We boarded the bus in Nairobi for Rwanda at 5pm and splashed out the grand sum of $44 each for the VIP seats. They were so wide that we couldn’t even sit next to each other but as most of the journey was at night it didn’t matter. We all had to get out when we reached the Ugandan border but it was pretty painless and we were through within the hour. We travelled through Uganda, which was much greener than I had expected and arrived at the Rwandan border early in the morning. We were both stiff but managed to get some sleep on the bus. We headed straight for the hotel for a shower and some lunch followed by a lazy relaxing afternoon by the pool.
We only had 9 days in Rwanda so we hit the ground running. The first day we went to see the Genocide Museum. All I really knew about Rwanda was the genocide and so we thought we should visit here first to get an idea of why it had happened and what they had done since to enable them to move on from such a tragedy. It was an incredibly moving experience, documented very well and left both of us feeling quite shocked, particularly the children’s rooms where they even described how the little ones died. We were taken round by a young guide who was only 6 at the time but still remembers it vividly. In 1994 a million Tutsis, people either married to Tutsis, working for Tutsis or close in any way to Tutsis were murdered on the orders of the Hutu government. It only took 100 days to slaughter about 15% of the population leaving behind a shattered country and millions of shattered lives. I was more interested in how a country recovers from such a shocking event and our guide gave us some fascinating facts. The main lesson they wanted to learn from was that nowadays there are no Tutsis or Hutus. They are all Rwandans. It was the Belgians who divided them up in 1946 by declaring that anyone owning 12 or more head of cattle were Tutsis and everyone else was a Hutu. This meant that only 15% of the population were Tutsis but were obviously wealthier. Over the next 50 years there were various attacks on Tutsis and many had fled to neighbouring Uganda and Zaire (now the Demogratic Republic of Congo) but in April 1994 the extreme Hutus killed the moderate Hutu president and the new government ordered the destruction of the Tutsis or anyone affiliated with them including spouses, bosses and friends. Some of the facts we were given were horrendous, for example nearly everyone was killed individually by hand, and the many took refuge in the churches but were sold out by the pastors. Our guide told us that there are many 30 year old grandfathers, himself included – not by blood but because 12 year olds suddenly became surrogate fathers to 3 & 4 year olds and raised them as their own as there were no other family members. Since then these young kids have grown up and had kids and these 30 year old are now acting grandfathers. He also said that they are keeping all the facts very fresh in the minds of the young as they are determined that it must never happen again. The government have removed the words Tutsi and Hutu from identity papers and in fact they never use these words now as they are all just Rwandans. I asked him if people knew other people’s original tribe and he said that because the Tutsis were historically stock holders, they were brought up on good meat and milk and therefore they were taller and larger which makes it quite obvious. They also stayed together and developed certain facial features that are quite recognisable but neither side openly talk about it. With regards to forgiveness, they have worked very hard in this area. They held many counselling sessions, dealing with the pain and guilt and openly talk about everything. Unity peace and reconciliation became their number one focus and now 25 years on they call themselves proud Rwandan. When it comes to punishment, there was an International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda held in Arusha in Tanzania judging the people responsible for the genocide. Only 29 convictions were recorded so I asked our guide why so few and he told me that millions were involved in the killings and you couldn’t build enough jails for them all. It would also leave few men left in the country. I asked if they were held accountable at all and they were offered a choice – either serve a long sentence or have your sentence halved and work to rebuild the country instead. Most people took the second option and they built new roads, houses, schools, drainage etc. the results are a spotlessly clean country with very good roads, schools and living conditions.
We spent most of the morning here – it really is a moving experience and relies totally on donations – we will treasure our badges. When we came out the heavens opened so we sheltered in a little shop and decided that lunch at a bar was in order. Another ‘must do’ in Kigali is to visit the Hotel des Milles Collines. This hotel was made famous after the hotel Manager offered 1,268 people refuge inside the building and the film Hotel Rwanda was based on the story. We saw that it was only 3 km away so thought we would take a nice little wander over to have lunch there. We found out early on that Kigali is a town built on many hills and it took us an hour and a half to get there! Being a Sunday, everyone was dressed in their best clothes for church and they all waved at us as we walked by. We eventually found the hotel and spent a lovely afternoon listening to a band and chatting about the movie.
