Rwanda Part I – Border Jumping and Kigali

Rwanda is a land-locked country in Central Africa. Also known as the “Land of a Thousand Hills”, Rwanda has five volcanoes, 23 lakes and numerous rivers. The country lies 1 270 km west of the Indian Ocean and 2 000 km east of the Atlantic – literally in the heart of Africa.

Brief history of Rwanda

For centuries, Rwanda existed as a centralized monarchy under a succession of Tutsi kings from one clan, who ruled through cattle chiefs, land chiefs and military chiefs. The king was supreme but the rest of the population, Bahutu, Batutsi and Batwa, lived in symbiotic harmony. In 1899, Rwanda became a German colony and, in 1919, the system of indirect rule continued with Rwanda as a mandate territory of the League of Nations, under Belgium. From 1959, Batutsi were targeted, causing hundreds of thousands of deaths and sending almost two million of them into exile. The First Republic, under President Gregoire Kayibanda, and the second, under President Juvenal Habyarimana, institutionalized discrimination against Batutsi and subjected them to period massacres.

The Rwandese Alliance for National Unity (RANU) was formed in 1979 by Rwandan refugees in exile, to mobilize against divisive politics and genocide ideology, repeated massacres, statelessness and the lack of peaceful political exchange. In 1987, RANU became the Rwandese Patriotic Front (RPF). On 1 October 1990, the RPF launched an armed liberation struggle that ultimately ousted the dictatorship in 1994 and ended the genocide of more than one million Batutsi and massacres of moderate Bahutu who opposed the genocide.

After Kigali fell to RPA (RPF’s armed wing) on 4 July 1994, RPF formed a Government of National Unity headed by President Pasteur Bizimungu, bringing parties that did not participate in the genocide together. In 2000, Parliament voted out President Pasteur Bizimungu and RPF appointed then Vice-President and Minister of Defense, Major General Paul Kagame as the President of the Republic to lead the coalition government. In 2003 President Paul Kagame was elected with landslide majority to serve a term of seven years. During those seven years, the country made unprecedented socio-economic and political progress and consolidated peace, stability as well as social cohesion among Rwandans. In 2010, President Paul Kagame was re-elected to serve a second term and on a platform of rapid development for the transformation of the lives of all Rwandans.

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We reached the Tanzania-Rwanda border after a noisy night at the Meza Mission Station. In some small town, we bought the local variations of doughnuts and cupcakes, as well as four portions of chips, no eggs.

The first time at the border we drove straight past Tanzanian Customs and Immigration. We realised it when we crossed a big river (Kagera River), saw the “Welcome in Rwanda” sign and someone stopped us to take our temperatures (swine or bird flu and Ebola, we guess…). The second time around was a little more successful, as well as quick and painless.

Not so much so on the Rwandan side. Our first impressions were that they were much more sophisticated, with impressive buildings and technology. But we were unpleasantly surprised once we started the process. First we had to get our passports checked and stamped at the immigrations counter. Then we had to take it to the visas counter, waiting in a line. Then we had to queue to pay for the visas. Then back to collect visas and finally back to immigration to have it glued and stamped.

Then: repeat for the vehicle’s and trailer’s Carnet de Passages.

Then: walk all the way up the hill (past the gate) and back to buy the compulsory insurance before you are allowed to pass through the gate.

Two hours and fifteen minutes later at a-not-so-busy-at-all border ̶ in fact, there were fewer than twenty people ̶ we finally entered Rwanda.

At last we had beautiful, smooth, albeit very windy, tarred roads. We were joking about how much you would enjoy the mountain roads on a motorbike. With a trailer, it was slow going. The road was busy with trucks, buses, minibuses, cars, motorbikes (moto), bicycles and people. But there were almost no animals on the road, which was a first. Passing a slow-going vehicle on a bend, up a hill, driving ON THE RIGHT SIDE OF THE ROAD (we last did it in Dubai, so we were way out of practice) was impossible.

Whenever it was clear to pass on a bit of a straight road, I had to shout “go, go!” and Hugo had no choice but to trust me. The rest of the drivers on the road trusted some other deity; they passed as they wished without giving a thought to the blind hills and turns, nor the oncoming vehicles, whose drivers also had a firm belief in their own invincibility. These scary drivers, together with the delay on the border and Hugo’s fantastic defensive driving (it’s saved our lives more than once), caused us to arrive at the hotel after eight in the evening. Distance covered for the day: only 330 kilometers in maybe 10 hours.

There are no unused piece of land as far as the eye can see. With a population density of 390 people per square kilometre it is no wonder. The people are not deterred by the hilly terrain and every centimetre is cultivated and contoured. By hand!

Bananas occupy 35% of Rwanda’s cultivated land and accounts for 60% ̶ 80% of the income of subsistence-level households. Although bananas are not indigenous to Rwanda or Africa, scientists reckon the first bananas must have arrived at least a thousand years ago to account for the immense number of distinct varieties grown here. Bananas have many uses; sweet bananas are eaten raw or as a snack, and the more floury bananas are used for boiling, roasting or distillation into beer or wine.

Different parts of the fruit and plant are also used as cloths, strong rope, fish traps, for basketry, as umbrellas, aprons, bedding, roofing and for head pads women use to carry their loads. The fruit is traditionally regarded to have several medicinal applications, for instance as a cure for snakebite and for childish behaviour… (That’s why my husband and children are so well behaved; they love bananas!)

We stayed at the La Palisse Hotel in Kigali. Nothing fancy, but adequate. We had a bungalow way up the hill and were very relieved that we could drive up. Sophia slept on the sofa and Gustav with us. The hot water geyser was only switched on on our arrival, so we had to have a quick wash with cold water.

