In the leafy and serene canopy-like greens of Northern Province’s Musanze District lies Kinigi, a sector that has gained fame as the comfy gateway to the majestic beauty of the volcanic mountain range – the natural habitat of the rare mountain gorillas, Rwanda’s current leading foreign exchange earner.
About 11 kilometres from the heart of Musanze town lays Mount Sabyinyo towering over much of the Volcanoes National Park.
The cool breeze from the teeth-shaped massif provides a welcome relief from the hot equatorial sun rays beating down on Ngejoro Village near the park’s main entrance.
Residents here have vowed and continue to recommit to soldier on to prevent anything that can cause insecurity, give the gorillas peace and ensure safety of tourists as well as reap big economic benefits.
This is judged against the colossal losses incurred to both people and material during the turbulent times of insecurity due to insurgency and consequences of the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi.
Francois Ndungutse, 48, who formerly belonged to a family of vicious poachers, says “poaching was my way of life; killing elephants, buffaloes and any other wild game I came across was just like any other thing in life.”
“The current benefits hugely outweigh what we used to gain from poaching; we remained poor and our family lacked basic necessities,” says Ndungutse.
Ndungutse has since decided to go legit.
Today, he is a respectable trader in the area.
“I even transact in dollars at my shop, we can’t entertain any tendencies that would threaten safety. I was wrong (in poaching) and it’s time to correct the wrongs and to make our community and country safer,” says a smiling Ndungutse.
The poacher-turned-businessman is today an opinion leader in his community, who also oversees the proper functioning of Irondo (community night patrols).
“Tourism becomes effective in a safer country. The gorillas and their habitat are protected by the economic lifeline they create for remote communities from the tourist dollars they generate, providing a key incentive for humans to protect them.”
Poaching is now confined to history in Kinigi and other neighbouring game reserves. Former poachers have become game rangers, or porters facilitating tourists to carry their loads as they trek the wild to see the gorillas, while others are Irondo personnel.
In order to sustain security, community members (households) organised themselves on a duty roster to guard the village and the park through night patrols.
According to Aphrodise Gashumba, the Musanze District Police Commander, the impact and involvement of residents like Ndungutse is rewarding.
“Kinigi, like other areas, has registered commendable strides in crime reduction over the years; even the few cases we rarely receive are minor and largely related to family conflicts, sometimes resulting from excessive drinking and polygamous practices,” Gashumba said.
According to Police statistics, 26 cases, the majority related to physical assault, were recorded in Kinigi since the beginning of the year. This is about 40 per cent reduction compared to incidents recorded in the same period last year.
“Police conduct and promote community mobilisation and awareness to actively engage the population to be agents of change, exercise vigilance and alertness and share information in real time about anything illegal. This is what community policing stands for; everyone to be an eye for the neighbour,” Gashumba said.
That security has boosted tourism in the area is also evidenced by luxurious hotels, souvenir shops and jobs in the park.
“Farming communities are the principal supplier of food and other products to the hotels, and this in turn creates a multiplier effect down the supply chain hence creating direct economic benefits,” says Benjamin Mugabukomeye, the country director of International Gorilla Conservation Programme (IGCP).
“Where there is security, communities reap big. It’s always impressive to see former wrongdoers being the custodians of the law, running income generating activities and this also influences stakeholders like IGCP to give back to the people,” notes Mugabukomeye.
Through Rwanda Development Board (RDB), the Government has since 2005 been committing 5 per cent of the proceeds from the national parks toward projects aimed at empowering and developing communities around the game reserves.
This has since been increased to 10 per cent.
The returns are invested into health centres, roads, schools and houses for the needy families, among others.
The funds also help support local agriculture and handcraft cooperatives.
The road to the park is now tarmac, the area has electricity and clean tap water is available, thanks to tourism proceeds.
Jean-Baptiste Semahoro, the in-charge of social affairs at Kinigi Sector, says they are now working with the Police and the residents to address the issue of domestic conflict, which sometimes resulted into death.
“Previously, polygamy and property related conflicts were common practices; we have worked together with faith-based organisations and the Police to sensitise communities, including those affected,” Semahoro says.
Asiyeri Ndibabage, 65, from Kapanga Cell, is one of the polygamous couples in Kinigi. With two wives, Ndibabage regrets because of the hassles he has to go through to feed his two separate families.
“A husband with more than one wife is likely father many children, and it is a big challenge to give them basic necessities,” says Ndibabage.
He advises men to heed the Government call to produce children they are in position to give basic needs.
“Fighting criminality is being a responsible parent, take children to school, ensure they’re in good health and feel loved. That prevents them from indulging in criminal activities like abusing drugs, sexual acts and early parenthood,” Ndibabage says.