American couple woos 500 tourists to Rwanda for gorilla trekking

What started as a passion of seeing and photographing the rare mountain gorillas in Rwanda for Mary Anne and Joe McDonald turned out to be an ambassadorial commitment- to attract American tourists to Rwanda to visit the rare species.
Mary and Joe McDonald in local attire in Musanze at their 75th Gorilla trekking ceremony in 2012. (John Mbanda)
Mary and Joe McDonald in local attire in Musanze at their 75th Gorilla trekking ceremony in 2012. (John Mbanda)

What started as a passion of seeing and photographing the rare mountain gorillas in Rwanda for Mary Anne and Joe McDonald turned out to be an ambassadorial commitment– to attract American tourists to Rwanda to visit the rare species. 

To date, the couple says they have attracted over 500 tourists to Rwanda in the last 11 years as a result of their photography work.

They are some of the biggest ambassadors of Rwanda’s tourism industry.

For close to 11 years, this American couple has been coming to Rwanda, sometimes making up to three trips in a year. And all this while, their passion and adoration for Rwanda, its people and its wildlife, especially the mountain gorillas, continue to grow.

Ann and McDonald have made 85 successive gorilla treks in the mountains of the Volcanoes National Park.

Over the course of their travels to Rwanda, this nature photography couple has managed to bring in more than 500 people from mainly the US to experience gorilla tracking in Rwanda.

Some have gone on to make repeated visits to the country.

Although their cause started way back in 2000 when they first thought of visiting Rwanda with the intention of seeing the endangered mountain gorillas, the couple wishes to take part in the annual Kwita-Izina gorilla-naming ceremony.

“We have never attended the Kwita-Izina and we would be pleased to someday get an opportunity to name a baby gorilla. We would love to share this experience with the thousands of Rwandans and other foreign nationals that attend this event. But it is difficult to plan because the event does not have a fixed date and our trips are normally planned two years in advance,” Ann says.

The couple had their inaugural trip to Rwanda in 2003 when the tourism industry in the country was virtually non-existent.

“At the time, Rwanda was still in the rebuilding process following the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi. The country was still searching for its identity. During our travels, we had visited other places such as Kenya where the tourism industry was much more developed, but when we came to Rwanda, we lowered our expectations. Tourism in Rwanda, was at the time, rudimentary to say the least,” McDonald says.

The two are among the most prolific and active husband-wife nature photography team in the US today.

“What was quite encouraging when we first came to Rwanda was that the gorilla tracking experience was advanced as the trackers had radios and would communicate with the guides and this made the experience quite lovely. But the infrastructure was virtually non-existent,” Ann said.

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The American couple pose for a picture with other tourists and wardens in Kinigi in 2012. (File)

The McDonalds are, however, impressed with the giant strides Rwanda has taken in the past decade as far as the tourism sector is concerned.

“What has really impressed us is how Rwanda has been able to embrace tourism and the service sector. As nature lovers, we are pleased to see tourism dollars transform the lives of Rwandans,” he said.

“I mean from the guides, to the porters, to the waiters and waitresses in the hotels and lodges.

The transformation has been massive. When we first came, no one spoke English at the lodge, it was basically French or Kinyarwanda. But over time, most of the residents, including children, have picked up English and are doing well,” he added.

The couple vividly recalls their maiden visit to Rwanda and how they stayed at the then Gorilla Nest in Kinigi.

“There was virtually no infrastructure. The roads were bad and it would take us a whole hour to drive from Musanze town to Kinigi – a stretch of about 15km. But over the years, the Government of Rwanda has invested in infrastructure. The same can be said of Paul Muvunyi, the director of Mountain Gorilla View Lodge. He has developed and continued to improve on service delivery of the lodge. Today, this lodge could be mistaken for a lodge in Kenya’s Maasai Mara National Reserve,” McDonald says.

The couple speaks highly of Muvunyi as a person who has been able to work closely with the local community to develop the tourism sector.

It has been amazing to see some of these people grow and develop over the years to become professionals who love their work, the couple explains.

And as the couple from Pennsylvania, US prepare for their 100th trek in Rwanda, they are not after setting a record, but are only interested in sharing their experience with nature-lovers worldwide.

According to Ann, “Even after seeing the gorillas for so long, every trek is different and every encounter with these gentle giants is different and equally exciting.”

The couple is contemplating on writing a book about the gorillas in Rwanda to share with the nature and animal lovers “their amazing experience.”

“We think Rwanda has done remarkably well to protect gorillas and their habitat. That’s why we keep coming back and bringing more people,” the couple added.

As witnesses to the changing faces of the Rwandan tourism industry, the McDonalds are also hoping to meet President Paul Kagame upon completion of their 100th trek.

editorial@newtimes.co.rw

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