From left: A guide on a waterfall hike in Nyungwe National Park; a silverback mountain gorilla at Volcanoes National Park.

Michael Turek

The Spirit of Rwanda: How the African Nation Is Becoming a Tourist Destination Thanks to Conservation

The conservation of Rwanda’s gorillas is at the center of the country’s remarkable rise as a travel destination. But the true transformation, 26 years after the genocide, is in the spirit of the country itself.

Florence Murekatete was 15 when the Rwandan genocide began on April 7, 1994. She lived in the Bugesera area, just outside the capital city of Kigali, where she was attacked by a Hutu militia wielding machetes. They struck her several times on the head, but she managed to escape and hide in a nearby thicket of papyrus. She was discovered by a Tutsi man, who came to her aid with a drink of water from a shoe that had been dipped in a machete wash bucket. He took her to his house where she could hide and recuperate. Today, she is a merchant with three children living in the same area where she grew up, where people she’d lived among her whole life one day tried to kill her.

My husband and I met Murekatete and heard her story on our second day in Rwanda. We were traveling with Cherri Briggs and her husband, Richard Wilson; Briggs is a longtime African-travel specialist and founder of Explore, Inc., which had organized the trip. We’d flown in to Kigali, where we were staying for a couple of days before heading west toward Nyungwe National Park to track chimpanzees, then north to Volcanoes National Park for the main event of the trip—to see the mountain gorillas.

From left: Park rangers in the morning mist at Volcanoes National Park; a guest villa at Singita Kwitonda, with Mount Sabyinyo in the background.

Michael Turek

But first our host, Josh Ruxin—who, with his wife, owns the restaurant Heaven, two offshoot hotels, and Heaven Tours—arranged for us to visit places around Kigali that would introduce us to the country’s past and present: a women’s weaving cooperative, a community health center (which Ruxin helped found), and a genocide memorial site. The country has many of these sites, along with a museum dedicated to the remembrance of this and other genocides around the world. Our meeting with Murekatete was in the community of Nyamata, in the quiet courtyard of a deconsecrated Catholic church where an estimated 5,000 Tutsi Rwandans were killed at the hands of their countrymen. The place exuded an overwhelming sense of sorrow. It was Sunday, and worship was in session across the road at a new Catholic church built after the genocide. As we walked among the caskets, bones, and bundles of clothing used to identify victims, we could hear the sound of a choir singing in the distance. After Murekatete told us her story, we sat with her and wept.

I realize this is a fraught beginning to a story that is ultimately about peace, prosperity, and reconciliation. For the rest of the trip, we discussed those first days in the country: Should visitors have this experience? Were we helping turn anguish into an attraction? Was it weird that we gave Murekatete money for her time? I didn’t reach a conclusion, other than to observe that the atrocities of 26 years ago form the inescapable backdrop for any traveler to Rwanda. Your guide, your tracker, the hotel staff, the business owners you encounter across the country have all been transformed by the genocide—they are the children and siblings of the victims and perpetrators.

Inside a villa at Singita Kwitonda.

Michael Turek

Under the leadership of President Paul Kagame, there are officially no longer Tutsis and Hutus; there are only Rwandans. The national narrative is one of unity; the official policy, reconciliation. Private forgiveness is another matter, and it is not for me to judge. But one thing is clear: The genocide is the fire from which is being forged a modern nation open for business and ready to welcome you. The story of what it’s like to travel in Rwanda today begins there.

From left: One&Only Nyungwe House chef Treasure Makwanise in his garden; a forest lodge at One&Only Gorilla's Nest.

Michael Turek

As we flew toward Nyungwe National Park, I was awed by the Rwandan terrain. As far as the eye could see was a landscape rippled with hill after hill, like overlapping waves on a troubled sea. And hardly a square foot of it wasn’t planted with tea, coffee, corn, potatoes, sorghum. Without a fully developed oil or mining industry, this country of 12 million living in an area the size of Massachusetts is largely agrarian, with agriculture representing almost a third of its GDP.

But in recent years, that’s begun to change, as the Rwandan government has put tourism at the center of its plan to achieve rapid economic growth: It has averaged almost 8 percent a year for the past five years. Viewing wildlife—mostly primates, but also the Big Five in Akagera National Park—is the principal attraction for visitors who pay up to $1,500 per permit. Only 96 permits a day are issued for gorilla tracking (more are issued for chimpanzee and monkey treks), so the experience itself is something of a luxury. To meet the demand, there’s currently a boom in high-end hotels and lodges, and we were on our way to one of them, One&Only Nyungwe House.

