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Published: November 19th 2007
Many countries in Africa have titles extolling the virtue of their people and land - Uganda is ‘the pearl of Africa’, Malawi the ‘warm heart of Africa’ - presumably both an example of national pride and a marketing catch-cry for tourists. Rwanda’s is a little less ambiguous than the above examples - it is the ‘land of a thousand hills’. Rumoured to be a country of amazing beauty and one that has made remarkable headway into peacefully moving forward after the horrors of the genocide in 1994, we were curious to see for ourselves this small east African country given our current proximity to it. General Kenyan inefficiency meant that Brigid’s work visa had not come through nearly 6 months after it was applied for, and her tourist visa was due to expire. So, we had the perfect excuse to embark on another holiday. For visa purposes, visits to Tanzania and Uganda are not considered leaving the country, meaning a quick (and much cheaper) ‘border-cross-and-return’ was out of the question. So, to Rwanda we went…
…and were nearly not allowed entry. Both our travel guides and the website of the Rwandan Immigration Department suggest that tourist visas are available on
arrival, with no suggestion of a requirement to apply for entry before arrival. According to the airport customs officials though, such a requirement does exist, and we spent some nervous moments contemplating what exactly we’d do before we were finally waved through and told to apply beforehand next time!
Our first impressions of Kigali were of a neat, orderly city that was a far cry from the general chaos we’ve come to associate with other African cities we’ve visited. Plastic bags we were carrying on arrival were confiscated as we left the airport (not their contents) as a ban on these is just one of a number of environmental measures that the government has put in place. The roads were impeccable (as they are the country over), drivers were cautious and motorcycle taxis (and their passengers) even wore helmets. Indeed, the only overt sign that there had been any recent troubles was that there are a large number of amputees around - some begging, some just going about daily life.
Far from sweeping the events of the genocide under the proverbial carpet though, many memorials have been set up around the country to ensure that this horrific chapter
of Rwanda’s history, in which 1,000,000 people were murdered in the space of 100 days while the world looked on, is never forgotten. The Kigali Genocide Memorial Centre is the biggest of these memorials - built on a hill that looks back over the hills of central Kigali, it houses 14 mass graves in which the remains of 258,000 (over a quarter of those killed) people are interred. There is an adjoining memorial garden where families of victims are encouraged to come and visit their loved ones, and an excellent exhibit about the Rwandan genocide and other genocides around the world. The exhibit has a number of rooms dedicated to the history of Rwanda and the many years of events that led to the genocide, then moves on to the genocide itself with a number of disturbing photos and recollections of experiences at both a personal and population level at this time (for an excellent summary of this, I highly recommend ‘We wish to inform you that tomorrow we will be killed with our families’ by Philip Gourevitch). As horrible as this all is though, we viewed it with some sense of detachment that may have been in part due
to the fact that the magnitude of what happened is incredibly difficult to comprehend. This feeling abruptly changes though when you reach the last few rooms of the exhibit. The last room is a dedication to the children of Rwanda who lost their lives and who we are reminded were ‘the future that never was’. There are a number of large photos of beautiful, smiling children with adjacent writing detailing such personal details as their best friends, favourite food and drinks and favourite games, each one ending sharply with the brutal manner in which they were killed. Additionally, there were comments from other children who’d survived the genocide, including such heart-wrenching ones as (paraphrased, sorry) ‘every time I’m in a crowded place like a market, I keep thinking that I’ll see my brothers’ (who were killed). It is in these individual touches that I think the Memorial Centre is most powerful.
The following day, we hired a taxi and were driven out to two other memorials in churches on the outskirts of Kigali. Our driver was a 24-year-old student, whose studies were interrupted at the age of 11 by the genocide. He moved to Kigali later in his teens
and had been driving a taxi for a living since age 17. Last year, he enrolled in evening school classes to complete his secondary education, and now he studies in between fares. There are hundreds of thousands of people who had their education disrupted like he did, and very few have been able to subsequently complete them - there are twenty people in his classes.
The churches we visited in the villages of Ntarama and Nyamata were the sites of massacres in 1994. Throughout Rwanda, people congregated in churches as places of refuge and were systematically mown down by the Interahamwe, who’d sometimes been tipped off by the parish priests (although there were also very courageous priests who fought - and were killed - trying to save their congregations). Five thousand people were killed at Ntarama and 32,700 at Nyamata and, due to thick bushland surrounding both, bodies are still being found thirteen years later. Both churches are now unused and exist solely as memorials. In Ntarama, the bloodied, dirty and torn clothing worn by those killed there has been hung on the walls and from the ceiling. Their personal effects such as crockery and water containers are grouped
along one wall, the area behind the altar is filled with coffins and shelves at the back of the church are lined with the skulls of over 500 people. Nyamata is a larger church with a roof that is peppered with holes that I imagine came from bullets. Both under the church and underground at its rear are the remains of thousands of people - some in coffins (usually 7-8 to the one coffin), but many just as bones lined up. There are thousands of skulls and other bones down there, which is a fairly grisly sight. The trip also allowed us to see some of the country-side, and perhaps most interestingly to drive by a gacaca, one of the community courts set up to try genocidaires. Crimes committed during the genocide were considered to be of three levels - the first level encompassed the crimes of those who had led and masterminded the genocide (and these were generally tried in regular courts or at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda in Arusha, Tanzania) and the third level was the relatively ‘low level’ crimes of individual people acting ‘on orders’ of the Interahamwe (often still brutal rapes and murders, but
not of the magnitude of those in the first two levels). At the gacacas, a small group of local officials sits out in the open (in the case of the one we saw, in a small garden outside a building by the road) and hears testimony from those being tried, who are dressed in pink prison uniforms. The emphasis of these courts is on confessing the details of your involvement including who you killed and where, the main aim of which is to give some resolution to people who never found out what happened to their loved ones. Generally the sentences are short, and often involve the convicted working on community-building projects to help the country recover. It is an amazing system that speaks volumes about the country’s efforts to peacefully move forward as ‘one Rwanda’ rather than the horribly fractured and somewhat manufactured distinction of Hutu vs Tutsi that resulted in people killing others they’d known their whole lives.
