Back in about 1998, I saw my first lions. Or rather, I saw my first DEAD lions, mouths agape, teeth bared, eyes open and fly-covered. I had travelled to Akagera Park with the old man, who was engaged in some official business in the area. I came upon the heartbreaking scene as we walked up one scenic hill and all I can say is that it permanently scarred me.
A whole pride of lions, males, females and cubs had been poisoned with rat poison by herdsmen tending their cattle in the park. Even then, after going through the trauma that was the civil war, Genocide and refugee return, the beauty of the park shone right through. The scenic Lake Ihema, the swamps, the rocky hills and the acacia-filled plains were scenes straight from a movie. The only problem was, the scene was all set but the actors were simply not there. There were no animals. I looked near and far but there was not a zebra or antelope to be seen.
Fast forward to today. I travelled to the park this weekend and it was amazing. The park was surrounded by an electric fence, the formerly whiplash-inducing roads had been graded, not only was there accommodation in the name of the famous Akagera Game Lodge but there was also a new spot Ruzizi Tented Lodge.
The icing on the cake was the wildlife. I saw herds of Buffalo, Waterbucks, Impalas and Giraffes. In the waterways I saw Hippos and Crocodiles. In the air I saw African Golden Oriole and running on the ground I saw Warthogs. In fact, the only big animals I didn’t see were the elephants (although a part of me was happy I didn’t have a close encounter with the gigantic mammal) and the nocturnal leopards and hyenas (although I certainly heard them laughing maniacally all night).
When you live in a tiny, overpopulated country like ours you take it for granted that you will see people wherever you look or barring that, some sign of human activity. So imagine just how odd it was for me at first when I couldn’t a person for as far as the eye could see. The night I spent in a tent was probably the most peaceful I had ever had, the silence was only punctuated by the hoots of owls while the celestial bodies above provided the light. It was magical. That is simply the word.
When I asked the Akagera Park management why there wasn’t a stampede of eager tourists driving up and down the park (I saw not more than fifteen cars; mind you) they told me a story that I’m sure we’ve heard before. “People think that the park is still the same”, Eugene Mutangana, head of law enforcement and Deputy CEO told me. “They worry that their cars will get scratched by the thorn trees, that they have nowhere to spend the night and that there are no animals but that is the furthest thing from the truth”. And he was right. Honestly the roads in the park would put some Kigali neighborhood streets to shame in my opinion.
So, what I learnt in my two-day sojourn to the park was that like Rwanda, the park was suffering from outdated public opinion and misinformation. The great things happening are often overlooked or even ignored. But slowly by slowly the truth is trickling out. The truth is, like Lazarus of the Bible, both Rwanda and the Akagera Game Park had died in the eyes of many. But miraculously, both have resurrected to the amazement of those who counted them out for the count. What you need to do is to go and see just how much things have changed for the better; you simply must.
And my lions? Well, they were killed off by the early 2000’s. Guess what though, they will be reintroduced back in the park in about two months. So perhaps I will finally replace the image of dead lions I’ve carried with me with images of proud, beautiful, LIVING animals.