Rwanda – Gorillas (wow!) and So Much More

We periodically ask our members to share their travel adventures and service experiences. In this story, Associate Member Jelan Heidelberg describes her recent trip to Rwanda.

In August 2022, my husband and I were fortunate enough to spend several weeks in Rwanda. As we prepared for the trip, friends would ask, “Rwanda? Why Rwanda?” And we would answer, “To see the gorillas, of course.” That was our primary objective. And getting up close and personal with a gorilla family (complete with 9-day-old baby and boisterous 11-year-old twin adolescent boys) absolutely lived up to the hype. The Rwandan government does a great job managing the gorilla experience, both for the visitors and the gorillas. Each gorilla family (12 of them) “sees” a group of eight visitors plus guide / trackers for only one hour each day. Our group trekked for about an hour each way, through potato fields and then bamboo forest. We each had our own “porter” (sherpa) carrying our backpack and helping us over the tough spots. It was challenging but doable. And it’s expensive, but we felt good knowing our steep fees were invested in protecting the gorillas and enhancing the infrastructure of the local community.

Seeing the mountain gorillas was one of those “once in a lifetime” experiences, but learning about the country and its people was equally memorable. Rwanda’s wounds are still fresh; in three months in 1994, ethnic-majority Hutus murdered 800,000 ethnic-minority Tutsi based on artificial ethnic differences inflamed by extensive propaganda. Rwandans are determined to remember the experience, to learn from it, and to move forward. They’ve built government-sponsored reconciliation villages where members of both groups live and work together. They’ve granted “amnesty” to many perpetrators if they repent, apologize, and vow to make amends. Given this backdrop, the resilience and optimism of the Rwandans is truly admirable.

Rwandans are friendly, hopeful, and incredibly hard-working. Most of the country is rural and agricultural. Their food production is diverse and plentiful enough to feed their population with a little left over for export. Tilling the fields and harvesting the crops require back-breaking manual labor – not a tractor in sight.

Food, and nearly everything else, is transported via specially reinforced bicycles or balanced on women’s heads. Typically, the women carry babies on their backs as well. Members of our group attempted to push the bamboo-toting bicycle (oof!  no way!) and balance baskets on our heads (also, no way!). We gave the locals a good chuckle and made new friends.

Rwanda – this tiny little land-locked country in the heart of Africa – left a huge impression on our hearts and minds. It’s a long way away and can be expensive (especially if you visit the gorillas), but for us, it was definitely worth every hour on the airplane and every penny we spent.