Heri ya Mwaka Mpya! (Happy New Year!)
I have been trying to keep these articles focused on spiritual and cultural discoveries that I have made here, but sometimes I just feel like I need to write about things that interest me and may be meaningful to you, even if they may not outwardly appear to be related to my mission. The truth is, each of these things helps to form and shape me, and who I am as a Missionary.
In keeping with my tradition of trying to do something exciting to distract myself from being away from home during the holidays, I did something that will undoubtedly set the bar high for all future (and God willing, many) New Year’s Eve celebrations. I went to Mgahinga National Park in southwestern Uganda to track the endangered mountain gorilla. This park lies in the Virunga volcano region that spans the countries of Uganda, Rwanda, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. The movie Gorillas in the Mist was filmed in this region back in the late 80s, and that movie was one of my inspirations for visiting. Mountain gorillas were dangerously close to becoming extinct, and with the help of people like Dian Fossey, their numbers are holding steady and even making a resurgence [that I should go on my trek five days after the 25th anniversary of Dian Fossey’s murder can either be chalked up as a freak coincidence or destiny]. Mountain gorillas are one of two subspecies of gorilla, the other being the Western Lowland gorilla, which are the gorillas you find in zoos (mountain gorillas do not live in captivity). Of the 720 remaining mountain gorillas in the world, 380 live on the Virunga volcanoes and the rest of them live nearby in Uganda’s Bwindi Impenetrable National Park.
Another inspiration for my wanting to visit the gorillas was Carl Akeley. Carl Akeley isn’t exactly a household name, but you’re probably familiar with his work. If you have ever been to a Natural History Museum and seen a diorama with animals in it, you can thank Carl Akeley. He revolutionized the art of taxidermy and was the first taxidermist to ever assemble a complete habitat group diorama–a muskrat diorama which can still be seen today at the Milwaukee Public Museum.1 Akeley was also a key player behind the Hall of African Mammals at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. After collecting specimens in Africa in the early 1920s, Akeley discovered that the natural African landscapes he had come to know and love were already being rapidly developed into farmland and encroached upon by civilization. He wanted to do something that would preserve unspoiled Africa for future generations, and that is how he came upon the idea for the Hall of African Mammals. Each diorama depicts a different animal group in a particular region of Africa as that region had appeared before urban or even rural development. In some cases, these places no longer exist as they appear in the dioramas, with exceptions like the Serengeti Plain. One of the dioramas depicts a group of gorillas in the Virunga volcanoes in a specific area that Akeley had visited and loved (and where he is now buried). On my many visits to the AMNH, I was always drawn to that exhibit not only because of its vivid detail but because it seemed like a place that I, too, would one day like to see firsthand. One of Akeley’s biggest legacies was persuading Belgium’s King Leopold II to establish the first national park in Africa in 1925–Parc Nationale Albert–around the Kivu volcanoes in what was then the Belgian Congo.2 The protected area now includes Mgahinga National Park, so the mountain gorillas are guaranteed a safe haven, thanks in part to Carl Akeley.
Fast forward to December 31, 2010. As our tour bus made its way up the bumpy dirt road to our drop-off location, I noticed that the land all around the volcanoes (and even partway up the volcanoes) had been developed into farmland. What would Carl think? Even the first part of our journey on foot up the mountain took us through several acres of farmland. However, I quickly discovered that gorilla conservation would be the least of my concerns. I hadn’t prepared myself for the degree of difficulty of the climb. I didn’t bring enough water with me, and I was out before I knew it. I also didn’t plan on altitude exhaustion, which quickly overtook me. The rangers told us that the mountain was 3474 meters high. That didn’t seem like much until I did the conversion later and discovered that it’s almost 11,400 feet!! I consider myself pretty physically fit, and within the first few minutes, I was already at the back of our group, which consisted mostly of young to middle-aged athletic European tourists who probably have scaled taller mountains and are more used to being at a higher altitude than me. I was soon stopping every couple of minutes and came very close to quitting at least a couple of times.
Here is what got me up that mountain:
-The patience and support of my fellow travelers: the six other tourists in my group and the local guides who accompanied us. No one rolled their eyes at me or expressed disgust for my taking longer. They all understood what I was going through, and they told me that we would reach the gorillas together and that I wouldn’t be left behind.
-My desire to see those darn gorillas because I had come all that way and spent a lot of money on a permit (money which came out of a special savings account I have and not from my mission account). A maximum of 8 people are allowed up the mountain each day to see the gorillas, and I was told that several people who had come to the park that day, but who hadn’t booked ahead of time, were turned away. With that in mind, I didn’t want to waste this golden opportunity.
