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Trip Report:

Rwanda - 2017 Kwita Izina Naming Ceremony,
Mountain Gorillas,
and Akagara National Park

The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly

The Naming Ceremony, Hollywood Elitism, Cancer Survivor,
and The Greatest Light Source in the World!

This is a slightly different trip report than our normal, but it will cover several interesting topics - hence the Good, Bad, and Ugly subtitle above.

First off, as Mary did last year, I had the great honor and privilege to participate in Rwanda's Kwita Izina naming Ceremony, where I named a baby gorilla at this, one of Rwanda's premiere events for the year. This is truly one of the greatest honors one can be given in the world of wildlife conservation -- it's kind of like the Academy Awards in this. Most 'namers' are very influential folks in the world of conservation, or philanthropists - like Howard Buffet, or industry leaders that have worked with Rwanda. For Mary and I -- mere wildlife photographers -- it was truly quite an honor. We were picked, however, because of the number of treks we've done -- 100, and because we've always brought groups with us, significantly impacting upon the economy in a positive way. It probably helped that we have made a lot of friends in Rwanda, which truly is our favorite country outside our own. We love Rwanda and its people, and of course, the Mountain Gorillas.

President Paul Kagame; Shaking hands with the President!

My baby gorilla was the year-old son of Umoja, from the Hirwa group, a baby we've photographed since he was three months old. The name I chose was Inkingi, which means 'pillar,' symbolic of the gorillas being the foundation for conservation and decision making regarding gorillas and the Virunga volcanoes complex. There were upwards of 60,000 people at the event -- virtually everyone from that province, and both Mary and I had the opportunity to shake hands and say hello to President Paul Kagame.


The Rehearsal the day before; me at the King's hut

jAgain, as Mary did last year, this year I participated in the Conversation on Conservation, where I was on a panel on eco-tourism and climate change. This two day event gave Mary and I the opportunity to interact and meet with a variety of people, including many young Rwandans involved in conservation.

Minutes before we headed on-stage

On the first day of the weeklong series of events we attended a Gala Event, featuring 'The Ben,' Rwanda's singer star, and a very talented local group. While Mary and I are terrible dancers, we took to the dance floor, solo, for a song, doing our best attempt at ballroom dancing. The attendees were generous in their appreciation for our attempt, and since it was my 65th birthday, it was a nice touch to what was a huge party.

Our outfitter also informed 'The Ben' it was my 65th birthday, and requested a special song. As he introduced the song he announced to the group that this was our 65th Wedding Anniversary! He told us later he didn't think we were that old -- Mary was still an egg 65 years ago -- but his error gave me a chance to later grab the microphone and correct the error, and to urge everyone to seize the moment, as we did by dancing, we had now to save the gorillas!

gAfter the Gala Event, and the Conservation conference, we traveled to Musanze where we stayed at our favorite lodge, Mountain Gorilla View, and where I did one Mountain Gorilla Trek, making this my 101st trek, and now tying Mary, who did the same trek last year. It was a very difficult trek -- close to a 10 in terms of difficulty, and the shooting was fairly difficult as well. I visited the Sabyinyo group, which was the first group Mary and I visited 100 treks ago, and who has provided some of our best experiences on our 50th, 75th, and 100th anniversary treks. I photographed Guhonda, who was once the largest of all the Mountain Gorillas and who is somewhere between 40 and 47 years old, and who now looks his age. Sadly, I believe this will be the last time I may see Guhonda, as we won't be returning to Rwanda until next October. I'd be surprised if he were still alive in another year.




At one point there were two silverbacks in front of me, Guhonda and a younger Gorilla just coming in to maturity. This one yawned widely, and, thinking he might do so again, I decided to switch cameras and use my RRS Monopod and 70-300mm lens. Just as I was doing so the young Gorilla stood up and ran forward, beating his chest, and I, of course, missed the shot!

Fortunately he didn't move more than a few feet and after a few minutes our Guide said he was going to do so again. I honestly could not see any clue that he was about to do so -- often Silverbacks purse their lips prior to chest beating -- but I waited, prepared. Sure enough, the Gorilla stood and rushed by us, again beating his chest. This time, I caught the shot.


Two days later we had the naming ceremony, and I shared this honor with several great people and some not-so-great. One, who was supposed to name a baby Mountain Gorilla, was the actor Sean Penn. I was very curious about how it would go meeting him, as normally the namers have several activities and dinners together. I wondered if he would turn out to be a regular guy.



At any rate, on the day of the ceremony, everyone had to pass through a security check since President Kagami would be attending. As I was about to enter the security check a small group of people arrived, stepping ahead of the line about to go through security. The group included Penn and two models, and a guy that looked like Van Diesel, who turned out to be an ex-goverment official from Haiti.

