Rwanda provided some of the most memorable moments of my travel life and is a place I hope to visit again. Sharing my experiences to inspire yours.
It is a thought-provoking nation, a country of contrasts and one that creates conflicting emotions. I experienced the thrill of getting up close and personal with mountain gorillas yet feared for the future of these endangered creatures. I was mesmerised by the stunning lush landscape and pleasant climate but learned of significant poverty that plagues so many of the people. I was hypnotised by the vibrant, colourful clothing worn by locals as I watched people walk long distances on pot-holed roads with few vehicles. And I saw signs that Rwanda is developing as a nation as it recovers from the brutal atrocities of 1994, but learned that there were still hoards of prisoners awaiting trial for the part they played.
The Rwandan genocide is like a black cloud that remains after a storm in an otherwise blue sky.
But this sky is getting brighter and Rwanda is a country that has so much to offer a traveller with an open mind and adventurous spirit.
The town of Ruhengeri is the closest location to the mountain gorilla trek headquarters and receives a number of foreign visitors as a result. In an effort to make a living from tourism in the area, a group of locals have created a Cultural Village. I have visited many locations around the world that offer a ‘genuine local experience’ where I suspect a traditional show is performed by locals who return to their modern lifestyles after pocketing naïve tourist’s dollars. So I found the Cultural Village a refreshing change.
It is a staged village where no one lives. Its sole purpose is to demonstrate the Rwandan village lifestyle through demonstrations of housing, hunting, cooking, music, dancing and a very entertaining medicine man who was only upstaged by a characteristic Pygmy who led the dancing demonstration. As we watched the locals perform, other locals watched us as children, women and men appeared seemingly from nowhere to observe curiously from the side-lines.
It was a thoroughly enjoyable day and not only provided some interesting background on the Rwandan countryside lifestyle but was an opportunity to mix with friendly and entertaining locals through general conversation, banter and of course the obligatory group dance at the end!
Travellers can sometimes get a bit jaded by ‘touristy’ moments and we sometimes forget the importance of tourism as an income to locals in developing countries. We were reminded of the contribution our visit was making to the lives of these locals who were just trying to make ends meet at the end of the day, when they reminded us we were now ambassadors for Rwanda and begged us to tell all our friends and families to visit the country.
“Rwanda is not just about the genocide. We have more to share and more to offer” was a comment from one local that I have not forgotten.
However history does tend to repeat itself, and if we do not learn then we will never progress....
Kigali Genocide Memorial Centre & Museum via jkaplan
The Rwandan Genocide took place in 1994 and saw the mass murder of over 20% of the population in just 100 days. It was the murder of Rwandans by Rwandans. I was 20 years old at the time and whilst I’m ashamed to say I don’t remember much about it at the time, sadly I know I am not alone. Unfortunately there were people who WERE aware of it at the time but chose inaction as a course of action. The international community’s lack of response to what was happening in the country in 1994 should be one of our most shameful regrets.
A visit to the Kigali Genocide Memorial Centre and museum is a heart-breaking but essential experience for anyone traveling in Rwanda. The Museum is an educational memorial that increases awareness of acts of genocide both in Rwanda and other parts of the world in the hope that education leads to the prevention of future tragedy. It also serves as a memorial to aid locals during the grieving process.
It’s difficult to leave the museum with a dry eye and my head was plagued with so many conflicting thoughts. It’s difficult to comprehend the brutal atrocities that humans are capable of inflicting on each other but it’s also difficult to judge the actions of those who turned on their own neighbours and family members. How would I act if the alternative was my own death or watching the torture or a more brutal death of a loved one? I’m so thankful I’ve never been in the position to find out.
There are less than 800 mountain gorillas left in the world and half of them live in the Virunga Mountains which covers the intersection of the Rwanda, Uganda and Democratic Republic of Congo border, is famous for the studies of Dian Fossey and infamous for the on-going human conflicts and poaching that have contributed to the gorilla population decline.
Joining a trek to spend an hour viewing these endangered creatures in their natural habitat is the main reason most travellers visit Rwanda and I was no exception. I have never come across anyone who has trekked to mountain gorillas in Rwanda and regretted it. Encountering a family of gorillas who acknowledge your presence with a passing glance that borders on ignorance, turning around to find an intimidating silverback approaching you and observing a large female with an infant on her back climb a tree with an agility that seems to contradict her powerful build is an unbelievable experience. Getting up close and personal with the creatures who are over 98% similar to the human race and realising the main reason they are endangered is because of actions of that same human race is very thought-provoking.
There have been moments in my life when I have had a sudden awareness of both the insignificance of the human race in the bigger scheme of things and the importance of the human race playing our part in the bigger scheme things. This was one of those moments.
Someone once asked me what the worst thing about a RTW trip is? My instant reply was ‘that it has to end’ but the second worst thing for me was leaving one part of the adventure behind to start another. I had just spent three amazing months in Bolivia before I arrived in Africa and although I was excited about the next stage of my adventure, I was quite sad at saying goodbye to the friends I’d made and leave a country I was enjoying so much. I had also been travelling independently in Bolivia and had now joined an overland tour which I was having a little trouble adjusting to. I felt I had lost my travel mojo!
It returned in Rwanda! The thought provoking and conflicting emotions that Rwanda created in me helped me find my travel mojo again. There was something incredibly energising about being in a country that had been through so much and yet was full of survivors. I felt inspired by the strength of the human race, I felt inspired by the beauty of the rolling green hills surrounding me and I felt inspired by the encounter I had with the majestic mountain gorillas. My travel mojo had returned!
At the time of my visit, Rwanda was aiming to become the African centre for internet technology and had plans to build a backbone for high-speed internet in the form of a fibre-optic network and advanced data centre. At the time of my visit these were just plans. However, like most places in the world these days, it didn’t take long before I came across an internet café in the town of Ruhengeri and I took the opportunity of a few free hours to catch up on some emails, expecting a slow connection.
The internet café looked like a small classroom with four rows of four desks, computers and chairs. I took the only available computer in the back corner and was surprised but not disappointed that no one had given me a second glance as I sat down. I was right about the slow connection and as I patiently waited for my Hotmail account to load, I looked up to take in my surroundings.
It was then I realised why no one had noticed my arrival. Every chair was occupied by a Rwanda male between the age of 15 and 30. And every computer screen was playing porn!
BED BUGS! The opportunity to leave our tents for a few nights and sleep in a dorm was not one I was going to refuse and I looked forward to getting into a bed that was already made for me and getting up in the morning without having to pack it up again. It seemed I wasn’t the only one who enjoyed the comfort of the bed however as I woke up covered in the bites that every backpacker has experienced at least once in their lives. Those damn bed bugs!
The Final Word &nbp; Rwanda. Thought-provoking? Yes. Conflicting emotions? Yes. Would I return? Definitely!