The next day we headed back into town for some exploring and shopping. We found the markets and a fantastic local restaurant. We were surprised at how clean Kigali is and how modern. There are no tuk Turks, donkeys, goats or chickens, all the cars are late models and they have proper road markings. It is the most western town I have seen in Africa and they don’t hoot their horns all the time. They are dressed very well, with the men very fashionable and the women in either traditional colourful dress or modern western wear. In fact I saw many more men’s clothes shops than women’s – very different.
The following day we had booked a car and driver for three days to take us up country to visit the other side of Rwanda. Our driver Joseph was a very gentle man and looked after us beautifully. We set off to to the Ngungwe National Park where we wanted to go chimp trekking. On the way Joseph gave us some facts about Rwanda and why it is so clean.
– on the last Saturday of every month, every Rwandan under the age of 45 works until 2pm cleaning the streets. (Australia take note)
– the retiree’s who have no money can clean the streets for an income without paying tax
– the primary school runs from 8am till 5pm with two different sessions. Half the kids go in the morning and the other half go in the afternoon. They turn about every week but it enables the whole population to be educated at primary level with only half the schools – Brilliant.
– every person pays 3,000 KS for their medical costs ($A5) including children and they only then pay 10% of the cost of their hospitalisation.
– the population has doubled to 12,000,000 since the genocide
We arrived at the park about 2.30pm and went on the Canopy Walk. This is a suspension bridge over the jungle which apart from being quite frightening at first gives an amazing feeling of being a part of the trees. There are three sections and you have to take a quide.
We spent the night at a lovely little guesthouse and met the people we were going on our chimp trek the next day. There are not many tourists here – most go and visit the gorillas but at $2500 each that was out of the question for us, the chimps are much better value at only $90 a head. Up at sparrows fart, we headed off into the park in the dark and arrived about 6.30am. After a quick briefing, we all set off for the trek into the jungle to see the chimps. We were quite lucky as we only had an hours walk before we saw some. They were a group of 3 males but they were high up in the canopy. We waited around and eventually they came down and we followed them for a long time before they started hollering. We were told that they only put up with humans for about an hour, after that if they are still in the canopy they either piss on you or poop on you!! By hollering at us it was a sign that they wanted to be left alone so we headed back. They are fabulous creatures, sharing a whopping 98% DNA with us humans. There are guards everywhere protecting these beautiful animals – a combined effort by the military, the police and private guards. They also involve the local community, employing a lot of them and giving 10% of the profits to them every year, also holding a big annual party with beer to keep them up to date on the progress. Sadly the last elephant in the park was killed poachers in 1999.
After the chimps we set off to a town called Kibuye. This town is on the banks of Lake Kivu which is a huge freshwater Lake which lies along Africa’s great Rift Valley bordering the Congolese border. Lake Kivu is 90m long and 50m wide, its Rwanda’s largest lake and the 6th largest lake in Africa. It has many small islands which are not inhabited. We hired a small boat and spent a couple of hours visiting the islands. One of the islands is called Prisoner island and is used as a type of drug rehabilitation centre. First criminal offence caused by a drug addict and they spend one year on the island getting free training – could be carpentry, building, etc. 2nd offence and they come back for another year training but 3rd offence is a lengthy prison term. Why don’t we offer help like this for our addicts? Another island has a more dismal past. A small island where unmarried pregnant girls were banished for life to starve to death. The Congolese used to sail over, rescue these banished women and take them back to the Congo. If they were not beautiful they would leave them!!
We spent a couple of days enjoying the lake and then went up to the north and stayed in Gisenyi. Our hotel Manager was a Rwandan who had spent 30 years in Belgium and returned as a young man and we met a couple of other returnees showing the confidence in the future for this tiny country.
Our journey back to Kigali was the last glimpse we got of this beautiful, green, clean forward thinking country. The roads are in great condition, the education system is working, the kids are polite, the people generous and kind. We were never ripped off and were spoiled by everyone. We are leaving richer for the experience and will come back again. Thank you Rwanda.
Amazing guys, loved this one.
Cannot wait to chat all about it.
Just. Wow. Nicely done Melian. Terrific reading.
Thanks Mike – East Africa has been amazing but we are now ready to leave. Waiting out with 3 other boats for the right weather window to head north through the Red Sea to Turkey. Will keep you posted. Xxx