Despite Obstacles: Bold Vision for Rwanda, Uganda and Congo

Three stories about Rwanda on the Gorilla Highlands Instagram

It’s the saddest week of the year in Rwanda, the time when survivors remember the outrageous tragedy that claimed one million lives 25 years ago. The Gorilla Highlands team’s humble contribution to the Remember – Unite – Renew theme of these commemorations is a daily photograph on our social media channels. These images celebrate the story of Rwanda’s resilience, the story that the world should know better.

Life slows down in April every year, as minds are flooded with memories and streets with rainwater. In this contemplative mood we have produced a longer text that looks ahead, towards the future worth fighting for.

The week is dark but our vision for the region that encompasses Rwanda, Uganda and DR Congo glows brightly.

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Unreal Engine is the software foundation on which many computer games are built, most famously Fortnite. But it can assist in creating three-dimensional digital worlds of any kind… Epic Games recently announced MegaGrants that would support Unreal Engine projects around the world, and we realised that was the obvious next step for the Gorilla Highlands Video Map.

Provided our application for a grant is successful, a gorgeously rendered map will make our transboundary region much more real than ever before. Its ample attractions will be presented with short videos (we just completed the multi-year shooting) allowing users to choose what they want to do. Based on their budget and time available, the app will then propose different itineraries and offer digital flyovers to give the best idea of what is on offer. Finally, users will be connected with reputable tour operators or given advice on how to explore by themselves.

Recording Adventures with Izy; photo by Marcus Westberg

This “Unreal Map” is meant to become the basis of our online existence. In the material world the Gorilla Highlands Pocket Guide will be issued often enough to never run out of stock (three prints are planned for 2019). There’s also a video series called Adventures with Izy primarily targeting urban Africans and encouraging domestic tourism. Finally, for those who love long-form reading, our award-winning ebook about southwestern Uganda will be republished with complete regional coverage.

All in all, we will continue pushing the boundaries. We don’t like boundaries.

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It has been a bad month for our region… 

Since 27 February Rwandans can’t travel to Uganda, an unfortunate result of the two countries suspecting each other of ill intentions. That has made it impossible for Rwanda’s “Historically Disadvantaged People” to join the Batwa “Pygmies” of Uganda, Congo and Burundi (the potential fourth country to be added to our region) at the jamboree planned for Easter. Rather than accept a mutilated event we have chosen to move it to the Christmas period instead, and hope for more harmony.

Design by Fabian Windischbauer; typography Suzy Claridge

On 2 April an American tourist and a local driver were kidnapped in Queen Elizabeth National Park, close to where Uganda borders Congo. The gunmen seem to have been Congolese and a ransom has reportedly been paid for their release. They were returned unharmed but a blow to the tourism in our region is unavoidable.

Well, we need to keep going. 

We will continue patiently working towards a better future for all in Congo, Rwanda and Uganda. Our choice of tourism as the region’s main “export industry” will not exclude any other means necessary to support permanent peace, economic and social development.

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Musanze Town; photo by Miha Logar
Colonial map

The Gorilla Highlands team resides in Musanze not far from Mt Sabyinyo, an extinct volcano where Rwanda, Uganda and Congo meet. From here, a land extravagantly rich in nature and culture extends for hundreds of kilometres into all directions.

This should be Heaven on Earth yet too often it has been closer to Hell. Beginning with some of the worst colonial masters imaginable, greed and zero-sum games have ruled and ruined the area.

Our researcher Ian Cantwell has been visiting libraries in this part of Africa and in Europe for a number of years. He has just brought us the tourist map on the left, dating to the colonial times, a route connecting Burundi, Congo, Rwanda and Uganda into a tremendously attractive loop. You can still enjoy the fascinating row of attractions in Rwanda and Uganda and visit Mt Nyiragongo in the DRC, however, few contemporary travellers would attempt most of the Congolese/Burundian leg. But one beautiful day that will change, and we want to help that day come sooner.

To achieve the desired state of stability and prosperity in the region, we can’t remain a small group of Rwandans, Ugandans and international volunteers. We have to grow into a mass organisation present in all countries.

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Consultations in Kampala; photo by Miha Logar

“It’s time to take the Gorilla Highlands Initiative to the next level,” was the general sentiment whenever and wherever we asked in 2018. We began with the Partner Survey in April-May, continued during the Gorilla Highlands Bootcamp in November and ended the Ugandan stage of consultations with a series of December interviews.

In May-June 2019 we will proceed with the conversations in Rwanda and Congo; let us bring you up to date with the ideas that have come out so far:

Gorilla Highlands Society (GHS)

Andy Roberts of East African Maps, one of our first interviewees, suggested the name “Gorilla Highlands Society” for the more formalised successor to the Gorilla Highlands Initiative. From that point on we asked everyone about using the word “Society”. The consensus was this would be fitting.

How the Gorilla Highlands Society is registered in each of the three countries is still to be determined. Is it best to have it be a social enterprise, a Non-Governmental Organization (NGO) or something else? Each of the countries in the Gorilla Highlands has different regulations, so these will need to be carefully considered before moving forward with a legal structure.  

Conversations about the Gorilla Highlands idea in 2014; photo by Marcus Westberg

Advisory Council

Since the very beginning of the Gorilla Highlands Initiative, we have made use of volunteers from throughout the world. But most of these helpers are around for a short time.  

The purpose of the Advisory Council is to include more permanent people from various sectors who can share their expertise with the GHS. They would serve on the Advisory Council for a term of three years. In addition to their knowledge, they would also volunteer to help provide additional personnel resources to assist in developing their specific area. The Council members will primarily be from the countries which are a part of the region, but they could also be from any other place.  

Community Councils

Initially there was thought that community representatives would be included on the Advisory Council. But as this concept was further clarified with the guidance of the interviewees, we figured out it might be best to develop separate Community Councils in different areas that would interact with the Advisory Council. 

Espoir Watukalusu representing DR Congo at Gorilla Highlands Bootcamp 2017; photo by Spacey Specioza Kawarach

Membership

One of the objectives of the Gorilla Highlands Society is to include as many people as possible as members. To accomplish this, we have considered different types of membership:

  • Individual Membership: these members could be from the countries that are a part of the Gorilla Highlands region or from anywhere else on the planet, as long as they want to support the work of the GHS.
  • Corporate Membership: hotels, restaurants, corporations, etc. that would contribute by advertising in the Gorilla Highlands Pocket Guide, sponsoring Gorilla Highlands events and get involved in other ways.
  • Youth Membership: young people don’t normally have money for membership fees but it’s crucial to have them involved. Instead of donating money, they could donate their time.
  • Community Membership: individuals who help provide tourism-related services (guiding, homestays, etc.) 

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Winning dish at Gorilla Highlands Silverchef 2016; photo by Abby Bluth

Ultimately, the Gorilla Highlands idea is about bringing people together, connecting them and streamlining cooperation. We are better together and we have so much to learn from each other. We plan to promote what we think is the best about every country: Rwanda’s home-grown solutions, Uganda’s entrepreneurial spirit and Congo’s mentality of generosity and abundance.

Our biggest event every year is the Gorilla Highlands Silverchef, a cooking competition and networking event, and this year it should be Congo’s time! As long as we manage to find a suitable host, the fifth edition of Silverchef shall take place in Goma in October 2019.

That will be everybody’s chance to cross-check how far we have come with the bold vision spelled out in this article…

text: Isabelle Masozera, Miha Logar, Steven G. West