Truth, being limitless, unconditioned,
unapproachable by any path whatsoever,
cannot be organised; nor should
any organisation be formed to lead or coerce
people along any particular path.
Language and words are merely symbols with
which to express the truth.
But to mistake words for the truth is just as
laughable as to mistake the finger for the
We glide through the air, the fog, gazing down at the silent landscape below. Before us the crooked lips of the Virungas, volcanoes of the Rwandan jungle. These are the mountains that separate Rwanda from Uganda and Zaire, and somewhere in the mist is Karisoke, where Dian Fossey lived, worked, and died.
I flinch at the sound of the white-noise hum spewing from the engine of the jeep. I move now across the land, hoping the car doesn’t catch a grenade flung by one of the demonstrators outside. The streets of Ruhengeri are packed with them.
In this country neither birth certificates or death certificates are required if one is born or dies in the mountains. Nobody really knows the true population here, although they estimate it to be around 5.9 million.
I move through the jungle, into the mist. I feel the leaves crunching beneath my boots as I step over generations of compost. Overhead is the sky, sliced into slivers by the abstracted fingers of the canopy. I swat a mosquito. Scratch at the bite. Take one last look behind me, and disappear.
In the thick white evaporation I feel myself clear, a transparency of the man I was. Here, I know, all will bleed. Truth into fiction, fact into lie, man into animal. Woman into myth. I hear a deep rumbling unearthing from the unseen nothing. My heart stops, and for a moment of forgetting, I lose myself in this universe, this abstract diffusion of all I had known, of all I had hoped to learn.
Here, at last, I am free.
Wayne McGuire slipped among the foliage, wiped his sweaty forehead and replaced his bandana. He wielded in his hand a panga, a sort of machete, hooked slightly with a sharp scimitar-like tip. Its handle is small, held in one hand, and it is whipped down, curved side forward, as though a butcher’s knife, with the characteristic effect of spraying blood everywhere. When used as a tool, the thing is turned around, so that the blade is now curved away from the user. This allows the tip of the knife to become essentially a carving device, used for puncturing, sometimes rough slicing. With this in his hand, Wayne stepped from the treeline and walked silently to the front steps of Dian’s cabin. His feet made no sound as he hopped to the door. Knock. Nothing. Knock. Wayne looked to his watch. It wasn’t there. He craned his head to the sky. Maybe 1 a.m. Maybe later. The branches of the Hagenia trees swayed gently in the cool night air. A soothing hum rose up from the ocean of green, deep green, scent of wet soil. Breathe in, Wayne held his breath. Moved slowly to the side of the cabin, here he stepped on a small branch, crack. Swung his head around, no one there. He put the tip of the panga to the steel wall, pressed in, pulled down. A subtle screech squeezed from the sexual interplay of blade and steel. In and out, thrust and pull, a rhythm emerged. Four sides cut, the wall fell out in Wayne’s hands. He slipped into the cabin, stood, moved to the desk, began to sift through the pages. He would find her notes, the newest documents would secure his own thesis a place in the canon of primatology. A voice from behind him: what are you doing? One action, swift, he spun around, raised his arm into the air, and brought it down with full force on Dian’s head. Her skull cracked, she reeled. He brought it back, down again. Her face split. She fell forward, grabbed her killer by the shoulders. He pushed her away, she collapsed backward, pulling with her two fistfuls of his hair, crashed to the floor. Hazy eyes made out the pistol under the bed, inched toward it, and went black. I saw Wayne running out of the cabin. I killed her! I’ve killed her! he kept screaming, ripping out clumps of his hair and wiping them across his face. There aren’t enough of you here. There aren’t enough people, not enough time. We kiss the sleeping pools of fire, enter them, rock with the motion of the sea, tip as though ships in some seismic upheaval. Over land there is water. All the globe is solid. Somewhere, down in the abyss, is a bottom. And there creatures can walk. In the deep end of the world, a blind white crab a Caesar in his dark, watery Rome. Here an orange sun rises over a teeming green cloud, peaks of leaves peering through the fog. It rolls over us like a wave, catches us in its undertow. We are there still.
