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Rwanda and Uganda – My Favorite Things By: Maribeth Shanley

               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.

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                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.           

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                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. 

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               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. 

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                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.

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              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.

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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.

* * * * * * *

                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.

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              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.

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                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!

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            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.

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Francios Bigirimana

                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.

 

 

 

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INTO BEAUTIFUL AFRICA – By Maribeth Shanley

Edwin

I’m finally headed to Africa. I’ll travel to both Rwanda and Uganda with Edwin Sabuhoro, the young man I met after the July 2016 killing of Cecil the Lion. I leave Sunday, Feb. 10 and return home on Feb. 28th. My trip will be a jam-packed working trip with lots of people to meet, animals to see and information to gather.

In case you don’t recall my previous blog about Edwin, here’s the short version of who he is.
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Edwin grew up in the relatively small country of Rwanda in Central Africa. He was just a baby when the fourth and worst genocide broke out. Being of Tutsi origin, Edwin, his family, and relatives were the targets of the Hutu Government which casually authorized the 1994 Genocide during which nearly one million Tutsis and Hutu sympathizers were bludgeoned to death leaving the land littered with bodies, parts of bodies and rivers of blood.

Edwin’s mother, siblings, and relatives fled Rwanda and traveled by foot to the safety of the refugee camps just inside the borders of  Uganda. At one point in their journey, the relatives feared that Edwin was slowing down the group. Edwin’s Mum carried him as she ran for her life. The consensus was that his Mum should throw Edwin into a river, so that the group could move faster. However, Edwin’s Mum would have none of it, as she trudged on carrying her sweet baby close to her bosom.

When Edwin grew up, he earned his law degree. As a lawyer, part of his responsibilities was to represent people on a pro-bono basis. When Edwin was asked to represent a Hutu man, who bludgeoned an entire family to death, Edwin abandoned the law. He subsequently began working as a park ranger in Volcanoes National Park where the endangered mountain gorillas live. Edwin fell in love with the gorillas and other animals as he sought to protect them from poaching.
Baby Gorilla
At one point, the rangers caught wind of a baby gorilla which had been captured and was up for sale to the highest bidder. Edwin volunteered to pose as a buyer. Once the exchange was made, the poachers were captured, and the baby was returned to his home. Edwin described to me what he felt when he peered into the burlap bag carrying the captured gorilla. He was overwhelmed with compassion and wonder at the big brown eyes staring back at him.

Over the next few days, Edwin thought about the poachers. He could tell they were not wealthy. Instead, they were ordinary males who lived in a local village. Edwin couldn’t shake the gnawing in his gut as he felt guilty for helping to put these men in jail. So, he did something remarkable.

Instead of brushing off his empathy for the men, he became more curious about them and especially the reasons why they worked as poachers. So, he got in his car and drove to the village. There he sat down with one of the more elderly males and asked him, “Why do you poach?”

They were sitting outside at the time and there were many children playing close by. Thus, the man made a sweeping gesture with his arm as he said, “We do it to feed our children.” In other words, the reasons were economically based. The poachers had no other means of earning a living. Being a logical,  compassionate human, Edwin immediately understood.

When Edwin left the village, he couldn’t stop thinking of the man he met and the trapped lifestyle the villagers were living. So, he came up with a plan to help the village provide food for their people via different methods. Edwin had a savings account which he emptied, giving the money to the to the village males as he discussed his idea with them. They would use the money to rent farm land where they could grow their food. Within six months the village was producing enough food for the village with a surplus of food to sell.

Batwa
Note: The poachers and village population belonged to the third ethnic group in Rwanda, the Batwa. The Batwa are the original inhabitants of Rwanda. They are the indigenous population who, for generations, depended on the forest and its animals for sustenance
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Two years later, Edwin helped the Batwa community establish a living history village to educate and entertain visitors to the park where the gorillas reside. The hamlet is called Iby’Iwacu Cultural Village. While in Rwanda, Edwin and I will spend one and one-half days in the Village talking to the people, including the ex-poachers who now pride themselves as the guardians of the gorillas.  Best of all, we’ll also visit the mountain gorillas.

Because of Edwin’s efforts to save the endangered mountain gorillas and change the lives of the Batwa who poached the gorillas, in 2015 he was nominated for the coveted award of CNN Hero of the Year.

I met Edwin back in 2016, shortly after the death of Cecil the Lion who was murdered by an American dentist, Walter Palmer. As were so many animal lovers, I was utterly shaken by the killing.

It was a deliberate kill, as Palmer’s guides dragged a carcass behind their jeep trying to coax Cecil from the protective boundaries of the park where he, his male friend, Jericho and Cecil’s family lived.

Walter Palmer was an avid Trophy Hunter. Trophy hunters deceive themselves into believing they are conservationists. How can a true conservationist kill a unique animal such as a lion?  They can’t morally and won’t. Palmer and all Trophy Hunters are nothing more than poachers. They poach for personal booty. Their plunder is the animal’s head, skin and other body parts all for two purposes: bragging rights and to hang as evidence the trophy head on a wall in their coveted trophy room.

