Forever Hills-Take my Breathe Away
Random strangers and familiar faces alike asked me why I wanted to go to Rwanda; before I went, while I was there, and after I came back. People asked me on Instagram, Facebook, in person; it was bizarre to me, didn’t people know anything about anything? Clearly not! I take for granted my fairly impressive geographical and historical knowledge of the world. My only regret on this trip was that I didn’t spend enough time in Rwanda.
I am by no means an expert on the world but I can at the very least locate in my mind, almost any country and I can successfully name them all in under 20 minutes, thanks to Sporcle. More often than not I can tell you something about each and every place. It seemed to me like an obvious question, why would I want to go to Rwanda? So here’s a list to name a few: Landscape, Mountain Gorillas, History, Culture, and the fact that Rwanda is one of a few countries in the world to have banned plastic bags and has developed faster than most developing countries, while taking strides to develop in an ecologically sustainable manner. Not to mention it is the safest country on the continent of Africa and one of the safer countries in the world. While I did not see the Gorillas in Rwanda; our reason being we also wanted to hike Nyiragongo and see the Virunga, it seems that the Gorilla trek in Rwanda has become one of luxury that few can afford. We didn’t really think our timing through, with all the travel to and from, we really only had 2 full days and nights plus 2 evenings in Kigali.
Yvan met us at the Kigali airport, after a 2-hour delay in Nairobi. Sadly, that meant the half day we thought we’d have, was wasted sitting around. Yvan is the driver for 2000 Hotel and an all around lovely human being, but more on that later. After a very informative chat in which we learned the ins and outs of how some Muslims get around not being able to eat pork or drink alcohol (just ask God to make it chicken), we arrived at our hotel with one thing on our mind, foooooooooood! Maysa being a traveler of the foodie persuasion really wanted to eat some local food but our hotel served only Chinese and Western food a trend we would find out is prevalent in Kigali. Regardless our food was delicious, as was my Mutzig beer. Around 8pm we went back to our room completely zonked and crashed till about 5am.
Complimentary breakfast finished we set about trying to apply for our multiple entry East Africa Visa; I had to apply for a single entry to Rwanda for the first 2 days, because we were leaving and coming back in and if you leave the EA zone, as we were doing to the Congo, then your T12 Visa would be void. As a Canadian I had to apply 3 days in advance so I was a bit stressed about getting it done in time. I had troubles trying to do it in Abu Dhabi, the photos wouldn’t upload but after much trial and error, we noticed a very small notification that the photos were too big, they had to be less than 40kb which is very small!
Visas sorted we set off for Kimironko Market; a great place to go if you are looking for a marvelous selection of fresh food, colourful textiles, woven baskets, and jewelry. A taxi from our hotel (downtown) to the market would have been about 5-6000 francs but a motorcycle taxi was only 1000. Maysa was a bit nervous but being the frugal type she felt compelled to save 4-5000 francs; myself, having ridden a boda-boda on streets with potholes the size of craters, in Umoja, Nairobi with 2 other people, without a helmet, swerving through Matatus, at 3am I was, well…also nervous. In Kigali however, there appears to be a law about drivers wearing helmets and carrying a second for their passengers, so I felt much more reassured.
Kimironko Market is cramped, with enough space for 1 person to stand and another to shimmy through. The vendors are very eager to sell their stuff which can make the experience a bit intense but such is life in these types of markets; it was a hell of a lot more relaxed then the old souq in Dubai. I am a fast shopper, I see what I want and am very decisive about my purchases, Maysa on the other hand is not a fast shopper, meaning that I spent a fair amount of time waiting for her to peruse over countless bolts of fabric, asking a million questions and finally buying 1 strand of paper beads. Maysa and I are basically opposites but as they say, opposites attract and as such we discovered on this adventure that we travel very well together. Maysa is slow at most things and subsequently, usually late where as I do everything fast and am almost always on time or early. We balanced each other out, me learning patience as I waited for her to get ready and her learning to speed things up a bit because my patience is not inexhaustible.
Finished at the market we decided to walk for awhile in the direction of our next destination, Inema Arts Center, thinking we would catch a motorcycle taxi after we found a place to eat, but we walked and walked and didn’t find much of anything. About an hour or so later, we happened upon an interesting looking place and sat down for some food. It’s not worth mentioning the name of this restaurant because the food took forever (simple order and no one else in the restaurant) and the coffees we ordered were not what we received and nothing was particularly tasty.
We continued on walking, passing incredible viewpoints, the famed Convention Center, some promising looking restaurants (if only we’d kept walking); Kigali is all green and red dirt hills which makes for a wonderful contrast in a photo but there was too much haze to get a clear shot. I think the haze must come from the coal fires that you smell burning in much of the city.