Whinny was followed by a bright-eyed, inquisitive ball of fluff who came to be known as Digit because of a twisted middle finger that appeared once to have been broken. The close facial resemblances and the youngster’s strong dependency on Group 4’s dominant silverback led me to believe that Digit was Whinny’s son. Digit associated with none of the four adult females within the group and it seemed likely that his mother had died before I met the group in September 1967. (Fossey, 167-68)
Dian crouched in the brush, eyed the group with a broad smile on her face.
Digit mounted Simba, his knuckles to the sunken topsoil, a sticky humidity clinging Dian’s shirt to her chest. She tugged at it, put pen to paper, and laughed at the image of Simba’s bland face pulsing at the pumping of Digit’s comically serious, puckered lips. Dian’s research methods had their critics, among them Sandy Harcourt, one of her assistants in Karisoke — many accused her of anthropomorphism, unwittingly assigning human characteristics to the animals she studied. She wiped her hand across her mouth. These gorillas, her children, had become tourist attractions, Digit’s face adorning posters across the world captioned COME TO MEET HIM IN RWANDA. She laughed again, this time sadly.
She loved the man so much. And so interconnected was he to Digit that in some way perhaps she was projecting her love for him onto her furry friend. She closed her eyes. His face appeared to her, so sweet, she sighed. On the wall of her cabin she kept pinned many of the photographs he had taken of her first prolonged interaction with Digit. The next day he would return to America, to National Geographic. To a country at peace, to a byline reading BOB CAMPBELL. He was an artist, in that post-impressionist sense of possessing a direct tie to the foreign, to the strange and exotic. To Americans he lived a life of adventure, of visits to faraway lands, and meetings with amazing, important people. People like her. She opened her eyes. The fog was rolling in, its skin folding under itself to attempt the capsize of some unseen craft, which it passed through and left untouched. Its ghostly breath lingering in the shivering atmosphere.
It was Ian who found Digit’s mutilated corpse lying in the corner of a blood-soaked area of flattened vegetation. Digit’s head and hands had been hacked off; his body bore multiple spear wounds. Ian and Nemeye left the corpse to search for me and Kanyaragana, patrolling in another section. They wanted to tell us of the catastrophe so that I would not discover Digit’s body myself.
There are times when one cannot accept facts for fear of shattering one’s being. As I listened to Ian’s news all of Digit’s life, since my first meeting with him as a playful little ball of black fluff ten years earlier, passed through my mind. From that moment on, I came to live within an insulated part of myself.
Digit, long vital to his group as a sentry, was killed in this service by poachers on December 31, 1977. That day Digit took five mortal spear wounds into his body, held off six poachers and their dogs in order to allow his family members, including his mate Simba and their unborn infant, to flee to the safety of Visoke’s slopes. Digit’s last battle had been a lonely and courageous one. During his valiant struggle he managed to kill one of the poacher’s dogs before dying. I have tried not to allow myself to think of Digit’s anguish, pain, and the total comprehension he must have suffered in knowing what humans were doing to him. (Fossey, 206)
Humans, clearly, must possess some highest level of sentience, otherwise we would not be reigning as kings over the Earth, let alone attempting the quantification of sentience. Yet we must admit to the intelligence, at least, of other species, such as whales, elephants, and gorillas. And if Descartes was right to say that the mind and soul are one and the same then we must allow for at least a soul within these intelligent beasts. Elephants, it is said, will journey for hundreds of miles to arrive at the exact spot where a family member was killed, where they will proceed to mourn. Elephants, in fact, bury their dead. And dolphins, and whales… entire symphonies composed in clicking unheard by human ears beneath the surface of the sea. Is it empathy we see in the eyes of our dogs, or merely the assigning of the human idea of empathy to that hungry expression? Surely the sentience of an adult gorilla is equal to that of, perhaps, a young human, a child maybe? It is said the awareness of a dog is roughly equivalent to that of a two-year old. And yet what do you remember from your first two years of life? If nothing, then were you even aware? Is not awareness — sentience — defined by the memory of things? As though light from a star, in the time it takes for an event or image to reach your eyes and be processed by your brain, it has already happened. Never in your life will you see the present. Doomed are we to forever live in the past.
