HUERFANO — While attending a lecture in Denver by famous chimpanzee researcher Jane Goodall in 1991, La Veta’s Dwight Nelson spied an intriguing ad in a paper. The Dian Fossey Mountain Gorilla project was looking for a volunteer construction supervisor to oversee the rehabilitation of Fossey’s cabin, deep in the mountain jungle of Rwanda.
Fossey’s work with the mountain gorillas was beautifully documented in the book Gorillas in the Mist which was later adapted for the big screen. Her death in 1985 remains a mystery to this day, and by 1991, her original cabin had fallen into deep disrepair due to the harsh jungle conditions. Dwight Nelson answered the ad and applied for the position.
The one big stumbling block for Nelson to be accepted was a prerequisite that the candidate had to be fluent in French. Not being able to meet this condition, he agreed to pay out of his own pocket for an interpreter. Dwight was chosen to travel to Rwanda for three months of intensive construction during the summer of 1991.
Says Nelson “When I arrived at the Camp Karisoki Research Center, I found that the camp consisted of men serving in anti-poaching patrols, as trackers and as camp staff. Because no other men would venture into the forest due to the sporadic rebel incursion and the incessant gunfire, I ended up hiring the “off duty” camp staff. These workers, totally untrained, made a four-mile round trip each day for the work and extra pay.”
The next thing Nelson did was to put the word out that he was looking for an interpreter. News travelled quickly that there was a Muzungo (white man) looking for someone who could help him communicate with the workers who spoke no English. Peter, a 19 year old who was fluent in five languages, found Dwight through the jungle grapevine. Lack of funds to pay tuition had forced the young man to leave high school and seek work. Peter hiked several miles from a neighboring village to interview for the job. Desperate to attend high school, he knew that if he got the job, it would pay enough that he could return to his studies. Peter was not allowed to stay at the camp but managed to summon the fortitude to hike the four miles up and down the mountain every day.
Turning his attention towards the project, Nelson found Fossey’s cabin to be entirely beyond repair. Instead of refurbishing the cabin, the workers painstakingly dismantled the cabin, board-by-board. The salvageable lumber was reconstructed as a dormitory for the men. All other materials were carried by hand up the steep, muddy trail to the job site. To put it into perspective, imagine a building site, two miles up one of our Spanish Peaks, at 10,500 feet altitude. Now imagine carrying a 50-pound bag of cement up that incline and having to mine gravel and draw water from a mountain spring, just in order to make the concrete pilings for the building footings. Consider doing all of this in rainy jungle conditions.
A deep friendship formed between Dwight and his interpreter. By the end of that first summer, Dwight had held back all of Peter’s wages for him and was able to provide a lump sum, plus extra for expenses, enabling his young friend to continue his education.
Nelson returned to the United States and resumed his activities as a general contractor in Denver.
Memories of the extraordinary experience were documented in photographs. One photo of note was taken on an outing to track the gorillas. While 98% of his time was spent on the building site, Dwight was able to take short forays into the jungle with the research students. In the photograph we see him sitting with a 450-pound male mountain gorilla. Says Nelson “it was a once-in-a-lifetime experience”.
In 1992, Nelson was approached to revisit the jungle to supervise the building of a community center at the camp. Not feeling that he could afford to spend two summers without pay, he asked for a contract that would pay him a modest salary. In addition he asked that the organization hire and house his interpreter, Peter. Once he reached an agreement, Nelson returned that summer for round two.
At the time, Rwanda was in the midst of a civil war. To Dwight Nelson, there were no apparent distinctions between the Tutsi and Hutu men who worked side by side in seeming harmony.
At the end of the summer of 1992, Dwight said goodbye and returned to his life in the States.
By April of 1994, the civil war turned to a genocide that gripped the entire world. Peter and Dwight had lost contact with each other, but in October of 1994, a United Nations worker carried a troubling letter from Peter out of a refugee camp in the Congo and forwarded it to Dwight. Said Nelson “When I got the letter I told my wife Madi, I’m going to Africa to find Peter”.
Nelson describes what followed as “a fool’s errand, travelling to a country of 8 million people to find one peasant boy.” Undaunted, he traveled to Nairobi, checked in with the UN and began a computer search for his friend.
What ensued is a long, rich tale but the short version of the story is that Dwight Nelson was reunited with Peter who had managed to secure a job with the U.N. When they saw each other, Dwight reports, “we were dancing around like fools.”
During this visit, Peter and Dwight hiked up to Karisoke, which had been abandoned during the genocide. What they found was devastating; the camp had been entirely destroyed. All salvageable materials had been stripped from the buildings that Nelson had so carefully constructed just two and three years earlier. The frame of the dormitory had been left standing and jungle vines had all but swallowed it. Deeply disturbed by the experience of seeing the camp obliterated, Nelson chose to focus on the happy memories and the incredible relationship that was forged with his interpreter.
Next week… Part two of Dwight Nelson’s Amazing Rwandan Adventure