Updated: Feb 28
Earlier this month, I had the privilege of escorting a group of amazing people to the beautiful country of Uganda in East Africa. The intention of our trip was to visit the work of a life-altering organization Jim and I support called Opportunity International (OI). At the end of our time with OI, we headed to the southwest part of the country to trek with the mountain gorillas in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest. I’m going to start my story there (just knowing that many travelers have this on their “Wanderlist”), but please read through to learn more about why we were in Uganda for OI in the first place!
Bwindi is home to nearly 460 mountain gorillas, whose population is luckily on the rise in recent years due to added protection and conservation efforts. When you add in the numbers from neighboring Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) this fragile species has reached nearly 1,100 in numbers...up from less than 800 a couple decades ago.
Our journey to see the gorillas started with a 1-1/2 hour hike through a thick, lush rainforest area (hence the name “Impenetrable Forest!”). Along the way we saw various kinds of monkeys and listened to the nearby banter of chimpanzees. All at once, our guide raised his hand signaling us to stop. He pointed up in the trees where a troop of about 10 gorillas were feasting on figs and dropping the leftovers right over us. They climbed and swung from tree to tree above our heads for about 30 minutes, when at last they came down.
The Silverback (male leader of the group...and truly a Big Boy!) led the way with a couple females and several children suddenly surrounding us and curious as to who we were. They’re used to humans (the park allows one group of eight to see this family of gorillas for one hour each day) but were skeptic nonetheless. They walked among us, the three brothers wrestled 10 yards from us and the Silverback sat and watched to ensure all was well. It was crazy!
One of the older males (the Blackback...second in line to the Silverback), was named Happy. However, he did NOT live up to his name. He strutted right by us, nudging a couple of us out of his way and even tapping one of us on the arm. Clearly his way of reminding us that we were on his turf.
Entering the experience, I didn’t know really what to expect. I didn’t know if I would be scared, excited, apprehensive or any mix of those things. Surprisingly I felt very content and just wanted to peacefully observe. These amazing creatures are so human like that I was never scared (the park ranger holding a gun next to me might have helped ease my worry...by the way they would only scare shoot up in the air if needed, they’ve never had to shoot a gorilla due to human interaction).
Even though I’ve been home for a few weeks now, in my mind, I can easily put myself back in Bwindi at any moment. The peaceful surroundings of the park, the curious gorillas who behaved similar to me and my siblings growing up and the rangers and guides who cared for us along our journey were all very special in making this experience something I’ll never forget and hope to share with family, friends and clients for years to come!
Visiting the Communities in Uganda
I mentioned earlier the importance of my trip to Uganda was to help escort a group to see the work of an amazing organization we support called Opportunity International. If you’re not familiar with them, I can’t encourage you enough to explore their efforts and the impact they are having on ending extreme poverty in the world (focusing on people who live on less than $1.90/day).
Our visit revolved around experiencing a few initiatives OI has built and nourished over the past several decades. We met men and women who have partnered with OI to take out modest financial loans to help them open a business, build a home or send their children to school. We went out into a few coffee and banana plantations to learn
about how OI is helping farmers improve their yield, maximize their resources and bring their crops to market to help support their families. And, we visited several schools where the children were happier than most children I’ve met in my life. They realize the impact of education on truly breaking the cycle of poverty.
I’ve traveled to third world countries before with OI and as in the past, I felt a real connection with the people of Uganda. Their day-to-day lives may seem scarce to our abundance (and sometimes excessiveness), but they are just like us. They love their kids, they have deep friendships they lean on and they want what’s best for those around them. Basic human needs in my mind.
Ironically when it comes to the other “basic needs” they may struggle. That’s where OI comes in. They provide tools, resources, training and other critical elements to help break the cycle of poverty. They don’t just give them money....they teach and support them so their improvements become sustainable and they become self-sufficient.
The organization’s efforts have already made such a difference (we have cut extreme poverty in half in the last couple decades, so this IS an attainable goal!). I can’t wait to walk by their side for years to come!
If you’d like more information about trekking with the mountain gorillas in Uganda (or Rwanda) or are interested in helping our cause to end extreme poverty in developing nations, please email LindaB@PiqueTravel.com.