Rwanda: The Land of a Thousand Hills

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Africa » Rwanda
November 13th 2018
Published: November 14th 2018
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Rwanda. Les Pays des Milles Collines. The Land of a Thousand Hills. A gross underestimate, as every which way you look there must be a thousand hills in sight. Lush green fields and forests cover every inch.

We've only flown less than a thousand miles but it's as if we've changed continent. We arrived at Kigali Airport at midnight, fully expecting the usual airport nightmare, but were instead greeted by a clean and modern terminal. The visa on arrival was quick and easy, the bags came out straight away, and a well-dressed taxi driver with a nice car greeted us at the door, offering the exact price I was expecting to take us into town. Green and clean, there was not a piece of rubbish in sight. This was not the typical African experience we'd had so far. Rwanda was giving a good first impression!

Throughout Malawi we had become accustomed to the lack of WiFi; the mobile data being pretty awful; and the constant power cuts leaving us without fully charged gear. Due to similar problems in Mozambique, none of our phones or photos had been backed up in weeks, so we were getting a bit twitchy about losing all our stuff. So it was a relief when in the first place we stayed we had super-fast WiFi and reliable electricity!

Kigali is a wonderful city. Its green and leafy suburbs are spread out across its many hills. It is neat and tidy. Downtown has modern skyscrapers, with fantastic restaurants and bars on the roofs, the commanding views allowing you to get your bearings of the city. The bars and restaurants serve good quality international food. I have to say, it was completely unexpected. The modernity and order felt almost European, not really the type of African city we’d become accustomed to. The slight familiarity felt welcome after the ‘organised’ chaos of some of the other African cities we’d been through recently. Although the familiarity, order and quietness of the city felt welcome, in some ways it does lack the charm of the chaos – the busyness, energy and noise, whilst overwhelming, is part of the excitement.

There is none of the hassle of other African cities - street vendors are banned. Carrying things on your head is banned. Walking on the grass is banned. Plastic bags are banned (it has been quite upsetting seeing the thousands of blue plastic bags littered absolutely everywhere throughout Africa, but there are none here, and it makes a huge difference - a young boy in Mozambique once kindly offered to get rid of some rubbish for me, and when I handed it over he just threw it straight over his shoulder - not exactly what I had in mind). The mototaxi drivers are polite and honest, and all wear helmets and have a spare one for you to wear. Apparently one day a month, all vehicles are banned from the centre of the city.

Clearly, a huge amount of effort has gone into creating a good impression in the city to attract tourism, business and investment. This, I think, has to be set in context of the recent history of the country.

I guess the first thing most people associate with Rwanda is the 1994 Genocide. The lowest estimate is that eight hundred thousand people were killed in the space of just 100 days. That's about five and a half deaths every minute. Not to mention the thousands of people that were maimed or raped during the course of the atrocities. The Hutus were turned against the Tutsis by the extreme ideologies of the Hutu Power leaders, encouraged to murder their neighbours and even family and friends with machetes. These were people that lived side by side and used to eat and drink together. It is incredibly hard to understand what happened. We visited the Kigali Genocide Memorial, a deeply moving memorial telling the stories of those who were killed. One section of the memorial was dedicated to the children who were killed, with very personal stories of their last words and how they were murdered, leaving both of us deeply affected. Reportedly five out of six Rwandan children present during the genocide witnessed at least some kind of bloodshed - it is hard to imagine the devastating effect that this must have had on society for the years and generations to come. As we walked the streets of Kigali, and throughout Rwanda, it was hard to believe that something so indescribably horrific could have happened in somewhere that is so beautiful.

It is incomprehensible. The scale and totality of it, the unquestioning obedience, brutality and mercilessness of it. What is just as difficult to understand is how many of the perpetrators came back to Rwanda not long after the genocide, and were reintegrated back into society, once again living next door to the families that they had committed these horrific acts against. How the reconciliation process has been handled is fascinating - how could justice be brought against hundreds of thousands of murderers without inflicting yet more hate, pain and division on a society? However controlling it may be, the government seem to have made huge efforts to unite the country. On the last Saturday of every month, Rwandans are required to partake in ‘Umuganda’. This is a compulsory community service, introduced by the government to rebuild Rwandan society and a shared national identity. There is no more talk of Hutus and Tutsis - now there are just Rwandans.