The resort is situated on a working tea plantation, with 22 tree-house-like suites built right up against the rain forest. This is the base for seeing chimpanzees, which necessitates a 4:45 a.m. pickup, a very bumpy jeep ride to the edge of the park, and the ability to move swiftly through the jungle on a downward slope without a path.

From left: Artist Innocent Nkurunziza at his studio; a silverback mountain gorilla at Volcanoes National Park.

Michael Turek

On the morning of our track, we walked for less than an hour, with brief glimpses of blue monkeys and mangabeys as we went, until we began to hear the treetop commotion of chimps starting their morning. We’d been mostly on a trail, but then without warning the chimps were on the move. They’d taken a hard right, and the next thing I knew so had we—fully off the trail and straight into the bush. Three of us split off from the group with one of the guides and went in chase of the chimps. Hacking their way through the undergrowth as they went, the trackers created a makeshift trail. We ducked branches and high-stepped over brush, nearly running to keep up, always with an eye to the sky and an ear out for the creak of branches, the rustle of leaves, and the shriek of the chimps. When our full group finally got directly under them, we counted about a dozen family members of varying ages occupying a couple of tall trees. The young ones would come closest to us, raining leaves and bark on our heads, curious to get a look. For a moment I felt unnervingly surrounded. They share 98 percent of our DNA, and I’ve seen Planet of the Apes. But mostly they paid us no mind. They groomed one another, they snuggled, they played, they squabbled. A family. After a while, they made their way down and headed for the next tree. We let them be.

That evening at Nyungwe House, the resort arranged for a song-and-dance troupe called Iwacu to lead a re-created traditional Rwandan gathering in which families eat, drink, and discuss the issues of the day. The group of about a dozen dancers, singers, and percussionists performed songs in Kinyarwanda that illustrated daily struggles and shared beliefs. Some of the moves represented cows or birds; others, the graceful undulations of trees or water. Around the wrists and ankles of each dancer were bells or shakers; the dance was the music. I had to get over my self-consciousness about watching culture performed as cocktail entertainment at a resort. The talent, dedication, and sheer joy of this ensemble was undeniable and utterly contagious.

Iwacu, which means “home,” operates out of a nearby Cultural Village, one of many official cooperatives around the country. A particularly progressive Kagame policy is the national revenue-sharing program that returns 10 percent of tourism dollars to local communities. This is why nearly all businesses geared toward tourists are organized as cooperatives. The designation allows them to show the government their business plan, goals for growth, and how each member of the co-op will benefit equitably.

Compared with many countries around the world, where tourism dollars often leave local economies, Rwanda’s model seems to give its citizens a feeling of personal investment in the kind of experience travelers have. I felt it wherever I went: a sense of pride from people and a commitment to their own betterment. Treasure Makwanise, the Zimbabwean-born executive chef at Nyungwe House, explained that Rwanda’s opening up to visitors was still very new. “Many of the people in my kitchen didn’t know how to say ‘Hi’ five years ago,” he said. We were touring his garden on the property, observing the progress of his vegetables and peeking into his new chicken coop. In his view, locals coming together to make tourism work has been a unifying force. “You have to feel at peace in order to communicate peace to others,” he said. “This is a healing process.”

Volcanoes National Park dates back to 1925, when it formed part of the first wildlife preserve in Africa. It encompasses five dormant volcanoes in the Virunga Mountains and is contiguous with Mgahinga Gorilla National Park in Uganda and Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). In addition to elephants, golden monkeys, and antelope, it is home to many of the last mountain gorillas on earth, who roam freely among the three countries. In the first decade of the 20th century, they were routinely poached—for gorilla-hand ashtrays, bushmeat, black magic. That practice continued for the better part of a century.

