Mountain gorillas with journalists in the midst | 

No visit to Rwanda is complete without seeing the mountain gorillas. Here’s one who came to have a closer look at us.

After a whirlwind week of meeting with Rwandan officials, business leaders, local journalists, activists and others in the capital city of Kigali, we took off for a few days to journey high up into the Birunga mountain range to the northern town of Kinigi, near the Congo and Uganda borders.

I’m traveling with a group of American journalists sponsored by the International Reporting Project. Our aim is to gain perspective on this country so many associate only with its genocidal past – but which many others today dub an “African success story.”

Rwanda is a stunningly beautiful country. There are many signs of economic progress, but it is still plagued by widespread poverty. Gorilla trekking is expensive and brings in a lot of tourism money. But how much of that is making its way to improving the lives of the average Rwandan?

After driving for hours from Kigali on some pretty rough roads (and some really good ones), we finally arrived at the Gorilla Mountain View Lodge. We all felt like we had reached a remote part of Africa.

Tom Paulson

Bill and Melinda Gates slept here, says Ishimwe Alex of Gorilla Mountain View Lodge

Then I saw the photo above the reception desk of Bill and Melinda Gates posing with the lodge owners. Sheesh. I can’t seem to get away from those two Seattle folks. They’re everywhere.

The lodge has no web access and heats its rooms by a somewhat anemic and soggy wood fire. This is equatorial Africa, but at high elevations (7,000 feet or so) it can still get pretty cold at night. All around the tourist enclaves up here are farming communities, with wandering goats and cattle. Some still live by poaching in the national park, which poses a threat to Rwanda’s number one tourist attraction.

Tourism today represents a significant part of Rwanda’s economy and the mountain gorillas, made most famous by the late Dian “Gorillas in the Mist” Fossey, are the iconic centers of this universe.

More than 600,000 tourists visited last year, an official with the Rwanda Development Board told us, as compared to maybe 6,000 in 1995, the year after the genocide.

“Tourism has contributed to this community significantly,” said Prosper Uwingeli, chief warden of Volcanoes National Park. Uwingeli met with us in Kinigi along with staff at the Karisoke Research Center (the conservation organization started here by Fossey).

Rwanda’s tourism boom is one of its success stories, but the gorilla trekking business alone may be too fragile and limited to make a huge dent in reducing poverty throughout all the communities living around the national park. It has made a dent in Kinigi, where a dozen new hotels have sprung up in the last decade. But how many of these tourism dollars flow down to the poorest of the poor? Continue reading