Authors: Farley Mowat
The following day, again accompanied by a park official, Dian drove to military headquarters at Goma to appeal the decision. She was told politely enough that it would be at least two and perhaps four months before she could be allowed to climb to Kabara again.
Returning angrily to her palatial quarters, she brooded over the view of Karisimbi. The “castle” now felt like a prison to her. Lawlessness in the surrounding region was increasing day by day, as were the numbers of soldiers and the flow of banana beer. She began to be awakened by unseen visitors pounding on her bolted door. She asked for and received an armed sentry.
It was finally clear to her that nothing was to be gained by her remaining. On July 26 she once again stowed her field notes, one of her chickens, and most of her equipment in Lily and drove back to the frontier.
Upon reaching Bunagana I was told the border was closed and the keys were gone. I waited there five hours until a priest from the Congo came and gained admission
to Uganda as he had a sick person with him who required hospitalization there. Once it was apparent that the men at the post had the keys, I was able to bribe them to open the gate for me.
It was not quite that easy. Dian had no remaining cash, so she had to persuade the guards to let her drive on to Kisoro where she could get more. History repeated itself. It was agreed, on condition that one of the guards go too.
When Dian’s Land Rover once again rattled up the dusty driveway of the Traveler’s Rest and skidded to a halt at the front door, Walter Baumgartel was there to see her stumble out of the driver’s seat drenched in sweat and close to collapse. She ran past him into the hotel, where she was solaced by half a dozen other refugees. Meantime, Baumgartel confronted an unhappy Congolese soldier who insisted he had orders to bring Dian back to the border post as soon as she raised the money she had promised. In his memoirs,
Up Among the Mountain Gorillas
, Baumgartel recalled the scene:
“‘Miss Fossey is not your prisoner,’ I said. ‘She is going to stay here. If she wants to return, I shall tie her to that tree out there!’
“‘But I have guaranteed to bring her back,’ her guard protested. ‘They will shoot me if I don’t.’
“‘Better to shoot you than her,’ I said. Eventually he left.”
The following day the American ambassador to nearby Rwanda arrived at the Traveler’s Rest to take Dian to his embassy in the Rwandan capital of Kigali, preparatory to sending her on to Nairobi where Leakey anxiously awaited her. She was gently interrogated by embassy staff, then asked to prepare an affidavit testifying to her treatment at the hands of the Congolese.
“Did you suffer any material losses?” she was asked.
“Some of my camp gear—a tent and things like that and, oh, yes, one of my pet chickens was kidnapped.”
“Miss Fossey, were you ill-treated or physically abused in any way?”
“Well, I was cussed out in French and Congolese. And a soldier tried to pull me out of my car but didn’t make it. No, I was not abused.”
A widely circulated story maintains that Dian was raped by Congolese soldiers—gang-raped in some versions. However, the record that she herself wrote only a few days after her escape makes no reference to rape, attempted rape, or indeed to assault of any kind. Nor is there even a suggestion of rape in her other accounts of what took place. Finally, Dian herself consistently and vehemently denied the story.
Myths—especially racist and salacious ones—die hard.
he unsung little country of Rwanda in which Dian now found herself was one of the smallest, most densely populated, and poorest in Africa. Its nearly five million people lived in an area not quite as large as the state of Maryland. Perched high on the continent’s central plateau only a few miles south of the equator, Rwanda had once been heavily and lushly forested. Now, with about four hundred persons living off the produce of each square mile, the land had been almost totally given over to the farmer and the charcoal-maker. The only remaining forests, and the only survivors of the once-abundant wildlife, existed somewhat precariously in two national parks-A’kagera in the northeast, and the Parc des Volcans in the higher reaches of the Virunga mountains to the northwest.
Although overfarmed and overcrowded, Rwanda was and is dramatically beautiful. Its rugged, closely terraced hills resemble a terrestrial version of the huge and chaotic swells of the Atlantic Ocean, with the cluster of old volcanoes looming to the north like magical snow-capped islands against a vibrant tropic sky.
Dian had neither the time nor the inclination to admire the scenery during her first few days in the country. “She was completely preoccupied—obsessed, really,” according to Rosamond Carr, one of the first white people Dian met in Rwanda.
