Rwanda – Return to Kigali

We were last in Rwanda in November 2013. I am back for a few days to support a project which the family has sponsored through an NGO, SURF (the Survivors Fund): the Young Entrepreneurs Training Program (YETP).

It is the “short rains” season. Soft, low clouds sit atop the hills of Kigali. Standing on the balcony of my room at the Mille Collines hotel, on one of the city’s highest hills, feels like standing in a sea of clouds.

The weather is cool in the early morning when I go for a run. I am reminded of how eerily quiet Rwanda can be when I run past hundreds of pupils walking to school in almost complete silence. The blanket of silence which covers Kigali is only broken when a car drives past, reminding me that I can still hear.

I am struck again by the almost supernatural cleanliness of the place. Not even a cigarette butt on the streets. Rwandans are by nature disciplined and respectful of authority. When they were instructed by the government to stop discarding their garbage on the streets (as is the custom in the rest of Africa), they quickly complied, making Kigali one of the cleanest cities in the world.

It is possibly that same unquestioning sense of obedience to authority which explains how the gentle Rwandans were engulfed in the Genocide. Maybe people just picked up their pangas and slaughtered their Tutsi neighbors when ordered to do so by the Hutu extremist government in 1994.

Rwanda’s recovery in the last 20 years, the dignity with which it has worked to overcome the sequels of the Genocide make it a particularly haunting and attractive place.

view of Kigali from my room at the Mille Collines
budding entrepreneurs supported by SURF
one of the winners of a YETP grant has set up a beer distribution company
urban sprawl of Kigali

Rwanda: journey into the past

Two hours’ drive from Kigali, Nyanza, the Rwandan kingdom’s traditional capital is a forlorn looking place with the remains of a pre-colonial royal palace, as well as a modern palace built for the king by the Belgians in 1932. The modern palace, now an art museum, is empty and in the dark when we visit.

modern king’s palace in the distance, Nyanza
Ankole cow, a royal symbol, on the grounds of the old palace in Nyanza

A few miles from Nyanza, Butare (renamed Huye), is the ex-colonial capital of Rwanda, and its intellectual capital today. It is home to Rwanda’s top university, the National University of Rwanda, and to several research institutes. Butare also has an exceptionally good ethnographic museum.

In the Belgian colonial days, it was the seat of government, had the country’s first public school, its first aeroport and its first theater. Today it is a sleepy but charming town, with the distinguishing characteristic of having the country’s only cafe which sells soft serve ice cream. A major motivation for the four hour round trip to Butare !

grounds of the National University
Butare ethnographic museum
the prize!

Rwanda: Umuganda

Every last Saturday of the month, from 8 to 11am, is Umuganda. The whole country stops working and people do community service. Clusters of 100 houses form a group, and each group selects a community service project to work on. It could be building terraces on hillsides for farming, repairing a road, planting trees or cleaning up the neighbourhood. Senior government figures including the president join in.

Umuganda was initially set up to help rebuild the country after the Genocide. Most importantly, it is a way of getting the different ethnic groups to rebuild bridges amongst themselves.

There is a typically Rwandan twist to this, though. That monthly community service day is mandatory and strictly enforced. Police set up roadblocks and stop anyone not participating in Umuganda. During those three hours, usually subdued Kigali feels even more eerily quiet.

Rwanda: 100 days of darkness

Reminders of the Genocide are everywhere in Rwanda. During a hundred day period, in 1994, one million (mainly Tutsi) people were killed in their homes, in schools, in churches, on the streets. Neighbour killed neighbour. Friend killed friend. Parents killed their children’s school friends. Priests facilitated the killing of their flock. The victims were not simply killed. The goal of the genocidaires was to deprive the Tutsi of their humanity. The victims were endlessly tortured and humiliated before being killed. Parents were made to watch as their children were first tortured, then killed. Women were systematically raped by HIV-positive men. Today, 67% of the survivors are HIV-positive.

Just outside of Kigali, in pretty countryside, there are two churches which were the scene of massacres in April 1994.

In Nyamata, 11,000 Tutsi who had sought refuge  in the church were slaughtered with hand grenades and finished off with machetes and clubs. The church has been left as it was 19 years ago, its walls bullet ridden, its furniture shattered. The blood stained clothes of the victims have been piled up on all the church benches and every other available space; some other belongings, watches, crucifixes, are stuffed in boxes.