In the jungle, there are a million places to hide the truth. In the past, poachers would kill gorillas for use in ritualistic black magic called sumu. This practice had faded over the years, becoming more a fear within the hearts of this cowardly lot. Now they would poach gorillas for the marketability of their skulls, heads and hands, trophies in the homes of the elite. Zoos paid up to $20,000 for a live adult male gorilla, one still capable of reproducing. There was money to made, and murder was a profitable venture.
There are dozens of inconsistencies in the facts regarding Fossey’s case. Little things, like how long after finally receiving a two-year visa to stay in Rwanda was she killed. Some sources say three weeks, others ten days. The man accused of killing her, Wayne McGuire, had somehow escaped Rwanda and made it back to the United States. He was tried in absentia and sentenced to death, some sources say by hanging, others by firing squad. There is even the question of her gravestone, which was engraved, at her own request, with the native word NYIRMACHABELLI. The Banyarwanda, as the natives are called, believed this word to mean “the woman who lives alone on the mountain.” But Nicholas Gordon, author of the book Murders in the Mist says the word actually means “the small woman who moves fast,” and that it was even misspelled, the sound Italianised as a result. In fact the word, he says, should read NYARAMICIBILI.
When McGuire was accused of the crime,
the tracker Emmanuel Rwelekana, also an assistant to Fossey, was arrested and charged with being his accomplice. At the same time five (or four?) other trackers were arrested and placed in the prison at Ruhengeri beside Rwelekana. They were left uncharged. Nobody really believes Wayne McGuire could have been the killer. His alleged motive, the theft of research papers which would help me finish his own thesis, a Ph.D. dissertation about male parental care in the mountain gorilla community, does not hold water. Fossey did not have any such miracle papers. In addition, McGuire was one of the few student research assistants who had learned to live with Fossey’s night-and-day mood swings. One Christmas he attempted to open up to Fossey upon seeing she had a Christmas tree: “Oh, you’ve got a Christmas tree, how nice.” “McGuire,” she responded, “why don’t you get out of my life?”
According to Harold Hayes, author of The Dark Romance of Dian Fossey, a hole had allegedly been cut in the side of the cabin, but no photographs of the cabin show this hole anywhere. If McGuire had been the killer, why would he have entered through a hole in the side wall rather than through the front door? Photographs do show a slight space between the roof and the wall, suggesting someone might have entered through the roof. But again, why not through the front door? On more than one occasion Fossey captured poachers and tortured them. She did, in fact, take hostage a man who, under torture, admitted to having killed Digit, and named his accomplices. At one point she caught a poacher who, having been born in the mountains, did not have an ID. You have no ID, she said. No one would know if you disappeared. I could kill you and no one would know. I’m going to kill you. She threw a rope over a beam, tied the end into a noose, put it around the man’s neck, and pulled. It was Sandy Harcourt who made her stop.
The movie hints at these aspects of her character but tries to soften them; it strives to make Fossey -- and her rage -- more palatable. Basically, the filmmakers can't deal with her craziness, so they justify it by showing her campaign against poachers, burning down their huts and threatening to hang a captured poacher. Granted, all this seems extreme, but given the provocations -- they had slaughtered Digit, her favorite gorilla, cutting off his head and hands for trophies -- it also seems understandable, and far from mad. Whipping the testicles of a captive with stinging nettles -- as she is reported to have done -- is mad and, by leaving out such details the filmmakers have done more than sanitize Fossey's life, they've deprived it of any meaning.
— from a review of the film Gorillas in the Mist by Hal Hinson, Washington Post Staff Writer, September 23, 1988
Dian was a liability. Her actions posed a serious threat not only to the lives of natives, but they were increasingly working also to endanger the gorillas she so dearly loved. She was a racist who consistently treated the natives like imbeciles. Her rants would often become so violent and frightening that the trackers and other Africans on site would drop things, run and hide in terror. Depending on the source, she was either a raging bitch or a sweet, good natured, feminine, hostess. Friends such as Betty Crigler, wife to Frank Crigler, the then U.S. Ambassador to Rwanda, describe Dian’s affinity for making herself up. She was very into looking good, she suggests. Manicures and so on, but the harsh elements of the Virungas had left her skin rough and her complexion blotchy. In a 1992 interview with Nick Gordon, Dian’s most loyal lieutenant at Karisoke, Alphonse Nemeye, said that he saw her body in the cabin. There was no blood on the walls, as she had not been killed with a panga. She had been murdered with a hammer. And the killer had slit her mouth, on either side across her face. The prefect, Protais Zed, had come to Karisoke following the murder. Protais is the name of a Greek God. His power is the ability to transform, to take on the shape of any man or animal. He is a shapechanger, a man of a thousand faces.