The more I travel and learn about events that have occurred around the world, the more I have begun to notice some common threads and themes. The divisions created by colonialism, exploited by extremist leaders against an uneducated populace, combined with general meddling from foreign governments, seems to be a generic formula for many of the world's worst atrocities.

We spent our time in Kigali, among other things, exploring the various craft stores. Unlike anywhere else we have been, the craft stores here are full of the most beautiful things. There is none of the mass produced tat that we have found elsewhere. Most items have been made by various cooperatives throughout Rwanda, using recycled materials. The clothing stores are full of beautiful Congolese fabrics tailored into modern and stylish outfits. The Rwanda Clothing Store in particular was fantastic - bow ties, shoelaces, bomber jackets - you name it. They also had a homeware section full of stylish baskets and chairs - I spent the entire time trying to dissuade Amy from buying these 4ft woven baskets!

We also went on a tour run by a local women’s centre in a more non-touristy area of the city, Nyamirambo. We were told that district names usually have a meaning - in this case Nyamirambo means ‘the place where the bodies are buried’. When the government tried to change the name the locals refused, wanting to keep the name as a memorial. We went to some of the local shops, community library, hair salon, and a local house to be shown how they make some of the local foods. Amy was offered a hair braid in the salon, which she jumped at, and was offered a range of purple and green hair to choose from. In the end she managed to get a darker one and went round town with what ended up looking like a rat tail hanging out the back of her hair - this wasn't exactly what she was after and she took it out as soon as she could! We were taken to the old second hand clothes market, which had recently been shut down in an interesting move by the government of banning second hand clothes. Perhaps this was an attempt to kick start a Rwandan clothing manufacturing industry, which would be great, although the locals weren’t best pleased about this in the short term, as clothing prices had shot up.

On a map, the distance from Kigali to Kibuye is deceptively short. The bus, however, winds its way up through and around the mountains, the never-ending switchbacks providing stunning views. Bicycle taxi riders cling to the back of the trucks as they slowly trundle their way up the mountain passes. The steep mountainsides are impossibly farmed, forming a patchwork quilt spread over the folds and gulleys. The farmers must be incredibly fit. These mountain passes are so winding most of the bus passengers struggle to keep their breakfast down. Vomit stains on the seats, retching into bags, and people with their heads in their hands are common sights on the buses! Picturesque Kibuye sits on the Eastern shore of Lake Kivu, its blue green waters surrounded by mountains, the great green tongues jutting into the water’s edge. Our hotel sat on one of these peninsulas, with an almost 360 degree view of the lake - yet another paradise!

We took a boat trip to go and visit several of the nearby islands and the see some of the local nature. The first - an island with some blue balled monkeys. The second - an island shaped like Napoleon's hat (not surprisingly called Napoleon Island) with spectacular views back to the mainland and across the lake to the Congo, and full of bats - apparently two million of them. I don’t know who had the job of counting them but the noise they made certainly sounded like it! And the third - an island with, believe it or not, swimming cows. We arrived to see a cow giving birth, at which point the farmer scooped up the calf and strapped her into the back of his dugout canoe, and whipped the mother and the rest of the herd into the water, whereby he paddled and they swam across to the next island.

Another winding mountain road took us along the Eastern shore up to Gisenyi. Although the buses have speed limiters (limiting them to 60kph) which stop a lot of the crazy driving, it isn't much help when there isn't a straight bit of road. Our driver insisted on keeping to the top speed as we went round the hundreds of switchbacks, the wheels screeching and the passengers falling off their seats. No wonder so many people throw up! Gisenyi sits on the Congolese border to the North of Lake Kivu, underneath the towering volcano, Mount Nyiragongo. At night, the smouldering volcano glows red. The last time it erupted was back in 2002, and it left a large portion of the neighbouring town, Goma (in the DRC), destroyed.

