Here, There and Everywhere

Eco Tourism In Rwanda

When most people think of Rwanda, the first two images that come to mind are usually Hotel Rwanda and the gorillas. If you asked them where in the country the gorillas reside (on the northern border of The Congo and Uganda) or when the genocide occurred, the majority of respondents must admit ignorance. If you told them the gorillas have been flourishing, as well as the country, they may think you are pulling their leg. Sixteen years since the 1994 genocide and several decades after the murder of Dian Fossey is a tiny blip in historical time, but centuries in the changes that have occurred in Rwanda.

In a country known as the land of a thousand hills, Rwanda is becoming increasingly known for its environmental policies, gender equality, stable government and breathtaking beauty. Positive internal and international support for protecting and expanding the parks and educating the people living in the surrounding towns and villages, has been nurtured, supported and expanded. There are now over 700 mountain gorillas (minus the recent killings of several gorilla families in the Democratic Republic of Congo) living in an area that once saw them close to extinction. But how has this rapid change and growth been impacting those directly involved, both those in the tourist industry and those living in communities that surround the Volcanoes National Park, where the gorillas reside?

As we descended from the world-renown sanctuary (which includes the Dian Fossey Research Foundation) through the village of Sacola, a local farmer named Dagazay Ma replied to such questions by adamantly stating, “The tourists and park don’t help our family, but I think it is important to protect the gorillas and it gives hope for Rwanda.” Another man named Jimmy Ma leaned on his hoe at the corner of his field of vegetables and said, “The gorillas are very very important for our country because they help the country and local people. If you get the tourists, they buy from shops. Life has gotten better since more tourists arrived.” Jimmy has two sisters and one brother he helps support, as both his parents are no longer living. He is in his early twenties and says he goes to school during the week and works on the farm on weekends and evenings.

Our park guide Fidel, who has worked as a ranger at the park for 13 years, added, “A portion of your fee (500 U.S. per person) goes to fund community projects, schools and local arts and crafts. The stone wall around the park was made by local villagers who were paid for its construction.” The wall keeps buffalo from leaving the park and trampling the farmer’s fields, as well as providing a delineation point for the park boundaries. A portion of the fee also pays for the rangers, who are on 24 hour patrol throughout the park, as well as continuing research by the Dian Fossey Foundation and other conservation organizations (both national and international).

The majority of tourists arrive from America, England, France and neighboring African countries of Uganda, Congo, Burundi and Kenya. Kamanzi Alloys, who drove us from the Rwandan capital of Kigali to Ruhengari (the largest city in the north) said, “People in town like the money tourists bring into their shops. More and more people are learning English as a result. I learned English in school. Our country is safe and people are happier. Tourists go to the national park and Lake Kivu (on the western border of Rwanda) for all their natural beauty.”

Because of the current level of safety, government stability and support for the environment, numerous international businesses and non-governmental organizations are finding their way to Rwanda. It is centrally located, has one of the best communications systems in Africa, especially for wireless phone connections and has a political climate that has opened the door for investment and entrepreneurs. Some of the companies investing in Rwanda include Starbucks, Costco, Bechtel, Columbia Sportswear and Google. Rwanda is also one of the first countries to participate in the One Laptop Per Child Program that intends to provide a revolutionary new computer with internet access to every child in the country. Other nations and organizations have also committed funding for Rwanda’s energy needs, education and health care. All of the people involved with these agencies, companies and organizations bring goods, services and capital into the country. Combine that influx of capital with the money tourists spend on food, lodging, transportation, entertainment and merchandise and you can see why it would be difficult for most Rwandans to turn off the cash faucet and say “No”.

Even with this influx, not everyone is partaking of the bounty; not everything is “trickling down” or even started to flow. Less than five percent of the population has computers or internet access and the majority of this agriculturally driven economy are still poor farmers tilling every inch of land available. Rwanda is the most densely populated country per square mile in all of Africa. Thousands of orphans continue to live on the streets and the middle class are just beginning to see the benefits and climb out of poverty themselves.

Rwanda is not picture perfect, but for those directly and indirectly impacted by tourists visiting the Volcanoes National Park and the rare mountain gorillas within their midst, life is looking pretty good. Compared to the recent past, Rwanda is becoming a Shangri-la in the middle of Africa and all of those involved in the tourist industry are climbing aboard, holding on to and leading the tourist’s coattails, with hope for continued prosperity and a better tomorrow.

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