There are places and moments in life when you know that you should take a moment to pause and reflect on. My love for travel does not need to be defined anymore, it is beyond words, it is what I enjoy doing whether it is for work or leisure. This passion was instilled in me by avant-garde and inquisitive father that not only made me discover the inner bowel-beauty of my motherland but as well as develop a deep appreciation for gastronomy – the art of food.
We took family trips on the meandering countryside roads of my country long before I turned ten; we stopped by the roadside and ate roasted meat and maize; the nostalgic smell of fresh countryside air on such drives is forever engrained in my memory; the treks up the majestic mountains of Mugongo-Manga not only crowned those moments, but forever hypnotized my heart to travel high with no known antidote. And thus, from those formative years, I was formatted to appreciate nature, culture and wildlife, first within Burundi and now across the region and beyond.
Fast-forward, in the past three decades, I have had the privilege to travel to some few corners of the globe, slept on the couches of some of my friends because I could not afford a hotel room, go on the longest train I ever taken between New York and South Carolina, because the experience of seeing more than four states was just incredible. I drove with a cousin from Bujumbura to Dares-salaam and our three-day journey made me appreciate the diversity and vastness of Tanzania, and most of all, experiencing the warmth, hospitality, and courteousness of the Tanzanian people. Visiting the Scottish highlands and the lake districts in the north of England rekindled childhood memories of the valleys and mountains of Jenda in Burundi. From Accra to Tunis or Belgium to Singapore, each experience and visit was unique in its own particular way.
My senses came alive during such holidays – the aroma of food, tea and coffee had a familiarity, yet inherently different. From the bustling city life to the tranquil quiet of the countryside. Talk of the African music vibe, and the dance to the omnipresence of the true African smile. I was alive to all this and my mind and body soaked them all in. And when it is time to go home, I always stand up, fold my bags and take a piece of that with me. Sometimes I carry souvenirs so that I can relive those moments once again. I hang and place them in my home or office to recreate those moments and If I can’t, then I shouldn’t forget. But better still, I can verbally pass on this information and experiences to my lovely boys with the hope that one day, just one day, they too, will get to experience the same first-hand life joys of traveling in their lives. I continuously believe that the best learning school takes place in our travel journeys.
This past weekend, I tracked the mountains gorillas in the Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda. This is an experience, that without a doubt, you would want to do again and again. Sometime back, I have had the privilege to visit the Kahuzi Biega National Park in the Democratic Republic of the Congo to trek the lowland gorillas and Bwindi Impenetrable National Park in neighboring to trek mountain gorillas. While each trekking experience is different, the very presence of being in a rain forest where forest sounds come alive – the chirping of birds, the cricket calls, a dashing antelope to the buzzing sounds of forest bees. It is the unmistakable sound of a melodramatic forest symphony. However, what made this trip exceedingly unique, is that this time around, I accompanied Alvin, a 15-year-old Rwandan selected by the Rwanda Development Board through the #TemeberURwanda-Visit Rwanda domestic tourism campaign on his maiden voyage into the gorillas in the mist territory.
I took this opportunity to bring along my children and their friends between the age of 7 and 15. A team of seven children, making their maiden voyage as domestic tourists to Musanze. While trekking with Alvin, I noticed one thing in his eyes when he first laid his eyes on the silver back in the Kwitonda gorilla family – a mixture of fear, excitement and complete awe of what was before his very own eyes. That moment of silence when you could palpably hear the sound beat of his heart deep in his chest, his mind racing with so many questions, yet trying to process and appreciate the beauty and the sheer size of the silver back at the same time. I was privileged to be present at that moment when we introduce the next generation to the benefits of wildlife and environmental conservation. Alvin, like many other youngsters, was nominated to do this trek not just for the historical significance it portends, but in as much as instilling the conservation message into them. Our fantastic guides Jerome and Honorine Uwayo, reinforced the role of conservation for the country and how tourism plays a significant role in sustaining the life of these endangered species – a message that every youngster now fully understands.
While we were busy enjoying our encounter with our close cousins – the gorillas, my children, and their friends were heading to the Gorilla Guardian’s Village (former Iby’Iwacu Cultural Village) for their culture and historical guided tour. Their visit was packed with fun events and activities. From the traditional grinding of maize and sorghum to shooting bows and arrows as our forefathers did many years ago. They also took part in traditional dances, were crowned kings and queens of yester years for a few hours, to experiencing traditional healing methods through herbs and charms.
The village is located on the fringes of the Sabyinyo Volcano, that provides a picture-perfect backdrop for a visit on clear skies. Talking about pictures and keeping memories, of course, all the children who participated in this tour were armed with their smartphones and boy oh boy….it was selfies galore followed by endless camera clicks at every opportunity to document their experience and to share their experience with their friends and family. The decibels registered high numbers when the two groups finally met over lunch as they shared their experiences, fingers swiped the smartphone screens with speed and purpose to not only explain a precise moment, a particular experience, but to regale and relive it in the company of their friends.
And as I sat there drowned in their excitement, I reminisced this very spot about ten years back when my friend Justine Kwizera, my sister Elsa Nibigira (the picture on the right) and I joined Dr. Edwin Sabuhoro at the table where the dream of this cultural village was mooted. Dr. Edwin Sabuhoro is a friend, a colleague, and a mentor. Thirteen years ago, this very place was an empty patch of land, but today, thanks to the vision and sacrifice of Dr. Edwin Sabuhoro, the cultural aspects of the local people come alive and are shared with thousands of domestic and foreign travelers. And today, my children and their friends are here to experience the dream from thirteen years ago; to witness the tangible benefits of wildlife and environmental conservation where former gorilla poachers are today the very protectors of the forest, the gorillas, the environment and their rich cultural traditions.
This, was without a shadow of a doubt the very essence of this trip. These children will forever remain passionate and appreciative of the environment, the culture and the wildlife they witnessed and the experience they were part of. Just like me, they will forever carry with them the images and memories of this trip. As we continue to travel, what we learn is beyond what we read in books.
The question remains, where do we go next?
By Carmen Nibigira