life, of water and trees.”
“Who told you all this?”
“We are students, and we have our own club. Dian Fossey is also helping us to learn more about the wildlife of Rwanda.”
Then there is a peculiar rendition of “Jingle Bells,” with the words altered a bit for local relevancy but the spirit in some ways the same: “Because the cistern has come there will be no more sleeping without food. Because the cistern has come there will be no water you can’t cook. There will be lots of cleanliness now, and everything is going to be fine with the people of the area and of the kids of this school.”
Next there is a kind of ballet, simple yet expressive, dignified but provocative, a delicate poem of subtle arm movements, genteel turns, and graceful swoops, arms rippling, supple bodies undulating, a dance full of politeness, all set to customized lyrics: “Come and see. We are happy because we have water.” It seems a refined and elevated art, coming from one of the most remote villages on the planet. It seems so hard to draw the circle from preserving the gorillas by honoring the habitat through providing alternative sources of water for adjacent communities from money generated by gorillas, but somehow the music and dance do so elegantly.
The grand finale is the Ikinimba dance, a venerated bop that tells the stories of Rwandan kings and heroes, with rotating arm movements like rice blowing in the wind and impossible foot moves. I know, because the Rwandan dancers invite the American visitors to the floor, and most of us look like the “wild and crazy” Czech brothers attempting an interpretive dance to “Flight of the Bumblebee.” The exception is Daryl Hannah, who has the long limbs of a gazelle and chooses not to attempt imitation, but rather does her own funky pronk that somehow makes sense in a place that seems a physical manifestation of Jazz.
“ All the songs are themed with water as the source of life”
We end our day with a visit to His excellency Paul Kagame, the president of Rwanda. Greg Cummings wears a tie with more gorillas on it than survive in the Virungas, Daryl wears sneakers without shoelaces, and I don my only clean shirt, an ExOfficio Buzz Off. Paul Kagame lived in the Virungas for several years when he led the rebel Tutsi forces and made forays back and forth from Uganda. But during that time he never say a mountain gorilla. It wasn’t until he came to power in 2000 that he made a gorilla trek, a four-hour slog in the rain. When he saw the gentle giants in their own private demilitarized zone, he found religion. He went on record later that year saying that the nation’s two highest priorities were conservation and HIV prevention. So when we asked how he has managed to oversee a national change of conservation consciousness in the midst of so many pressing human problems, a transformation that has resulted in a lessening of poaching and encroachment and a significant increase in the gorilla population, he ties it back to the 1994 genocide. He has made a harsh-light policy of remembrance of that time, making sure people look into the face of evil and understand it so it cannot happen again.
“When something so horrible happens, it allows people to start over, to reevaluate priorities. Gorilla tourism is the third largest source of foreign exchange, and we value gorillas now in a way we didn’t before the war. We have a unique asset in the gorillas, and by helping them they can help us.”
Somewhere up high up in the Virungas, I’m convinced, the gorillas are celebrating, sucking water from thistles and celery, rolling about the bamboo, exchanging commentary about the humans below. Tomorrow, with Daryl, we’ll climb to these innocent landscapes and learn what we can from our cousins and their lofty, leafy kingdom of grace.
Gorillas in the Clear?
You may drive out nature with a pitchfork, yet she’ll be constantly running back.
– Horace, Epistles, Book 1, Epistle 10
Visiting the mountain gorillas is an exercise in devolution. We fly halfway around the world, drive for several hours to the base of a set of tropic volcanoes, hike for a number of hours, and then crawl the final steps up into the lair of our ancestral kin.
On the trek toward the park, we pass several wattle-and-daub huts roofed with what looks like witches’ hats. They seem hastily constructed and give the impression they would get up and leave if they only had the energy and something did not block their way.
We pass long-horned Achole cattle, who until recently regularly mowed down gorilla vegetation (Dian Fossey famously shot thirty head at close range in her private effort to preserve the gorilla habitat). But the cattle no longer roam upward.
We wade through a field of what looks like daisies, but they are in fact pyrethrums, a cash crop that yields a natural insecticide. Not long ago, 22,000 acres, roughly half of the protected gorilla habitat, were given over to a European scheme to cultivate an alternative to DDT. But the fields encroach no further.
