Land of a Thousand Hills (…and reasons to visit)

Having been to a number of countries in Africa and loving them all for different reasons, I actually think that Rwanda is by far, my favourite place on the continent. And yes, I know I’ve said that before but this time, I reeeeally mean it. I also acknowledge that there is a pretty good chance that I will say it again on my next trip there. What can I say? That’s what Africa does to ya…

If you’re looking for adventure, it’s not hard to find in Rwanda. You’ve got gorilla treks in Volcanoes National Park, safaris in Akagera National Park, and beaches along beautiful Lake Kivu.  For me, this trip was more to learn about the culture and history of the country, which I had wanted to do since…forever. And boy, I sure got it.

The capital Kigali sits over a series of seven mountains at an altitude of 1,300 to 1,600 metres, which makes for some beautiful scenery but also some very tiring jaunts around town. Of course, the people were amazing as they are elsewhere in Africa although everyone in Rwanda is a little more laid-back, in my opinion. Nobody bothers you when you walk around, and nobody cares that you’re a mazungo. The street touts who sell everything from fish to fruit to furniture aren’t pushy as I’ve encountered in many other places. And everyone greets you in a mish-mash languages; I heard Kinyarwanda, English, French and even a bit of Swahili, which I loved. Sometimes when I went out, I’d try to guess in what language people were going to address me. I was usually wrong, but I kind of liked that too.

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The hospitality was phenomenal at the Good News Guest House where I stayed. With gardens and fountains overlooking the entire city, it was really serene and peaceful. I was the only person staying there at the time as it was newly opened, so the owner Ben, his family, and staff bent over backwards for me. I imagine that now this place is quite busy and popular, but I assume the familial treatment has not waned; it was that good.

Ben, the owner, is a genocide survivor with an incredible and horrific backstory, and he also runs an NGO for the victims. We spent a ton of time talking about everything that happened, and he graciously took me around to the major genocide memorials as well as some of the lesser known ones. I think he was quite surprised that I was travelling through the country alone, so he invited me to tag along with him pretty much everywhere, which allowed me to see a lot of Kigali and some nearby towns.

Being with him also allowed me to see one of the hospitals, go to a wedding and traditional dowry ceremony, attend a harvest festival where the prime minister was, and meet with genocide survivors and orphans at a counselling session. I don’t know how the hell I meet such great people on my travels, but the chance meeting with Ben was quite significant to say the least.

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One of the things that impressed me most about Rwanda was its cleanliness. I knew going there that it was touted as the cleanest country in Africa but I can now attest to it. First off, plastic bags are banned there. Yes, banned! I heard that they even check all luggage coming into the country. Sure enough, when I got to the Uganda-Rwanda border crossing, they were searching all luggage and confiscating every plastic bag they found like it was contraband.

Anyone who travels a lot knows that you need to keep your clean clothes away from your semi-dirty clothes, your semi-dirty clothes away from dirty clothes, and your dirty clothes away from the scary clothes you haven’t gotten around to throwing out yet, so plastic bags are almost a necessity to keep all of it straight.

Therefore, I spent the day before in Kampala, throwing out all of my plastic bags and buying a ton of reusable ones to get myself organized for the journey.  To my surprise then, of all the people at the border checkpoint, I was waved through without the obligatory and expected violation. I think they probably took one look at the large house on my back and the mini house on my front and thought, “noooo, thank you” to going through it all. I was actually kind of annoyed due to all of my effort to de-plastic-ize myself, so I double-checked with the border guard if he was sure he didn’t want to take a look. He said “well, do you have any?” with a stern look, to which I replied “no” to which he replied “then why are you asking me to look Madam? Do you really want me to?” I didn’t want to explain it was based on all my hard work the day prior and the melange of filth in my backpack, so I just smiled and quickly slithered back on the bus.

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And the cleanliness initiatives didn’t stop there. There was no garbage in the streets of Kigali, none, nada, zilch. While the continent as a whole is beautiful beyond measure, most places I’ve been to in Africa have burning piles of garbage here and there and what appear to be mini landfills at random corners. But there…nothing. Downtown was immaculate and landscaped to the nines. There were actual crosswalks and sidewalks that people used, and public buses that all appeared to be safe. They also had this strange thing found all over the country…I believe it’s called ‘infrastructure’…which consists of construction work, road repair and city maintenance. Being form Montreal, these are odd sights for me to see, let alone in Africa.

The strangest sight was the moto taxis or what I’ve always known them as (crazy-take no prisoners-pray for your life) ‘boda bodas’. The drivers wore helmets and have a spare for their passenger…because it’s the law. And can only take one person at a time…not three + a chicken + a suitcase + a bag of beans, which I’m used to. And they wear special vests for designated public transport. And they appear not to have taken driving lessons from the school of the blind. It was wild.

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Another thing about Rwanda that I’m trying to reconcile is how it got such a bad rap. Before going, many of my friends and family remarked that they were worried about me being there and even some of my mazungo co-travellers in Uganda were surprised. Honestly, I think that Rwanda is by far the safest of all the countries I’ve been to in Africa. I can only chalk up the negative stereotype to the Genocide of the 1990s, having permanently stigmatized Rwanda as being dangerous. However, when you think about it, Rwanda has seen relatively little violence since then compared to some of its neighbours in the region.

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On that note, I must rant a bit about the Genocide and its effect on the country. I visited the Genocide Memorial Museum in Kigali as well as the infamous Ntarama and Nyamata churches, both massacre sites, which are about a 30-minute drive from Kigali proper. Similar to my visits to Auschwitz in Poland and the Killing Fields in Cambodia, I can’t say that I ‘enjoyed’ going, but I can say that they were some of the most moving places I’ve seen and left me with a newfound respect for the resilience of Rwandans. I learned and reflected on a lot about the Genocide during my time there, and I began to feel much contempt for the colonial powers that sparked the ethnic divide long before the first Hutu killed the first Tutsi or the first Tutsi killed the first Hutu.

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It was quite difficult to shake those visits, and I found myself looking at people and wondering to what degree they were affected since pretty much EVERYONE in this country was affected in one way or another. I wasn’t trying to be morbid; it was more so with immense respect for their ability to carry on and live peaceful lives.

Almost 1,000,000 people were massacred in just 100 days. 1,000,000 people. 100 days. Another two million were tortured, raped, mutilated, orphaned and/or displaced. That was 2/3 of the population at the time. And all of this took place while the world turned its back and let it happen. Only handfuls of soldiers were sent by the West. Handfuls. Yet this country, about 20 years later, was by far one of the safest, cleanest, most organized, well-run, pleasant societies I have come across. Yes, there has been some Western help to rebuild it since, but most of the rebuilding has come from Rwanda itself. That is resilience, folks. That is Rwanda.