It is a Monday at 3pm. The dark and heavy sky is upon us.
Several local residents are displaying traditional materials for tourists to see. They include baskets, calabashes, hammock (Ingombyi), wooden dishes, arrows, bow, drum and tradition dishes.
They also showcase iron works, grinding stones and local beer to tourists who occassionally visit Iby’Iwacu cultural tourism village, located at the foot of the Volcanoes National Park in Kinigi.
The village, located about 20 kilometres from Musanze town is one of the tourist attractions that most tourists here cannot miss.
It comprises several traditional thatched houses, including the King’s Palace depicting how ancient Rwandans lived.
Traditional dancers are also on standby ready to entertain tourists while exhibitors showcase various products.
Scores of local residents, mostly historically marginalised people and former poachers display traditional products used by Rwandans decades ago to earn money from sightseers.
And for area residents, the village is a source of livelihood. Most of them could hardly afford a meal, let alone the basic necessities of life.
“I lived off hunting for several years and killed birds and other small animals in the park to get what to eat,” says Enoch Barora, one of the formerly marginalised people
“Our children were also hunters and we found it difficult to live with other people,” he adds.
In 2000, however, Barora and his colleagues abandoned their old ways after the government built for them houses in the neighbourhood inhabited by other people.
For Barora, a blacksmith, this wasn’t enough as he had to supplement government efforts by tilling land and ferrying luggage for neighbours to earn a living and pay school fees for his seven children.
Barora and several other residents later teamed up and formed a cultural troupe that entertains tourists.
Through the job, Barora would save some money and bought a small piece of land which his family cultivates to survive.
“I now have a job,” he says with a smile.
“I dance for a living and I am no longer a poacher. I have played a significant role toward wildlife conservation and am now a ranger of the very animals I used to hunt down for years in the park,” he adds.
Innocent Twagirimana, Iby’iwacu manager, says the ‘village’ has helped transform lives of the resident around the park.
“During the high season, we receive over 120 tourists per month, while in low seasons, the number goes down to about 40 but the average is between 60 and 65 tourists per month. Each tourist pays $20 per visit,” Twagirimana says.
“We use the money we receive to pay workers including dancers, exhibitors and the staff at the ‘village’. However, 20 per cent of the revenue goes toward supporting vulnerable residents around the volcanoes park,” Twagirimana said, adding that members are given livestock to rear and seeds for cultivation.
There are around 10 cooperatives around Volcanoes National Park in Nyabihu, Musanze and Burera districts.
Edwin Sebuhoro, head of Rwanda Eco Tours and founder of the ‘village’, said the initiative aimed at helping local residents, most of them former poachers live a better life through ‘trading’ culture.
He said the village is managed by people appointed by residents and the revenue from tourism goes directly to the village account.
Eco Tourism seeks to elevate local residents around the park from extreme poverty which according to Sebuhoro is one of the major causes of poaching.
Over 500 goats have been distributed to the most vulnerable residents. They have also received good seed varieties for planting.
Several tourists who spoke to The New Times expressed joy for not only visiting Ib’Iwacu cultural village but also visiting rare montain gorillas in the Virunga.
Magdalen R Leung who came from Canada with her daughter, said visiting gorillas was among the things she had set out to accomplish in life.
She said apart from tracking gorillas, she was also impressed with seeing local residents showcasing their culture, adding it showed how residents and the country as a whole have worked hard to maintain their heritage.
“I have always yearned to see gorillas before I die but as I looked forward to seeing the gorillas, I heard about the cultural village. My impression is that these residents are very positive, happy and peaceful people who have maintained their culture and are trading it,” Leung said.
Leung commended area residents for conserving nature, adding she would spread the word about Rwanda’s conservation efforts.
The chief park warden, Prosper Uwingeri, had earlier commended the village’s contribution toward conserving the Volcanoes National Park, saying the process of transforming ex-poachers started as part of an education campaign targeting groups that had hitherto posed a threat to mountain gorillas.