Rwanda & Uganda - Feb 2008

Published: March 14th 2008
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I came to Rwanda with relatively little knowledge and even less expectations about the place.

I knew there had been a recent genocide, I knew there were some gorillas hanging about somewhere, and I knew very little else. But now I’m a little more educated.
Rwanda is obviously synonymous with the 1994 genocide. Up to 1.5 million of their people were massacred during a few months of immense bloodshed. Since that tragic scar the nation has progressed at an unbelieveable rate. They do not pretend it never happened and openly face up to the stigma. In 1998, president Kigame took charge, following a well-trodden route to power in Africa - from child refugee to guerrilla leader to president. During his premiership Rwanda has introduced several policies and reforms that are years ahead of other African nations. Bribery is practically non-existent and is actively condemned. English is being introduced in schools, despite traditionally being a French speaking colony. The government recognises that English is the international language and French will soon be limited to a handful of Caribbean islands and that country north of Spain. The streets of Rwanda are clean and recycling is widespread. When I arrived in Kigali, I was fiddling about in my medical kit (which is nothing more than a small selection of pills, creams and plasters in an old polythene bag) when a local hurried nervously up to me, shouting,
“Quick, put that away, that’s illegal round here”.
I look confused trying to work out which drugs he could be referring to. I only really had a few malaria tablets, Savlon, Nurofen and a kilo of crack cocaine. It must be the Savlon, I concluded. But it turned out he was not referring to the antisceptic cream or the crack, but about the polythene bag. Plastic bags prohibited in Rwanda. Everything is carried around in brown paper bags in a drive to recycle waste. My observations of Rwanda are of modern attitudes and a country taking giant strides in an effort to disassociate the name Rwanda solely from its troubled past.

I spent one full day in Kigali, the capital of Rwanda, a city that sprawls through green valleys and up ridges. First things first I organised my permit to track the mountain gorillas in Parc Nationales de Volcans. They try to fool you into buying a permit months in advance as availability is apparently limited, but there were still plenty of spaces remaining whilst I was there. Then at the other end of the emotional scale, I visited the national genocide memorial museum. This was both a compelling and sobering account of the gruesome realities and aftermath of the atrocities that the western world turned a blind eye to. In 1994, whilst our consciousness was pre-occupied on buying tickets for the first National Lottery draw or watching Diana Ross scuff a penalty to open the razzmatazz World Cup of “soccer”, millions of Rwandans were hacking each other to death over arbitrary tribal divisions initiated by the Belgians. Unfortunately for Rwanda there was just a lot black blood being spilt, and not black oil, so it was not worth the west wasting valuable resources to intervene.

Rwanda is a tiny country in African terms, but it has 9 million people crammed into an area of a mere million football pitches squared. There are people virtually everywhere you go. There is no escape - whether you’re in the towns, on the highways or even in the fields. It did not take long to travel from Kigali to Ruhengeri, the headquarters for tracking gorillas in Parc Nationales de Volcans. This region is on the tri-frontier between Rwanda, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo. There are just 8 gorilla groups remaining in this volcanic park, all of which reside in Rwandan territory. Of the 600 mountain gorillas remaining in the world, 350 are here. This is where Dian Fossey - her of “Gorillas in the Mist” fame - studied the behaviour of these magnificent beasts for 20 years, until she was murdered in 1985, which substantially hampered her ability to carry on with her research.

