Another Saturday out of Kigali! After a busy and rewarding week of camp it was a treat to pile on the bus (after a pleasant sleep-in and slow morning…) and head north for the day. We were heading up to visit the Sacola Cultural Centre near Volcanoes National Park – something I’ve been greatly anticipating. I think I might be missing the mountains around Vancouver more than I realized!
Once we made our way out of Kigali, we were finally able to see (and for some, able to feel it in their stomachs) why Rwanda is known as the land of a thousand hills. After climbing switchbacks for half an hour we made it to the top of our first major hill of the day - from then on we followed ridgelines and rivers for hours as we climbed our way to the volcanoes. It was hard to peel my eyes from the windows as we passed by the mosaic of farmland and village. Every hill seemed to be terraced to the summit with dozens of small plots farmed for maize, potatoes, bananas, cassava and a variety of other crops.
By the time we got into Kinigi, I think everyone was ready to be off the bus. The cultural center is below Mt. Sabyinyo – a volcano that looks like a set of teeth and sits at the point where the Democratic Republic of Congo, Uganda and Rwanda meet. The cultural center was called SACOLA (Sabyinyo Community Livelihood Association) - a community-oriented eco-tourism project designed to protect Volcanoes National Park, the gorilla population and other animals that live there as well as improve the livelihood of people in the surrounding communities. The tourism dollars are supposed to help support education, small-scale agriculture, and businesses in the communities nearby as well as provide alternative income to poaching.
The cultural center focused on traditional Rwandan life between the 15th and 20th centuries. We toured a replica of the King’s Hut and Chris and Destiny were chosen as our king and queen (a position Chris looked a little too comfortable in…). Our guide told us about all the ladies the king “made funny” with and how decisions were made in the communities the king oversaw. Our last stop was a nearby village where community members performed a traditional song and dance for us. The village was a bit of a shock for the team – a level of material poverty we haven’t experienced yet on this trip. Although the dancing and singing was beautiful, it was also extremely uncomfortable – the juxtaposition between our way of life and theirs was too abrupt for it not to be. It made for a long and thoughtful ride home in the dark.
Throughout the trip we’ve talked a lot about poverty as more than simply material deficiency, but as broken or damaged relationships with God, with ourselves, with each other, and with creation. Although I thoroughly enjoyed the day and was thrilled to see so much beautiful country, I found it also raised many questions for me. Amongst all the beauty, there was evidence of broken relationships in people and the landscape. A lot of the work I do back home centers on our relationship to creation and how we manage and restore ecosystems, and so two different (but related) aspects of the trip really stuck out to me…
My first questions came on the drive up to the cultural village. Rwanda is the most densely populated country in Sub-Saharan Africa, yet it still remains one of the most rural. In the last 50 years, the population has tripled, and the natural and semi-natural habitats that covered almost 50% of the country in the 1940’s and 50’s been reduced to less than 10%. The rest is under heavy use by humans and been altered greatly. Land is extremely valuable here – it seems every square inch has a purpose for somebody. And while the patchwork of farmland was beautiful I also found myself wondering what the ecological cost of that was. I noticed no trees or plants lined the banks of many rivers and there were significant signs of erosion along many streams – you could see the river eating up the land. I could almost imagine the torrent of water that must tear down the creeks and rivers during the rainy season taking valuable soil with it. To me, this is a sign of sickness in the landscape.
Again at Sacola, similar questions arose about our relationship to creation. Humans use much of the land in Rwanda intensively, and so I understand the desperate need to protect the remaining wilderness in the country. Community-based ecotourism projects are becoming more and more popular globally, and at times they are a great opportunity to build up communities and provide alternatives to poaching, timber harvesting and bush-meat hunting. So, I have many questions about how things worked specifically at Sacola… what is the relationship between the cultural village and the communities surrounding it? How are the benefits distributed? How have the people’s relationships to the land changed? Are they completely barred from harvesting of any kind in the forest? How is it different from how they used the land in the past? Due to the language difficulties, it wasn’t possible to get answers to these questions, so they remain questions. I think there are probably many positives to what is happening there, but also maybe some negatives.
Both of these situations –the landscape on the drive up and Sacola – raise a bigger question of how to restore our relationship to creation. What does it mean to live well on the land, leaving space for the creatures we share the land with but still providing people with the opportunity to flourish? Often in conservation projects, people are removed from the land so we can protect our forests or charismatic species like gorillas, but we do so at the expense of the people who have lived on the land for centuries. I’m not sure if this is what has happened around Volcanoes National Park, but the cynical side of me is worried that is the case. In trying to correct an aspect of poverty in the communities around Volcanoes National Park, another has replaced it. It seems to me that our broken relationship with the land contributes greatly to poverty in our other relationships.
So, I’m left with many questions. I’m not sure what the restoration of many of these relationships really looks like, but I am confident that humans are a vital part of the landscape and the process of restoration. In the New Creation we will see flourishing people, places and creatures – not the flourishing of one at the expense of another. God’s plan is for the restoration of all things and for that I am grateful, even if it’s a mystery to us, how that will look in the end.