Rwanda is one of the few places in the world to see critically endangered mountain gorillas in the wild.

Photo by Ami Vitale

I’m closing in on them. After two hours’ trekking up Mount Karisimbi—in a bamboo forest so thick as to turn the daylight jade, past shoulder-high grasses and through stinging nettles—I stop at the sight of night-black fur breaching the vegetation.

Our guides stalk nearer, machetes in hand, pushing aside shivering bushes. A scowling brow juts from foliage: a silverback gorilla glaring imperiously. His bulk is staggering, the gorilla’s head a pyramidal black helmet spreading necklessly into kettlebell shoulders, like a marble-muscled Mr. Universe whose power food is a diet of little more than leaves.

He rips up the undergrowth for lunch, clearing our view and revealing a female at his back and a baby nestled behind hers. Other members of this family (the dominant male leads a harem of eight females plus nine offspring) materialize from the thickets, converging around their boss. With the confidence of the mighty, he sprawls for a snooze, arms and legs splayed, his vast dome of a chest rising and sinking. His brood snuggles in, forming a woolly nest; babies peep out, their liquid brown eyes contemplating us, furless great apes in multicolored jackets and chunky hiking boots, our faces lost behind digital cameras.

Wildlife rangers guide tourists to see chimpanzees, one of 13 primate species in Nyungwe National Park.

Photo by Ami Vitale

After a rush of snapshots, the eight trekkers in my group settle, mesmerized by the wonder of being here, at this remote frontier of northwestern Rwanda, near the center of Africa, halfway up a volcano, halfway around the world, with wild gorillas almost near enough to stroke. Up close, they transfix you. Perhaps it’s their similarity to us—those familiar hands, the expressions—that prompts you to nervously attempt eye contact, as if asking, What precisely is the difference between your kind and ours? Each trek includes an hour in their presence, ample time to goggle. But suddenly, the 60 minutes have elapsed. Intense events do this: They make an accordion of time, now expanding, now compressed, a single day full to bursting—only to be gone in an instant. “Could we stay a bit longer?” a trekker inquires.

You can stay,” the lead guide says, smiling. “I’m going home.”

We glance at the surrounding bush, and all quick-step along in his wake.

During the muddy descent, I grasp onto bamboo for balance, awed that I’ve spent only a few days in this country, though it seems months. During the drive from the capital, Kigali, the roadsides streamed with women in a rainbow of print dresses, monumental banana bunches on their heads; slender men in dusty torn shirts transporting potato sacks by bike; and children waving urgently, beaming with unrestrained glee when I waved back. Rwanda engulfs you.

Children at play outside Volcanoes National Park

Photo by Ami Vitale

It’s a huddled little country of hills and humanity, the leafy landscapes rising in peaks and dropping into valleys. Nearly every acre is packed with people, about 12 million in total, making this the most densely populated nation in mainland Africa. Landlocked in a region notorious for war and suffering, Rwanda now asserts itself as a place apart, a state on the rise, entrepreneurial, industrious, and with dreams of joining the leading destinations of the world. The country has plenty to work with, starting with those famed mountain gorillas, of which some 900 or so exist, all in the montane forests shared with Uganda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). Travelers can also raise binoculars at lions and zebras in the Rwandan savannah, or get a look at chimps and rare birds in a rain forest. You can tread across a suspension bridge above the jungle canopy or motor alongside picturesque Lake Kivu. All this within panoramas of a million shades of green, carpeted by tea plantations and coffee estates. Rwanda is safe, welcoming, and warm—in short, an easily navigable heaven.

Which makes what happened here so haunting.

Photographs hang from wires, portraying men and women who perhaps possessed only this one image of themselves, taken years before their murders. Children are pictured too, a favorite sport listed (“swimming”), then perhaps favorite drinks (“milk and tropical Fanta”), the name of a best friend (“her older sister Claudette”). And then come the skulls, many with the marks of machetes.

Photos of victims in the Kigali Genocide Memorial

Photo by Ami Vitale

A few days before the gorilla trek, I had visited the Kigali Genocide Memorial. Beyond partaking of Rwanda’s tourist pleasures, I felt impelled to understand more of the country’s recent horrors. I braced myself before each harrowing information panel on the events leading to April 7, 1994, when extremists from the Hutu ethnic majority sought to exterminate an entire minority group, the Tutsi. During 100 days, they killed an estimated 800,000 people, mostly Tutsi but including Hutu moderates too. Ordinary citizens targeted neighbors, even relatives (intermarriage was not uncommon). Hutu and Tutsi shared a language, a culture, and strong Christian belief in most cases. Even when Tutsi sought refuge in churches, they were massacred; some priests and nuns participated. After three months, a rebel force led by Tutsi exiles ousted the regime, halted the genocide, and took power. But Rwanda was in ruins. If the country was to rebuild, the new government couldn’t condemn for life the hundreds of thousands of able-bodied citizens implicated in atrocities. Nor were the authorities about to forget. So how to get from there to here?