I spent the next day tracking the rare Mountain Gorillas myself. When I say myself I mean with a guide, a tracker, 3 other tourists and an armed guard. The armed guard was there to stop Congolese poachers coming across the border to kill the gorillas. And/or us. Since I had turned up at the headquarters on a bicycle, the guides decided (wrongly) that I must be one of the more energetic tourists and a good candidate to track the remotest of the groups, called the Susa group. This clan were a 4 hour hike away, up the steep Karisimbi volcano, through dense foliage and clouds. Our tracker was top class. To me it looked like we were randomly macheteing our way through unchartered jungle, but he was spotting the faintest of signs of gorilla activity. Just at the point I was starting to think we were chasing a lost cause, we clambered over a small crest, and peering through the clouds in a clearing, there they were. Gorillas. In the mist. They were not doing what I’d observed them do in all the footage I’d seen - i.e. playing drums to Genesis songs and climbing skyscrapers. No, they were having a commune. The big boss Silverback was prowling around handing out punishment to anyone he saw fit and selecting gorilla chicks to pleasure him. Before we got closer the guide made the rules clear to us. We had a maximum of 1 hour interaction with the group; No open food or drinks; No flash photography; No videos. He then asked if we had any other questions. I asked if we could approach them. But our guide’s English was far from perfect, and he rather unfortunately misheard me, thinking I’d asked;
“Can we poach them?”
There was an uncomfortable silence and I’m convinced he gave the armed guard the nod to take me out. Before I got 9mm of lead in my head he repeated back to me what he thought he had heard, giving me the chance to swiftly clarify my question. The answer to my question was “No, you should stay 7 metres away. But if they approach you, hold your ground. Oh, and please refrain from poaching them also”.

The Susa group consists of 33 members, the largest remaining group in the world. We mingled with the family and they were quite comfortable with our presence. Although I did not approach within the recommended 7 metres away, the gorillas would often come up to us. They are incredibly gentle creatures and spending time with mountain gorillas is quite unlike any other wildlife encounter I’ve experienced. To look into the eyes of a gorilla as he stares back at you, there is a mutual knowledge of each other’s intelligence. But I was almost certain he couldn’t name all the FA Cup winners since 1966, so I knew I was the slightly cleverer ape. Mind you, I can’t play the drums, so call it a score-draw.

The hour flew by. Although I didn’t want to leave, I appreciated it was important not to over-expose the gorillas to human contact, and I was content that my $500 USD park fee was contributing to a well-controlled, sustainable eco-industry. Primates in general are big business in Rwanda. From the chimpanzees of Nyungwe Forest, the colobus monkeys of southern Rwanda, the Golden monkeys of the Volcan National park and, of course, the lesser-spotted white tourist. But the government had had enough monkey business from me for one visit. Plus, I was shortly heading home to my I.T job and the world of computer monkeys and microchimps. Sorry!

Before crossing into Uganda I took a tranquil stopover at Lake Kivu, interrupted only by an earthquake measuring 6.8 on the Richter scale. At the time I was thinking, “Wow, only in the third world could this happen”. Little did I know that a couple of weeks later that world would include Lincolnshire.

At the border crossing into Uganda I was checked for ebola, which has become prevalent in this small pocket of Africa. They believe that the flu-like deadly disease has resulted by the Congolese obsession for eating raw monkey brains (I’d always recommend cooking them, personally). Luckily it meant they forgot to check me out for the diseases I most probably was carrying or further examining the infestation on my ankle - which I later had diagnosed as a spider-bite with unhatched spider eggs developing inside my flesh. Tasty! When I finally did get this examined at a hospital in Kampala, they wanted to exterminate the unhatched spiders but I was feeling quite maternal by that point and relunctantly agreed to an abortion.

Uganda was the final destination of my extended 13 month sajourn. According to the Tourist Board, Uganda has “all of Africa’s highlights wrapped up in one country” (I wish somebody told me that earlier, as I wouldn’t have wasted my time cycling through the other 10 countries). But the point they are clearly trying to make is pretty accurate. If Uganda was a box of chocolates, it would be a tub of Quality Street. From highlands to lowlands, to rainforests, to mountain ranges, to powerful waterfalls, to wildlife parks. From the source of the Nile to the Lake Victoria basin.

Uganda has changed massively since the dark days of Idi Amin. His chaotic reign of terror was followed by a brief war with Tanzania that ultimately led to his downfall and exile in Saudi Arabia. Dying a few years ago, he never got to see Forest Whitaker collect the OSCAR for his portrayal. A rebuilding process followed, and the current president Museveni is one of Africa’s most prominent and respected leaders.

