Caring for the local community during the COVID-19 pandemic comes naturally to Wilderness Safaris Bisate Lodge, perched on an eroded volcano near Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Park (VNP) and in the midst of five communities collectively known as Bisate village. Recently listed in Travel + Leisure’s ‘Top 100 Hotels in the World’, the lodge is a pioneering reforestation and conservation model, as well as a prime example of ecotourism that looks after and empowers local people.
By late July, Wilderness Safaris will have made four deliveries totalling 14 tons of dried beans, maize, and soap, helping roughly 2 400 people in five villages: Nyarusizi, Ruginga, Myase, Gahura, and Nyondo. Donations towards these food parcels so far amount to USD9 000, and have come from past Bisate Lodge guests, who have also supported other community projects and the lodge’s visionary reforestation initiative reintroducing thousands of indigenous trees to the area.
‘We have a strong relationship with the Bisate community’, says Wilderness Safaris Rwanda Operations Manager Ingrid Baas. ‘If you stay at Bisate Lodge, your view will be of the villages. We see and speak to the villagers every single day.
‘Since the end of 2016 when we started building Bisate Lodge’, she continues, ‘all the families in the villages got to know us, and we them. Two hundred and fifty people from the villages helped build the lodge, and 60 percent of the current lodge staff come from those villages – they’ve still been on salary during lockdown. We don’t know how to operate Bisate Lodge without the community’.
Rwanda went into strict lockdown on 21 March, meaning that tourism virtually came to a halt. Domestic tourism has recently, slowly started up again – Rwandans are getting a huge temporary discount on the $1 500 gorilla trek permit in the VNP – but international tourism will resume only when the national airport re-opens to commercial flights on 1 August.
‘So with our not having guests since March’, Ingrid says, ‘many villagers who rely on the tourist trade have lost work. Like the ones providing arts and crafts or vegetables for us, or sewing for the lodge’.
Luckily, lockdown has ended and to date, Bisate village has reported zero cases of COVID-19. With the loss of income, however, local villagers have gratefully received Wilderness Safaris’ 30-kg food (and other essentials) parcels to supplement their very basic diet. Ingrid describes the process: how the goods are delivered to Bisate Primary School, then sorted and packed by Wilderness Safaris staff in small, medium, and large parcels according to recipient family size. Recipients are determined by village leaders, who supply Wilderness Safaris with a list of their names, ID numbers, village, and number of family members.
It seems to run smoothly. ‘We never have a situation of someone saying “why are they getting the food and not us?”’, Ingrid says. ‘They have weekly community meetings where they discuss who is going to get the food.
‘People come to collect the parcels, one person from each family, with their village leader. Each village has a different time to come, so that we maintain social distancing. We’ve not been allowed to have more than 30 people gathered at one time. They collect the food and carry it back on their heads, in those flour sacks – for some it’s an hour’s walk each way’.
With the tourism industry hopefully cranking up again in August, Ingrid says that it’s unclear whether Wilderness Safaris will continue the food handovers in the Bisate village region.
‘We don’t want to do it forever, to make people dependent’, she says. ‘In Rwanda, people live off the land. They live a simple, generally healthy, life. Most are vegetarians, and they walk a lot. They grow their own food [potato fields are ubiquitous]. They don’t expect us to give them products like tea, coffee, sugar, cooking oil. We didn’t want to give them products they don’t usually have.
‘When the airport opens for commercial flights on 1st August, tourism might be opening a bit’, she adds. ‘And this area, with the gorillas, will start benefiting first from the re-opening. So we might look at helping in other areas that won’t benefit as much – in Akagera National Park, where Wilderness Safaris has Magashi camp, and in the Gishwati area where we have leased a concession’.
Whatever happens, residents of Bisate village have been deeply touched by the food parcel donations – and remain grateful for Wilderness Safaris’ past and ongoing community upliftment projects: among others, a water-harvesting project providing clean drinking water for 5 000 people; a ‘beehive project’ allowing villagers to put their hives on Bisate Lodge’s property and sell their honey to the lodge; community-based medical insurance for 244 villagers; and various projects at Bisate Primary School, including assistance with installing Internet, a solar installation, and supplying water tanks and sanitation for the school’s re-opening in September.
Aline Umutoni, Wilderness Safaris Rwanda’s Children in the Wilderness and Community Coordinator, helped with the food parcel deliveries over the last four months and recently spoke to several villagers on the subject.
‘We were about to die hungry!’ said Leocadie Nyirambonera, a 40 year-old widow and mother of three in Myase village. ‘From the deepest bottom of my heart, I thank a lot Wildernesses Safaris to have thought of us who are vulnerable of COVID-19. May God strengthen you and your plan to Bisate village and pay back the generous heart showing. Long live Bisate Lodge!’
‘She bowed!’ Aline reports. ‘And bowed again!’
Aline talks of two Nyarusizi villagers, a mother of six who despaired of having ‘no money, no food, no life’ at the start of lockdown, till Wilderness Safaris’ food deliveries, and an 80 year-old grandfather, no longer cultivating, supremely grateful for the food parcels, and forthright: ‘Anything Bisate Lodge/Wilderness Safaris is able to do for the Bisate community, please keep on doing it’.
‘The good way Bisate Lodge is working together with the local government and the community, most people notice that it’s not only doing a business but most important it’s improving the lives of human beings’, says Aline, a familiar, beloved face in Bisate village. ‘I can say that always Bisate Lodge thinks about people more than money, which makes it very special itself and also to the Bisate community’.
Innocent Nshimiyimana, Bisate Lodge’s chef, who also assisted with the food deliveries, recalls the experience, particularly people’s songs of praise. ‘On the days of food relief, everyone concerned with this programme was covered with a protective mask, but showing a big smile of hope of life from the eyes!’ he says. ‘The villagers were always very happy to receive donations, as some of them had nothing left in their food store. They all sang the same song: “Long live Bisate Lodge! We can’t find words to draw our feelings…only God will pay back your genuine heart of helping you keep showing us…”’.
By Melissa Siebert
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~ Wilderness Safaris COVID Relief ~
The impact of COVID-19 in Africa has been profound – particularly on wildlife conservation and rural communities dependent on tourism. Please join us to support our Conservation Heroes. Together we are stronger, and together, we can continue to change lives. It only costs USD50 to feed a family for a month. Or USD5 000 to cover the monthly operations of an anti-poaching team. Every single contribution, no matter how big or small, makes a significant difference.
To learn more about Wilderness Safaris COVID relief efforts, click here