The privilege of seeing gorillas in Uganda

“Gorilla trekking?!”, my sister exclaimed when I told her where I was going.  “What is that?  And in Uganda?!”

It wasn’t the worst reaction I had had.  A number of friends had vowed never to visit Uganda when news of the country’s high-profile “Kill the Gays” bill broke (ignoring, of course, the human rights abuses in other places they themselves had visited).  In one sense, they were right.  Uganda’s record of persecution against its LGBT citizens is bleak.  But I would argue that withholding tourism from every country with problematic laws not only damages the economies of developing countries but also severely restricts the potential for any travel, anywhere.  We need only look at Ireland’s own 8th amendment and history of cover-ups of church abuse to see how close to home human rights abuses are perpetrated.  I believe that by writing about the problems in places we visit, as well as about the beauty and culture of these places, we spread information.

So, here I was, in the wet mountains of Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, fighting my way through thick greenery with my group of trekkers as our Ugandan guides and gorilla trackers cut a vague path with machetes.  “Impenetrable” was right.  I climbed hills on my hands and knees, holding onto long grass and shrubbery, slid down them on my arse, fought against dense branches and made my way without a path.  Within minutes of starting the trek, I was out of breath.  This initially surprised me until I remembered the altitude – we were at 2,200m above sea level – not very high, but enough to notice the difference with exertion.

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Our group was made up of eight trekkers, with as many guides, trackers and an armed guard – a group of such tourists had been attacked by bandits a few years earlier, and now every group includes an armed guard.  We were to walk for anything between one and six hours before finding the gorilla family that had been habituated to human company.  The air was filled with the sound of distant birds and insects blending into one constant ring, and the rustle of the brush as it moved apart.  The scent of dew on blades of grass was sweet and fresh following the previous night’s rainfall.

Only an hour and a half in, one of the trackers stopped suddenly, gesturing for everyone to stay still.  He looked around, before speaking lowly into his radio, and then moving off to the right.  We were led over another mound of earth, and there, on the other side, beneath the winding branches, sat a mother black gorilla with her children hanging off various parts of her body and roaming around her.  She looked up half-heartedly when she saw us arrive, and then turned her attention away disinterestedly.  She was used to this.  We kept to the rule of staying a minimum of seven feet away, and stood watching her in silence and amazement.  One baby pawed at her face until she shook him off and he tumbled down the hill.  He immediately clambered back up to play with her, only to be thrown off and roll down the hill again.

As we moved around the area, taking photos, the silverback came into view under another tree.  The majestic patriarch of the group, he sat, enormous, watching over his family.  He did little other than grunt to acknowledge our presence.

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The hour we spent in the wild gorilla family’s presence was such a huge privilege, available to us only because of our ability to pay for the trekking permits ($600 for the day).  These permits fund conservation and are seen locally as a way to protect the animals from the poachers that endanger them to extinction.  There are less than 800 of these animals left in the world, and they live mostly in Uganda, Rwanda and the D.R.C.

Although gorilla trekking is very much a luxury experience, there is no luxury accommodation in remote Bwindi.  We had spent the night before at a very basic wooden lodge on a hillside overlooking the small village of Ruhija, with cold running water and generator electricity only at certain times of the day.  It was there that we returned to rest after our trek back out of the jungle.  The sun was beaming, and we recollected our incredible day as we sat on the terrace with our host, Eshe.

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We had first met Eshe the day before as she stood, smiling and waving, waiting to meet us as our car slowed to a stop outside the lodge.  She wore a navy apron over a peach-coloured tartan shirt, tucked into a floor-length, dark linen skirt.  Her tight black curls were scraped back from her face and held in place by a blue polka dot scarf around her head.  She smiled with her eyes and greeted us warmly, telling us that dinner was on the stove and that we would eat in an hour.

“In the meantime”, she said in accented English, “You can rest in your room or play with the children”.  She gestured toward the small crowd lingering curiously halfway up the path to the lodge, watching the two mzungu women getting out of the car.  She didn’t have to tell us twice.  As soon as we reciprocated their interest the children began pushing and jostling among themselves, giggling about who would be first to approach us. Soon we were comparing clothing, measuring up hand sizes, dancing and talking without a common language.

Over dinner, which was braised vegetables, boiled potatoes and French onion soup prepared by Eshe and her helper, Kia, Eshe talked to us about the local children.  She liked to introduce them to visitors from Europe and America, in the hope that someone would strike up a friendship with a child and pay for a private education for them.  This had happened on some occasions, she told us.

“The local school is over 40 miles away”, she said. “Most of the children finish there and still they cannot read or write.  The girls are taken out once they are 12 or 13.  Their parents cannot afford to keep them.  They think that if they are married, their husband will keep them.  And usually the husbands do not like them to stay in school.”

Eshe had taken responsibility for paying daily visits to a family of three boys whose parents had died of AIDS.  Every morning and evening she called in to see them in their family home where they lived alone, taking them cooked meals and helping them with their homework.  The boys were aged 8, 10 and 12, and her face crumpled up as she told us of her fear of getting them tested, and her anxiety that they would also be HIV positive.  I knew better than to tell her that early testing is the key to survival, because here, the right drugs weren’t available anyway.

“HIV is a big problem”, she told us.  “One girl went to university in Kampala.  An American paid it for her.  And when she was there she took a boyfriend to keep her, but he had HIV, and now she is positive too.”

In this idyllic setting, with the sun beams coming in on the terrace where we sat in wicker chairs taking in the view of Ruhija and the green valley with its small houses peppered on both sides, utterly free from WiFi, television and mobile phone signals, it was difficult to fully imagine the harshness of local life.  It was hard even to tell Eshe’s age.  Her smooth face was that of a girl no older than 25, while the strain in her eyes and the weight of the community on her shoulders made her seem much older.  She told us of her dream of setting up a volunteer programme to build a school in the village, and took our email addresses so that she could tell us about it.

Eshe was involved in the habituation of the original gorilla groups to human contact when treks first began in the area.  She emphasised to us the benefits to habitat restoration of this kind of tourism, and talked about the barriers it creates for poachers.  This brought me back to my earlier thoughts on the benefits of tourism to areas with problems, once done sensitively and ensuring that the local economy, people and environment are not exploited.  But regardless of any benefit of tourism to Bwindi, the greatest privilege was mine, to be lucky enough to be shown this beautiful place, utterly detached from the rest of the world.  I was completely taken with the gorgeous, dignified mountain gorillas and their playful family, as well as with Eshe’s endless cheerfulness in the face of all the hardships she encountered.  This part of Uganda was one of the remotest areas of the world I have visited, and the opportunity to see it isn’t something I’ll forget.

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