A few years ago I travelled to Rwanda for an encounter with mountain gorillas. The drill is the same for all tourists. You stay in the Gorilla's Nest Hotel or similar modest lodging, your designated escort picks you up in the morning and drives you to the national park, and you get assigned to a group of 8 tourists.
Your group walks with a park guide and an armed escort to a specific troupe of gorillas. They make a big deal out of having to find the gorillas, but in reality they track the troupes pretty well, so chances are you will get a close encounter with gorillas. It's awesome!
This adventure is supposed to protect the gorillas from poaching and contribute to the economy of the country. At $350 per person per encounter, gorillas bring in quite a lot of money. I think it's helping the gorillas, but I'm not so sure about the people.
The road from the hotel to the park is extremely rough, sort of like the rock bed of a river, only dry. The countryside along the way is extremely lush, with rich volcanic soil that's planted with a variety of produce. It seemed like paradise to me until I noticed that the fields are tilled by women using hand implements. That's right, no John Deere tractors here. I didn't even see oxen or horses. Women who aren't tilling can be seen walking on the side of the road, barefoot, carrying large loads of potatoes and other produce on their heads to market, or carrying large vessels to fetch water. No running water here.
The men, by the way, all seemed to have shoes on and they weren't doing any obvious hard labor like the women.
The children are what really tore at my heart. Lots of children standing by the side of the road, staring at our jeep. Some with open hands, but most just looking. So many had sores on their skin and unclear eyes indicative of disease. "What about schooling? Shouldn't these children be in school?" I asked our driver. He said yes, there was schooling for children, but only for the clever ones.
Clever? Aren't all children clever? Shouldn't all children be given a chance at education?
Orphans of Rwanda says that more than 400,000 children are out of school.
- Of the children who enroll in school, half do not complete the primary cycle (through 6th grade).
- Some 100,000 orphans live in child-headed households.
- Close to half of all children under the age of five suffer from chronic malnutrition.
- More than 80 per cent of all diseases that affect children are water-borne.