February 28, 2000
Volume 52, No. 23
Marc Daniel Gutekunst & the magic of Majii
By Eric Rangus
It's a land of rolling hills, lush, green forests, plains overflowing with exotic wildlife and deep blue lakes. It is the Rwanda of Marc Daniel Gutekunst's youth.
"Rwanda could best be described as the country of a thousand hills, the Switzerland of Africa--very peaceful," he said.
"Everybody wanted to work in Rwanda," said Gutekunst, who was born to French parents in Rwanda but grew up in neighboring Burundi. Both nations were carved out of the old Belgian Congo in the 1960s. "Living in Burundi, things were always iffy, whereas in Rwanda, it was a haven. Things worked; the roads were paved, [and] the government seemed to get things done."
It is in this Rwanda where Gutekunst, a research associate in the Institute of African Studies, was planning to set a children's book he was writing on the country's endangered mountain gorillas, who live in Volcanoes National Park in the northwest part of the country.
Those are the same gorillas immortalized in the movie Gorillas in the Mist, which told the story of Dian Fossey's work to save them. As a zoology student, Gutekunst had worked with them (and one summer with Fossey-who didn't like him, something he humorously recalls), even producing an award-winning French film documentary, Au Rwanda: Le Dernier Sanctuaire des Gorilles (Rwanda: The Last Sanctuary of the Gorillas), in 1981.
When the Rwandan government asked Gutekunst to come to the country to devise a public health and relief program in 1993, he insisted the government provide money for a gorilla conservation program. It did. He also asked for, and received, free passes to see the gorillas in Volcanoes National Park (the normal rate for tourists is $100 an hour). He intended to finish the book during his time there.
The events of 1994 drastically altered his plans and almost ended his life. That was when civil war and genocide began. As chaos reigned around him and Rwanda crumbled, more than once Gutekunst came within minutes of losing his life. It took several days for him to escape, and when he left he brought the five children of the country's slain prime minister with him. Understandably, the book faded in importance.
A conversation with Stan Mullins, the Athens-based artist illustrating the book, rallied him. Mullins had left Rwanda one week before the killing started. "Stan was a wonderful friend. He said, 'You've got to finish this book.' But I said, 'The way we have it is not right. We have an opportunity here to talk about what we witnessed without getting into the gruesome details of war,'" Gutekunst said.
Surviving the genocide drastically changed the tone of their work. Gone was the dry, scientific language of the original product. Instead, Gutekunst took a more mystical approach, and the idea of the innocent, childlike raindrop "Majii" was born. Her adventures formed the plot of Majii and the Mountain Gorillas of Rwanda, a book five years in the making.
A party to celebrate the Majii's release will be held in Glenn Auditorium at 5 p.m., March 5. The event is called Sing Wild!, and it will feature Harmony: Atlanta's International Youth Chorus, who will lead children in singing African songs. The book is a big deal among Rwandans as well; the country's ambassador to the United Nations, Joseph Mutaboba, will be in attendance.
"I am the luckiest person in the world," Gutekunst said. "I'm just the conductor, we had this orchestra of people: [the people at] Fernbank [Elementary School] and Stan Mullins, who went to Africa twice [to draw gorillas]."
The idea to have students at Fernbank help illustrate the book was born in 1998 when Gutekunst and Mullins met with the children in assemblies.
"The kids understood that although they are interested in the mountain gorillas, we have a responsibility to these poor kids that live in the neighboring area," Gutekunst said. "If there is a balanced conservation where you can help people in the neighboring communities either make some money or sponsor a [Rwandan] school, that's important."
The majority of the book's proceeds will go to The Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International, which helps not only the gorillas but Rwandans as well.
Gutekunst expected to receive about 20 drawings from Fernbank. He got 654. Thirty-seven made it into the book. Others are featured in murals at Hartsfield International Airport and the State Capitol. It's all a far cry from what Gutekunst first envisioned of his work.
"Compared to what we have now, it was boring," Gutekunst said of his early writing on the gorillas. "It was like, 'I go to your home, how do you wake up, what do you do during the day, how do you go to sleep.' The book had no real purpose. Anyone could have written it."
Maji is the Swahili word for "water," and the extra "i" was added for copyright purposes and because it was more appealing to children (Gutekunst's 7-year-old daughter Malaïka, his first editor, decided that Majii was a girl).
Looking for adventure, Majii leaves her friends in a rain cloud and falls to earth, landing on Mukuru, the silverback leader of a family of mountain gorillas in Rwanda.
Through Mukuru's voice, Gutekunst explains the plight of Rwanda's gorillas. Among other animals, Majii is introduced to Tembo the elephant and Kosa, a young gorilla who has lost a hand in a poacher's trap. All explain to her the conditions in which they live and what could possibly be done to help them.
The potentially scary subject matter is handled gently, and with colorful Mullins illustrations on every other page, even the youngest children shouldn't be frightened. Even when the genocide is discussed.
Majii and Mukuru meet Mutoto, a Rwandan boy who escaped the men who took away his family. The book does not shy away from death, and the heavy matter of discussing genocide in a children's book weighed on Gutekunst from the beginning.
"The difficult part was how to introduce the genocide and the war in a way that the kids can understand and feel like, 'Hey, this is not right. What can I do.'"
The book is published independently through the FNT Press (FNT--Forging New Tomorrows --is a nonprofit organization founded in 1994 by Gutekunst and Mullins), and Gutekunst is still working on ways to distribute it. Copies will be available at Sing Wild! Tickets for the event are $8. For more information, call 404-727-5050.