All have been stopped by a fetial wall. From fees generated by ecotourists and donated money from nongovernmental organizations, a five-foot-high, volcanic stone wall has been fashioned that surrounds most of the park and is on the path to completion. Ostensibly designed to keep buffalo and forest elephants from raiding crops, it serves another, perhaps greater, purpose of delineating the park boundary so farmers, hunters, rangers, and antipoaching squads know the armistice line. Rwanda has a zero-tolerance policy for unauthorized visits to the park, though the mandate is still violated with some regularity. A few days ago, our team followed six young girls on a dangerous water quest into the park, not just because they were at risk of being arrested, but also because the slippery landscape is so severe a fall could be fatal. Unsupervised exposure to gorillas on these quests has the potential to transmit disease in both directions. One villager on a recent water quest was bitten by a venomous snake and lost his leg. But with alternatives, such as the village cisterns now being constructed, water quests may become a thing of the past.
At the zigzag passage through the wall, we step over a scattering of porcupine quills – some wildlife still travels both directions – and begin the steep climb up the volcano. We swat away branches, cling to creepers, slide through much, and whack the biting safari ants as we reel up into the richest ecosystem in Africa. Daryl, who lives in an off-the-grid home at 10,000 feet in Telluride, Colorado, has fewer problems with the elevation than the rest of us, and she is quickly at the front of the pack, eager for first contact.
Somewhere in the middle flanks of the volcano we hear a rustling, and within a few steps a black ball of fur flies from the top of a bamboo stalk. It is Daryl’s first mountain gorilla sighting, and her eyes grow with the moment. The gorilla knuckle-walks by us within a couple feet, and we proceed to follow. Suddenly we are surrounded by gorillas, from babies to blackbacks and silverbacks, thrashing about in their own guiltless ways. We listen to a baby whimpering as its mother refuses it back passage, an attempt at weaning. We watch as two young males wrestle, fur flying and leaves scattering as they tumble about the forest. “Monkeying around,” Daryl says with a laugh, and for a moment one of the gorillas looks at us and seems to display a toothy smile. Another baby strolls to one of our video camera microphones, covered in synthetic fir as a wind screen, and reaches out to touch what seems a fellow creature. A mother with disproportionately huge eyes stares at Daryl as though she’s seen her in some movie but can’t quite place her, and puffs of condensation steam from her mouth. Two other apes rise up and thump their chests with a sound like mallets on wood, and Daryl thumps her own chest back. The sway-bellied silverback watches all the activity dispassionately, with eyes that nature seems to break through, then falls back to chill on a springy bed of vegetation. When Daryl sits near the lounging ape and begins to explain her delight, the silverback seems to punctuate each sentence with a disapproving grunt. Then, when another criminally cute baby wanders by, I ask Daryl, “Don’t you just want to take it home?”
“No. I’d rather stay here.”
“ Paul Kagame lived in the Virungas for several years when he led the rebel Tutsi forces and made forays back and forth from Uganda”
Violence just seems missing here. At this moment there is not a breath of brutality in these long-haired beings. The vast forest seems motionless as in a picture, caught in a continuous now, living in the churns of mists with neither past nor future. Then our hour is up.
As we gather our packs, we hear another sound that doesn’t quite fit the milieu. We stop moving and listen, and a tinkling fills the air, as though something is pouring into a bowl. It is beautiful music, like a small spring singing to itself, and we realize it is the sound of children singing down the slopes, down at the village of Gitaraga, where the new cistern is installed. At this moment there seems a balance, one that may have existed two centuries back before French naturalist Paul du Chaillu, after encountering a family of lowland gorillas, described them as “hellish dream creatures,” an impression that remains today and is reinforced through cliché and popular film. But here in Rwanda, a culture shift is underway, precipitated by tourists, politicians, nonprofit organizations, and local communities. For the moment, the gorilla population is stable and growing; the habitat is mostly protected. Life for the surrounding communities is improving. Hope wafts the air.
Back in 1996, I shared a dinner with Bill Gates Jr., and he had recently returned from trekking to see the mountain gorillas. He proclaimed the sight one of the wonders of the world, but he was pessimistic about the prospects. He was aware of the political problems in the region and the enormous population pressures, and he thought the trend not good. At the end of a long conversation that spiraled through dessert, Bill bet me one hundred dollars that within ten years the mountain gorillas would be extinct. Well, Bill, I am happy to report you were wrong (a rare event, admittedly), and I would request that the hundred dollars be sent to The Gorilla Organization, one of the good-works groups that has done so much to make a future for the gorillas possible through investment in community projects, such as the Gitaraga cistern. Because of the empowerment of villagers alongside the volcanoes, the people have come to appreciate the asset in their back yard and now make efforts to preserve this breathing, thumping, black and silver currency.
As we reach the buffalo wall on the return trip, Daryl stops short. “I’m just gonna stay here now. Say hi to my family. I’m gonna go live with the gorillas.” And she turns toward the volcano and walks back into the forest, to perhaps a more splendid state of imagination and nature’s own infinite but gracious imperfections, the habitat of the mountain gorillas of Rwanda.