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Tears flew from my eye and onto the heavily armed man in worn, olive fatigues beside me. A series of gnarled scars traced an ominous history up his arm and his grizzled face bore short grey stubble. The soldier’s semi-automatic rifle rested discomfortingly in the direction of my chin.
I was glad to see him smile.
We sat together in the back of a pickup truck as we took a dozen members of the Rwanda Defence Forces to posts deep inside Nyungwe National Park. They will spend several days in the cold, wet forest, patrolling for insurgents and protecting the area. As we made our way into the mountains, the brisk wind inflated my cheeks and made my eyes water. But the views were spectacular.
The truck bed held large packs with all the supplies the men would need for several days in the bush: onions, potatoes and peas. My feet were buried under bags of tomatoes and heavy yellow containers of water. A machete rattled against the gate. Bedrolls provided cushion for those perched on the floor.
Setting off with their packs, one group was to hike into the hills for three hours before stopping to sleep. Young boys travelled with them, carrying food and cooking supplies on their heads. They would then rise first thing in the morning for four more hours of trekking, vanishing into the wispy fog deep within the forest.
As we climbed to 3,000 feet above sea level, clouds filled my lungs and a chill set into my knuckles. Handling the tight curves involved alternately clinging to the truck with every turn to the right, and pushing hard with my legs on each to the left.
L’Hoest monkeys perched on roadside walls, watching with curiosity, and a black bird with bright red wings flapped overhead. The pungent aroma of eucalyptus gripped at my nostrils.
Soon thereafter, a lengthy convoy of stark white UN vehicles sporting insect-like antennae that swayed with each bump in the road passed by on their way to keep peace in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Despite the region’s safety, evidence of its ongoing history is never far away.
Rain began to fall.
The weather changes very quickly here, with sunny days suddenly dissipating into skies of looming cloud and rains that erase the hills –abundant greens bleeding into greys. The area accumulates approximately 2,000 millimetres of rain annually, feeding the lush vegetation that springs from every inch of soil.
And yet, when it is sunny, the skies seem to be painted over rolling hills, providing some of the most stunning vistas I have seen in the world.
Grateful for the experience, I was glad to be departing the forest as evening broke across the sky. Leaving the soldiers to their jobs, I returned to mine, helping establish the Kitabi College of Conservation and Environmental Management, which teaches environmentally sustainable uses of natural resources to alleviate poverty in the region – protecting the country in a different way from the soldiers.