As previously touched upon, I finally decided that the festering scab on my leg should probably be examined by a doctor before I headed back to England, because the British medics might not know so much about African infestations. I had left it unattended for a month, and it was spreading more than healing, so I was strongly advised to stop procrastinating and deal with it. I was recommended a local Witch doctor, but my better judgement prevailed and I found a more reputable clinic. In the same area was an HIV clinic, and there was an appeal to donate blood. I had some time on my hands, was relatively healthy, so considered myself a perfect candidate to donate some vital claret to the needy. Well, you’d have thought so anyway. I filled out the questionnaire whilst waiting. The questions included:
“Name/ Date of Birth”
“Have you injected yourself with drugs in the past 2 years?”
“Have you had malaria in the past 6 months?”

No issues yet that I could foresee.
Then, at the end;
“Have you spent more than 6 months in total over the past 20 years in the UK?”
Why yes, I have.
It turns out the world does not want British blood because they are paranoid about Mad Cows and all that. I must admit to having a Big Mac in the late 1980’s.
The girl next to me at the clinic had contracted malaria a year or so ago, and she was given the green stamp for donating. I, however, was given a red stamp.
At the same time, there were dozens of sick patients in the building, many of whom were young children with HIV/AIDS. I took the nurse to one side, and suggested to her that she took my blood anyway, and once they’ve run out of the malaria-infected blood of most of the other donors, they should take a chance with mine when trying to save the life of some kid. It is just possible I don’t have BSE. They lowered my RAG status to amber and pumped out a pint. I was then given a free badge, some sweets and a condom and sent on my merry way. Free condoms are available almost everywhere in Africa, which is promising to see. They can be picked up at bars, bus stations, border posts, petrol stations and fast-food restaurants - usually somewhere between the ketchup sachets and the UHT milk cartons.

Before leaving the hospital I played football in the courtyard for 30 minutes with some of the HIV patients (obviously not going in hard on any 50/50 tackles). Then back across the equator to Jinja (pronounced ginger) for the last few days. Jinja lays claim to being the source of the Nile - but in my view this is like John Lennon claiming to be The Beatles. A number of waterways flow down from the central highlands, contributing to the mighty Blue Nile that cuts through Sudan and Egypt. The White Nile at Jinja is probably the most significant, however. The White Nile at Jinja is home to the highest grade commercially raftable rapids in the world. I treated myself to one last hurrah, which was white-water rafting down the river, often without the raft.

Only 100km east of Jinja is the border with Kenya. At the time tens of thousands of Kenyan were fleeing the ethnic tensions and converging at refugee camps in eastern Uganda. The authorities would not let me enter the camp, even though I was offering to hand-out my material belongings. After all, I was about to be homeward bound and didn’t really plan on wearing the same 5 T-shirts I had sweated around the globe in again. Much better, a desperate refugee who didn’t know the grubby history of my clothes wore them now onwards.

And so, I dis-assembled my tent one last time, traded my bicycle with a Masai craftsman for some authentic wooden carvings, hugged goodbye to some other backpackers who were my token best friends at the time (and now who’s names elude me), and boarded the Airport transit bus to Entebbe. I thought this moment was going to be much more moving than it actually was. If anything I was looking forward to returning to a life of (relative) stability, to earning a wage, and to boring friends and family with thousands of photos and just as many stories.

But if you’ve been reading my blog, you know it all already, and I’ve got nothing else to say.


15th March 2008

thanks so much for the highly entertaining blogs. and also, thanks for proving to any doubters out there that the theory of evolution is not negotiable. no one could see those photos of you with the apes and doubt it. ;) i hope going back to the unreality of i.t is not too traumatic after your taste of freedom. once again, thanks for the entertainment.
12th May 2008

Wow, what a pleasure to read your blog - I hope to be headed to the same part of the world in about a year, and it's great to see stories from Africa presented with some humor and plenty of candor. I hope the stable life hasn't gotten you too bored :)

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