Everywhere around Kigali, I see ghosts. As motorcycle cabbies in green helmets buzz up and down the hills, vendors amble by with buckets of boiled eggs, and youths peacock in fashionable outfits, I can’t help overlaying the sights with what transpired: the fear, the hunted pursued up these winding roads into the brush, caught, beaten, worse. The events of 1994 are still present, a stain seeping into any conversation that lasts beyond a few minutes.

The hands of Aloys Mutiribambe in Mbyo reconciliation village

Photo by Ami Vitale

During a walking tour through the colorful Nyamirambo neighborhood, I chat with my guide, Jado Imanirakiza. What, I inquire, was it like growing up here? He mentions his grandfather, a community leader, who was murdered in 1994. His father too was hunted down and killed. Of one of his friends, Imanirakiza says, “They got him and just . . . .” He runs his finger sideways across his throat. I offer condolences, which sound pathetically insufficient.

“It’s OK,” he replies. “It happened so much here, it’s normal for us.”

Later in my trip, I arrange to travel an hour by car south of the capital to the village of Mbyo. Elders greet me at the dusty edge of their homesteads, seating themselves on benches under the shade of a long-limbed tree. The first story comes from a 65-year-old, Aloys Mutiribambe, his hands flat between his thighs, eyes crinkling. “They told us, every Hutu wherever he is, to pick up machetes and tools, and hunt for any Tutsi wherever he is, and kill him,” he tells me. “Those Tutsi who survived? It’s not because of us. It’s God’s intervention. Because we were hunting them everywhere. We had an order that nobody was to survive.”

At his flank is a lanky 68-year-old with a beard of white stubble, Laurent Mutaganda, who gazes ahead expressionless, hands also slotted between his thighs. Twenty of his relatives were murdered, he tells me, including five of his children.

“I,” Mutiribambe says, “was the one who killed his family.”

I can’t speak, can’t find anything suitable to say. Two old men, hip to hip, one who did the unthinkable, another who suffers the unthinkable. How can they remain neighbors? The women sit in a row behind the men, weaving baskets, heads bowed—everyone here is familiar with the atrocities, for this is one of several “reconciliation villages” in Rwanda, where executioners and those who escaped live side by side.

Photo by Ami Vitale

After the genocide, many survivors returned to find their homes pillaged, while perpetrators who’d spent time behind bars also came back to dilapidated lodgings. (The killer I’m speaking to, Mutiribambe, served nine years.) At the urging of a religious charity and with the benediction of the authorities, killers and survivors constructed new homes together. Both groups worked in terror—might the man next door crash a brick down on your head? Bit by bit, they earned trust. No violence has occurred since the project began in 2005, they tell me. Fifty-four families live in Mbyo, jointly working farmland, even looking after each other’s kids. While travelers may visit here, only a smattering find their way to these parts. Admittedly, it’s hardly a typical vacation experience. Yet many Rwandans—and certainly those who support the current government—want visitors to reckon with the genocide, and thereby to appreciate what the country has achieved. The government line, espoused by all in this village, is that peace reigns and that nearly all Rwandans are onboard.

Still, I struggle to understand Mbyo. What the people claim to have overcome, I could not. Maybe they’re wiser than I, or more humane. Perhaps they have little choice but to get along. “Is this forgiving?” I ask the survivor who lost five children. “Or are you just trying to forget?”

“It’s forgiving,” he insists. “Before, we had no problem with each other. It was just this bad government that was teaching them to hate. Them as people? We didn’t have any problem at all.”

The non-profit Nyamirambo Women’s Center in Kigali

Photo by Ami Vitale

Visitors to Rwanda tend to rave about the place, calling it a prime example of how development can work in Africa. Rwanda is largely free of corruption. Women are a majority in Parliament. New roads connect the main cities. Nature conservation is a priority, achieving impressive success at safeguarding the mountain gorillas. The government has introduced universal health care, banned plastic bags, and instituted car-free Sundays once a month in the capital. Rwanda even fancies itself a tech hub of the future, rolling out fiber-optic cables and using drones to fly medical supplies to remote areas. As for ethnic hostility, emphasizing Hutu or Tutsi identity is taboo today—indeed, stirring up divisions is a serious crime. The objective is a single national identity: Everyone should be just Rwandan. However, human rights groups, many based in the West, express serious worries, saying that the government of President Paul Kagame—formerly commander of the rebel force that ended the genocide—represses political dissent, persecutes opponents with jail and violence, and stifles free expression. In the presidential election last year, Kagame won almost 99 percent of the vote. In theory, he could govern until 2034—a total of 40 years running Rwanda. His forces and allied militias have also pursued those who masterminded the genocide into the neighboring DRC, which has added to the chaos in that country, where millions have died in ethnic conflict.