I didn't recognize Penn at first, but my first impression when I did was how unhappy or miserable he appeared. He held a perpetual scowl, and honestly my first thoughts revolved around how miserable he looked. How could you not be happy being part of this event?

At any rate, the Haiti guy tried to butt into line right in front of me -- no lines for him -- but the security guard told him to get back and wait his turn. I thanked the guard in Kinya Rwandan and the guard gave a nod and half-smile in return. A nice moment.

We proceeded to the area where the namers would be dressed, and where we would wait until the President arrived and the ceremonies would begin. There, we were surprised to learn that Penn decided he wouldn't name a baby. He gave no reason that anyone we spoke with knows of, but it was a shock and a huge disappointment to the organizers of the event. To the rest of us namers, we too were shocked, and felt that it was a big insult to the country as well.

To take his place, one of the two models that were with Penn was picked as a namer - one model was already selected to do so. Sadly, a Rwandan who works with the Diane Fossy Gorilla Fund was already dressed and ready to go -- a great honor for him, and note doubt a tremendous disappointment when, suddenly, he was eliminated. Neither model conformed with the group, not wearing the traditional Rwanda sandals that were supplied, and one not wearing the proper shirt or wearing the head band that was a part of the traditional dress every other woman wore. Instead, both wore their clunky hiking boots, and one wore her own shirt. That model also, somehow, brought her dog along, which mystified everyone as to how she got the dog into the country, and Mary was lucky enough to be sitting just two seats away from the little toy dog at the VIP tent! The woman sitting next to Mary, right next to the dog, tried petting the dog once, and the dog's handler then moved the dog to the seat next to him, out of her reach!

The entire behavior of that group smacked of an elitism -- that the protocol applied to everyone but them, and it was offensive to see, and insulting to the Rwanda people and the organizers of the event. One model, in giving her baby's name, only did so with the English name and not the Kinya-Rwandan name -- coincidentally that name for her baby was Beauty. Who could guess? Gag.

The Naming Ceremony

After the ceremony there was a buffet luncheon for the namers and the dignitaries and influential people who attended, and the models, Penn, and the Haiti guy all passed on attending. Later, in Akagara National Park, we met some of the Press who had attended, and who tried to interview Penn, and they were shunned. As they said, even one little quote about being there, or about the gorillas, or Rwanda's progress and commitment to conservation, would have been sufficient, but he, according to them, just couldn't be bothered.

Writing all this seems a bit catty and superficial, perhaps, but there was a lesson there, and that was on how to treat people, and how NOT to treat people. The sense of self-importance, privilege, and elitism simply was disgusting, and it was the topic of conversation for a lot of folks. As several said, whatever was the last film they saw where Penn starred, it would be their last. It will be for us.

wIronically, there was a gentleman there who truly deserved being a part of the Naming Ceremony. His company makes the WakaWaka, a solar powered light that the company distributes, free, around the world to needy communities. Their company has supplied lights to doctors in the tropics, who could not operate after sunset because there was no light source, to refugees, to villages ... check the web site to learn more. The LED light has 4 settings, up to 25 lumens -- which is enough to do a lot of work, and lasts up to 40 hours on one charge. It is well designed -- it can be mounted onto a soda bottle or water bottle, hung from a string, or stands alone, and it is bright. In the Pantanal a few weeks ago we had a complete power outage because of a storm, and had I had the FIVE WakaWakas we now own, I'd have had plenty of light in my room or for our group at dinner.

I would urge everyone to get a WakaWaka. They are inexpensive -- $29.99 for the light, $69 for the model I recommend -- with the charger, and the company is devoted to supplying light to those who do not have access to electricity. We will be carrying our WakaWakas on all our future trips -- to the Himalayas for Snow Leopards, to the Pantanal, ... everywhere.

I also envision using the WakaWaka has supplementary video lights -- and thus freeing me from carrying a video LED light that would require carrying a charger alone, too. Get one, or several! You can read more in our Tip of the Month.

Flying Foxes outside our Hotel on the eve of the Naming Ceremony

After the ceremony, our outfitter, Primate Safaris, arranged a helicopter flight for us to travel to Akagara National Park, on the eastern edge of Rwanda. We'd never been there, and we expected a landscape something similar to Tanzania's Serengeti. The 'copter flight was incredible, although the skies were hazy and distance views were restricted, but it was wonderful to look down upon the farms and terraces and countless hills as we headed east.

fThe park, however, was nothing like the Serengeti, but reflected Rwanda's nickname as the Land of a Thousand Hills. The park's landscape is composed of innumerable hills and ten large lakes, and during the rainy season, when the hills would be clad in green and the skies washed clear, the park would be spectacularly beautiful.

