Imagining communities and conservation in Rwanda – part 1

INTRO

This time I am Story Travelling to a place I have not yet been.

I went to Rwanda virtually, and discovered that in this tiny country, which covers roughly the same surface area as my native Sicily, there is an interesting story that I want to share – and many volcanoes, too.

This is a story of a man with big dreams for the communities of his country.

This is also a story of a community hub, a space to build future connections and opportunities for locals, and a space for tourism encounters and international solidarity.

First of all, though, this is a story of conservation and Community-Based Tourism (CBT), a relationship built around – and with – the local youth, the women and the arts.

THE MAN

During these strange months of 2020 I have been talking to artisans preserving ancestral traditions (Isabel and  Miguel), to indigenous cultural educators (Graciela), and proud farmers ( Eduardo), and to local tour guides (Kokko) – all very welcoming hosts.
I have also been Story Travelling to places I had previously visited, re-met local gatekeepers (Unseen Tours) and invisible communities (Plataforma), and remembered women that have built communities (Uruguai) and inspired renowned chefs (Ribeira Valley).

This time I have met a social entrepreneur with big dreams.
A determined visionary, Greg Bagunzi is the human connector of all the communities of the Volcanoes National Park and our portal to the people of the Virunga mountains, in the northern part of the country.
He is a man who has seen the connections and is working on joining the dots.

MORE THAN GORILLAS

Greg has always known that there is more to his country than the gorillas it is famous for, and he wanted to create more reasons for tourists to visit this green land.
His knowledge turned into a plan in 2010, after years in the tourism industry. He wanted to make community engagement the core of the tourism offer; he has discovered interconnectedness and wants to use tourism as a tool for local development.

There is indeed more than just gorillas in Rwanda. There is a variety of bountiful natural environments. On the thousand hills for which the country is famous, agriculture flourishes. Tea and coffee plantations follow bananas, avocados, oranges and other fruit trees, and, of course, plenty of maize, rice, cassava and other crops. Five national parks cover a relatively small area, incorporating volcanic mountains in the north, an inland sea – Lake Kivu – trekking trails and waterfalls in the west, the montane rainforest of the Nyungwe Forest National Park, with the chimpanzee and the blue monkey, in the southern province, and savannah woodland in the eastern province.

 

But again, there is more than that. There is also art, and many local artists and artisans.

The women use grass to weave colourful baskets and clay and water to mould rounded vases. They also set the rhythm of many celebrations in Rwanda. As was explained to me, ‘Umutima w’urugo’ –‘the heart of the house is a woman’. Therefore it is usually women like Marie Louise who welcome the visitors with powerful drumming sessions. They are also usually the backbone of any cultural performance. Marie Louise met Greg and was invited to join Red Rocks Rwanda in 2013, and she has promised me that she will be my official drumming and dancing teacher when I visit Rwanda in person!

There are women and there is youth, as well as ancient knowledge, and many skills that are ever-improving. And there is Greg, who is linking all the dots through tourism.

RWANDAN COMMUNITY-LED INITIATIVES

Red Rocks Rwanda (RRR), the social enterprise established in 2010 that offers tours led by well-trained locals, gave birth in 2017 to its sister organisation, Red Rock Initiative (RRI). This local NGO focuses on the sustainable development of communities through a variety of programmes.

RRI’s mission is to ‘improve community livelihood through Environmental Conservation, Arts & Culture, Education, and Community Health & Safety Initiatives’.

The skill development programme, for example, which is supported by the national government, is enriched by the time and energies of the international volunteers who decide to spend at least three weeks here and share their skills. Once learnt by the locals, these are then passed on to other community members to create a virtuous cycle.

The kids here not only learn and improve skills like carpentry, hospitality and handicraft, among others; they also come here to have fun and rest after school.

Chess – not a traditional game in this part of Africa – was introduced after Greg took a trip to Europe in 2018, and has reached such great popularity among the youngsters that before the start of the COVID pandemic they were organising a tournament with a village in neighbouring Uganda. Chess does, however, look terribly similar to Higissouro, a traditional Rwandan game played by digging some holes in the soil.
As with all the other activities offered to the youth in the centre, this is free of charge and a great opportunity to socialise with others.    

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