-Prayer. I was physically maxed out and had nothing left in the tank, but I still had a determination to finish what I had started. I began praying to everyone I could think of. Within a few minutes, one of the porters who had joined our group to help carry extra luggage dropped to the back of the group where I was. His name was Simon, and I would later find out he was only 16 years old. Despite the fact that he was wearing a large backpack, he held out his hand to me. I gratefully took it, and we continued walking up the mountain together. As odd as it may sound, the climb was much easier holding his hand, even though he was merely guiding and not actually pulling me up. To make things even better, he spoke and understood Swahili! (Swahili is not commonly spoken in Uganda, especially in the smaller villages like the one where we started our climb) I was able to communicate how I felt to him in a way that he could understand. I told both him and the lead guide that I had been hit with malaria the previous week and was still on the mend (I really don’t think malaria was the difference, but it helped me save face). Talking to Simon also took my mind off the pain and exhaustion I was feeling. Even though Simon wasn’t carrying my bag, he got a nice tip from me at the end.
One of the variables of gorilla tracking is that you never know how long it will take to find the gorillas or where exactly they will be. Some people have spent several hours just getting to the gorillas. Trackers are sent up the mountain early each morning to facilitate finding the gorillas, but that doesn’t making getting to them any easier. Much of the journey was spent going up steep embankments with not much room for a foothold and only vines and thorny brambles to grab onto for support. When we got closer to the gorillas, we began zigzagging up, down, and sideways, all in an effort to stay on their trail. We finally reached the gorillas around 2 hours after we started the hike. I was physically and emotionally spent, but nothing on earth can match the feeling of being less than 15 feet away from a wild animal that knows you are there but allows you to get up close anyway. I had a snapshot and video camera with me, and both were immediately put into action. It was hard for me to keep my hands steady in the beginning to get good shots, not because I was scared but because I had been pulling and grasping at things for the past two hours, and my muscles were already in recharge mode. Eventually, I relaxed and was able to enjoy my time with creatures that seemed like old friends by the end of our allotted hour with them.
I learned a couple of things from this experience. One is that a 500-pound gorilla really does sleep anywhere he wants. The other is that even when I think I’m perfectly capable of doing things myself, I am proven otherwise. Take, for instance, my recent bout with malaria. There is no way I could have gotten through that without help from above and from the people around me. Likewise, I probably would never have made it up that mountain without help from above and the patience and physical assistance of those who were with me. I could easily say that the mountain is an allegory for my life struggles, but I won’t do that. Simply put, it was a physical challenge that I was able to overcome only with the help of those around me. In a like manner, I have learned to become reliant on God and the people He has put in my life to help me through my experience in Africa.
As glad as I am that I went up Mt. Mgahinga to see those gorillas, I would never do it again. For me, it was one of those things you do once and then move on. Plus, things like this usually lose something the second time around, and it definitely would not be worth killing myself again for another go-around.
Although the mountain gorillas are protected for now, they are still threatened by poaching and have been maimed or even killed by traps and snares set for other animals. They are also susceptible to human diseases (remember how close we are), and visitors cannot make the trek if they are ill. Then there is the uncertainty of further land development and even war and civil unrest, especially in the DRC.
I still can’t get over how small the remaining gorilla territory is. These mountains are refuges, but they’re islands of refuge with no way to get off unless it’s through someone’s backyard. Although the gorillas are still free to roam across international borders into Rwanda and the DRC, the gorillas are pretty much stuck on those mountains with very little chance of being able to move somewhere else. The parks in Central Africa have become a safe haven for the mountain gorilla in much the same way that Manhattan was a safe haven for prisoners in the movie Escape from New York.
It appears as though the fate of the gorillas will end in one of three ways: 1) they will make a huge comeback and outgrow their territory, creating an even bigger problem; 2) they will establish a stable population that will allow them to live in equilibrium with their surroundings; 3) they will become extinct from disease, poaching, or further encroachment by humans into their territory. As happy as I was to have had the chance to see live gorillas on their home turf, I couldn’t help but feel overwhelming pessimism afterward. Conservation work is being done at all levels, but there’s still a very real chance that in the future your only chance of seeing a mountain gorilla will be at a place like the American Museum of Natural History. For now, the gorillas have their “living museum” and will hopefully keep it for a long time.
Thank you to my support team!
1 Stephen Christopher Quinn, Windows on Nature (New York: Abrams in association with the American Museum of Natural History, 2006), p.15
2 Quinn, p. 27