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My Trip To Rwanda, A Longed-For Adventure

Donna Douglas is our director of data and donor information at the Fossey Fund – an invaluable member of our development team for more than six years. She is based in our U.S. headquarters in Atlanta and because of her dedication and commitment to the Fossey Fund, she had the opportunity to travel to Rwanda earlier this year to see our work in person. Below she shares a first-hand account of her life-changing experiences, which she says have “furthered her commitment” to gorilla conservation.

Visiting Rwanda: A magnificent adventure

It was finally happening – I was going to Rwanda! I could not contain my excitement as I counted down the months, weeks and days until my trip! The day finally came, and my trip didn’t start off as planned, almost missing my flight – thank you Atlanta traffic – but I made it. I joined two of my colleagues at the gate and we boarded the first of two flights on our way to Kigali. 

Twenty-three hours later, excitement abounded as we landed at Kigali airport. I was filled with the thrill of expectation. After collecting our baggage and heading to our hotel, we had a much-needed meal at a local restaurant before heading off to bed. Our new adventure would begin the next day. 

Many of us know about the 1994 Rwandan genocide, but upon arriving at the Genocide Memorial in Kigali, I quickly gathered that I had much to learn. It was painful and heart-wrenching to even attempt to comprehend such horrific suffering. However, it is so inspiring to see how Rwandans have courageously united as a people, working together for the benefit of each other and their country and choosing to forgive, even when forgetting would not be possible. They are not captive to the unspeakable tragedy in their past and are focused on restoring their nation for the future. 

We then embarked on a three-hour ride up to Musanze, where we’d be staying just a few miles from  Volcanoes National Park and our Ellen Campus. As we ascended into the northern part of the country, the gorgeous scenery and breathtaking vistas made the time fly by. I admired the ebbs and flows of the rolling hills as we climbed higher. The countryside is full of beautiful, lush vegetation, colored with every hue of green you can imagine. Crops of corn, coffee, sugar cane, bananas, Irish and sweet potatoes grow proudly up and along the hillsides, and down deep into valleys. These are agricultural staples that provide both food and livelihoods for the local communities.

I was fascinated by the bicycles and motorcycles serving like trucks, to carry both produce and hardware, and as taxis, transporting people. My focus then turned to the famous volcanoes as they gradually came into view. Their tops were covered in mist, sometimes blending them into the clouds. These stunning volcanoes would soon supply us with an awe-inspiring backdrop to each new breaking day.

Our Ellen Campus: Just as we planned it

Our visit to the Ellen Campus the next morning was absolutely surreal. I had been in many meetings in Atlanta as we first planned the campaign to build it, and here I was standing inside the premises. I felt a little bit like a tourist, but was also very proud that I had a part to play in its development. 

Each building on campus serves a vital purpose within our mission: The Rob and Melani Walton Education Center, the Sandy and Harold Price Research Center and of course the Cindy Broder Conservation Gallery, where we welcome the local community and people from all over the world to experience and learn about our unique approach to conservation through gorilla protection and sustainable communities. 

Entering the replica of Dian’s cabin in the gallery was like stepping back in time. I remember inhaling deeply the air of the room, detecting the atmosphere, scent and essence of a bygone era. It was remarkable.

Enjoying the thriving landsape

The grounds and vegetation on campus were much more mature than I imagined: the planned “forest” was already flourishing! Thousands of native trees, shrubs and bushes planted were thriving, welcoming insects, birds, frogs and other small species. I recognized stinging nettles and thistles that were familiar plants in the U.K., and here they were also in Africa – a favorite food of the gorillas! 

To the untrained eye, you could not tell that there had been careful planning and deliberate design put into this seemingly natural landscape, that every plant was specifically selected and strategically placed. But while I closely listened as our team of biodiversity researchers toured us around the grounds, I learned that was our goal – precisely replicating the wild, natural growth of an indigenous landscape. 

In addition to its beauty, we were reminded just how important the biodiversity research activities conducted at the campus are to preserve the vital ecosystem and conservation of the area the gorillas and the local community call home. The campus allows visitors to experience a little of what gorillas see and eat as they travel through the park.  

Visiting rural artisans

Azizi Life, a Rwandan non-profit that provides economic opportunity for rural artisans, sells their crafts at the gift shop on our Ellen Campus. They also offer the unique experience of going into local communities to meet their artisans and experience what life is like in Rwanda – something I was eager to do.

