Another time in the bamboo zone, Bill grew weary of the endless folding of his tall frame under angled stalks. A random thought led his mind into a parody of the Oscar Mayer theme song – a cultural relic from graduate school in Madison, Wisconsin, home of the Oscar Mayer wiener.
Oh, I wish I were a little tiny Mutwa,
That is what I’d really like to be
For if I were a little tiny Mutwa,
Then my back would not be killing me
Nemeye listened, and then asked why Bill was signing about a Mutwa, or pygmy. Bill explained that he would feel a lot better if he were only five feet tall, like a pygmy, and didn’t have to bend over constantly. Surprisingly, Nemeye grew angry at this response. He stated with considerable indignation that no white man wants to be an African, so he certainly does not want to be a pygmy. This led to an interesting discussion of human origins as we worked our way up another deep gorge with no sign of gorillas. In Nemeye’s story, white people must have arrived first on earth because they owned most of the money and material goods. The Tutsi arrived next, which explained why they were Rwanda’s traditional overloads and continued to enjoy comparative wealth and status. Hutu farmers, like Nemye’s ancestors, came later and found only the land to claim and work. Last to arrive were poor Twa, pygmies who were left to forage in the forest. It was an enlightening insight that turned the widely accepted sequence of ethinic arrival in the region-first Twa, then Hutu. Tutsi and European- on its head. Yet it also had its own clear logic from Nemeye’s perspective.
If Big Nemeye held ethnic prejudices, he kept them to himself. He was a member of the large Hutu majority that now dominated Rwandan politics after centuries of Tutsi rule. Virtually all of his neighbors across the fertile Virunga lava plain were Hutu. He purchased goods from Tutsi merchants in the town of Ruhengeri and pursued Twa hunters in the park. Still, one of Nemeye’s favorite songs had the recurrent refrain: I’m a Hutu, you’re a Tutsi, he’s a Twa –we’re all Rwandans. Bill grew tired of the tune, yet appreciated its ecumenical messages of ethnic harmony.
Rwandans do not make a habit of revealing much about them and are generally much more taciturn than their outgoing neighbors from Congo and Uganda. They’re not shy about asking foreigners questions, though, so evenings around the camp fire often became “tell us about America” time for Nemeye and the camp guards. Political issues were not a major interest, but American woman- their pants and personalities – were a source of bafflement and intrigue. So was the practice of buying land a foreign concept that was spreading rapidly into Rwandan life, especially in the fertile lava zone around the Virungas. Mechanized farming, super markets, and super high- ways were popular subjects, as was the Apollo space program. Yet somehow moon landings and moonwalks were more easily accepted than coin-operated vending machines. The idea that you could drop coins into a metal box and that food-sandwiches, hamburgers, fruit, hot and cold drinks-would drop into your hands evoked the most bafflement, head shaking, and laughter at the ways of the “abazungu”. Explaining all this is swahil was a challenge for bill, but it was an entertaining way to end hard days of field work before heading off to sleep.
ON SABYINYO’S EASTERN SLOPE, we found our fourth and final group of gorillas on that mountain, a small band of six individuals. We picked up their trail on an exposed lava fin near what we assumed to be the unmarked Rwanda-Uganda border. It was eerie to think that von Beringe might have taken aim at gorillas on that very same ridge in 1902.We followed the trail; doing nest counts along the way and catching one brief look at the group as they moved steadily North West around the mountain. The ragged line produced by illegal farmlands encroaching on the Ugandan side was clearly visible below. Earlier, we had spent considerable time counting gorillas within the Congolese sector of the Virungas, but working without authorization in Uganda was different. Idi Amini had recently failed in an effort to take over the North West corner of Tanzania and now Tanzania forces were massing to counterattack. Radio Uganda was reporting the need for vigilance along the entire South West boarder. We didn’t expect to find Ugandan troops at ten thousand feet, but neither did we want to become guests of president Amin, either. We returned one more day to complete our nest counts, and then ended our work in the Ugandan sector.
At our base camp, a surprisingly large and active hyena population chortled and hunted around us through the night. This fantastic auditory experience was totally unexpected at high altitude in a rain forest. Less positive was a tale we had recently been told of a tourist in Kenya who slept in an open tent wearing his boots. A hyena, attracted to the scent of leather, pulled him out by one boot at night and mangled his foot before it was driven off. Even if Bill didn’t sleep with his boots on, it was not a reassuring thought. Added to our concerns about military movements, we slept little and were happy to move on in the morning.
Our last camp was in the Gahinga-Muhavura saddle here, a contingent of Rwanda soldiers stood guard inside a small tin hut. They were nervous, though it wasn’t clear whether this reflected the military situation across the border with Uganda, two hundred yards away, or their fear of wildlife in the park. They were not an impressive group, and several seemed happy to have company.
We were now in an area of the park that had never supported many gorillas, even in Schaller’s day. Yet we still needed to cover a large amount of terrain. Fortunately, Gahinga had very few ravines of any significance and its tall stands of bamboo formed cathedral-like arches that were much easier to walk through than the bamboo thickets to the West. At lower elevation on Gahinga, though we did encounter strange mimulopsis trees, whose raised stilt roots were adept at tripping tired legs. We found some old gorilla nest s at several sites, but no sign of passage within the past six months. Our own presence, however, triggered volleys of sharp piao! Alarm cries from resident troops of golden monkeys (cercopithecus mitis kandti), a medium-sized monkey endemic to the region whose golden mantle is as striking as its cry.