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