The bones of thousands of Tutsi are displayed in crypts inside the church and in the gardens around it. The skulls, neatly lined up all bear the marks of lethal wounds.

There is a school somewhere near the church and we can hear children playing and laughing in the distance – as we enter the church, the darkness closes in on us, and the laughter outside becomes fainter, almost unreal. Walking through the church, alone, surrounded by the thousands of shapeless clothes, we feel like we have left the world of the living. The borders between nightmare and reality are blurred. We can see the faint outline of the dead shifting in an out of focus. We feel the cold breath of Death just behind us and do not dare to look back.

Ntarama is smaller than Nyamata. Here again, we are alone with a custodian who guides us around. The church was badly damaged by grenades and fire. It has also been left untouched since the massacre, 19 years ago.

5,000 Tutsi were slaughtered here and the shreds of their clothes are hanging from every rafter in the building. There is no mass grave in Ntarama, so the bones of the dead have been grouped together in coffins which are piled high inside the church. Bins contain their other belongings. One is full of shoes. Another, full of pots and containers which they had brought with them when they fled here.

In one small outbuilding, we find the torn and blood stained books and games which the children had brought with them. In another outbuilding used to host Sunday school, the wall which the killers used to smash the babies still bears their blood stains.

A poignant phrase on the broken altar of the Ntarama church reads: “if you had known yourself, and known me, you would not have killed me”.

When we return to the busy, well organized streets of Kigali, that afternoon, we see it in a different light. People are almost maniacally organized and purposeful because they can’t afford a moment of idleness which would bring back the memory of those 100 days of darkness.

Rwanda: where Rwanda ends and the Congo begins

Gisenyi, on the northern tip of Lake Kivu is a pretty town which blends seamlessly with Goma, in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Gisenyi acts as a sort of service town for Goma and the Eastern Congo, with many businessmen, NGOs and UN soldiers who work in the Congo keeping their residences here, shopping, banking and dining here.

The gleaming new cars in Gisenyi, fancy restaurants and branches of every known bank in East Africa are testament to the thriving border trade – and to the fact that the DRC’s mineral wealth is still seeping out of the country.

where Gisenyi ends and Goma begins
colonial-era bungalow

While there are two official border points – the Petite Barriere for foot traffic and small traders and the Grande Barriere for cargo and vehicles, the border between the two towns is, at times, hard to distinguish.

Houses on one side of the street are in the DRC, the others in Rwanda. A certain tree is in the DRC whereas its neighbours are in Rwanda. One clever businessman has even built a house straddling the border, with one door opening onto the DRC and the other onto Rwanda.

When I go for an early morning run along the croisette of Lake Kivu, I almost stumble into the DRC when I do not notice that I’ve just crossed a Rwandan customs’ barrier.

lake Kivu (don’t light a cigarette near it – it is full of methane gas)
tea gardens, in the highlands around Gisenyi

Rwanda: the boys go to town

While we visit the gorillas, the boys, who are to young to come along (only 15 olds and above may visit the gorillas), go and and spend time in a nearby village.

the chief gives a briefing
in church, Conrad is asked to address the congregation
…and now they get to work
archery lesson
medicine man at work

Rwanda: gorillas of the Virungas

Each volcano of the Virungas plays host to two or three gorilla families.

The first Silverback we see makes a dramatic entrance. He appears suddenly from the top of the hill in an explosion of breaking bamboo and swinging vines. Much bigger than we had imagined, with his white back shining in the sunlight.

There are only about one thousand mountain gorillas left in the world, all of them living in the Virunga volcano chain between Rwanda, Uganda and the Congo. The gentle giants tolerate us among them as they go about their day – the adults chomping on bamboo shoots and the babies playing and comically thumping their chests.

The huge apes are uncannily human in their behaviour, and when one of them turns around and stares, it feels as if they are looking deep into our souls.

the Sabinyo family
Katonda, the world’s largest known silverback

There are ten habituated groups in the Parc des Volcans, on the Rwandan side, including the original four groups studied by Dian Fossey. Each group is headed by a Silverback, a mature gorilla whose back fur has turned to silver. The eldest Silverback is always in charge and, unlike what happens with chimpanzees, he does not get challenged by the younger ones.  These either bide their time until the leading Silverback dies to succeed him – or they leave the group to try to form a new one elsewhere.