I sent Edwin a friend request which he immediately accepted. Then, one evening, after learning, via Facebook that he lived “up the highway from me,” I sent an instant message to him. We began talking that evening. I was excited to have found such a remarkable human as he explained to me that he was a CNN 2015 hero of the year nominee and that he was currently earning his Doctorate in Conservation and Tourism at Clemson University. I don’t recall what it was I said, but I evidently mentioned that I was a writer. I was typing away when my eye caught a sentence in his last message. He wrote, “You’re a writer? I’m looking for someone to write my autobiography.” I stopped cold as my eyeballs leapt out of my head, hit the screen of my computer, then bounced back into my sockets. My heart stopped as I said out loud, “Oh my God!” And so, our story began.

While I’m away, I plan to blog every day. My next-door neighbor suggested I do that, so she could keep up with me. I thought that was a great idea as well, because, in addition to my written notes and those I record via two hand held recorders, my blog could add to my notes especially since they will be written in real time, capturing my emotions which I know will be abundant.

If you care to follow me while I’m away, I’ll post a link on my website, http://www.maribethshanley.com. My first post, I will publish before I leave on the 10th, will be the itinerary Edwin has prepared for my eighteen-day visit.

I hope you to join me on my journey into beautiful Africa!

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Mr. Silverback and Me, Oh My! by Carole Howard

Of all the trips I’ve taken and places I’ve been, there’s one breathtaking moment that’s in a class by itself.  It was in the aptly-named Bwindi Impenetrable Forest in Uganda, where half the world’s 700 mountain gorillas live.  We were tracking them.

Our group had hiked uphill for two hours in the heat, accompanied by two rangers and two baby-faced uniformed guards with semi-automatic weapons.  (The weapons had to do with the other kind of guerillas.  Reassuring?  Not exactly.) We were lucky; some groups had to hike a lot longer than two hours before finding the gorillas. The hillsides, largely tea plantations, were the brightest yellow-green I’d ever seen in the natural world, almost fluorescent.

100_0213With no warning, the trackers shushed us. We got quiet. We looked around.  And there he was, the silverback mountain gorilla oh my oh my oh my. He was massive, much larger than I’d imagined, with a face just like the ones in National Geographic Magazine and a back that was true to his name. I was on his turf, with no barrier between us.  No bars, no moat, just twenty feet of cushiony forest floor. I was frightened and enthralled.  He seemed nonchalant.

I’d been told not to get closer than 20 feet.  Frankly, I didn’t know exactly what 20 feet, 100 feet, or 100 yards really looked like, but there was no chance I was going to go closer to a gorilla than anyone else in the group. I’d also been told we could only stay for one hour.  Interestingly, the third rule was that if we had a cold, we wouldn’t be permitted to go because gorillas and humans share much of their DNA and can transmit illnesses to each other.  Such inter-species transmission is called zoonosis (zoe-uh-NO-siss).

The permit had been expensive (especially from a price-per-minute point of view!) but our reasoning, thankfully, went like this:  There we were in Uganda, where the Uganda Wildlife Authority had a unique program of tracking and observing the three gorilla families they’d painstakingly habituated to small groups of humans.  They only issued 18 permits per day.  We’d probably never be back. Thank goodness for our next three words: Might as well.

The gorilla was surrounded by his family: females, babies, and younger males, about 20 in all.  They played, ate, swung from the many trees in the darkly-canopied forest, all the while grunting, laughing, squawking.  I was surrounded by the other silently-awed tourists in my group.

But everything – gorillas, gorilla noises, lush forest smell, tourists, forest – fell away. My heart was pumping hard and fast but, other than those beats, I heard nothing else, saw nothing else, thought about nothing else.  The universe, at that moment, consisted of Mr. Silverback and me.  It was the kind of peak experience that was a bubble in time.  For the gorilla, I’m sure, it was just another walk in the forest.

He turned and knuckle-walked away in slo-mo, while continuing to receive the branches and leaves the females brought him.  Out of my trance, I started worrying about what exposure to use on my camera, since flash photography was forbidden by the Uganda Wildlife Authority.  After a little while of camera-obsession, though, I decided to stop worrying about photographing an experience I was, after all, missing because of my trying to get a good picture of it.

Remember: I couldn't use a flash!

No zoom (and no flash)!

It wasn’t exactly as if I felt I was one of the gorillas.  I was 20 feet away, after all, and I was an observer, while they were observees.  But the experience was different from a zoo, different from a safari, different from observation through binoculars.  We were right there, where they lived. They were right there, doing whatever they would have been doing if we weren’t there.

That hour was a moment, and it passed faster than five minutes anywhere else.  My universe shrank to my immediate surroundings, yet, in the “feeling alive” category, it felt huge.  My husband called it a green cathedral, and so it was. Majestic and intimate.

*  *  *

Carole Howard is the author of Deadly Adagio, recently published by Second Wind Publishing.  She is working on a travel memoir (I Didn’t Know Squat: Volunteering in the Developing World After Retirement), from which this is an excerpt.

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