When confronted with such criticism, Kagame and his allies respond in exasperation, arguing that they stabilized a nation teetering at the edge of oblivion, then created unprecedented development. They also recall that the West failed to intervene during the genocide. How dare they tell us how to behave? The new Rwanda seems committed to the belief that, if a poisonous regime once diverted the people into lunacy, then a benevolent authoritarian government can funnel the masses down the right path.

Tourism is a big part of Rwanda’s plans. In a sign of confidence, the Rwanda Development Board last year doubled the cost of a gorilla-viewing permit to $1,500 per person. (In Uganda, it’s $600; in Congo, $400.) Gorillas remain the star draw here, yet plenty of less pricey activities are available.

A tea worker in the field

Photo by Ami Vitale

One is umuganda, a traditional practice of public service that has been revived, in which residents unite on the last Saturday of every month to perform a designated good deed, whether cleaning a road or building a house for a homeless local. Participation is mandatory for Rwandans, but tourists may join in, offering a chance to mingle with locals and—in a small way—to help out. Since my trip doesn’t coincide with the monthly umuganda, I arrange my own version through a local charity, Solid Africa, which assists poor patients at a major hospital in Kigali.

The cheery project manager, Patrick Nizeyimana, tells me of their efforts: Charity workers have created a playroom for sick kids, some so deprived that they need to be taught how to use toys. They also buy bus tickets for those who, after treatment, find themselves stranded far from home without a Rwandan franc. Most important, they feed needy patients once a day. (The hospital provides no meals.)

Such efforts are a reminder that Rwanda, for all its ambitions, remains among the poorest countries in terms of GDP, with most residents subsisting on agriculture, perhaps owning a cow and a little patch of potatoes yet lacking electricity and clean water. What strikes me repeatedly, though, is the frequent proclamations of hope, even pride, about where they’re headed—whether it’s the craft-stall worker intending to study information technology, my driver plotting out his espresso bar to cater to high-end tourists, or the hospital charity planning to build a vast new industrial kitchen to feed as many as 1,000 patients in six different hospitals for free.

What strikes me repeatedly, though, is the frequent proclamations of hope, even pride, about where they’re headed . . .

To expose me to the depth of need, Solid Africa assigns me to a feeding station in pediatrics. I’m nervous; I fear what I might see there. All starts simply enough, in a courtyard outside the wards, where I ladle servings of food from white plastic buckets: cassava roots, dodo greens, and beef curry. The queue is long, as are the faces. These are the mothers and fathers who will carry the food to their young ones’ bedside. Almost no one talks, except when prodding me for a little more food, in words I can’t understand. I’d give any of them the whole bucket if I could, but I am trying to reserve enough for all.

After that food is gone, the charity workers hand me boiled eggs. I’m now to enter the wards themselves and distribute one per child. They point me to the cancer section. At the first bed, a boy with a growth over his eye rolls over from sleep, barely able to register my presence, his little hand closing over the egg. Another boy screams, medics and family around him administering treatment. After I’ve circulated, I leave the section in a state of shock, plodding toward the next ward. My driver, Bosco Kayitana, steps in. “That’s enough,” he says, recognizing how shaken I am. “They’ll finish without you.”

As we leave, I find few words. Finally, I ask Kayitana how he could witness all that with apparent calm. “This is easy for me,” he responds, saying that he has seen much in his life. While still a boy himself, he cleared away dead bodies after the genocide.

Near Nyungwe National Park, workers harvest tea, Rwanda’s largest export product.

Photo by Ami Vitale

As he tells me this, we’re driving from the capital toward, jarringly, what are among the most luxurious lodgings in the country, Bisate Lodge. The incredible gorilla experience is still before me. On arrival, I’m greeted by song and dance, then led to a plush villa. I thank the impeccable staff, yet can’t quite focus my mind, casting back to the morning’s haunting images. I run a bath and soak in a free-standing black resin tub overlooking Mount Bisoke, trying to assimilate all of this. A howl. A shriek. The cries multiply, a frenzy rising into madness—until all falls silent.