“I’ve tried to forgive those people back in 1902,” Jean Bosco Noheli told me. He is a field veterinarian with Gorilla Doctors, an NGO that tracks and treats mountain gorillas for illness and injury. We were talking at the new One&Only Gorilla’s Nest, a luxurious campus of rooms and suites near the national park. In 1960, the first survey ever conducted counted 450 mountain gorillas. The population had reached a low of a couple hundred in the 1980s, despite the efforts of Dian Fossey, who arrived in 1967 to study the animals, advocated for their conservation, but was murdered in 1985. In the past decade, however—since visitors began coming in earnest to see the gorillas and communities began receiving income generated by them—poaching has fallen dramatically. Now the gorilla population is growing by almost 4 percent every year. The last census, in 2018, counted 1,063. “Tourism is the engine of success,” Noheli said. “But we have to talk to visitors about the health of the gorillas, educate them.”

The Kigali Genocide Memorial

Michael Turek

On the morning of our trek, we arrived, along with dozens of other people, at the entrance to the national park. Every gorilla trek begins with an opaque process of organizing travelers—on my visit, the majority were white American and European travelers aged from their mid-20s to mid-60s—into groups of eight, depending on fitness and agility, and then assigning them a guide and a family of gorillas. Twenty families are currently known to trackers, who each morning locate them wherever they are in the park. The gorillas you’re assigned to may be a half day’s hike away. They may be a ten-minute stroll from the edge of the park. They might be nearby at dawn but have moved on by lunchtime, so that you wind up pursuing them for hours up the side of a volcano.

Our guide, Olivier Mutuyimana, explained the rules to keep the gorillas and ourselves safe and healthy: Stay at least 20 feet away, don’t make eye contact, and don’t go if you’re sick (for fear of infecting a gorilla). He also demonstrated a few of the 16 identified sounds—low guttural hums and grumbles—that gorillas make to communicate. And, most importantly, he showed us how to slouch into a submissive pose if any of us found ourselves face-to-face with a gorilla. They don’t always obey the 20-foot rule, Mutuyimana reminded us.

Off we went, first through farmland planted with pyrethrum, a daisy used to make insecticide. The government used to encourage this cash crop, and over the years large sections of the park have been denuded for agricultural use, leaving a shrinking park for a growing population of gorillas. The vegetation grew wilder and denser as we went, our porters carrying our backpacks and helping us over mud slicks, until we were amid thick groves of bamboo (a gorilla delicacy) and bushes of stinging nettles (bring gloves). Finally, we came to a small clearing, left the porters with our packs and hiking sticks, and descended a small slope through freshly macheted underbrush. And there they were, the Agashya family, named for its silverback. Besides the patriarch, there were his two grown sons, several females, and four or five babies. Eventually, we saw 18 of the 27 family members.

At one point a baby wandered over to the group with an outstretched hand, curious to see these upright creatures. We’d heard stories of babies playing with tourists’ shoelaces. On one of Cherri Briggs’s previous treks, a baby tried to sit in her lap. This time the trackers were on guard, grunting in gorilla-speak to warn the baby away. The adults appeared incurious about us. One mother groomed herself, her left arm crooked so that it blocked her face in what I took to be a gesture of modesty. Another crunched loudly on bamboo. Agashya himself exuded a serene confidence.

Then suddenly there was a tussle: The two brothers were fighting. We could hear them behind a bush but couldn’t see them until, in a flash, they tumbled down the hill straight toward us, stopping within a few feet of where we were standing. My heart thudded in my chest. We all bent our knees, bowed our heads, and let our arms fall by our sides. The trackers broke into a chorus of “hmm—mmmhhh, hmm—mmmhhh”: “We humans mean no harm.” The dueling pair broke up, and the dominant male turned and displayed himself majestically in profile for a few seconds. Then, point made, he ambled off into the bush.

For days afterward the experience still seemed surreal. Being so near these wild animals who are nonetheless accustomed to, even copacetic with, humans didn’t easily compare with other safari experiences I’m familiar with. In the Serengeti you witness the stark, elemental nature of an interdependent ecosystem in all its glory and brutality, indifferent to the cares of humans. Here it was as if you were witnessing a kind of ur-human opera that was both astonishing and unnerving. For all their power, gorillas are fragile creatures. Noheli told me that, other than injuries from inter-gorilla fighting, gorilla doctors mostly treat the animals for respiratory illnesses transmitted by people. I couldn’t help wondering whether in 20 years we’d look back and still think it was a good idea to let 35,000 people a year tromp through the jungle to visit them.

