Paradise Found: Rwanda’s Virunga Volcanoes

Piercing chants cut the silence. First one, then another; like a group of birds in conversation. The sounds are soon joined by frenetic movement smoothed by rhythmic drumming as men bearing headdresses and long, pointed spears make their way to the top of a grassy hill overlooking the Virunga volcanoes in Rwanda.

On one side of the performance, journalists, lodge managers, and international dignitaries in suits and summer dresses sit in chairs. To the other are men, women, and children from the Sunzu area, dressed in their finest. The local population of approximately 600 souls, from babies to grandmothers, is out in force. Hands are clapping, bodies are shaking, and at some point many of the women will raise their hands to the sky and give thanks.

What brings the two groups together—at times literally joined, hands clasped in dance—is a celebration.

Twenty years earlier, up to a million Tutsi and moderate Hutu were killed in Rwanda during one of the most horrific genocides in world history. There were no gas chambers or bombs. People died one at a time, often at the hands of someone they knew.

Praveen Moman (left), the founder of Volcanoes Safaris (Photograph by Heather Greenwood Davis)
Praveen Moman (left), the founder of Volcanoes Safaris (Photograph by Heather Greenwood Davis)

When the violence subsided, orphans numbered 300,000 and close to 85,000 children were forced to become heads of their households. A country lay dying, and people the world over wondered how Rwanda would or could recover, let alone welcome tourists again.

But Praveen Moman did the unthinkable: He founded a safari company in 1997 and invited Westerners to come to the mountains of Uganda and Rwanda’s Northern Province to experience what remained of the region’s great apes.

It was the realization of a vision he had clung to from his childhood.

“The Virunga [Mountains] are like a lost paradise,” he says. “From the time I first saw them at the age of 12, [they] have never left me. “

Moman was familiar with starting over. Born just north of Rwanda in Uganda—where his extended family, part of the country’s Asian minority, had lived for a century—he fled to the United Kingdom with his parents as the region imploded under Idi Amin‘s reign of terror in the 1970s. It would take Moman more than two decades to return to Africa. But once he came back, he began to build.

Volcanoes Safaris now operates four lodges. Three are in Uganda. In 2000, the company became one of the first tourism operators to bring guests to post-war Rwanda; four years later, in 2004, Moman opened Virunga Lodge in the mountains that made such an impression on him as a boy.

There are fewer than 1,000 mountain gorillas left in the wilds of Central Africa. (Photograph by Volcanoes Safaris)
There are fewer than 1,000 mountain gorillas left in the wilds of Central Africa. (Photograph by Volcanoes Safaris)

“No one wanted to be here then,” he says. “At the time, people were rebuilding lives and wondered if tourism should be done at all.”

But Moman persisted. “It was kind of a moral imperative. I had to do something.”

At first, accommodations were outfitted with dry toilets and bush showers. No longer. Today, guests find the height of ecoluxury in comfy four-poster beds, gorgeous stonework bathrooms, and gourmet cuisine.

As the lodge’s success with wealthy Westerners has grown, Moman is committed to ensuring that his rising tide lifts all ships.

“You can’t just build luxury ghettos for the Western world,” he says. “You have to connect to the community.”

Of the revenue that comes in from tourists willing to shell out thousands of dollars for “bush-chic” lodging and permits that buy them an hour out with mountain gorillas and chimpanzees, Moman sees to it that a sizable portion goes toward bettering living conditions for locals, many of whom he employs.

The Volcanoes Safaris Partnership Trust, which Moman and his wife Giulia Marsan established in 2009, develops self-sustaining initiatives that incentivize wildlife stewardship and habitat conservation while improving the community.

It’s why 14 villagers will each walk away from Virunga Lodge’s 10th-anniversary celebration with a new sheep that will provide natural fertilizer (manure) in a region sorely lacking in good soil and provide a source of income (offspring and milk) for the foreseeable future. The goal is to eventually provide one sheep per family.

It’s also why the parents of the Intore dance troupe members are smiling. Moman conceived of the idea for the group and offered the opportunity to local youths. Parents know that those who are selected to participate are being offered skills, education, and access that others may never know.

Schools in the area have received upgrades, too—better facilities, more teachers. And locals have new employment opportunities. The woman who grouted the tiles when the lodge was being built is now the head of laundry.

A member of the Intore dance troupe performs at Virunga Lodge. (Photograph by Volcanoes Safaris)
A member of the Intore dance troupe performs at Virunga Lodge. (Photograph by Volcanoes Safaris)

But by far the biggest tangible impact on the community is electricity.

Thanks to the lodge, there is now light and power where once there was none.

“Worst-case scenario [is that electricity will lead to] a night club here, or a movie theater, and that’s when people I know might say, ‘You can’t do that; you’re upsetting the natural environment,'” Moman says. “But the people here, they understand that electricity and development [are] the keys to the future.”

As the sun starts to set on the afternoon’s events and Moman rises to speak, the group begins to chant and cheer louder than ever. Though he is often lauded as some sort of savior, Moman’s unease with the assignation is palpable. Despite his discomfort, he says he is humbled by the attention and respect he receives from people whose lives and fates have become entwined with his own.

“It’s what they call in French the mal d’Afrique,” he says. “You get the mal d’Afrique in your blood, and it’s hard to get it out.”

“You are no longer an investor, but a family member.”

Toronto-based writer Heather Greenwood Davis and her family were recognized as Travelers of the Year in 2012. Follow Heather on Twitter @GreenwoodDavis

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  1. Abdul Ghafoor
    islamabad Pakistan
    May 22, 2015, 12:52 am

    very amazing place in the world

  2. Gail McKay
    Manitoba, Canada
    May 17, 2015, 3:31 pm

    I don’t that there is a cure for mal d’Afrique – for this, I am incredibly grateful. Rwanda is truly an amazing, beautiful and forward thinking country….it should be on every bucket list. You cannot come eye to eye with mountain gorillas and be unchanged. Make the plan!

  3. Denise Headley
    Citrus Heights California United States
    May 16, 2015, 11:26 am

    This story made me remember when i first learned of the happenings in the beginning of the genocide. Wondering if the people and animals would survive the tide. It made me cry with great happiness to see they both have overcome. The rest of the world should do well to follow the example. While I may never get to personally see this transformation it gives me joy to knowit has taken place. Is there anywhere a person could donate the price of a sheep?

  4. Debra
    New Mexico
    May 16, 2015, 10:02 am

    I am a huge fan of Anthony’s. Just my kind of man. Too bad he is taken! Oh, and what talent…forgot to mention that!

  5. Vinko Stojic
    Belgrade, Serbia
    May 16, 2015, 8:48 am

    Rwanda is a piece of Africa’s paradise. Flying over volcanoes and jungle, meeting the “Silverback” gorilas, Intore dancers – it’s just a small part of exciting moments in this beautiful country. Go visit Rwanda (as I did!).