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The chest-thump of worry

When I started thinking about this Uganda trip, I think I had a certain "going along for the ride" casualness about it. D has been there twice, and C&J have been there once, and I think it felt like a more exotic work trip, me following those who know better what they're doing. But somewhere along the line, I lifted my nose up (maybe when I could finally pry it out of the final proofing of my dissertation and its distractions), and I started to pat at the edges of how this trip could be something I shaped too.

When I did that, I got captivated by the idea of doing a diversion to see the mountain gorillas. I had this sense of magic and the sacred about them through some osmosis, but I hadn't realized there were places in Uganda that did gorilla tracking.

So I started reading about them more, and got very excited about the possibility of spending time in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest and doing tracking, though permits are pretty thin on the ground. For a bit, it looked like I might be able to do it, but the dates and permits didn't line up.

In my reading, though, the gorillas became kind of an entry point to dipping myself into what I'm really doing in this trip. Yes, there is something about connecting with the kids, and grounding myself in lived experience to back up my pretty strong opinions about what we should do with the kids, what our role as westerners is, and all of that. But there's also something that I'm so tentative about at this point about trying to understand a social world that is so complex, so seared, so raw, so foot-in-the-dirt.

Somehow all of the fragility of the kids, of the social worlds in central Africa, are connected to the gorillas for me. I think I hadn't really grasped how few mountain gorillas are left -- maybe 600 or 700 in the wild *anywhere*.


The situation in Virunga in Congo is the perfect emblem of the complex horror at the edge of resources. The forest used to be a tourism park -- in fact, my friend Renee tracked gorillas there 20 years ago -- but now it's a dangerous cauldron. National Geographic did a powerful cover story on the situation this summer , sketching the park as a blend of warring forces (Hutu rebels, Tutsi militia led by Nkunda, Congolese soldiers), hollow-shelled refugees, corrupt and well-intentioned park rangers, an illegal, devastating charcoal industry, and a few fragile families of mountain gorillas.

The Geographic cover story focused on the murder of a family of gorillas last summer, supposedly by one park ranger trying to frame another one, so he'd get out of the way of the charcoal producers. The picture of mourning villagers bearing the body of a huge silverback, as a family member, almost on a cross, is searing. And now, with the resurgence of fighting in that part of Congo, it all burns even hotter.

It's interesting to me that as I've gone more deeply into trying to understand what the forces are, what's happening a couple of hundred km away from where I'm going, I get more confident about what I'm doing -- and the people around me get more fretful. There are a lot of people in my life who are quite worried and freaked out about my going on this trip. In one sense, I appreciate that people don't want me to be in danger -- but I feel trapped in this paradox where, the more I learn about the real stories of what's going on in that tight triangle between SW uganda, rwanda and DR congo, and the more I talk about it, the more comfortable and excited I become about this trip -- and the more freaked out other people get. I think I realize how localized the fighting is, how relatively far away the refugee camps are, how divorced they are from day to day life in Kasese, a few hundred km to the north east.

I think a big part of my need to go is to witness and have in my cells just a hint of a lived story that can counterpoint the auto-pilot fear that lurks around the "heart of darkness." Post-colonial residue. Part of it is trying to make a comfortable distinction between what's skittish westerner and what's genuine risk. And part of it is not wanting to be someone who wouldn't do something I feel called upon to do because it's not comfortable. And I guess that's it -- I think there will be discomfort, but I'm going for a pragmatic reason -- move programs for the kids along -- and for an unnameable reason about how I want to be. And connecting to the magic and worry about the mountain gorillas sifts a kind of awe and conviction over me -- not anxiety.

Posted by CateinTO 11:34 Archived in Uganda Tagged volunteer

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