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Ape expectations in Rwanda
6:00am Saturday 12th April 2014 in Travel
April marks the 20th anniversary of the genocide which tore Rwanda apart. Sarah Marshall finds out how, two decades on, gorilla conservation and wildlife tourism are putting this African country on the path to a brighter future.
By Sarah Marshall, Press Association
A dark cloud hangs above the city of Kigali, the heavy rain forming fast-flowing streams in the hilly streets. Spotting my sodden jacket and waterlogged trainers, a toothless old lady wrapped in a plaid blanket smiles pitifully from a church doorway and invites me inside.
It's a simple building, with just one statue of the Virgin Mary and a crucifix hanging from the wall, but its packed with pensive devotees. And despite the interminable hammering of rain on the tin roof, I suspect it's not just the wet weather that's keeping them here.
Rwanda is a country with a troubled past and a population emotionally scarred in a way few of us can imagine.
Glancing along the pews I notice a mix of skin colours, body shapes and facial features; a spindly man cradling a Bible sits next to a woman a quarter of his height. Today these people are all Rwandans, but at one time they were Hutus, Tutsis and Twas, pitted against each other in a bloody genocide that killed a million people in just three months.
This April marks the 20th anniversary of the Rwandan Genocide, and while wounds may have healed the pain is still as raw as it was two decades ago.
Yet amid the sadness an admirably progressive country is emerging; Rwanda proudly boasts the world's highest percentage of women in parliament (an impressive 64%) and is one of the least corrupt places in Africa.
Paul Kagame's popular government has high hopes for the future, and at the forefront of their economic development is tourism.
This central-east African country is one of the few safe places where people can see one of the world's 880 endangered mountain gorillas in the wild, with tourists coming 365 days a year to visit one of our closest animal relations.
"Kigali is a really safe city," says my local guide Ismael, as we drive along wide, newly tarmacked roads. "Most of the military are now employed as policemen, so there's very little trouble on the streets."
We're on our way to the Kigali Genocide Memorial Centre, a difficult but essential stop for any visitor to the country. Every year, in April, Rwandans come here to remember those who died in the 1994 atrocities, but few want to relive horrors of the past and I'm not surprised when Ismael says he'll wait for me in the car.
Inside, photographs, historical records and personal accounts are used to tell Rwanda's sad story, and some families have donated the only pictures they have of loved ones.
Flashing sparkling brown eyes and a toothy grin, 12-year-old Francine Murengezi Ingabire stares down at me from a wall-length stand. A fact file reveals she loved swimming and that her favourite drink was Fanta Tropical. At the very end it lists her cause of death: killed with a machete.
In another room, a glass cabinet houses items retrieved from mass graves, including a pair of fake Adidas jogging bottoms and a Superman duvet. It's a shocking reminder that this history is all too painfully recent.
Driving out of the city, we pass the Kagera River, now swollen from the heavy rain. At one time, fearing death by machete, people would throw themselves into the water, with a fishing ban imposed in Uganda due to the number of bodies being washed up.
As we continue north west, concrete buildings soon give way to farmland covered in sheets of white pyrethrum flowers drying in the sun to make a natural pesticide.
A steady stream of people lines the roadside, some carrying primitive farm tools over their shoulders, others dressed in pork pie hats and shabby smoking jackets. For the majority foot is the only means of transport, and the flow of human traffic can often outweigh cars. "They say you never walk alone in Rwanda," says Ismael, smiling.
Set on the slopes of the volcanic Virunga mountain range, which forms a border with Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo, the Volcanoes National Park is home to 18 semi-habituated mountain gorilla troops, with 10 available to visit.
Tourist groups are kept to a strict maximum of eight people, and last year, to meet growing project costs, the government sensibly chose to raise the price of permits to 750 US dollars, rather than increase the number of visitors each day.
There is some argument to suggest that habituating gorillas only makes them more susceptible to poaching, but figures indicate that without these projects the animals might disappear completely. According to research from veterinary project Gorilla Doctors, the number of habituated gorillas has risen by 4.1%, compared to a drop of 0.7% for those completely in the wild.
I arrive at the park entrance at 7am to find out which troop I've been assigned. Like the sawtoothed blades on a pair of pinking shears, hundreds of jagged hills stretch along the horizon, shrouded in early morning mist. In the fields, children with scythes fill sacks with fresh-cut grass to sell to farmers as cattle feed.
Ismael points out one of the older gorilla trackers, Francois, who famously assisted primatologist and animal rights activist Dian Fossey. I'm told that after the genocide he was leading 100 refugees through the forest when he encountered a family of gorillas who recognised him. For a week, he disappeared to live with them.
Gorilla troops are spread across the 130-square km park, and treks to reach them can last from 20 minutes to several hours. My request to see the Hirwa troop, who have a rare set of twins, has been granted, and after a short walk through fields of maize and smouldering eucalyptus pyres (a primitive way of making charcoal), we reach the foot of the Sabyinyo Mountain where I find myself locked in the treacle brown-eyed gaze of a 100kg primate.
The ensuing 60 minutes - or 3600 seconds - are pure magic as we follow the gorillas through bamboo forest watching them swing playfully from corkscrew vines and even mate in front of us, they feel so comfortable.
Visitors are told to keep a 7m distance from the animals, but it's a rule the gorillas rarely observe. The two-year-old twins tumble chaotically around our feet like furry footballs, while a nonchalant silverback sits calmly in the background.
One boisterous teenager, intoxicated by bamboo juice, beats his chest in an unconvincing show of bravado, then launches himself through one man's legs, punches my thigh and grabs another woman from behind, refusing to let go.
Our porters are bent double with laughter.
Gorilla permits in Rwanda aren't cheap, but even at 12 US dollars per minute they are still worth every penny, and knowing that 5% is invested in local community projects makes the cost much easier to swallow.
Children in the villages eagerly greet tourists who are helping to fund their education, and many reformed poachers can now make more money by working as porters while others are employed in hotels or performing dance troupes.
As I leave the park, a young girl in a muddy, ripped dress jumps up and down enthusiastically shouting "gorilla, gorilla".
I'm reminded of Francine at the Genocide Memorial Centre, and I wonder how, now 20 years on, this particular girl's fact file might read.
The bottom line, I hope, is the promise of a positive future.
Travel facts - Rwanda
Sarah Marshall travelled with Explore Tailormade, whose six-day Rwanda Gorilla Getaway costs from £2,085 pp, including return flights, accommodation, some meals, transport and the services of a local guide. Visit www.explore.co.uk/tailormade or call 0844 875 1890.