The sounds are made by chimpanzees, and we trekkers are in pursuit, down a trail that cuts through the jungle, ferns flapping at our calves, bug-bitten leaves tickling our faces, moss-mottled trees soaring toward leafy crowns that butt each other like swaying buildings, only to momentarily part in winks of sunlight.

A gorilla trek, they say, is like a picnic (one finds the animals and watches them loll in the greenery), whereas a chimp trek is more like an adventure, as you’re always racing to catch up with the roaming band.

Three days after my gorilla trek at Bisate Lodge, I find myself at Nyungwe National Park, near Rwanda’s western border. It’s believed to be one of the oldest forests in Africa, offering an immense diversity of flora and fauna, including 13 types of primates, an astonishing 300 bird species, plus wild orchids, waterberry trees, rivulets of fire ants, white furry caterpillars, and cobwebs as wide as your wingspan.

A gorilla trek, they say, is like a picnic (one finds the animals and watches them loll in the greenery), whereas a chimp trek is more like an adventure, as you’re always racing to catch up with the roaming band. And so it is, as we hike farther into the jungle, clambering up escarpments, darting hither and thither, the park guides triangulating our quarry—largely unseen but frequently heard, the chimps’ chilling-thrilling crescendos screeching out, then ceasing, leaving only our huffing breaths, a hiss of cicadas, the tweet of rare birds. I long to stand still, to revel in the stupefying surroundings. No time!

I can’t guess how long we maintain this pace. I’m too enthralled to consult my watch, and I stick close to our guide, admiring his skillful search amid what seems an impenetrable tangle of greens. Once, he pauses to await the stragglers and asks if I’d care to keep following the track by myself. I hesitate . . . is that wise? But, yes, I’ll tramp through a jungle alone! (Also, less poetically, I need to pee.) Onward I march, scanning so keenly for an off-path privy that I fail to notice what stands before me.

Golden monkeys, an endangered species, are exclusive to the Virunga mountain ranges that cover the whole Rwanda, shown here as well as the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Uganda. They mostly live in the bamboo forests as well as vegetation at the far base of Volcanoes National Park mountains. The permits for trekking the golden monkeys only cost $100 and while around 22,000 people a year trackto see the gorillas, just 5,000 track the monkeys. Travelers shouldnít miss the chance to see the photogenic apes with their round faces, long tails and thick, reddish-gold furs. Three families, with a total of around 80 monkeys, live in the forest. (Photo by Ami Vitale)

Photo by Ami Vitale

They speak of a fight-or-flight instinct. Seemingly, there’s a third option: the hold-still-and-pretend-the-massive-chimp-can’t-see-you instinct. Humans may have trampled this jungle path, but everything beyond belongs to the chimps. A large male could rip me apart. Then again, if he’d wanted to, I’d be bush meat already. He swoops away on all fours, vanishing into vegetation. As I exhale, the other trekkers reach me. “One just went by!” I sputter. “Right through there!”

We hasten on, but our time is nearly up. The guide, Evariste Musonera, remains indefatigable. “When in the forest,” he proclaims, “you never give up.”

For good reason: Suddenly, we’re upon them. Just across a leafy ravine, close enough to toss a fig to, is a trio of chimps, each scaling a tree as if gliding up the trunk.

Soon, more gather: a total of 10. An older male chimp settles himself down in the crook of a tree limb and dozes there, his hairy body going limp. Another climbs higher, settling beside hanging fruit, which he snatches and sucks dry for the juice, dropping fig flesh to the jungle floor. Others travel still farther upward, wrestling and play-fighting in the heights. One amorous couple even darts onto a long branch for a hasty mating session. (At 80 feet in the air, this is not exactly safe sex.)

Suddenly, we’re upon them. Just across a leafy ravine, close enough to toss a fig to, is a trio of chimps, each scaling a tree as if gliding up the trunk.

My group of primates gazes at theirs until, after an hour, we’re tramping back to the road in a state of bliss. The other trekkers flop into their 4x4s, but I hesitate, wishing somehow to clutch onto what I’ve just experienced.

Even weeks later, after returning home to London, trundling my toddler to preschool or dealing with emails or typing these very words, I feel partly there, in Rwanda. I’ve been unable to detach. The trip has affected me in a way few others have.

My story started among apes, ended among apes. In between, Rwanda was a deluge of humanity, from the depths of our species’ cruelty to individual courage beyond reckoning. Merely to glimpse this is to dearly wish for the country’s triumph. You may visit Rwanda. Perhaps you should. To wholly leave? That is far harder.

>>Next: The True Story of What It’s Like to Become a Refugee

Tom Rachman

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