Homa Khaleeli writes that 15 years after a bloody genocide, Rwanda is well worth schlepping to.
‘You cannot fall off, and if you do, I will catch you,” Imaani lied cheerfully. Celebrating my first day in Rwanda—and Africa—with my first motorbike ride, I was terrified. With a helmet that bounced off my head at every bump, I clung to the back of one of the two-wheeled taxis that ply the capital’s streets, shutting my eyes.
Luckily, when I responded to Imaani’s pleas and looked around, the scenery was enough to distract even the most nervous passenger. Kigali, with its one-million-strong population, creeps up four of the emerald ridges that give the country its nickname, “the land of a thousand hills”, before sinking into the mist-filled valleys between. Officially the most densely populated country in Africa, Rwanda’s small size (about half that of Scotland) means even its capital has a peaceful, village air. One sophisticated woman from the Côte d’Ivoire who I met on the plane confided ruefully: “People stay at home with their families at night. We say it is a place for retired people.” Sure enough, it doesn’t take long for the shiny banks and tangled market streets to give way to lush farms, and neatly dressed office workers to women toting hands of bananas on their heads.
We arrived in mid-December—the tail end of the rainy season when bougainvillea and frangipani flowers stud the endless green of the hills.
Now, with my sister bumping over the potholes on a motorbike next to me, we had an exhilarating drive along a steep mud road up the hill after which the city is named, Mount Kigali. Whizzing past waving children, robed dancers and a church choir singing in the open air, we could only smile in delight at the postcard-perfect scenes of rural life.
Our motorcycle ride provided a much-needed shot of holiday euphoria after an emotional morning. There are few unmissable sites in Kigali, but the genocide memorial centre is definitely one of them. Here, we wandered through carefully tended gardens and flowering trellises to the concrete-covered mass graves of a quarter of a million genocide victims, with new bodies brought in every year. It’s a heart-stopping reminder of the scale of the violence in 1994 when more than 800 000 people, mainly Tutsis, were massacred in just 100 days in a campaign of organised violence, carried out largely by the majority Hutu population.
Alongside an explanation of the history that led to the genocide (where the blame is squarely placed on colonial “divide and rule” tactics), one room documents the chilling fate of child victims: their names, ages and favourite foods all carefully noted next to the brutal ways they were killed. One Rwandan woman was so overcome with grief watching a video of the aftermath of the killings, she lay quietly sobbing on the floor.
With such a horrific recent past, it’s unsurprising that Rwanda is far from being a tourist hot spot. But in the past 16 years the country has been completely transformed and this is finally being mirrored in the rising number of tourists willing to give it a try. Today it is taboo to talk about Hutus or Tutsis and the push to enforce a sense of unity on the population is visible everywhere. Each place we visited had its own memorials to those lost in the violence. Road signs that elsewhere would caution against speeding, in Rwanda remind people to stand together for fear of another genocide. With the semi-traditional courts that tried most of those accused of the genocide due to be wound up this year, the country seems ready and determined to look to the future.
Most importantly, perhaps, Rwanda is stable. Keen to cement this, the government recently improved its relationship with the Democratic Republic of Congo, which it borders. And it’s not just local ties that have been strengthened. In November Rwanda became the newest member of the Commonwealth—only the second country not formerly a British colony to be admitted to the association (after Mozambique). The move came after English became the official language for schools to teach in, ousting French in 2008.
The sense of optimism created by the fast-growing economy, low corruption and decreasing crime rate has seen Rwandans from neighbouring Uganda and Burundi flooding home. The government seems anxious to make sure that the rapid growth doesn’t damage the environment and the country has a head start thanks to the Rwandans’ fierce sense of civic pride. On the last Saturday of each month, every citizen over the age of 18 has to take part in umuganda (communal work). Businesses are closed and everyone spends the day improving their neighbourhoods. As a result, Rwanda is remarkably litter free, and when our driver, Twalib, suspects I am about to drop a Coke can he almost wrestles me to the ground in horror. In a bid to sidestep one of the scourges of the modern world Rwanda has even banned plastic bags. At Kigali airport a polite security guard immediately spots our duty-free carrier and removes it to protect the country’s natural beauty.
And there is a breathtaking amount of beauty to protect. It was worth our stumbling flight—from London to Nairobi to Bujumbura and Kigali—for the early morning drive to Volcanoes national park. At dawn, as the dark lifted, the mist remained, turning the hill tops into islands in a seascape of cloud. The red road coiled around the hills, passing terraced fields of beans, and roadside markets with men and women carrying baskets of pineapples, bushels of banana leaves and even carpets on their heads. Our destination was the volcanic range the Virungas, home to Rwanda’s famous mountain gorillas. With around 750 left in the wild, they are carefully protected. Only about 50 people a day are allowed to trek to see them, with each group of visitors allowed an audience with the gorillas for one hour.
