No words can describe the beauty of Rwanda.
No words can describe the dark history of Rwanda.
Rwanda is a country of extremes: it is by far the cleanest country of Africa, maybe even the cleanest country we’ve ever seen, but there is still an extreme amount of poverty. Rwanda has stunning scenery, but we drive through many Congolese refugee camps. Rwanda doesn’t officially know a difference between the races within the country (Tutsi, Hutu, Twa), but there is still a lot of unspoken discrimination.
Still in Tanzania we actually start our journey through Rwandan history. In the middle of the Serengeti we meet 2 Dutchmen and a Dutch Rwandese, as we help them to jumpstart their car (yes, a Toyota jumpstarted by a Land Rover!). 3 days later we bump into them again, whilst we are having dinner in the same hotel as they are staying. We start to talk about Rwanda and learn a lot about the history and culture already. We receive some great tips about sites to visit, and can’t wait to actually cross the border. But as it happens most of the time here in Rwanda, the conversation turns towards the dark history of the country.
In 1994, about 800.000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus were slaughtered, in only 100 days, often at the hands of their friends, neighbours and colleagues. These events have left a massive scar on the country, and looking into people’s eyes we can still see the horrific and traumatic experiences people have gone through. Faces are turned numb, almost expressionless, without the same joy and happiness as we’ve seen in many other African countries. We are obviously not sure if this is the real reason, but speaking to many locals confirm our assumptions. Looking at these people, we want to know more about what has really happened only 20 years ago.
After staying our first night at the Women for Women opportunity centre, just across the border, we drive on towards Kigali where we stay with Joop & Sabine, good friends of Rieuwen and our hosts for the coming days. They truly welcomed us to their beautiful home and besides having a great time with them, they are also a great source of information for what we are going to experience!
To get to understand the history of Rwanda a little bit better, we visit the Kigali Genocide Memorial. A very well documented and impressive memorial about the extremes of the genocide. Especially the children’s section overwhelms us with a deep emotion, displaying the real life stories of kids that have been slaughtered in the most brutal ways. Walking around the memorial, which is also a mass grave in which over 250.000 people have been buried, we get a good insight of the horrible history of this country. A few quote from the memorial:
“If you knew me, and you really knew yourself, you would not have killed me”.
“When they said “never again” after the holocaust, was it meant for some people and not for others?”
“There will be no humanity without forgiveness. There will be no forgiveness without justice. But justice will be impossible without humanity”.
However, we feel that many of our questions are left unanswered. Therefor reading about the subject gives us a lot of information which is not covered in the memorial: “the State of Africa” by Martin Meredith, “We Wish To Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed Together With Our Families” by Philip Gourevitch” and “Shake Hands With The Devil” by Roméo Dallaire. The role of the UN (that basically was blind for the situation), the failure of humanity, the double agendas of politicians, corrupt countries and the complexity of the issues… horrifying, unbelievable and eye-opening… please have a read for yourself to understand the complexity and extremes of these events and about Africa in general.
After the memorial we grab a motor taxi to have lunch in “Hotel The Mille Collines”, which is the scene of the film Hotel Rwanda. In this very place over a 1.000 people were killed who had gathered to seek protection. Nowadays a luxury hotel with no reference to the past, but it is very interesting to be here and try to picture for ourselves what has happened. Finishing off our dive into history we visit a church in Nyamata, towards the border with Burundi. A very, very touching memorial has been established here by displaying the clothes of the more than 10.000 people who have been brutally slaughtered inside. On top of the church benches, piles of cloths remember all that have lost their lives. It becomes emotionally too much to process when we speak to a local lady who has witnessed everything herself and tells us some stories with an expressionless face… We just can’t understand how these people managed to pick up their day to day lives again. All these memorials (we drive past tens of them during our trip around the country) help the people mourn about their lost relatives and help to keep on telling the story at the same time.
Enough about the dark side of the country, back to the here and now, back to the “country of thousand hills and million smiles” as the local marketing machine likes to call Rwanda. Marketing or not, Rwanda is stunning!
After our fabulous stay with Joop & Sabine we do some shopping at the local market and we drive off to Nyungwe Forrest, a high-altitude rain forest with a mind blowing biodiversity. On route towards the park we drive through the rice and tea fields and have lunch in a local pub. We see prisoners, dressed in orange and pink suits, work in the fields to grow their own food. Most of them are serving long sentences because of the genocide. The prisoners are hardly guarded: we see only one guard walking behind a group of at least 30 prisoners when they walk across the streets towards the fields. No chains, no hand cuffs, they are almost free to run if they want to… but they don’t.
Reaching the Nyungwe forrest we are treated to some true Rwandan rain season weather. Bucketloads of water come down the black sky, turning the roads into rivers and mud pools. We set up camp on a roofed wooden platform with fire pit, and play some cards whilst we warm ourselves at the fire. The next day we are planning to go for a hike.
We walk through Africa’s richest biodiversity and are educated by our guide about the flora, fauna and the history of the rainforest. A nice and young guy, but he kind of plays off a story he most likely tells every day. Up to the moment we bring up the cleanliness of Rwanda. We feel that the guide is brought off balance and we push a bit more to hear more than just the standard story.