Since the introduction of 18 Black Rhinos from South Africa, the Park now has the Big Five. Previously, Lions were reintroduced to the park, and from a start up of 7 there are now 18 lions. The females have scattered and will be the nucleus of several prides, and now there are two coalitions of males to increase genetic diversity. The day before we arrived, a tuskless male Elephant in musth killed a park worker! The Elephant had been raised as an orphan, had at one time been ridden and handled by a mahout, and -- most of the time -- was an easy going elephant. In musth, however, he is crazy, and this time he approached a truck hoping to find food. In the process, he wrapped his trunk around a young man, and proceeded to pound him into the ground. The park road where the elephant lurked was closed.


bOur guide had had an encounter with the Elephant on one of his previous trips. The Elephant had charged and was flanking him, beginning to force my guide -- who was racing along in his vehicle -- towards the lake shore where he'd be forced to stop. Fortunately, park employees in vehicles far ahead saw his dilemma and their occupants got out of their vehicles and started shouting. This distracted the Elephant long enough that my guide could make his escape. Had he not, his vehicle may have been flipped, as had happened to others.

cOne of the highlights of our time in Akagara was a 1.5 hour boat ride along the shorelines. Here, Mary managed to photograph one of the Black Rhinos when it came to the water to drink. Our boatman may have approached too quickly as the shy Rhino ran back into the papyrus thickets, kicking up a wall of water that made for a great shot. Previously, Mary had shot some Crowned Cranes, and her exposure and lens were approximately set, while I hadn't done anything at that point and fumbled to get a shot in the seconds we had. I failed!


roanOne of our other highlights in Akagara was the Roan Antelope we photographed. One lamb (or calf, if you will) was particularly amusing. Like a puppy dog who grows into its big paws, the baby Roan must grow into its ears, as they were huge! The big ears reminded me of a clown's, an unfair analogy as these horse antelopes are truly spectacular.

Another highlight was completely unexpected, and I share this with the hope that it may help someone. We met an American couple who are now working in Rwanda, helping to set up more efficiency in medical care. In our conversation 'living for the moment' came up, and the unpredictability of life, and the specter of cancer. To which the husband replied he was now has been cancer-free, from liver cancer, for four years! Liver Cancer is a killer, and he is the only survivor of 12 that were part of an experimental program he was involved in. His secret is worth sharing.

oHe and his wife are religious, and they strongly believe not just in having faith but in having hope. Keeping hope -- something his doctors did not provide -- he felt was essential. His wife was a nurse, and she took it upon herself to do as much research as she could, checking for repercussions and side-effects from his treatments, and remedies for these. They concluded, from their research, that REFINED SUGAR was deadly, and they eliminated it from their diet.

The couple expounded on this, recounting how difficult it was to give up cake or candy or bread, but the alternative, in not trying to do so, was death. They shared their experience with others with cancer, and the husband expressed his sadness and disbelief that cancer patients who initially tried giving up refined sugar, and seeing positive results in doing so, eventually gave up, telling him that it was just too hard to give up portions of their diet. One did not, and is still alive, as is this very healthy and enthusiastic guy! His wife explained how she concocted recipes that substituted fruits and avocados (at times) for sugar, and how, in taste tests with her friends, people preferred her sugar-free dishes.

bThis may all sound crazy to you, but in speaking with the couple, and seeing the passion they had, and the success they have had in what was originally perceived as a death sentence, I had to share their story. It may help someone.

I urged the couple to write a book, and if I had the skill I'd co-write it with them. Their story needs to be told, and if you're reading this, and want to learn more, contact us and we'll get you in contact with the couple. They would be more than willing, I believe, in helping anyone who is facing what they appear to have conquered.

Birds around the lodge at Mountain Gorilla View Lodge

Our time in Rwanda was too short, and we were sad to leave Akagara and to head for home later that day. Sadly, we wondered about our future in Rwanda as the permits for visiting the Mountain Gorillas were quite unexpectedly doubled earlier this summer. Now, a Gorilla Permit costs $1500, for the one hour with the Gorillas.

Their reasoning, it is said, is to limit tourism, as the Gorillas were over-utilized. There are now at least 8 or 10 tourist groups, and the authorities hope that with the cost increase they'll cut the visitation in half, while still keeping the same revenue. They hope, and suspect, that in a few years tourists will accept the new fees and the visitation will resume at full occupancy, with twice the generated revenue.

Fortunately, because of the tourist industry uproar and protest at this, the authorities changed policy, allowing anyone with a group already scheduled to collect half the fee, and supply the passport info for each tourist, to 'get in' under the original $750 permit fee. When we learned of this we immediately contacted those who were interested, and we got a group together for 2018. However, I honestly don't know if we'll have groups in 2019 or beyond, and if we do, whether those trips will involve 2, 3, 4 or 5 treks, as we have always done 5 treks in the past. Perhaps we'll include other Rwanda destinations, and have only a few visits to the Gorillas. Who knows?


So, hopefully anyone reading this can get an idea of where The Good, and The Bad, and The Ugly applies. I'll leave that labeling to you.


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