Our walk started among the scented eucalyptus groves of the valley, where excited local children chased us along the road, taking time out from their chores to show us their tree-climbing skills. Our group of five was accompanied by a guide, trackers and a ranger with a gun to scare away any stray buffalo. Many rangers are literally poachers turned gamekeepers; in a bid to stop people from the nearby farms poaching the park’s animals, they were given jobs there.
Slipping and sliding up the muddy hillside, we trudged through eerie bamboo forests and yelped in fields of vicious stinging nettles. The ground beneath us was a tangle of roots and stalks and as difficult to balance on as a cat’s cradle. But the views were incredible. In the distance were the jagged edges of three of the volcanoes that give the park its name; below us the farmland with its black volcanic soil; and all around the changing green of the hills.
Then suddenly, protruding from the greenery, appeared a massive head—the silverback, leader of the gorilla family we were tracking. We were still recovering from the shock of seeing such a huge, wild animal just feet away when there was a rustle from a bamboo clump and out plopped a baby gorilla, all fluffy fur and liquid eyes. Catapulting from another branch, his brother landed on top of him, and they beat their tiny chests in mock anger.
Screams in the distance told our guide that two females were fighting.
The wall of muscle that was the silverback immediately set off to sort it out. As we scrambled to get out of the way, the family haughtily stalked right through our group, close enough to touch but confident in the knowledge that we would not dare accost them. In a nearby clearing a youngster stretched out, arms behind his head, watching us as his mother groomed him. It’s possible to stay for days in the park and many tourists spend their whole holiday visiting the gorillas and trying to spot the rare golden monkeys the area is also famous for.
Anxious to see what else the country has to offer, we headed south to Gisenyi, on the edge of Lake Kivu. As we approached, the evening sky was lit up by the beautiful but unnerving glow of Nyiragongo, an active volcano (it erupted again two weeks after we left).
Lake Kivu is one of the African Great Lakes, running for 100km along the Congolese-Rwandan border. More like an inland sea, its shore is clustered with hotels offering windsurfing and kayaking. In the early morning we bartered with a sleepy boatman for a trip in his water-taxi, heading out towards Congo, whose chaotic presence (in 2009 it was fifth on the Fund for Peace’s index of failed states) dominates Gisenyi as much as the lake. With the terraced hills, coffee plantations and banana plants spreading out behind us, relaxing on the lake was just what we needed after our mountain trek. As we floated lazily to the shore, we saw a group of young dancers practising a routine: girls in red polka-dot skirts expertly balanced pots on their heads as they swayed, while boys in colourful headdresses waited to join in.
Away from the lake, Gisenyi is a busy, messy border town. Strolling through the market we bought beautiful printed cloth from traders who found our laboured attempts to speak Kinyarwanda so comical that they lowered their prices. The border itself was fascinating: laidback guards checking through the woven baskets of shoppers and waving through neatly dressed schoolchildren in spotless white shirts. Across from no-man’s land is the ramshackle city of Goma, where we glimpsed dusty, corrugated roofs next to huge white mansions.
My first trip to Africa wouldn’t have been complete without a safari and luckily Rwanda’s eastern border provided the perfect opportunity.
Through valleys where tiny children herded goats as big as themselves, past houses with mud walls and groves of banana plants, we arrived at the savannahs of the Akagera national park. Famous for its birds, crocodiles and hippos, the park has been protected since 1934—although it has shrunk since the genocide, with land commandeered for returning refugees.
Despite the array of wildlife, there are few visitors. At the Akagera Lodge in the heart of the park—with staggering views—we met a contented couple who told us they were the sole guests. Driving through the high grass we saw only one other car and the sense of isolation just added to my mounting excitement. We saw a herd of bouncing impala—affectionately known as the McDonald’s of Africa because they are so common every predator eats them—and when we finally spotted a giraffe I could hardly stop myself from jumping out of the car to get a closer look. Five minutes later we were staring awestruck at a grazing group of zebras who stared calmly back. The bad-tempered buffalo were less impressed by our 4x4, pawing the ground until we moved off, their ungainly shapes thrown into relief by the slim, white egrets at their feet. On our way to the park’s lake Ihema we passed baboons and bushbuck and even spotted a warthog.
This lake, set among papyrus swamps, is home to huge Nile crocodiles, which can reach 6,8m, which made our boat ride across it slightly nerve-racking. We didn’t spot any quite that big, but it was pretty hair-raising to see them swish into the water after our tiny craft.
Floating past a pod of hippopotamuses skulking in the shallows, it was hard to imagine they could do any damage until one yawned, displaying its massive teeth. The lake’s delicate beauty is mirrored in the dazzling array of birds. On an island in the centre we spotted fish eagles and herons, while the shores are home to the ugly “undertaker bird”, an alarming mix of stork and vulture. Stay for longer and you may be rewarded with a glimpse of the park’s tiny lion, leopard or hyena population.
But for us it was back to Kigali and one final night to find out if my Côte d’Ivoire informant was right about Rwandan nightlife. Sadly, with the main nightclub closed for the night, it turned out that she was, but with the scenery I’d found, I wasn’t complaining.—