He then asks us if we would prefer to live in a poor but clean country, or a rich but dirty country? We ask ourselves why he asks us the question, and let him answer it for himself. “Our country is clean, but nobody has a job. How is that possible? Would you want to live here without a job?” He tells us the government spends all the money to show the outside world how well the country is off: clean, great roads, well organised. But at the same time it is almost impossible for people to start up their own business due to the high taxes and registration fees. Our guide is a trained accountant, but doesn’t have the money or the support to start his own business. “I want to move to Johannesburg, because people do have jobs there, although it is a dirty country”.
We tell him we know of many stories of people who have moved to Joburg because of the same reason, but ended up in informal settlements and without a job, living a maybe even worse live. We ask him how the education and healthcare system is. He seems to be impressed by these systems, since it is accessible and almost free for everyone. When we highlight these advantages, compared to a hard live in a South African informal settlement, it doesn’t seem to sink in. This story does tell us that people are not quite happy with the current situation, although it seems like Rwanda is doing a great job in recovering quickly from being a “dead country”.
Back at our campsite we have a “shower” using buckets of warm water by lack of proper shower facilities. We enjoy hot chocolate and pancakes around the fire when a staff member of a nearby hotel asks if he can join us. He is from Uganda and we talk about the question “what makes you rich”? He turns out to be a really nice and interesting guy and tells us the following story: “a ‘rich’ father takes his son to a ‘poor’ African community, with the intention to show his son what poverty is. Returning home, his son says: “Daddy, we are not rich at all. We have a tap with water, they have an entire lake. We have light bulbs, but they have millions of stars. We have meat and milk in the fridge, but they have a cow and sheep. This means that they are much richer than we are!”. We have heard this story before, but it is very interesting to hear this story again here in Africa. It tells us that despite the western influences, some people in Africa put being rich in a different perspective and realise you don’t need much money to be ‘rich’.
Driving towards the Congolese border the next morning we are treated to another massive shower. Water gushes into the car (the ‘beauty’ of driving a Land Rover), whilst we see people dance in the rain, tea pickers continue to do their work in the fields whilst a lady does her laundry in the water that runs through the gutters along the roads. Then suddenly, through the misty hills, we see Congo. Krijn so wants to visit this undiscovered country, however the current safety situation unfortunately does not allow for a visit. So close, but so far away… all that is left for us is to enjoy the views and a boat trip in Congolese waters… and it is just stunning! We see kingfishers and hawks dive for fish and local trimaran fishing boats being peddled forward by 12 guys whilst belting out songs to set the rhythm. We camp in the mud of the carpark of a hotel whilst we overlook the Congolese mountain ranges. We realise how crazy it is we lock ourselves in our houses in the safety of the Netherlands or Australia, and here, on the border of one of the most “dangerous” countries in the world, we just sleep in a tent with no locks, windows or walls….
For the coming two days we plan to drive the Congo-Nile trail, a track along the shores of Lake Kivu. It turns out to be the most beautiful road we have driven in Africa so far. Interesting enough, Rwanda is completely cultivated: every single piece of land has an agricultural purpose, and besides the national parks no real nature is left. This, however, creates stunning vistas reminding us of a Van Gogh painting. Rolling hills painted with little strokes of green, brown and red, lit up by yellow rays of sunshine breaking through the dark rainclouds. Absolutely fabulous!
On our way we visit a coffee factory and watch a massive thunderstorm roll in over the lake. When we ask for directions in a village, the entire village comes to a standstill. We have about 80 people standing around our car, and everyone has a different opinion on where we have to go. An old man can’t stop himself to stroke Krijn’s arm (they just love hair on arms) and we eventually manage to find the right way and set up camp on the lake shore.
We wake up to the sound people working on the land. As an oiled machine, or human factory as we like to call it, they dig up a hillside to flatten it for building purposes. About 20 man dig up the soil and stone with pick axes, whilst the ladies transport it like a human conveyor belt to the other side of the field. Putting the soil through a large sieve takes out the big pieces, allowing them to mix the fine soil with water to bake bricks. Optimizing resources to the max! Within 2 days the entire hillside is gone, ready to be built on…
Our last stop in Rwanda is Volcanoes National Park, the Rwandan side of the Virunga massive. A total of 5 dormant volcanoes create the border between Rwanda, Uganda and Congo, and are overgrown with rainforest. A stunning landscape allowing for the most beautiful walks. We decide to climb the Bisoke volcano, towering 3.711 meters above sea-level. Hiking in Volcanoes National park is not allowed on your own. Rather, you are “supported” by a team of 9 people, 5 of which are military. So, walking through this beautiful mountain range, we are eye in eye with an AK47 riffle every so many minutes. The official reason: to protect us from buffalos. The unofficial reason is to keep an eye on us and to listen to what we discuss with the guides. And maybe to keep the military fit for future unpleasant events around the borders (no speculation here btw).
A stunning hike, lasting about 8 hours, takes us to the crater lake on top of the mountain. However, the rainy season have completely turned the paths of the volcano into mud, leaving us sliding, tumbling and swearing up and down the hill. Krijn dies about 3 times during the hike, Linde runs up and down the mountain like a mountain goat. The views are rewarding enough to call it a successful day!
Uganda is our next destination: they call it the ‘Pearl of Africa’, so we can’t wait to explore this country. Whilst we write this blog, we have already spent an hour surrounded by mountain gorillas, maybe one of the most special experiences of our lives. We will however update you about this in a future blog!!