And yet the progress they and other Rwandan primates represent is undeniable. Their conservation is at the center
of an economy that replaces the poaching and deforestation that had marked the country’s previous decades. Veronica
Vecellio, an Italian biologist with the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund for the past 12 years, described the evolution of poachers’
becoming guides, trackers, and rangers as something of a shift in mindset: “There were no more good guys and bad guys. We are all good guys.” Among the many remarkable results of that transformation is the amount of global attention and investment in Rwandan conservation. In 2018, Ellen DeGeneres and Portia de Rossi made a well-publicized gift of seed money to build the Gorilla Fund a state-of-the-art new home. The campus near the park entrance is scheduled to open in 2021.

A remaining hurdle for Rwanda is to reclaim lost parkland to accommodate the growing gorilla population. More animals on less land causes stress and fighting, Vecellio said. At the same time, focusing only on gorillas for tourism puts additional pressure on the animals— especially now that the DRC, right across the border, is hostile to gorilla tourism.

Prosper Uwingeli, the chief park warden for volcanoes, explained that the government-run Rwanda Development Board (RDB) has a plan to increase Volcanoes Park by 9,200 acres. It would mean the reversion of farmland back into forest and the relocation of 20,000 people, something that Uwingeli knows is a long and complicated process. “It will take 10 to 12 years of convincing communities that it won’t cause conflict,” he said, adding that the RDB intends to move forward thoughtfully. “Social justice is important.”

My meeting with Uwingeli was at the new Singita Kwitonda, the latest lodge from the conservation-minded South African company, built at the edge of the national park, seemingly in the shadow of Mount Sabyinyo. At night, elephants, gorillas, and other wildlife sometimes wander up within eyeshot of its nine low-slung stone-and-wood buildings. It’s a remarkable property, not only for the luxurious attention to detail that the brand is known for but because of the social and environmental practice at its core.

President Kagame invited Singita founder Luke Bailes to build Kwitonda on the condition that he buy the land at market rate (from dozens of individual landowners, no less) and commit to reforesting it. Bailes did that and then some. During the construction of the lodge— which employed more than 600 local masons, weavers, and craftspeople and used exclusively local materials except for the cement—Singita planted 250,000 trees, shrubs, herbs, and bamboo, part of a ten-year reforestation plan. The company also plans to provide education and career development to nearby communities to create a local supply chain and talent pool: the next generation of farmers, chefs, and hospitality workers.

Many Rwandans I spoke to recognized the need for a robust and diversified economy that doesn’t focus entirely on wealthy tourists parachuting in and out just to see gorillas. Uwingeli and the team at the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund all pointed to other livelihood projects such as bamboo harvesting, beekeeping, mushroom cultivation, and comprehensive conservation education for schoolkids. And in Kigali, fashion, design, and art are thriving as both an economic engine and a way to weave together the story of the country’s past and future. The Inema Arts Center, founded by brothers Emmanuel Nkuranga and Innocent Nkurunziza, shows Rwandan artists whose work incorporates abstracted images of wildlife into boldly expressionist paintings and sculpture. Dominating the space is Nkuranga’s giant gorilla made of computer circuit boards, an ingenious comment on the country’s current state.

By the end of the trip, one thing was gnawing at our group: the fact that it’s virtually impossible because of the cost for most Rwandans to see the gorillas for themselves. How could we expect people to care so deeply for these animals if they’ve never seen them? The response to that question from Noheli, the veterinarian, rang in my head: “Do you want to see people’s lives improved, or do you want them to see gorillas?” I saw his point, but I hoped that both might be possible.

We had one more visit with the gorillas scheduled for the last day. It had been an exhausting journey, with many predawn starts. My Health app tallied up 17 miles of trekking. So my husband and I asked if there were two people working at Kwitonda who might want to use our permits instead. There were: Jean Kanyarugano, a maintenance technician, and Angelique Iraguha, a sous chef, went early the next morning, before their shifts started, to see the gorillas for the first time. Later that day, they told us all about which silverbacks and mothers and babies they’d seen, and together we shared in the joy and awe of seeing those magnificent animals. For maybe the tenth time on the trip, I was moved beyond words.

Before I’d come to Rwanda, I’d had a fantasy that when I encountered a gorilla, we would look into each other’s eyes, and by some interspecies telepathy an ancient evolutionary divide would be bridged. We would recognize something essential in each other, DNA to DNA, and I would be transformed. Now the idea seemed quaint, even naive. I loved seeing the gorillas and wouldn’t trade it for anything. But the transformation I was seeking didn’t come from an animal connection. It came from a human one.