You are Dian Fossey. In November of 1985 you have captured a man named Sebahutu, an “oldtimer” who is carrying on his person a letter between him and a dealer in Walikale describing, in detail, appointment dates for deliveries of smuggled gold. On him you also find several packets of dead skin and vegetation, items used in sumu rituals. You confiscate the sumu and have the man arrested, but Nemeye tells you the man will be out of jail in no time. He’d been caught before. And he will be in jail when you die.
Dian was a liability. Not only was she endangering the lives of those around her, but she was directly interfering with the commerce, albeit illegal, of Rwanda. Gold trafficking? It was just one aspect. Gorilla trafficking… that was where the money was. Gradually she was learning about the operations, and her knowledge was scaring those who had a great deal to lose by her knowing. When Rwelekana was being held in Ruhengeri, his cellmate was a man named Boniface.
Between Rwanda, Zaire, and Uganda runs a tremendous stretch of mostly dormant volcanic mountains, the Virungas. There your lungs breathe condensed equatorial air, simultaneously warm and cold, creating an almost perpetual drape of mist and rain over the Karisoke Centre for Mountain Gorilla Research. Climbing to Karisoke, your “boots get stuck in the sticky, muddy cottonsoil so badly that your feet pop right out of them.” (Hayes, 15) The air is biting cold, and yet you sweat out of the sheer work it takes to climb, the energy required to force your body up the mountain at an elevation of ten thousand feet. The volcanoes themselves form the far western edge of the Great Rift Valley, the meeting point of the continental divide. Water flows off them to the east and joins the Nile, to the west the Congo. I am a pearl, a lost stone pinned within the flowing current of the river. Wash me clean, baptize me. Free me from original sin. The seagulls fly overhead, the gentle moaning of the clouds moving across the sky. What is moving, them or me? I lose hold of the masthead and fall, soaring into the dazzling void as though a small bug blown off the stark white pages of an open book, into oblivion.
Frank Crigler was the U.S. Ambassador to Rwanda, and even he could not easily manage to obtain for Dian a long term visa. And so, every two or three months, she would have to come down from the mountain, arrange for a vehicle to pick her up and take her on the two-hour ride to Ruhengeri, where she would jump into another taxi filled with Banyarwanda, which would take her Kigali, the country’s capital. When she arrived in Kigali she would have to spend two or three days trying to get a letter from the Director of Tourism to take to the immigration office. Finally she would have in her hands another two-month visa. The government wanted to keep Dian on a short lead, and this process went on.
And then there is the story of H. M. Stanley, the great explorer who conquered the Virungas but never crossed into Rwanda, contenting himself with “campfire stories of the snake-tongued Arab merchant Hamid Ibrahim with his florid tales of dwarfs with ears that touched the ground.” (Gordon, 244)
And then there is the story of the pale-skinned Empress, the mythical ruler of Rwanda in the late nineteeth century, who “ruled with the lustre of her eyes, the softness of her voice, and the sharpness of poison. Her weapons were sexuality and her willingness to use witchcraft, or sumu, against her enemies and those who thought they were her friends.” (Gordon, 15)
And then there is the story of Dian Fossey, the tall, pale-skinned woman of the mountain gorillas, who ruled with an iron fist over her territory and reacted violently to the work of poachers. She and her colleagues would comb the jungle, collecting snares and traps, ensuring that no animals would fall victim to them. And then when she caught poachers, she would pistol-whip them. And, according to Betty Crigler, she had been known to use sumu on them.
The government had heard about these actions and were upset. One way to keep tabs on her was to keep her leashed in by short-term visas when they knew she was there on a long-term project.
