So many people have asked me what were my favorite parts of my trip to Rwanda and Uganda that I decided to make them the theme of my May blog.
The entire trip was my favorite, but, okay, okay, I’ll be more specific as I break it down into two parts.
Part One – Significance of Family
I enjoyed meeting Edwin’s friends, most of whom were family members. I especially enjoyed experiencing the African “family” theme that resounded on a continuous basis. In a few words, the family is the core of every African’s existence. Children grow up with relatives, for example, as they identify their cousins as their best childhood friends.
In the U.S. we claim the importance of family, however, for many of us in the U.S., that’s an overstated theme.
While we are children, we yearn for the day we grow up and can move away from our family and hometown. Instead of concentrating on our childhood, we long for adulthood, freedom, and independence. Americans are the ultimate cowboys and cowgirls. We’re fiercely independent to the detriment of our core family. Not so in either Rwanda or Uganda. The family is central.
A few days after arriving in Rwanda, Edwin and I made a day of driving to Uganda to visit with his mother’s side of the family. We stayed three nights with Edwin’s favorite uncle, Emmanuel. A flamboyant man, I found him to be proud, caring and full of mischief. Shortly after arriving at his farm, Emmanuel informed Edwin that another uncle and aunt were about to celebrate their fiftieth wedding anniversary. In fact, an elaborately planned event would take place on the second day of our visit.
Before leaving my home in South Carolina, I thought about packing a dress but decided I would probably never wear it while away. I did pack a pair of black leggings and a nice tunic. I was glad I did; and, I was also happy I thought to pack it for the trip to Uganda. The celebration was amazing. I felt a sentimental joy in being included.
Bob and I will celebrate our fiftieth wedding anniversary two years from September of this year. I feel the fiftieth-anniversary folks belong to a special club, regardless of where we live. For me, it’s amazing to recognize that I’m married to my first husband and that, after all these years, we still love each other to the moon. It was evident that Uncle Geofrey and Aunt Jemima also share a special love. It was wonderful watching Geofrey’s attentive gentility as he guided his wife, decked out in a long, elaborate gown, tackle the bumpy ground on their way from the event entrance to the stage where they both sat. They were, after all, the king and queen of the day.
While visiting with the couple for a few hours the day after the celebration, Jemima and I exchanged thoughts on how much work is involved in keeping a relationship going for that long. However, we also agreed that we wouldn’t have it any other way.
Too, the day after their celebration, I was able to meet Edwin’s godfather, Christopher, and his family as well as two of Edwin’s best childhood friends who also happen to be his cousins. I had forgotten all about Uganda’s eight years of tyranny under the rule of the monster, Idi Amin.
Christopher told us a chilling story about how he and his family became the targets of Amin. In fact, as an act of retribution toward Christopher’s brother who fought with the rebels in their effort to overthrow the brutal dictator, Amin focused on Christopher. Amin’s people couldn’t find the brother so, because Christopher was conveniently available, and physically resembled his brother, he and his family became targets for Amin’s revenge.
On one particular day, Christopher discovered from a friend and informant that he and his family were destined to be slaughtered that evening. Fearing becoming trapped, they left their home and wandered out into the bush where they hid the night. Christopher’s and Anna’s (his wife) had a baby with them. Their first child, a daughter, was just a few months old at the time. Christopher related how Anna had to hold her hand over the baby’s mouth as they heard the soldiers who were searching for them in the same vicinity.
As Edwin and I sat with Christopher and Edwin’s two cousins, I listened to the four men talk in their native language. Although I couldn’t understand any of their conversations, I intuited from their body language how much they all love Edwin in addition to feeling protective of him. I also recognized that Christopher was sizing me up. He wanted to make sure I was the best writer for Edwin’s autobiography. In fact, when Edwin said, “Maribeth, feel free to jump in and ask any questions you would like answered,” my heart skipped a few beats as I thought, “Oh, geez, what am I going to say that won’t sound stupid or lame?” I wanted to crawl under my chair. Instead, I asked an open-ended question about Edwin’s childhood. “What was Edwin like as a child?” To my surprise and pleasure, the question opened up a lively discussion as I learned about Edwin’s mom and how Christopher became his godfather. I also learned of the Amin threat which made the hair on my neck crawl with fear. Christopher now had a second daughter, Angel, a precocious little girl who sat glued to Christopher’s lap for most of our visit.
I was thrilled when, in my presence, Christopher commented to Edwin that he was fortunate to have me writing his autobiography. My sensitivity toward people and the pain they experience touched his heart and soul. In fact, Edwin later told me Christopher said, “The next time Maribeth visits, she’s staying with me.”
The following week, Edwin and I were scheduled to meet with one of his father’s relatives and friends. We had to cancel seeing the one relative in the Kigali, Rwanda area. Our schedules simply couldn’t mesh. However, we did travel about an hour from Kigali to visit with his father’s best friend, Patrick Byabagamba. He’s known as the family’s historian. He has a wealth of knowledge with a bear-trap mind for details. His face, manners and gentility endeared him to me. I hope to see him again one day.
