|Photo courtesy of Lori Peacock|
|Lori Peacock at a school ceremony in Rwanda.|
Barbara Peacock went to Africa to mingle with gorillas, but a visit to a Rwandan school changed the Canal Winchester resident into an international ambassador promoting cross-cultural exchange and education.
Peacock and her daughter, Lori, discussed the work of Diane Fossey for many years before deciding to make the trek in February. Their journey took them across the plains of Africa to the mountains of Rwanda where they traveled on foot on the trail of a gorilla family group discovered by Fossey.
Along the way, the pair of central Ohioans stayed in lodgings made famous by the film Hotel Rwanda and visited several schools in Rwanda and southern Uganda.
In the wild
"As a child, I was fascinated by the gorillas," said Peacock. "They interact in family groups and their children interact like our children do. Lori and I discussed this on and off and in November of last year, she called and said we were going to Africa.
"Our goal was to go to the Virunga Conservation Area and the Volcanoes National Park to track gorillas. Each gorilla group was named by Diane Fossey and we were going to see Group 13. A new baby gorilla was just born and if we were lucky enough to find the group, hopefully we could see the baby."
The two women were transported from their hotel, the Milles Collines, to the outpost where they stayed before journeying into the interior of the park. Although there was no electricity and hot water for their showers came out of a bag hung above them, they dined on cuisine prepared by a French chef.
A walk across flatlands paved the way for an hours-long hike up the mountains into territory inhabited by gorillas. Their guide spoke English and French and the small party, including a doctor and his family from Indiana, were preceded by scouts and accompanied by AK-47 wielding soldiers intent on protecting the group from animals who might attack.
"It took us two-and-a-half to three hours going straight up the mountain," recalled Peacock. "We climbed up a sheer rock face and we had to lay down flat at the top so they could pull us up. We could tell from the chatter on the radio we were following the gorillas’ path. All of a sudden our guide stopped and there they were.
"The gorillas were so close. We watched them and when they moved, they moved quickly. There were 21 of them and the silverback was huge. A teenage gorilla was in a tree above us and had the biggest grin on his face when a big branch came down right next to us. He probably noticed my hair and thought I was the silverback and decided to play around. There were a couple of babies and two young ones played a game of tag.
"To me, it was overwhelming and everybody was mesmerized by what they saw. We were with them for about an hour. These gorillas have known people all their lives, so I wasn’t that scared, but it was very difficult to leave and when we did, everyone was so quiet because we were so amazed by what we saw."
Helping the schools
In Uganda, the women took a 10-mile trek around a village, stopping to watch farming operations and talking with villagers. They also visited another school. Peacock said it was evident who was more prosperous if their home had a tin roof.
Prior to their trip, Peacock’s daughter met Rwandan native Damien Nkurunziza and established a pen pal program between Great Western Academy in Columbus and the Rubirizi Primary School in Rwanda. The Peacocks visited the school and others like it during their 11-day stay in Africa.
"It was amazing what these children told each other in their letters," continued Barbara. "We met the headmistress and Damien was our translator, but what we didn’t know was the school planned a "Lori Peacock Day" where all of the students came outside, stood in a semi-circle, asked questions, and presented Lori with a beautiful plaque made of copper with a scene of the five major large animals in Africa.
"We had tears just rolling down our cheeks. Their playground is a dirt field, there are no doors on the school, and the typical classroom consists of hand carved tables and benches, and a wall of blackboard and chalk. Paper is only brought out on special occasions, like to write to their pen pals in America."
The average income in Rwanda is 55 cents a day and $1.08 in Uganda. According to Peacock, although schools are funded by the state, only children who can afford the $40 fee for uniforms and supplies can obtain free education.
Following their visit, the pair left money to fund three scholarships for students wanting to attend the Rubirizi school.
When the Peacocks returned to Ohio, they decided to create a non-profit foundation to help the primary school and established Nziza, Inc. and the nziza.org Web site to help fund and coordinate projects for people in Rwanda and Uganda. One hundred percent of every dollar donated is used for projects in Africa.
The goals of Nziza are to promote cross-cultural exchanges between students in the United States and their Rwandan and Ugandan counterparts, support educational and vocational projects for women and children, and improve schools and educational resources for children.
"We want to help women and children and educational efforts," said Peacock. "So many men were killed during the genocide, so there are many women who are head of households. The country has seen much rebuilding and tourism is their number one industry, but there is still much to do.
"We have the pen pal program and are building a playground at Rubirizi. This will help keep the boys in school and give them something to keep them interested in their education. We also have projects in the planning stages for handicapped children. Every dollar goes a long way because the people there are very efficient."