It was a sunny afternoon when we set out with Azizi Life to visit local artisans in nearby Kinigi village. Our 20-minute walk began from our Ellen Campus. Across the road and into a woodland clearing, through areas with pathways etched out by livestock and foot traffic, we arrived in the small, remote community. The ladies of the cooperative graciously welcomed us into their home. We were co-hosted by the mayor of the settlement, a 36-year-old woman with young children. After personal introductions, we realized how much we had in common with each other, as people and as women, even though our cultures and life experiences were miles apart. 

The ladies dressed us in traditional clothing – gorgeous headwraps, shawls and fabric skirts – and prepared a big sharing-pot meal of sweet and Irish potatoes, pinto and red beans with huge freshly picked avocado – delicious!

Afterward, we gathered outside and prepared to fetch water from the nearest pipe about a mile away, a strenuous journey they make at least once a day. Our time together ended back at the village where the ladies had prepared to show us their trade – bracelets they make for selling through Azizi Life. They demonstrated the preparation of the raw materials, dyeing and then crafting the lovely final product. Today, I proudly wear the bracelet I completed with their help.

Engaging with community groups

Community initiatives are a core focus of our efforts in Rwanda. We were able to see this in action when we visited a cooperative (co-op) that the Fossey Fund supports in northern Rwanda. During our two-hour (very bumpy) drive, it took me by surprise when we picked up the president of the co-op – who was coming from a very important meeting along the way – on the way to the mushroom-cultivation project called “Dufatanye Karisoke.” We joined a meeting of about 20 people listening intently to Ildephonse Munyarugero, our community engagement officer, as he introduced us to the group and shared the impressive accomplishments that their cooperative had achieved in such a short period of time 

We celebrated when the president of the co-op, Diane, announced that earlier that morning she had been notified that their group had received their official certification from the Rwandan government – a momentous accomplishment. We listened to the moving testimonies of the members as they detailed how their lives were changed for the better through the co-op. As they expressed their gratitude for the Fossey Fund’s support of their community, I felt so proud to be a representative of this organization. Before leaving, I even had the opportunity to harvest and clean a giant oyster mushroom, with help from co-op members.

And finally, meeting the gorillas

It sounds so cliché, but encountering the mountain gorillas certainly was an experience I will never forget. Even now I can’t stop looking at the pictures to remind myself that I was there. 

Our guides Francois and Epe were the perfect duo to take us on this journey. Francois, with his persistent great smile and infectious laugh, was both sharp and jovial, larger than life and spirited in his demonstrations and storytelling. Epe was quieter but no less passionate about their work. 

We then met our porters, donned our walking sticks and prepared for the hour or so hike into the forest to meet the Hirwa gorilla group. I was very happy with that assignment, because not only is this a large gorilla group but finding them is generally considered an “easier” trek than for most of the other groups. 

The uphill climb was somewhat challenging at times and I was thankful for the walking stick and the steadying hand of my porter. He instinctively knew whether I could climb up over the rocks and navigate mud ditches or whether I would need his direction or assistance. 

On reaching the clearing where the gorillas lay resting, there was a collective inhale among the trekkers. Our breath was taken away, as we stood in awe. Our face masks hushed our voices and exclamations, as we tried not to point or squeal with delight. Silverbacks and mothers were napping, as the infants and juveniles kidded around, teased and jostled each other, or clambered all over them. Sitting in their midst was truly remarkable, a privilege that the gorillas granted to us. Perhaps it was also a way of saying “thanks” for helping to keep them safe. Then, all of a sudden, the silverback turned and came running in my direction and I was face-to-face with him. He stopped and it was clear that I was in his path. With Francois by my side, we slowly stepped back and gave silverback Uburanga a clear route to the other side of the clearing. 

All the adjectives others before me had used to describe their gorilla encounters were true: it was amazing, incredible, breathtaking and life-changing. There is also more in my heart that words cannot describe: my job at the Fossey Fund – though not that of a tracker, anti-poacher, researcher, scientist or guide – still helps to protect the gorillas’ future. I am a conservationist. This was proof: the gorillas in the park truly benefit from the Fossey Fund’s groundbreaking method of daily protection and safeguarding. I’m so thankful that I could see it for myself.