Ex-poachers become cultural ambassadors
KINIGI, MUSANZE – The cry of warriors punctuates the growing roar of beating drums, as men dance around waving spears.
In the shadow of ancient volcanoes, nothing stirs between the thatch-roof huts – everything stops, everything is captivated.
The men wear blue sarongs, matching straps across their bare chests, with long headdresses that flip and flop as they leap up and down.
A short man shouts with a wide, toothless grin, stomping his feet with slow and deliberate thrusts. They are performing the Intore – the warrior dance.
This is Iby’wacu Cultural Village, surrounded by dark volcanic soil, at the foot of the Virunga Volcanoes, in the village of Kinigi in northern Rwanda.
We arrived here from Kigali after weaving up and around the rolling hills and deep green valleys of Rwanda.
I came with Edwin Sabuhoro, owner of Rwanda Eco-Tours, a company that promotes sustainable tourism. He’s also the founder of the Iby’wacu Cultural Village (Iby’wacu means “our heritage” in Kinyarwanda).
Sabuhoro, 32, is an active figure in Rwanda’s wildlife conservation movement. The endangered mountain gorillas that make the Virungas their home have been almost entirely wiped out by poaching.
Four years ago, Sabuhoro was working in Rwanda’s Volcano National Park, home to the Virungas, when he rescued a baby gorilla from poachers, who stood to make around $2,000 (U.S.) selling it illegally.
After the men were arrested and charged, Sabuhoro and tried to find out what was driving them into the illegal trade. Local villagers told him that they faced the stark choice of poaching, or starving.
“The reality was that if I was living there, I would also poach,” Sabuhoro says. “So the question was: how can we use tourism to provide direct benefits to people?”
In 2005, Sabuhoro created the Iby’wacu Cultural Village. A few thatch-roofed huts were built – including a replica of the Rwandan king’s palace.
Former poachers and other villagers who joined the group were taught traditional dances, woodworking, and basket weaving – Rwandan arts that had been eroding for decades.
Today, about 300 former poachers are employed by the cultural village.
But the impact goes even further. While 40 per cent of revenue from the village goes directly to employees, the remaining 60 per cent goes into a general community fund that supports education and other needs that are deemed essential by members of the local community.
Since the village was created there has been a reported 40 per cent drop in poaching in the region.
But I was far too lost in the experience to think about the significance of that statistic. After all, there were still people waving spears at me.
The performance is mesmorizing, but when it’s done the adventure doesn’t stop. Emmanuel Harerimana, our 22-year-old guide and the only English teacher in Kinigi, shows us around the king’s chamber.
The highlight: an enormous bed, built up off the ground with layers of grass, and mats for comfort. The king had access to any woman in the village, Harerimana tells us, and his evenings sometimes included sleeping with at least five of them.
The wall is lined with jugs and jars of food and booze – for nourishment to get through the busy night.
Later, the local medicine man shows us his remedies for all of life’s ailments: everything from the common cold to erectile dysfunction.
He gives me two small beans, which when crushed into a facial lotion, are supposed to make me irresistible to women.
I’m still waiting for the effects to kick in.
As night falls, we sit warmed by piles of burning coals inside the king’s hut (near the volcanoes, the climate is comparable to Toronto’s in late spring).
The dancers and drummers share songs and stories with us. They tell us about life before Iby’wacu, when they were still poachers.
Barora Leonidas, 64, was once the most notorious poacher in the region; he’s admitted to killing more than 200 animals.
But as he tells me about his past, his animated excitement fades. His frown tightens the skin around his eyes – in a strain, a hint of something that pains.
Yes, he used to be a poacher, he says. A very good one.
But since 2005 he has worked here in the village, meeting people and making money doing it.
The interpreter tells me that Leonidas says he’s happier now; the old poacher’s frown loosens into a half grin and his eyes open softly.
Since coming to the village he has met new people, and he’s doing well. He thanks Sabuhoro for being “the father of the village,” for giving them the opportunity to get out of the forest, to learn new skills, and to share them with new people.
Jacques Bikorimana, 20, sits on a wooden bench near the coals chatting with Harerimana.
In their chuckling banter, they sound like two schoolboys who have been friends for years. But Bikorimana and Harerimana have just met.
In fact, this is the first trip that Bikorimana has ever been on. He lives in Gitarama, about 40 kilometres southwest of Kigali.
Eco-Tours has given the trip to Bikorimana, as part of an initiative to encourage more Rwandans get out and learn more about their own country.
Tourists also come to visit the village, generating essential revenue. Usually they’re on their way to visit the gorillas.
The side trip costs $20 (U.S.) plus $50 if you want to sleep overnight in one of the village huts.
The package includes freshly cooked meals and an incredible morning hike across scenic fields and through caves formed by the lava that once flowed through the region.
For Bikorimana, a trip like this is invaluable. He says he’ll never forget the experience, the chance to meet people who share the same heritage in such a unique place.
“This is the happiest I’ve been,” he says. “Ever.”
Sabuhoro hopes to expand that experience.
“The idea is to build a network of culture villages around the country, where we can help other communities in different areas to share our knowledge,” he says, “but also to share with them how to tap into the potential of tourism.
“We want to be proud of who we are, where we come from, and where we want to be. As we do that, we pass on a sound and sustainable future for generations, that people can be proud of.”