Our time in Kigali was not all somber - we spent a lot of time exploring the place as well, walking up and down heaps of hills (A thousand hills is definitely an understatement), something we thought we’d do
no more of after Kilimanjaro. We went to the local markets, and enjoyed the excellent restaurants (downing many a chocolate mousse). Additionally, we were pleasantly surprised to find that Rwanda has some fantastic beer and made a habit of afternoon beers at various bars.
What to do with the rest of our week in Kigali had been the matter of some debate before our arrival. Ideally, we’d have loved to go and see the gorillas in the Virunga mountains of northern Rwanda. Unfortunately though, this area is only a couple of kilometres from the Congolese border. The area on the other side of the border has undergone escalating troubles over the last 5 weeks as the result of ongoing rebel activity, and we felt that it was not worth the risk. Similarly, the Parc National Nyungwe Forest, which has a chimpanzee population and some apparently spectacular walks was off limits due to its proximity to the (also unstable) Burundian border. So, we settled on a day trip to the university town of Butare (which has a very good national museum but little else of note), and a couple of days in Kibuye, a small town on Lake Kivu (a
massive lake that makes up most of Rwanda’s western border).
Travelling around Rwanda was a real pleasure due to the conditions of the roads and the drivers (nowhere in Rwanda is the speed limit more than 80km/h, and there are speed cameras to enforce this), and also the fact that they do not pack their matatus and buses quite as full as in Kenya! Even so, we’d read that the road to Kibuye was steep, windy and travel-sickness inducing, so we did set off with a little trepidation… the 2 ½ hour trip though was fantastic - beautiful green hills dotted with terrace farms, colourful small towns and markets, and many people carrying produce walking along the side of the road. Interestingly, Rwanda is so hilly that it was more common to see someone pushing their bicycle than riding it. We were a little sick of corners by the end of the trip, but our first glimpse of Lake Kivu made it all worth it.
We stayed at a guesthouse on the shore of Lake Kivu and about 3km out of Kibuye. There are no taxis, and no buses go out that way, so we hopped on motorcycle
taxis to head out there. We were lucky to get the last available room - there was a conference of a Rwandan Evangelical Society there (which made for an ‘interesting’ crowd and lots of very loud god songs…). The guest house was the perfect place to while away some time swimming in the lake and reading - the setting was absolutely idyllic. Over dinner one night, we watched an amazing lightning show over the lake that lasted over an hour. We ventured into town one day to go to the markets, then wandered back to the guesthouse via another church memorial. This walk was fantastic as we’d timed it right when the local school children were out of school for lunch. As in everywhere else we’ve been in east Africa, the sight of mzungus made for much excitement. To our surprise, instead of waving and yelling, these children all ran up to hug us. We gave some small change to some schoolgirls we met further on, who ran away and then came back to show us that they’d bought some cola-flavoured sachets that they put in bottles of water to make a revolting cola cordial. They took great delight in
showing us how it made their tongues turned green and then insisted that we try some too. It was only when ran off to refill their bottles that we realised they’d got their water from the lake - good thing we’ve got guts of steel…
In Rwanda the national languages are Kinyarwanda, French and English, but English is not widely spoken outside Kigali. Being unable to speak the other two, we were pleasantly surprised that Swahili is understood by many people and this was how we communicated with most people. This seemed to make me a man magnet - somehow I usurped Brigid on this front, being given four phone numbers during our trip. One of these was from Emmanuel, our waiter at the guest house who, after taking our order, came back sometime later and said, ‘Kat - give me number…TELEPHONE!’ I suspect he’d been practicing that line for some time in the kitchen… Having caught the eye of the waiter unfortunately did nothing to ensure that we got the food that we ordered. We asked for spaghetti bolognese and chicken curry, and received two bowls of soup and then fish and chips. When we asked for tomato
sauce for the chips, we were presented with two bowls of tomato soup! Oh well…
We headed back to Kigali for a last night, having a lovely dinner at a restaurant called New Cactus up in the hills of Kigali. Sitting on couches out in their garden, having dinner and drinks looking out over the lights of Kigali was a definite highlight.
Rwanda is everything we’d heard it was and more, and somewhere I’d love to go back and visit again. In the way it looks like it will successfully move past such devastating events without perpetuating a cycle of violence and race hate for generations to come, it is truly remarkable. Obviously, turning things round in a country where there is still desperate poverty, where many people had their whole families wiped out and where many who survived are HIV-positive after being raped is no small task, but Rwandans seem to be doing a pretty good job of it. This is certainly, in no small part due to the government of Paul Kagame, who has done an amazing job of unifying and moving forward such a fractured nation. I recently read an article however, suggesting that Kagame
was showing signs of becoming somewhat dictatorial with regards to freedom of press information, a worrying sign if it is true. I guess time will tell.
Thankfully, Brigid was allowed back into Kenya, being issued another 3-month tourist visa without question. We spent a night in Nairobi, enjoying a Chinese dinner and a movie, then headed back to Kilifi the next morning. Our flight to Malindi made a stop in Mombasa first, which then gave us a great opportunity to see the Kenyan coast in the second leg of the trip. Hope you like the photos. Love K x
PS Big happy birthday wishes to you, Liamy, for October 28!
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