Rwanda: Mountain Gorillas and Much More

Courtesy of Ellen Wilson

A juvenile mountain gorilla says hello. Photo taken by Ellen Wilson on an Ujuzi safari in Rwanda.

On Saturday, Rwanda had its annual naming ceremony for baby mountain gorillas born in the past year. The celebration is called Kwita Izina and attracts both Rwandans and international visitors for traditional dancing, art, and food. Kwita Izina started in 2005 as a way to recognize the importance of mountain gorillas in the country’s environment and culture and is modeled on traditional Rwandan naming ceremonies for human babies. This year’s festival was in Kinigi in the Virunga Mountains.

The annual festival, combined with innovative conservation efforts, has resulted in a 26 percent increase in Rwanda’s mountain gorilla population.

As home to a third of the world’s 750 mountain gorillas, Rwanda has become a popular destination for travelers who are seeking a rare encounter with the creatures. The experience is often described as being the most profound natural history experience in the world.

But Rwanda has much to offer in addition to mountain gorillas. At Nyungwe National Park, visitors have the opportunity to spot 13 species of primates and 280 species of birds. The park is one of only three in Africa (and the only in East Africa) to have a walkway high up in the rainforest canopy, giving visitors an unusual glimpse of the flora and fauna found high in the trees.

Courtesy of Ellen Wilson

A golden monkey evaluates a visitor. Photo taken by Ellen Wilson on an Ujuzi safari in Rwanda.

Near Volcanoes National Park, an innovative project called Iby’Iwacu has helped diminish poaching. A cultural village offers employment to local residents, who sell traditional crafts and teach tourists about wildlife and local traditions. The income from this cultural village means that residents no longer have to turn to poaching in order to eat, and has also helped preserve the park as an unparalleled natural area.

Rwanda is unique in that it is one of only a few African countries with a commonly shared  culture and native language, Kinyarwanda. It is very friendly to international travelers, as both French and English are taught in schools. Since its civil war two decades ago, Rwanda has become a strong democracy and a tourist destination that has been noted for its safety and cleanliness, and it has built a strong infrastructure to support tourism, including a convention center with curated shops in Kigali and new first-class hotels.

Learn more about some of the wonderful experiences Rwanda has to offer by viewing a sample Rwanda itinerary on Ujuzi’s website.


A Vivid Encounter with Mountain Gorillas

Mountain Gorilla

A mountain gorilla in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest appraises human visitors. Photo taken by Petra Kilian-Gehring on an Ujuzi safari.

Last week, I ran across this wonderful account of a Ugandan mountain gorilla trek in The Wall Street Journal. It captures the entire experience so well – from the challenging hike  through Bwindi Impenetrable Forest (it’s called impenetrable for a reason, but thankfully machetes help clear a narrow path) to the elation you experience upon seeing a gorilla family. The reporter did a great job of relating the sense of connection you feel when encountering mountain gorillas. I was especially struck by this comment:

It has been said that making eye contact with mountain gorillas gives you the distinct sense that they possess self-awareness. But what captured my attention—and made them seem very much like humans—was how they used their hands.

She also talks about the pragmatic details of a trek, such as what to wear and the basics of human-gorilla etiquette. It’s a must-read for anyone who’s curious about what it’s like to see mountain gorillas in the wild, and a great way to rekindle fond memories for those who have been lucky enough to go on a trek!

  • Tracking Mountain Gorillas in Uganda: Embark on a great ape escape in the southwestern part of the country to catch a glimpse of the endangered, endearing animal. By Robin Kawakami.

Samburu: A Window Into Another Way of Life

Samburu warrior teaches archery to young boy at Samburu Intrepids Lodge.
Learning about other cultures is one of the most rewarding aspects of travel. Here, a Samburu warrior teaches a young traveler how to shoot a bow and arrow. Photo courtesy of Samburu Intrepids Lodge.

