When you talk about Rwanda what comes to mind: the horrific, tragic genocide of twenty years ago. When we mentioned that we were looking forward to visiting Rwanda, we weren’t entirely surprised by the confused looks and cocked heads: “Why?”
Our visit to Rwanda was not to do gorilla tracking as most people visiting East African Nation purely for tourism in Rwanda might do. We’d read about Gorilla trekking, volcanoes, hiking and lakes, but mainly we were curious and wanted to see the country for ourselves. Atrocities should not be forgotten, but we know that people and places are resilient and they evolve, that life moves on. We were interested to learn more about the Rwandan genocide and its causes, our focus was to understand better Rwanda’s present and the future it hopes to build.
1) Rwanda = the “Singapore of Africa”!
The “Singapore of Africa” or “Switzerland of Africa.” Whichever analogy you choose, the meaning is clear: order, cleanliness, calm, rules enforced. To a surprising degree.
We arrived in Rwanda “The Land of a thousand Hills“after a long bus ride from Kampala, Uganda. Even at the border, we could sense a different feeling crossing into Rwanda – greater calm, slower movement. Streets were wide and clean, with little to no trash to be found. Motorcycle taxi drivers wore helmets and safety vests. Honking was almost non-existent. There was none of the frenzy of humanity and movement we’d become accustomed to in Kampala. This order isn’t reserved for cities, either. As we trekked through villages in Musanze district, we found front yard gardens and paths there were also well maintained.
This is an image of Rwanda vastly different than most people imagine — with genocide, chaos, and lawlessness still in mind. After speaking to both locals and expats who had lived there for a while, the emphasis on order began to make sense. To rebuild a country after an atrocity like the genocide, where 100 days in the spring of 1994 left more than one million Rwandans dead (approximately 14% of the population), a society that hoped to recover at all might need a sense of security and stability. In some cases, order and rules can help achieve this.
With stability –- and an eye to human rights as a basis of discourse — reconciliation and rebuilding can occur.
2) Ubiquitous Rwandan genocide reminders
Kwibuka At the National Stadium, 20 year on
Our visit this year to Rwanda coincided with the 20th anniversary of the Rwandan genocide. The calendar year is packed with events for remembrance, Kwibuka in the local language of Kinyarwanda.
Throughout the country, we found memorial signs that read Kwibuka 20: Remember, Unite, Renew. Signs were everywhere, in big towns and small, serving as a reminder that every village and every person was affected by the genocide.
We visited the Genocide Memorial in Kigali city to learn more about the conditions that led up to an environment where such systematic killing could occur. It very well done and provides the historical and socio-economic background of the Hutus and Tutsis, as well as the propaganda and psychological games that were used to motivate ordinary people to kill their neighbors. The narrative is also quite damning of the role of the Belgian colonial powers in actively fomenting distrust between Hutus and Tutsis. It shines a light also on the fact that the international community turned a blind eye to the events even as United Nations officials working in Rwanda called for help. Although some may argue the exact figures, it’s estimated that as few as 4,000 U.N. troops sent in at the beginning could have prevented the slaughter that unfolded over the next 100 days.
All that said, the memorial’s message is as even and even-handed as one could imagine emerging in the wake of such an atrocity. If you visit Rwanda, we highly recommend spending a few hours there.
We didn’t make any special trips to other genocide museums or memorials, including those that marked mass graves or churches where people were slaughtered. Quite honestly, there was only so much we could digest emotionally.
3) Rwanda, more than mountain gorillas
Most travelers come to Rwanda to see the mountain gorillas at Volcanoes National Park and leave, often to nearby countries as part of a broader trip in the region. This is really a shame as the country has some incredibly beautiful landscape, including lakes, volcanos and mountains. Not to mention the opportunity to visit local markets and villages to get a feel for everyday life in Rwanda. Note: We did not go mountain gorilla trekking in Rwanda as we were fortunate to see them in neighboring Uganda.
Rwandan Kids – Musanze, RwandaPlaying games with school kids on their way to class.
We focused our time in Rwanda on three areas – the town of Kibuye on the shores of Lake Kivu, Musanze district in the north and the capital city of Kigali. Although we could have explored other areas such as Akagera National Park and Nyungwe Forest, we were traveling with our friend, Shannon, and found ourselves content to take our time and relax after being on the road for a heavy travel month in Ethiopia and Uganda.
Lodge room view of Lake Kivu
Our first stop in Kibuye on the shores of Lake Kivu with a peaceful (and cheap) guest house run by the Catholic church overlooking the lake was just what we needed. I’m almost embarrassed by how much time we spent on the balcony gazing out over the lake, watching the light play games and absorbing the changes in the sky as the day progressed.