Said one Rwandan hand in the School of African and Oriental Studies Library: “Pangas. They don’t kill with pangas in Rwanda… [they kill] with poison, or sumu.” (Gordon, 16)
Zed. The prefect when Dian Fossey was alive. He is capable of making people, and destroying them. Enno, German journalist: “It was common knowledge… that the prefect was engaged in trafficking… gorillas. And Indian hemp.” (Gordon, 152) He and his sister were the leaders of a gorilla trafficking operation, smuggling gorillas into Rwanda. They would pay well the trackers or poachers who captured the animals and brought them in. “These storms that surround me are built out of nothing,” he would say. “It is a paradox.” (Gordon 201) His moustache, small and black, a lá Hitler, sits on his upper lip and curves back on itself as he smiles broadly to engulf a large piece of fried chicken. “My prefecture was one of the successes of the country.” (202) “Do you think she was killed by blows from a panga?” asks Nick Gordon. “I think several pangas killed her.” “What I can assure you is that Dian fought for her life. Captain Karangwa saw hairs in her hand… We believed that she had taken her own hair from her head when she was hit. But we took samples of this, and we proved the hair to be from another white person.” (205) He pushed her away, she collapsed backward, pulling with her two fistfuls of his hair, crashed to the floor. A deep red hue ran from his bloodshot eyes, a waterfall, an avalanche. Are you one of us? Do you belong here? Zed stood and walked away. A choir of voices filled my head, an angelic vocal orchestra bleeding their souls to the seraphim of the infinite. Emmanuel Rwelekana sat in his jail cell, looking up through the silhouetted slits of sunlight slicing through the cement wall. The steel door swung open, and a backlit figure stood against the blazing white light. Haguma. He stepped in, unclenched his fist, and out dropped a hammer. Rwelekana was found dead in his cell the next day, apparently having hanged himself with his shirt. Near the end of 1984, Dian met with the President, Général-Major Juvénal Habyarimana, who took office in a coup some thirteen years earlier. She complained to him that security in the Karisoke area was terrible. She told him about the drastic rise in poaching, about the gorilla trafficking operation, and the President assured her she had nothing to worry about. He would raise the question of security with the prefect of Ruhengeri. Zed.
THIS IS THE MAN WHO KILLED
Her career prior to Karisoke had been dedicated to working with crippled children. Dian had been a physical therapist, and in her soul rested a gentle spirit, an empathy for helpless things. Abandoned pets. It was Bob’s gentleness that touched her. He reached out for her. She cringed, covered her flat chest. He embraced her, pulled her close to him. She closed her eyes, let out a deep sigh, and had the abortion. February 1978, researchers Amy Vedder and Bill Weber travel to Zaire to retrieve a baby gorilla held by park officials. When the baby is taken back to Karisoke, Dian does not want to get involved, perhaps she doesn’t want to risk attachment to another gorilla that will most likely die. She gives specific instructions to the researchers, but for her part stays away. Under the watch of Vedder and Weber the baby seems to be getting healthier. One night Dian, very drunk, arrives to check in on them.
They weren’t feeding the gorilla right, she accused them—she would show them how it should be done. Swaying on her feet, barely able to stand, she insisted, despite outcries from the others, on pouring liquid medicine down the gorilla’s throat. The animal began to choke. When it passed out, Vedder and Weber managed to revive it, but too much liquid had got into the infant’s lungs. It died shortly thereafter. (Hayes, 302)
The silverback and the female charged at her. She screamed at them. They kept coming. She dove into the blackberry thrushes, and the two tank engines roared past. She felt the wind shift. Thunderclap. The sky fell.
December 27, 1985. I moved quietly through the trees, emerged and leapt to the front step of her hut. The moon shone down, diffused by a translucent mist that hung above the earth. I turned the doorknob, walked in. She reacted immediately to my presence, crashed to the floor from her bed. I pulled the cable wire from my coat, wrapped it around her neck. Pulled. She fumbled with her oily fingers at a gun in her hands, twitching and slipping as she tried to fit the magazine inside. It was the wrong ammunition, and as I strangled her both the weapon and the ammo fell to the floor with a CLACK, sending the giant rats below the floorboards scurrying into the night. Her eyes went black, her hands moved to her head, ripped out fistfuls of hair. I let go. Moved to the door. She reached for my leg. My hand went for the wall, pulled down one of the decorative pangas and slashed down at her face. Her neck split in two, again I hacked into her, cracked open her face. White bone peeked through for a moment before being swallowed up by blood. I dropped the blade, moved for the door, stopped in my tracks. Took two steps back, moved past the mirror, glanced in, locked eyes with the stranger staring back. I jumped on the bed, pushed up on the light roof, and flung myself over the side. Landed on the soft soil, and bolted for the treeline, vanished in the fog, and made my way back to camp, where there waited the freshly cut hands and head of a Gorilla gorilla beringei.
