A Medicinal Experience With Gorillas in Rwanda
After 2 long years of COVID restricted travel, I decided to jump back in and resume my exploration of this big, beautiful planet. This time, I set my compass east, packed my duffle bag and boots, and set off for Rwanda! Now, 3 weeks later, I'm back home in my office and still floating on cloud nine.
Goal: Gorilla Trekking
Writing about gorillas may not seem like a typical topic for a therapist to blog on. But what if I told you that sitting amongst a family of mountain gorillas, somewhere in the remote jungle of Rwanda, is a far more medicinal and soul-healing experience than any anti=depressant can offer.
I'm excited to share with you some of the highlights of my visit to Rwanda - with the best part of course being my visit with a family of 16 Mountain Gorillas. As you might already know, mountain gorillas are one of the most endangered animals on our planet. Their population has endured years of war, hunting, habitat destruction and diseases. As of 2018, conservation programs have embraced local community villagers, and former poachers in an effort to save them. Still on the endangered list, and as of today, the total number of gorillas in the wild tops 1,000.
Before I get to the really really good stuff, let me start by saying just how strikingly beautiful the country of Rwanda and the Rwandan people are. Known as "The Land of a Thousand Hills" this small country shares its borders with Tanzania, Uganda, Congo and Burundi. Kigali, the capital of Rwanda, was recently voted the most beautiful city in Africa and the 3rd Greenest city in the world!
Now one of the safest countries in Africa, it's hard to believe that it was only 26 years ago when the world witnessed (and primarily denied) Rwanda's dark and horrific past. A genocide took the lives of 800,000 Tutsi, over the course of 6 short weeks in the Spring of 1994. Rwanda has accomplished a remarkable turnaround rebuilding, revitalization and both individual and community healing, Rwanda is once again a thriving, warm, friendly, and welcoming country.
Up before dawn, with slickers, gators, and boots in hand, we listened to a short safety brief. We were assigned to 1 of the 17 gorilla families in the forest. After a short "safety" briefing, we made our way through mud and rocky terrain before finally arriving at the edge of the forest. Carefully following our guide, and accompanied by 5 spotters, a man swinging a large machete cleared a path for our ascent into jungle.
As we ventured deeper into the jungle, a hush swept over our group. The gorillas were near – I could feel it. I slowly turned my head towards the bush when I heard leaves rustling in the trees above and behind me. Suddenly, the great primates began to show themselves, one by one.
One of the first gorillas I saw was Head Honcho, the male silverback in the family. As he slowly and gracefully made his way by me, this 400 lb gentle giant seemed to casually acknowledge my presence before he plopped down, grabbed a branch and proceeded to munch away. Btw, male silverbacks spend the majority of the day eating, as they require a 60lb daily diet of greens. And if you look closely you can see a battle scar just above his left eye.
He was huge, measuring almost two meters tall (though he walked on his knuckles) and. there's no doubt in my mind he could have crushed me within an instant. But strangely, there was really no reason to feel threatened. In fact, once the rest of the family settled in to a large grassy opening, to sit and observe them was a purely peaceful experience.
There is something so humbling, so peaceful, so mesmerizing about being in close proximity to these creatures who could exert unbeatable force against us if they wanted to, yet they seem to exude a nature, not unlike our own. Given that they are 98% genetically identical to humans, they are some of our closest relatives in the wild, and being in their presence was an honor.
I watched as the gorillas tenderly picked leaves off the branches and the mothers tended to their young, plucking bugs out of their hair, as the babies jumped up for piggyback rides and rolled around in the grass. Occasionally, one of the young ones would rise up and mimic "Tarzan" by beating his chest 3-4 times and then falling over. Sometimes I would catch a glimpse of their eyes, while realizing we aren’t that different, after all.
We stayed and watched the gorillas meander about the jungle for the remainder of the hour before it was time to head back. The 1 hour felt like 5 minutes. I could have stayed there for hours but will instead hold this memory close forever.
Similarly, Mountain Gorillas also have their own family drama, arguments, and separations. As you can see In this video, I was able to capture the latter part of a feud that quickly stirred up between several females. I gather there was some disagreement over one of the young ones. As you will see, our guide is trained and experienced in communicating with gorillas. With a vocabulary of about 22-26 sounds, you will see our guide trying to calm the group by making the sound similar to a very low growl.
I hope you were able to find a bit of travel inspiration from my adventure. If you are ever inclined to visit Africa, you won't be disappointed! From its striking geography, vast cultures, history and people, there's so much to see and experience. Travel truly helps us better understand ourselves and our world, making us more compassionate, empathetic, and less afraid of our differences. Travel can be truly transformational.
Stephanie Burchell PhD, LMFT, PCC is a licesed therapist and certified coach. Find out more about her practice at www.relationshipcoach360.com or by email, text or phone: