A LIFELONG DREAM COME TRUE FOR SHAWNA
Perched on a freshly cleared pile of vines on the side of a mountain in Uganda, I peered down into a small hollow and made my first eye contact with the Mountain Gorilla. At 35 years of age, she was the oldest female in the family group, and was feeding a short distance away from the rest of her family. Her face was soft and gentle, and her eyes seemed to reveal a cautious tolerance of our presence. She ate slowly, clearly choosing her favorites and seeming to savor each bite of vine, leaf, or twig. Occasionally she spit out a small lump of chewed plant matter, having been unsatisfied with some aspect of the bite. Looking into her eyes, I felt that she was wise, and had a sense that she had lived through many difficult and beautiful moments in her 35 years of life in the jungle.
Covered in sweat, dirt, and bugs, I should have been exhausted. The 7.5-mile trek to find this family group of gorillas was strenuous, taking us over extremely rugged terrain and across several rivers and small streams. The only trail was the small path of broken branches left by the gorillas as they moved through the forest. We climbed to altitudes of around 7,000 feet over steep and slippery inclines, and then descended down a mountainside thickly overgrown with thorny vines. We found the gorillas at the bottom of a ravine, near the river. I’m sure in that moment my body was fatigued, but I didn’t feel it. Gazing at that beautiful gorilla was life changing in an indescribable way. My world shifted in that moment, and I will never be quite the same.
I don’t exactly remember what started my obsession with Mountain Gorillas. I know that when I was in the third grade I found the book Gorillas in the Mist in the adult section of the library and asked my mother if I could read it. I know that shortly after reading it, I watched the movie based off of the book, where Sigourney Weaver portrayed Dian Fossey’s adventures in the jungles of Rwanda. And I know that since that time I have felt, deep in my heart, that I needed to go to Africa and see the Mountain Gorillas for myself. My childhood years were spent reading about primates of all kinds, and Africa, and what it takes to survive in the jungle. I had posters of gorillas and chimpanzees on my wall, and I slept with a stuffed orangutan in my bed at night. I wanted to grow up to be a researcher, go to Africa, live in the jungle, and save the Mountain Gorillas.
As childhood dreams often do, the desire to become a researcher in the jungle faded through my teen years. I lost touch with the young girl who was hungry for adventure, and started to try to and fit myself into a path that felt more attainable. I struggled, as many young girls do, to gain approval and validation from outside sources. As I moved through my teens and twenties, I lost myself, and my dreams, in the confusion of trying to find something to do with my life that felt “right”.
But always in the back of my mind would be the dream of seeing the gorillas. It would come up casually in conversation – someone would mention Africa, or primates, or share about their own childhood fantasies, and I would reply “I used to be obsessed with going to Africa and seeing the Mountain Gorillas”. I would share a bit about my childhood dream, and then things would move on, and that would be that.
Sometimes in life the universe connects you with someone who raises you up and changes you in ways you never thought possible. In my 20’s, I met an amazing woman named Erin. We met at work, and I eventually learned that she had travelled to Africa on several occasions and had even been to see the mountain gorillas! Throughout our friendship, she shared a love of animals, philanthropy, conservation, and travel that inspired me to believe that my childhood dreams could be realized. Erin would often tell me that someday we would go to Africa together, and although I was hopeful and excited by the prospect, the reality of such a trip seemed out of reach.
A few months before my 35th birthday, Erin told me that she was planning a trip to Uganda, to include a trek to see the Mountain Gorillas. She asked if I was interested in getting more information about the trip, and she put me in contact with Priscilla and Pam at Global Sojourns. The preliminary itinerary they sent was something out of a dream. Chimpanzee trekking, game viewing, and finally trekking in Bwindi Impenetrable Forrest to see the Mountain Gorillas, all while staying at beautiful lodges throughout Uganda. I remember reading the itinerary and thinking “This is my chance…”
The universe works in beautiful ways, and my excitement around the possibility of this trip was quickly dampened by the realities of my life at that time. I was in a failing marriage with someone who was unable to understand my desire to take a trip of this type. I was lost in the responsibilities of being a good wife and stepmother, and had forgotten how to take care of the quiet but important needs of my own heart. I battled depression and anxiety, finances were tight, and for a time I did not believe that I deserved to do something for myself of this magnitude. I was caught between meeting the needs of others, and meeting a deep, deep need of my own.
The turning point came during a phone call to my mother when I first told her about the trip. I explained the itinerary, the permit and trip costs, and my desire to go on this adventure, as well as my worries and fears. My wonderful mother said, “You MUST go. This is your dream”. So, with a little help from my parents and unfailing support from Erin, I emailed Global Sojourns and committed to the trip.
And now I write this while sitting in the Entebbe airport, waiting for my flight back to San Francisco. The last two weeks have been incredible. My world is bigger. My heart is more open than ever before, and my soul is fulfilled. I’m returning home to a lot of uncertainty, however I am happier now than I’ve ever been. I feel complete, and whole, and alive.
This trip to Uganda has represented so much. It was my chance to stand up and acknowledge that my needs are important. It was my opportunity, as an adult, to tell that little girl that she has every right to make her dreams come true. It is an example of the power of friendship, and the joyful experience of sharing something unique with another who truly understands me. It is my opportunity to live loudly in this present moment and expand my soul by connecting to the big, wide world around me.
This trip has been a beacon of hope for me through a very difficult time, and is essentially a gateway to the future that I want for myself. I am overwhelmingly grateful for the chance to live out my dream during this first trip to Africa. It is the first of many, I am sure, and I am so excited to see what new dreams the future holds for me. Dreams that I can pursue with confidence, gratitude, and the new sense of self that I found on the side of a mountain in Uganda.
– Written by Shawna Renga