On the way, something went wrong with the charging of the trailer’s batteries and all our meat defrosted. Hugo was fed-up, as he had been struggling with our electricity for a while. We had to put the meat in the car’s freezer and the drinks in the trailer. At least we had the option!

On our first morning in Kigali, we decided to find another place to have breakfast. The meal La Palisse served us the previous night resembled and tasted like cardboard. We found a restaurant and German butchery-grocery store in our Bradt Guide. La Galette even exceeded our expectations; we went back twice more over the following few days for their food. Hugo bought lovely beef fillet at the butchery, which also did not disappoint. The small grocery shop obviously catered to the expat market and we were happy to find a few treats there.

Nakumatt is a massive grocery store in Kenya, which, on opening, apparently had the expat ladies in tears of happiness. It is massive; you can find anything from books and catering equipment to Bata shoes and car engines. Okay, maybe not car engines but probably everything else. We could find all the groceries we needed, as well as new plakkies (flip-flops) for the children. Again.

While driving around and visiting a few places, we soon realised that security in Kigali is serious business. Whenever you enter a parking area or building, you have to undergo a security search; mirrors are used to look under cars and boots and handbags are searched. We all had to walk through scanners as well.

Other peculiarities include that the last Saturday of the month is used to clean. On Umuganda or Public Cleaning Day, there is a countrywide ban on road traffic between 08:00 and 11:00. The whole country does communal work for the public good. Fellow travellers we met told us they had thought they had won the traffic jackpot one Saturday a few years before when there had been no other cars on the road. Until they got pulled over and had to wait until 11:00 before they were allowed to drive further.

Hugo found an ATM near La Galette where you could choose in which currency you wanted to make your withdrawal, US dollars or Rwandan franks! This is not something you come across every day.

Ironically, Rwanda has no tolerance for violence. So if you have an uncontrollable desire to go to jail for two years, just give your child a smack in public or try to bribe a government official. There is also a countrywide ban on plastic bags; our purchases were put in boxes or paper bags.

Coffee is another weird thing here. If you’re lucky, you can find good filter coffee (they have coffee plantations here, so I don’t get why you shouldn’t get it all the time) in a thermos with a little bowl of milk powder on the side. Hot chocolate also comes in a thermos. Even in a good restaurant. If you are not so lucky, you get vile instant coffee, with a side of milk powder. If you ask for fresh milk they bring a thermos of hot milk. It is freshly made powdered milk. [Ed: They don’t have cows? And this is the most depressing thing I’ve heard in a long time – vile coffee.]

On Wednesday, our third day in Rwanda, we went to a craft market and the Kigali Genocide Memorial. Two sides of a coin! The children were not allowed in at the memorial, but we decided beforehand that we didn’t want to take them in. Hugo went in first while I stayed with them, and I just did a quick run-through. Although it was very, it wasn’t as graphic as some other places (which we chose to avoid on purpose) where there were human remains on display. Photos sometimes don’t tell the full story; it feels as if you are watching a movie and not anything real. Because, how can something so horrible be real?

The genocide

It had been well planned, over a long period. Roadblocks were quickly erected and the army and interahamwe went into action, on a rampage of death, torture, looting and destruction. Tutsis and moderate Hutus were targeted. Weapons of every sort were used, from slick, military arms to rustic machetes. Orders were passed briskly downward from préfecture to commune to secteur to cellule –and the gist of every order was: ‘These are the enemy. Kill.’

In three months, up to a million people were killed, violently and cruelly. Barely a family was untouched. The international media suddenly found Rwanda newsworthy. Chilling images filled our TV screens and the scale of the massacre was too great for many of us to grasp. Amid the immensity came tiny tales of heroism: of villagers who flatly disobeyed the order to kill or who actively protected their Tutsi neighbours, at great (often fatal) risk to their own lives.

Many thousands of refugees streamed into the French ‘safe zone’ and still more headed towards Zaire, cramming into makeshift camps on the inhospitable terrain around Goma. The humanitarian crisis was acute, later to be exacerbated by disease and a cholera outbreak which claimed tens of thousands of lives.

We never experienced any undercurrents of hatred or anger. People everywhere were friendly and welcoming towards us. Again, fellow travellers had other experiences. When they were out in the city one evening they did not feel at ease. Many of the perpetrators have been released and are doing penance by community service, like working in the city gardens. You have to wonder how surviving victims feel when they look at them. And how they themselves felt once the craziness were over and they saw what they’ve done. I’m sure both situations are very hard to live with.

Locals told our friends that there are still feelings of animosity towards each other, twenty years on. BUT. On the surface they have come a hell of a long way, people are friendly, and everything looks clean and works. The roads are in a good condition, the children look well-fed and are going to school. It is this generation who will hopefully finally break the spell and make Rwanda even better than it already is. We loved Rwanda. It’s a beautiful country with beautiful people.

The colourful craft market balanced out the day with beautiful handmade items in all the brightest colours of the earth. Sophia bought a doll in a cheerful red dress with a baby on her back ̶ just the way local ladies carry their babies.

After three nights in Kigali, a stop at the car wash to have Petronella and the trailer washed, and many hours spent at DHL (laptop – don’t ask, maybe I’ll write that book on another day), we drove to Kinigi guest house, 1 km from Volcanoes National Park. The place is not too bad. Maybe two star (it has hot water!) with green lawns and a view on the Sabyinyo Volcano.

We left the children with the staff when we went gorilla tracking and they took great care of them, making sure they had enough to eat and drink. When we got back from the mountain, we found five of the employees playing soccer with the children. With avocados…

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