Mid-morning light, the deck outside our peaceful little perch ($15/night) above Lake Kivu — near the Congo border in Kibuye, Rwanda
Lake Kivu, Calm before the Storm – Kibuye, Rwanda late afternoon clouds move in on Lake Kivu for a sunset storm.
Volcanoes view in Rwanda
In Musanze, the jumping off point for Volcanoes National Park and Rwanda gorilla treks, we took a couple of day Safari trips by jeep and on foot to see the twin lakes (Lake Burera and Lake Ruhondo), the nearby volcanoes, and a scattering of local towns and villages.
Sign post for No Plastic Bags at the border point
4) First country to ban plastic bags
“Open your bags, please,” the Rwandan official asked at the land border crossing with Uganda.
Whereas this is an uncommon request at borders around the world, officials often search for contraband like alcohol, drugs, banned fruits and vegetables – Rwandan officials hunt for something more curious, plastic bags.
Border officials rifled through our backpacks. When they found a plastic bag, they would force us to remove its contents and hand it over. A bit of an inconvenience, but I was happy to forfeit a few bags for a worthwhile cause. If you’ve ever seen a landscape swamped in plastic bags, you’ll understand what I mean. And you’ll understand why Rwanda takes the approach they do.
So it is that Rwanda is the first country in the world to ban plastic bags (2006). And they take it seriously.
Even attempting to understand the world takes effort, more than a passing glance. And sometimes we get stuck, observing and unlocking. Rwanda, a walk through a village yields simple homes, yet well cared for. No trash & tended gardens. “There are rules here” said one Rwandan man, while another looked out and said “maybe this country aims to be the Singapore of Africa.” This is just a little girl, the brightness of a future that knows different than the past.
As you travel through the country, you’ll notice that it is remarkably and quite beautifully — plastic bag free. And when you buy something, the store provides you a paper or woven bag instead.
5) Inimitable African head-carrying balance
It’s not as if we had never seen women carry things balanced on their heads before, but in Rwanda this practice seems to be taken to an entirely new level of artistry and color. A common scene on the street: four or five women walking, talking, laughing and gesticulating dramatically — all while keeping their necks perfectly erect and large baskets of food or agricultural tools on their heads steady and tourists on a Rwanda safari can be given opportunity to try out this activity freely.
6) The slow food movement is taken literally in Rwanda
One feature that struck us in Rwanda was the glacial pace of food preparation and restaurant service. As in, you often must invest hours and plan ahead for meals.
First off, there is no street food in Rwanda — for hygienic reasons, we’re told. So options for a quick bite to eat are slim to none. So we often ate in restaurants, avoiding buffets where food had been sitting around, and ordering items a la carte.
We have no idea what was happening in those kitchens. At times something as simple as beans and rice, fried chicken or pasta would take an hour or two – or sometimes several – to appear. This happened consistently, independent of the price level of the eating establishment. It progressed to the point where we were forced to strategize food ordering schedules several hours in advance to avoid becoming ravenous and gnawing on our hands.
I’m all for slow food and fresh ingredients, but Rwanda took it to a whole new extreme.
7) Overnight language switch from French to English
“Parlez-vous français? Do you speak English?” This is how I approached everyone in Rwanda. I wasn’t linguistically schizophrenic. Rather, I just wanted to cover all communication bases. Older Rwandans often responded in French. Younger folks, English. Here’s why.
Until 2008, Rwandan schools and classes were administered in French language. Then one day, the government declared English the country’s official language in schools. Poof. That was it.
The reasons for the switch are many: English is more of a universal business language, most of Rwanda’s neighbors are English-speaking, and shared business language promotes trade and exchange. Not to mention, the switch further distances the country from Belgium and France and its colonial history with them.
However, the sudden switch meant linguistic confusion as instructors accustomed to teaching in French were suddenly expected to teach in English. Sink or swim, I suppose. As time passes, the level of English will improve as more English-speaking teachers are integrated into the school system. For now, however, it’s an advantage to speak a little French while traveling in Rwanda.
8) Umuganda: Community Days
On the last Saturday of each month, all Rwandans are called upon for Umaganda (meaning “contribution”), a national day of mandatory community service. Rwandans are expected to show up to contribute to public projects, to help build and clean. If you don’t show up, you can expect a fine. (Expats we spoke to told us they are exempt, however. At least no one seems to pursue them should they choose not to participate.)
In addition to helping to keep the country clean and organized, community service days are also meant to strengthen social ties by encouraging all members across society to work together, to know both your neighbors and local government officials better. While this practice has been in place for over a century, it now plays a part in strengthening community ties. tourist can also participate in this community service “Umuganda” as an experience while on a Rwanda Safaris.