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Safe Journey, Rafiki: A Bittersweet Memory

Safe Journey, Rafiki: A Bittersweet Memory
01 Jul 2020 by Ronald Geason

(Ron Geason served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Uganda from 2015-2017. His story is about his friend, Rafiki - which means "friend" in Swahili. Ron is currently the Vice-President of the RPCVs of Wisconsin-Madison.)

The establishment of the Peace Corps is one of the most enlightened pieces of legislation ever crafted and expresses the best of who we are as Americans.  It is my hope that the pandemic will pass and that we will be able to resume operations soon.

Almost all of us are aware of the good work we do in terms of helping developing countries and building strong relationships.  This story is about an amazing personal encounter with a majestic animal now gone and the uncertain future of his total society. Many significant events in our lives occur “off the clock” if we only keep our eyes open.

Virtually all of the 1,000 wild mountain gorillas remaining in the world inhabit the intersection of Uganda, Rwanda, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.  I lived within a few hours of this area in the town of Kabale.  Gorilla trekking is a major tourist industry and I was lucky to find the time to go and see.

The Bwindi Impenetrable Forest holds three groups of animals and roughly 30% of the total wild gorilla population in the world.  Finding Rafiki’s group involved a 5-hour hike, one way, followed by a one-hour visit, and then our return to the ranger station. I was in a group of 10 tourists along with a few armed camp rangers. Our gorilla group is habituated in the sense that they are calm around humans.  They are susceptible to air-borne disease so you cannot hike if you have a cold, flu or anything like COVID 19.

The photo of the forest attests to its impenetrable nature.  It does not reflect the heat, humidity or the fire ants who will eat you alive if you don’t put your socks on the outside of your pant legs.

Being in the presence of such amazing animals was awe-inspiring.  Their sheer size and gracefulness are unbelievable. Time slows and you feel a deep peace.  Needs are met in an efficient but unhurried way.  They fit perfectly with their environment and know when to move to find food and safety.

Rafiki, the lead silverback in the group, stayed off to himself and was happy to pose while building his nest. He seemed comfortable in his role as “large and in charge.” 

After my return, I would often sit in front of the fireplace at Traveler’s Rest in the town of Kisoro and wonder what naturalisits like Louis Leakey and Dian Fossey would think and talk about into the long evenings

I received the recent news that Rafiki had been killed by poachers with disbelief and outrage.  The governments involved know how to protect them but actually doing it with limited resources, competing needs, and histories of corruption is another matter.  The farmers near the gorillas are impoverished and the temptation to poach is strong.  This type of death within the group is very destabilizing.  Who will lead?  What threats will come from outside? 

My friends in Kabale indicate great concerns over the future of the mountain gorillas.  They feel a sense of dread and inevitable decline.  I very much hope they are wrong.  I send checks, encouragement, and prayers.

I feel so privileged to have had this experience.  The realization of the impermanence of life is fresh in my mind.  I am so grateful to the Peace Corps for giving me a glimpse of a different world.