We visit with two families, the Hirwa and the Sabinyo groups, the latter headed by the world’s largest known Silverback, Katonda, who weighs 220kg. Spending time with the gorillas is strangely addictive – and it is hard to leave them

baby gorilla
up close and personal
graves of Dian Fossey and gorillas killed by poachers at the Karisoke research station

Rwanda: volcano magic

The Virunga chain of eight volcanoes straddles Rwanda (which has five of them), the Congo (DRC) and Uganda. Constantly shrouded in clouds, with bamboo forest clinging to the volcanoes’ sides, it is a hauntingly beautiful region. 

The rare apparition of the cone of a volcano, when the mist clears for a brief moment feels almost like an illusion. Within a few minutes, the clouds resume their grip and we wonder whether the volcanoes were just a figment of our imagination.

the Virungas, with the DRC in the background
Mount Doom
lost in a sea of clouds
blending into the scenery

Rwanda: Switzerland of Africa

Kigali feels like an African city would be if it were dreamed up by the editors of Monocle magazine . Located at an altitude of 1600m, it has a pleasant temperate climate.

With dozens of hills dotted around the city, parks and wide, tree-lined avenues, it is an attractive and scenic city. The roads are perfectly asphalted and well lit at night. Colonial Belgian bungalows rub shoulders with modern skyscrapers. The streets are so clean that one could sit down and have a kaiseki dinner on the ground. It is full of intriguing little restaurants and cafes.

Kigali is probably the safest city in Africa. The only one where I would walk a kilometre back to my hotel late at night. Surrounded by chaotic cities in an unstable region, Kigali is a safe haven for us to catch our breaths before we continue our Odyssey. Compared to the exciting, colourful chaos of other African cities, Kigali is almost boring – something we do not mind after over three months of “excitement” in Africa !

view of Kigali city center
the leafy and upmarket Nyarutarama district in Kigali
the busy Nyarugenge district, in central Kigali
Hotel Rwanda

a Kigali institution

Alternate reality

The first hurdle in preparing our journey to Rwanda is to go completely plastic-free. Plastic (bags, especially) is banned from Rwanda, a rule which is strictly enforced at the borders. Customs searches which yield plastic bags typically lead to public humiliation and a lecture in front of one’s fellow travellers – a fate we would rather avoid. It is hard to imagine how many plastic bags of all sizes are needed of a year of travelling. And how few the substitutes are.

from Fort Portal to the Rwandan border

The Uganda-Rwanda border is a small group of low-rise huts and kiosks in the middle of a remote, dusty road. Exiting Uganda is fairly easy if somewhat disorganized. Our driver drops us off near a vaguely official looking building and then vanishes. We get our passports stamped and then walk across the border into the no man’s land, past a bored looking border guard, dodging trucks and motorcycles along the way.

traffic jam at the border
it is faster to cross the border on foot

The Rwandese side is apparently more organized, with smart looking immigration officials in a small open air building with more computers than NASA Mission Control. After being sent from one hut to another and back again, we get through Immigration and finally set foot on Rwandan soil, about one hour after reaching the border.

finally on Rwandan soil

Rwanda feels a bit like an alternate reality of Uganda. Similar in appearance, but with subtle differences.

The landscape is green and hilly with terrace fields on either side of the border. And the people look similar. But all the rest is different. Where the Ugandan roads are pot-holed earth tracks, Rwanda has perfectly asphalted and landscaped roads. In Uganda, vehicles terrorize anything smaller than them off the road (cyclists, pedestrians, motorbikes), but in Rwanda they politely give way to them. 

Ugandan roadworks just appear in the middle of a road, blocking traffic in a random way, while in Rwanda, they are set up with traffic controllers communicating with walkie talkies. And the garbage-littered roads of Uganda give way to spotlessly clean roads in Rwanda.

Nine hours after leaving Fort Portal, we finally reach Kigali, a city nestled among the hills which seems like a haven of peace, order and organization.