When Dian Fossey was buried, her coffin size was wrongly measured, because of the fact that she was measured without allowing for rigor mortis to set in. In the end a six foot coffin was not enough, and the box needed to be taken apart and remade before she could be buried.
February 1993. Nick Gordon is pacing in his hotel room in Kigali. There is a knock on the door. It is his translator, Albert, and with him is a man who needs no identification or introduction. It is Boniface, the last survivor of the Ruhengeri prison and the man who was Rwelekana’s cellmate. Boniface had been a spy for the Rwandan secret police before the entire intelligence operation mounted in Burundi ended in disaster. He had been blamed, and so he avoided returning to Kigali for fear of interrogation. He returned in March 1986 to bury his father, and while there was placed in a Kigali prison before being transferred to Ruhengeri. For eighteen days he was Rwelekana’s cellmate. And for eighteen days he was kept informed of what the prison officials, led by Sukiranya, said to Rwelekana. They would take him out in the day, question him, try to convince him to sign a false deposition. they wanted him to say that Wayne McGuire killed Dian. He wouldn’t do it. Meanwhile four other men had been arrested from the Karisoke camp and place in Ruhengeri prison. Two civilians. Two ex-military. Their names were never learned, but they were taken from their cells by Sukiranya, taken to another cell in the charge of “an adjutant whose name was Gakuba. They were brought into this cell and beaten to death by Gakuba.” (Gordon, 251) He executed them in front of Sukiranya with a hammer, the bodies then taken back to their cells, and from there to burial. “Those four people,” says Boniface, “The ones who killed Dian. they were working for Agathe.” (251) Agathe. The wife of President Habyarimana. The sister of Protais Zed. “Dian was killed because she knew about Zed and his sister’s gorilla business?” asks Gordon. “Yes,” replies Boniface. “Agathe considered that Dian was working against her interests.” “What interests?” “Gorilla trafficking, smuggling, tourism.” What Dian hadn’t known, however, was that the President not only knew about the operation, but was involved in it. And so she went to meet with him. She complained to him that security in the Karisoke area was terrible. She told him about the drastic rise in poaching, about the gorilla trafficking operation, and the President assured her she had nothing to worry about. He would raise the question of security with the prefect of Ruhengeri. Zed. And so from there the President met with Zed and Agathe to discuss what should be done. They decided to have her killed.
The silent fog is moving in now, rolling over and under itself, dancing in the jungle as though some glorious composition in plant and water. Here Dian Fossey returned in June 1983, after nearly five years of exile at Cornell. Up the mountain she climbed, pulling with her an oxygen booster. Her three-pack-a-day habit had not been kind to her lungs. Her frequent bouts of pneumonia had only made her weaker. Insomnia and alcohol had made her a physical shell of a woman. And yet as she stepped out of the foliage, from the flora surrounding her emerged the gorillas. They “approached her without hesitation, touching her, cuddling her.” (Hayes, 317) A chill ran up Dian’s spine as a gentle smile came to her face. Her heart swelled, tears filled her eyes, and she looked up to the sky. From the diffused light of the sun outstretched a black hand, one finger twisted. Dian took a deep breath, reached up to the heavens, and laid her hand delicately in his.
The white clouds passed over them, and the two vanished, swallowed by the void, at last free here in the jungle, high in the mountains, somewhere in the mist.
Sources Cited / Consulted
Fossey, Dian. Gorillas in the Mist. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1983.
Gordon, Nicholas. Murders in the Mist: Who Killed Dian Fossey? Great Britain: Hodder and Stoughton, 1993.
Hayes, Harold T. P. The Dark Romance of Dian Fossey. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1990.
Shoumatoff, Alex. African Madness. New York: Alfred A Knopf, Inc., 1988.