Now in the rainy season, we’ve weathered a few thunderstorms. These are not to be scoffed at. When it rains in Rwanda, it rains hard. The heavens open and buckets of water fall incessantly - you would only need to be outside for a couple of seconds before you would be soaked through. The thunder cracks and rumbles, shaking your entire body, with the blue and white flashes of light illuminating the lake. One night a sudden explosion of thunder shook our room so hard that I awoke to Amy, half-asleep, shaking me and nervously whispering, ‘Ross! The volcano is erupting!’ (it wasn't...). On our walk from the bus station to our Airbnb in Gisenyi, we got caught in a sudden downpour just minutes away from where we needed to be. In a typically kind African gesture, a local man motioned for us to follow him, and we ran down a side street and through a field into his family home, where we sheltered with his wife, young daughter and another elderly man looking for shelter.

We took another boat trip from Gisenyi to see some of the local sights. We motored up to the Congolese border crossing and followed the border along the lake down to Punishment Island, a tiny rock outcrop sitting in the middle of the lake, where women pregnant out of wedlock were abandoned. Men coming to the Rwandan markets from the Congo used to take them as wives on their way back across the lake, up until about a hundred years ago. From here we carried on to the Nyamyumba hot springs. A pool has been created in the black lake sands using sandbags, which the hot water pools into, and the locals use to relax. An elderly, mute, Rwandan woman offered us her massage services. Amy took her up on a ‘hand and foot’ massage. It started off innocently enough, sitting in the spring having her hands, arms, feet and legs yanked and pummelled, Amy tentatively reminding her she only wanted a hand a foot massage. Next she was led to the lake and instructed to lie down in the water, whereby the masseuse began to roughly massage every inch of Amy’s body (and I mean every inch), much to her surprise! The next stage involved the rubbing of a green plant, grabbed from the nearby reeds, smeared into a green slime all over her, beneath Amy’s cries and laughs of ‘Not the face! Not the hair!’. Not the relaxing massage that she was expecting!

The skies cleared up in the afternoon, so we grabbed a couple of mototaxis to take us to a nearby hotel on the mountainside, that served lunch and had a nice (near) infinity pool overlooking the lake that we could use. Definitely more relaxing than the local spa! As the sun set, we watched the local fishing boats heading out to the lake, their oars thrusting them forwards into the fading dusk, in time with their songs and chants. The boats are tied into threes, with long poles tied to the front and back, allowing nets to be strewn between. I’ve never seen boats quite like them. We caught a couple of mototaxis back to town in the dark. Crawling down the mountain roads in the dark through the cool air with the red orange glow of the volcano above us, past all the locals returning home carrying all their goods from the Congo, I really felt that excitement of travelling – this is what it is all about! On the way to the bus station the next day we made a short diversion to the ‘Petite Barriere’, the smaller of the two Congolese border crossings. Throngs of people swarm back and forth over the crossing - the residents of Goma and Gisenyi can travel and trade between the two using only their identity cards. There's a buzz and excitement about the place - not your usual border crossing. We almost accidentally crossed into the no man's land as no one is there to stop you - luckily we noticed a long line of locals having their ID cards checked on the way back in, so stopped ourselves short. One guy we met earlier in the trip said he accidentally crossed over without his passport and spent a while trying to prove he had been in Rwanda by showing the officials photos on his phone!

Our final stop in Rwanda was Ruhengeri. Sitting at the base of the Volcanoes National Park, this is the jumping off point for the gorilla trekking, Not that we could afford it - recently doubled in price to $1500 a pop each for the permit alone, it is not exactly in our backpacker budget. But nonetheless it is still possible to hike up the volcanoes from here. Reading blogs on the night we arrived it sounded like it was entirely possible that we might even see the gorillas on one of these hikes. This made the $75 for the park permit, plus the $60 hire of a 4x4 and a driver for the day, a bit easier to swallow. The idea of seeing the gorillas was something that we didn’t think would be possible, so got us both excited. The park headquarters was a very smart set-up, with a free coffee from an expensive looking coffee machine part of the deal. This might sound trivial, but a nice coffee was not something I had had for a while! Our guide accompanied us to the car park at the base of our hike - we had decided to try and hike to the top of Mount Bisoke. Apparently this was a very muddy, steep and strenuous affair, particularly in rainy season - but we had heard there were better chances of seeing the gorillas on this hike, so thought we’d give it a go nonetheless. We were joined by a German guy, so it was only the three of us. The journey to the car park was along one of the worst roads we had been on yet (the advice to bring a 4x4 now making sense), providing us with the colloquial ‘African Massage’, as we bumped and bounced off the interior of the vehicle. The road takes you through the small villages, surrounded by eucalyptus trees and fields of white wildflowers. With the mist rising through the valleys below it was a magical entrance to the mountain. We were greeted at the car park by five soldiers, dressed in camouflage and wellington boots, wielding their AK47’s. ‘For the buffalo’, our guide informed us. Seemed overkill for just the three of us. ‘Do you ever see many buffalo up here on these hikes?’ I asked. ‘No, not really’ was the response. Hmm. The crater-lake at the top of the volcano straddles the Congolese border, so perhaps there was an additional element of protection involved! The last thing that the tourism industry needs would be a kidnapping like they had on the Congo side earlier this year, so perhaps they are sending out a message to any would be kidnappers!