Last, but not least was meeting Edwin’s youngest brother, Enoch. What a sweet young man and not at all bad looking. Enoch works with Edwin on his Rwanda Eco Tours venture. In fact, he’s Edwin’s right hand man. For me, he’s my go to guy when Edwin, who is extremely busy, can’t be reached.
Part Two – The Amazing Animals of Africa
My second favorite part of my trip were the animals we were able to see. Actually, seeing the animals was not at all my second favorite part. It’s right up there and equal to my first favorite part.
My entire adulthood I have dreamed of going to Africa and seeing all the exotic animals untethered and in the “WILD!” Animals doing what they are designed to do; live normal lives without fear of entrapment and being slaughtered. Rwanda does not allow trophy hunting. They honor and value their wild animals and for me, seeing them was an absolute dream come true. Thank you Rwanda. Thank you. President Kagame, for your intelligence and compassion to know the value of these special creatures. I only wish more African countries did as well and that they too banned hunting these animals for nothing more than a trophy, a purpose I can’t fathom a reason for wanting to hang a beautiful animal’s head on a wall or wear it as a coat, or walk on it as a rug. The animals of Africa are living monuments to be cherished and shot through the lens of a camera and not by the end of a rifle.
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On our way back to Edwin’s home, we spent the evening at Akargera National Park. The 463.32 square-mile Park is fenced off to keep the animals from wandering into a local village where, before being fenced off, the wild animals would wreak havoc.
We were fortunate to see one or more of the majority of most the animals that inhabit this massive park including a 30-foot tall giraffe, several antelopes, baboons, hippos, a crocodile swimming with the hippos, zebras, more giraffes, and many unusual and beautiful birds. We also saw a small monkey who sat on a clay mound looking as if he was waiting for a cab or uber to come pick him up.
When it was nearly time to leave the park, Edwin lamented that we had not seen elephants. He knew these beautiful creatures were among my favorite. I was concerned that Edwin felt bad about not seeing the elephants. I said, “Edwin, don’t worry. I’ll be back and will see elephants. Besides, they are here living their lives. They’re not here for our entertainment. I’m good.” We were all resigned that the elephants were hiding when our guide spotted a humongous male elephant walking out of the bush into a clearing. I got out of the car but climbed back in when I realized how massive the bull was. So, at a safe distance, we stayed a while longer watching him tare down a tree and devour all the vegetation. The crunching sound of the vegetation and then some of the tree itself was incredible! Seeing the elephant meant that we had seen all the animals except the rhinos and lions. We were happy and content. I was thrilled and can’t wait to see them all again.
Several days later, I had an incredible experience and the thrill of a lifetime!
With a group of eight individuals and guided by a wonderfully energetic, fun man, Francios Bigirimana, who spent fifteen years of his life working side by side with one of my heroes, Dian Fossey, I trekked up the mountainside to visit with a troop of mountain gorillas. What an amazing experience! After taking several photos, I stood still just watching their behavior when I recognized that they were aware that they are related to us. In fact, I walked over to where Francios stood and said, “Am I right? I think these guys know they are our cousins.” He said they did indeed as he also took my camera relieving me of the burden of taking photos so I could be with the gorillas. I think my thoughtfulness gave Francios pleasure. Having the ability to observe the gorillas gave me pleasure. I loved being in the presence of my not too distant cousins with whom we share 98.8% DNA! I hope to return one day with my husband and my sister, Gail, to visit again with these incredible beings. Below is the troop’s silverback. What a clown he was. He loves posing for photos. Beautiful cousin!
One last thing deserves mentioning because it left a lasting impression on me and my soul. I stayed in the front-room bedroom of Edwin’s home. It faced a hill that led down, then back up another hill to the city of Kigali. Unlike the U.S., Rwanda does not discriminate or disparage other people who are different. Instead, they embrace difference.
The evenings in Rwanda are cool enough to leave the windows open. It was wonderful to wake to all the beautiful birds the country has to offer. In addition to the birds, however, I would wake each morning around 4:50 a.m. That’s when the Imam of a local mosque would climb the stairs of the tall tower called a minaret to announce the call to prayer. His announcement was not spoken. It was sung. I absolutely loved waking to his song. His voice was low and gravely, but romantic as well. The first morning I listened I couldn’t help but choke up a bit as I thanked the country for it’s acceptance and tolerance of one of the four most important and historic religions of our world, Islam. It filled my ears with pleasure and my heart with joy. I will never forget my 4:50 a.m. beautiful ritual.
In summary, I’ve never cared about traveling anywhere else in the world except Africa. I’ve wanted to experience the continent for as long as I can remember. My trip was a dream come true.
Note: There is a section on my website, www.maribethshanley.com, where I posted daily blogs and included lots of photos if you care to see and read more about my wonderful month in beautiful Rwanda and Uganda. I can’t wait to return. It’s where I left part of my heart.