I’ve been back from Kenya for over a month and am still enjoying remembering the beautiful scenery, the very friendly people, and the incredible wildlife. My photos make it seem like yesterday.

One of my favorite memories is meeting Francis, a Samburu warrior (and college graduate) in Samburu National Reserve.  We were staying at Samburu Intrepids Tented Camp and since it was the rainy season, we were the only guests at the lodge.  The camp offers presentations on wildlife and culture every evening, and Francis was our presenter. His degree is in wildlife management, and he was presenting on the cats of Samburu.  While the presentation was fun and informative, what I most enjoyed was our conversation before and after it.

When Francis walked in, I knew immediately he was our presenter. He was dressed head-to-toe in traditional clothing, including a red-and-white kikoy (sarong) and countless arm bracelets, necklaces and headbands. He jingled when he walked. I introduced myself and and asked him what his name was. He paused and gave me his Samburu name, which was so long it almost made me dizzy to hear it. Then he said, “or you could call me Francis.” I let out a breath of relief.

The Samburu are considered cousins of the Maasai. The customs and dress are similar and apparently they can speak to each other in their separate dialects but understand each other. The Samburu are known for being very fast and dynamic talkers, which proved to be true of Francis.

It’s so interesting to learn how other people live. In our discussion after his presentation, Francis explained that when Samburu boys become warriors at 15, not only are they circumcised, but they are asked to leave their family home and live in the bush with their peers. “A little campout isn’t such a bad thing,” you may be thinking – but they leave for years. They may live in the city for a while if they go to college, but otherwise they live in the bush with their friends until they get married in their late 20s, at which point their status moves from “warrior” to “elder.”

Now, they’re not banned from the community. Francis told us that he often goes to visit his parents and younger siblings. He just doesn’t eat or sleep there. And even though one might expect a few pangs of hunger and some wistfulness for good home cooking when he watches his mom prepare a meal for her younger kids, he says he doesn’t feel that way at all. The act of not eating with them reminds him of his stage in life, and that he has the wherewithal to take care himself. That ability is something to celebrate.

Above the clothing and customs, the strongest sense I left with is the immense pride that Francis had in his way of life. He wouldn’t trade it for the world!

I think this is one of the best parts about an African safari – that it is such a different experience in so many ways from other destinations that it really does create a memory for a lifetime.


Jambo, rafiki! (Hello, friend!)

Swahili is spoken in many parts of East Africa. It is an official language in Kenya and Tanzania, where kids are required to study it in school alongside English, and the majority of people speak it fluently. Uganda has also adopted it as an official language, although its use is not yet as widespread there. Other areas where Swahili is spoken include the Democratic Republic of Congo, as well as some parts of Rwanda and Burundi.

Although about 150 million East Africans speak at least some Swahili, only about 1 to 2 million learned it at home from their parents as their first language. Most people learn a local tribal language at home. It’s common for kids in Kenya and Tanzania to get an introduction to Swahili when they go with their parents to markets or other places where people from different ethnic groups interact. Since people often don’t know each other’s tribal languages, they speak to each other in the common language of Swahili.

Like English, Swahili has influences from many languages. The main influences are the Bantu languages (a family of more than 250 languages spoken in sub-Saharan Africa) and Arabic. But if you start learning Swahili, you will eventually notice words with Portuguese, German and English origins. That’s because Swahili has been used widely for business and international trade, so it readily adopts useful words from other languages.

While a lot of people in East Africa also speak English (it’s an official language in Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda, and widely taught in schools), Kenyans and Tanzanians tend to use Swahili more often in day-to-day conversations. So if you want to make someone smile, start a conversation with, “Jambo! Habari gani?” (“Hello! How are you?”)

Ready to learn some Swahili?’s GoAfrica section has a useful list a Swahili phrases for travelers. And has free language games you can play to familiarize yourself with basic Swahili.

Have fun exploring Swahili. Tutaonana! (See you soon!)

IMG_2475If you saw The Lion King, you already know the Swahili word for lion: simba.