Rosamond Carr was a petite fifty-three-year-old American expatriate who had been living in the shadow of the Virungas for thirty years. She made her living growing flowers on her small plantation and selling them to hotels and resorts around nearby Lake Kivu and in the capital, Kigali. One day near the end of July 1967, Mrs. Carr was invited to lunch at the home of the American military attaché in Kigali.
“I dropped in on the ambassador’s wife on my way, and she said to me, ‘Rosamond, you are going to meet a really very strange girl at lunch today. She is Dian Fossey, who has been studying gorillas in the Congo and has only just escaped from there. She’s looking for a place to camp, but be careful. She is really
“Odd? Well, I suppose she had a reason to be so considering the absolutely desperate experience she’d just been through. Anyway, I went on to lunch at the Frayzes’, and that first meeting with her was something I could never forget. She was so attractive—so
. I mean, she was absolutely stunning with her hair in this long black braid flung carelessly over one shoulder and a glowing look in her face. She had on the most beautiful dress you could imagine. A pale lilac color—I mean, absolutely from a tip-top shop. And then, the poor little thing—the poor
thing—she had very large feet and the only shoes she’d managed to keep were tennis shoes that were filthy and
. And so here she was with this beautiful dress, her lovely hair, and those awful shoes!
“I immediately saw what the ambassador’s wife had meant, because she had this absolutely wild look in her eye.
“We went in to a beautiful lunch with crystal and silver. We all sat down and Dian immediately pulled out a notebook—the cheap kind you can pick up for ten francs here. She just ignored her hosts, the Frayzes, stared straight at me, and demanded, ‘Mrs. Carr, I have some questions for you.’ The questions were numbered, one to about twenty. She’d ask one, check it off, and move right on to the next. The first was; ‘May I use your plantation as a base camp to start my studies of gorillas again?’
“‘Well,’ I said, ‘you can, but you won’t find gorillas on the Rwandan side of Mt. Karisimbi.’ She said, ‘Oh, no, you’re absolutely wrong about that. The gorillas are there.’ And I replied rather definitely, ‘I’m sorry, they’re
on this side of Karisimbi.’
“She’d never been on this side of Karisimbi, but she was so certain she was right, and she just went on firing these questions at me. The poor Frayzes—their luncheon was anything but a social occasion, I’m afraid.”
During those first few days in Kigali, Dian had no more time to waste on social amenities than on the scenery. Apprehensive as to how Leakey would react to her “failure” in the Congo, she was determined to establish a foothold for a research station on the Rwandan side of the Virunga chain before having to face him in Nairobi. She had already sought permission from the Rwandan authorities to set up camp in the Parc des Volcans, adjacent to the Congolese Parc des Virungas and Kabara. Unfortunately, she had not been able to find anybody who knew where the gorillas were. Because Rosamond Carr lived close to the forested lower slopes of the volcanoes, she had hoped for help from her. Mrs. Carr did not disappoint her.
“The one person who has the answers you need,” she told Dian after the lunch was over, “will soon be flying into Nairobi from Paris. You’ll be in Nairobi and can see her there. Her name is Alyette de Munck, an utterly charming Belgian lady who has lived in Africa the best part of her life, mostly near the volcanoes that she knows like the palm of her hand because she loves them dearly and has climbed all over them.”
Mrs. Carr went on to explain that Alyette de Munck and her husband, Adrian, had raised one son of their own, together with the three children of Alyette’s sister, on a plantation in the Congolese province of Kivu. As the troubles in the Congo had begun to grow serious, the young people had been sent off to finish their schooling in Belgium. When Kivu sank deeper into lawlessness, the de Muncks sold their Congo farm
and bought another in nearby Rwanda, just a mile or two down the trail from Rosamond Carr’s cottage.
“Unhappily,” Mrs. Carr continued, “Adrian died suddenly in Paris only a week ago. Alyette will be desolate. It will do her good to have a new involvement, and you and your gorillas might be just the thing.”
August 12, 1967, found Dian pacing the dusty, fly-infested lounge of the Nairobi airport, impatiently awaiting an incoming Air France flight from Paris. When the plane finally arrived and its passengers disembarked, she anxiously scanned the crowd. Finally she spotted a slight and pretty woman about ten years her senior who was being greeted by three very young men. Dian held back for a few moments, not wanting to intrude upon what was clearly an intensely emotional reunion.