The hike started with us battling through the dense jungle, trying to avoid the stinging nettles (a lot more ferocious than the nettles back home), and the fire ants (a lot more ferocious than the ants back home). The ascent
Trying to work out a way down through the mudTrying to work out a way down through the mudTrying to work out a way down through the mud

(Photo taken by our hiking partner, Daniel)
got steeper and muddier as we went on. Just when we thought it was bad enough, our guide said that that had just been the warm up. And he was right - it got muddier and muddier and steeper and steeper, with the mud at some points coming right up to our calves. Every so often a rustle in the trees would turn our heads in excitement with the thought of gorillas, only to find to our disappointment a soldier cutting his way through the undergrowth off the path. As we got higher the altitude combined with the mud and steepness was getting to both Amy and I. We slowly pulled ourselves up to the summit to be greeted by the beautiful green crater-lake. Often it is shrouded in mist, but today it allowed us a glimpse. The jungle of the Congo stared back at us from the opposite side, with clouds swirling around the volcanoes beyond. A quick snack and we had to turn back around for the descent. Easier on the fitness, but harder to keep a footing in the mud, it was a challenge to get down without falling flat on your back! Luckily for us the guide, porter and soldiers were on hand to help us down - how they did it in welly boots carrying AK47’s I don’t know - I was half expecting to get shot in the arse if one of them slipped! Unfortunately we didn’t see any gorillas, but it was still fantastic to be in their habitat, and the lookout for them was exciting nonetheless. We returned back to our hotel muddy and tired.

The service that we have received in Rwanda has been exceptional. We left our very muddy boots in the hallway outside our room, not knowing what to do with them, and when we came back out they had been diligently cleaned by the staff, cleaner than when they started. And this was a budget, basic hotel - we were paying no more than $25 a night including breakfast. In another hotel restaurant, the smartly dressed waiters changed the tablecloth immediately when I spilled a small amount of my Coke. In a deserted and very average burger and pizza restaurant we were greeted with hot flannels. Nothing was ever too much trouble. It was interesting to see how different the tourism industry was in comparison to other African countries we had travelled in. Perhaps the high prices for the gorilla permits were bringing in a clientele with a higher set of standards, and it had brought the general standards up? One thing that did always confuse us was that whenever we asked for a drink - be it water, Coke or beer - they always asked if we wanted it hot or cold...a bit of a weird question! I told this story to a Dutch guy we met later and he quite rightly pointed out that us English are supposed to like warm beer...

Our hike up Bisoke concluded our time in Rwanda. A beautiful country, full of kind and friendly people. It is a fascinating place, a country that I have left with more questions than answers, and somewhere that I would definitely like to return.

From here we head to the Ugandan border, where our first stop is Lake Bunyonyi.

Additional photos below
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17th November 2018

Rwanda is the emerald jewel of Africa
I was there in 2014 on the 20th anniversary of the massacre. A little more somber, but I was happily surprised by a younger generation full of hope and pride. Evident in the cleanliness and care for their country. I hope it continues. I splurged for the gorilla permit, no regrets. I figured it was a good way to give back to their emerging prosperity. Loved the lake in Uganda, enjoy!

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