She herself had reached Nairobi a week earlier, nervous and worried. As if having to abandon the gorilla study in the Congo and her harrowing experiences thereafter had not been enough, she was unemployed and virtually penniless. Nor was she confident of the reception she could expect from Dr. Leakey, who prided himself on always having been able to carry on his scientific work in Africa and the Middle East under the most trying political conditions. Would he think she had exaggerated the danger that had forced her to abandon the Kabara camp? Even if he did understand the difficulties, would funds be available to establish a new camp elsewhere?
Her fears had evaporated when she was greeted on arrival at the airport by a beaming and affectionate Leakey, who gave her a bear hug and was effusive in his praise of her courage and ingenuity in escaping from the Congo. He took her to a hotel then out for an intimate dinner, after which they discussed the options open to her. Leakey spoke enthusiastically of the need for someone to start a long term study of orangutans in Borneo or of lowland gorillas in West Africa.
Dian was not enthused. She was resolutely committed to the mountain gorilla, and she told him so.
“I’m going to stay with them, Dr. Leakey. Nothing will stop me from doing that. They interest me more than anything on earth! Will you help me get started in Rwanda?”
Leakey was charmed by her spirit and determination.
“I wouldn’t dare stand in your way,” he told her, laughing. “Just promise me you’ll stay away from the Congolese border. And that you’ll come back to Nairobi at once if you ever again find yourself threatened by the military.”
A week later he called her to his office in the museum to give her the splendid news that the Wilkie Foundation had agreed by cable to provide the funds for her to begin again in Rwanda. Soon thereafter, the National Geographic Society also agreed to the enforced change of venue for the gorilla study.
The three young men who had been awaiting Alyette de Munck at Nairobi airport were her son, her nephew, and a close friend of theirs. All three had recently graduated from Louvain University, for which achievement they were being given a six-week safari in East Africa by Alyette and her husband. They had been on passage from Belgium when they heard of Adrian de Munck’s death and had only just reached Nairobi themselves. Now they were prepared to abandon their great adventure, but Alyette would not hear of it.
“Nonsense!” she told them firmly. “Adrian would not wish it! You must carry on!”
Invited to dine at their hotel that evening, Dian had at first tried not to intrude herself and her difficulties into this sad reunion. But her companions were fascinated by her gorilla stories and showered her with questions. The three young men were particularly admiring, and she responded with vivacity and warmth. Her presence lifted the pall from the little party, and Alyette was grateful. Before the evening was out, Dian had been invited to use the de Munck plantation as her base camp while she explored the Rwandan side of the Virungas.
Alyette volunteered to lend a hand establishing a new research camp as soon as a suitable location could be found. They all arranged to meet at the de Munck plantation a week hence.
A few days later Dian flew happily back to Kigali, resurrected the battered Lily, loaded her with supplies, and set off toward the Virungas along the only paved road in Rwanda. She drove for several hours through densely populated mountain foothills to a side road just west of the provincial capital of Ruhengeri—itself a nondescript collection of low, cement block and mud-brick buildings.
The side road started out well enough, a sandy set of ruts skirting a steep valley carpeted with the tiny two-acre plots of Rwandan farmers and dotted with grass-roofed, wattle and straw rondel houses and granaries. As Dian looked out over the valley through the blue haze of smoke from charcoal cooking fires, the scene seemed oddly desolate. There were no power or telephone lines, no mechanical or electrical noises, no busy cars or trucks or tractors. But gradually she began to discern movement and when she stopped from time to time, became aware of the susurrus of thousands of human voices. The valley was unobtrusively alive with people going about their daily chores, tending the tiny plots of rich, red volcanic soil that provided their sustenance.
Descending into the valley, the road quickly deteriorated into a boulder-strewn track traversing rough lava flows, a trail that might have been designed as a torture test for truck tires. Now the farmers’ huts were only a few yards away on either side, and a steady stream of barefooted people moved in both directions along the track, many of them balancing plastic water jugs, gourds of
, or woven potato baskets on their heads. Most of the women had children strapped to their backs. They all seemed remarkably fit and contented, though Dian knew that many were or would be victims of yellow fever, cholera, malaria, typhoid, and a host of other virulent diseases.