Inema Art Center was started by 4-6 brothers who are all artists; their work is displayed throughout the galleries; they teach art to kids and sell their works to raise money for orphans, they also hold art jams and every Thursday have happy hour. The brothers are all very talented in their own right but each with their unique style. The common thread being the vibrant colours they all use throughout their art. One of the brothers, Emmanuel, while not only being a stunningly gorgeous man, also makes these really cool aerial landscapes with old mother boards and recycled materials including bits of East African print textiles.
If you want local food then get a local recommendation, thanks to one of the 4-6 brothers at Inema Art Center we found ourselves hunting for ‘The Executive Car Wash’. The restaurant was somewhat confusing to find as it goes by a few other names, however it seems to be a popular local place which meant our motorcycle taxis knew exactly where to go. They dropped us off at the entrance to a big dirt lot and at first we thought they had brought us to an actual car wash, as we walked in the dark past a few car washes, people looking at us very amused until we decided to ask someone if there was a restaurant about. Indeed, there was but we had unwittingly walked past it. The Car Wash is an outdoor restaurant with a bar in one corner and the BBQ area in another, plastic tables and chairs set up in the middle and reggae music playing to set the mood. It was an very informal looking place but their service was top notch and the food even better. We decided on Nyama Choma which is originally a Kenyan dish that is served all over East Africa. After they cook your leg of goat, a man brings it to the table and cuts the meat straight off the bone onto a plate. The meat was perfectly fragrant and tender. To date this was one of the best meals I’ve had in East Africa.
The next day we woke up early for breakfast and the Amahoro Tours driver, Kevin, picked us up to take us to the Grand Barrière (border between Rwanda and the DRC) for our Congo adventure. After having driven through the countryside I can honestly say that Rwanda is one of the most impressively stunning landscapes I’ve seen. Rolling green hills that go on forever, perfectly maintained roads, no garbage to speak of and volunteers on the roadside sweeping up stray twigs and leaves; Rwanda is quite literally the cleanest country I have ever seen. Not to mention courteous and friendly. We had the pleasure of returning through these same hills a few days later and it was no less striking.
One of my brother’s oldest friends lives in Kigali, so when I was planning our trip I got in touch with him to see if he had any advice or recommendations; he gave us the name of Amahoro Tours for our Congo trip, some useful tips for our time in Rwanda. He also offered to let us stay at his house. He and his family were in Canada at the time but he had 3 other boarders staying at his home. We arrived at his home, settled into a hillside overlooking part of Kigali. Maysa and I, having just descended Nyiragongo that morning, we were way too excited about taking a shower. We were incredibly sore from our trek and very tired but we decided we need to power on to make the most of our time in Kigali. It being a Thursday night, we thought it would be an optimal to check out the nightlife but as it turns out, nightlife in Kigali seems to be exclusively the domain of Friday and Saturday. We went to Papyrus nightclub, as it seemed the most promising, it was very quiet when we got there so we sat on the balcony and had a snack hoping that the vibe would pick up a bit. Unfortunately, it did not and after a little while we decided to call it a night. The following night (Friday) however, that same club was packed.
On our last day in Kigali we slept in and then went for breakfast at a place called “Question Coffee”, they didn’t have much of a food selection but the pain au chocolate was sufficient and they roast their own coffee beans so the coffee is fresh and strong.
Speeding through the city on a boda boda towards the Genocide Memorial, I felt very nervous. I am an avid fun haver and museum avoider but you just can’t visit Kigali, or truly appreciate present day Rwanda without visiting the memorial. Within the first few minutes of the introductory video we were both crying. The hours we spent inside the memorial exhibition was emotionally draining, but informative and poignant.
Throughout the exhibition there are videos of genocide survivors telling their stories of extreme loss. The displays chronical Rwanda’s history beginning with the Colonial takeover, detailing how Tutsis and Hutus came to be distinguished and segregated from one another. The images and information fully brings to light the depravity and ignorance of the Belgians who invaded Rwanda, the picture that stays with my mind is of a Belgian man measuring the facial features of a Rwandan in order to categorize and divide them. The exhibits detail the political instability, media propaganda against the Tutsi and how terrifying their world became on April 7th, 1994. It shows how the French, funded, armed and supported the Hutu militia. We learned about the different political leaders who had a hand in bringing down the President’s plane in order to start the “revolution” and all of the other backroom machinations that led to one of the most efficient and fast paced genocides in history. At the Uganda/Rwanda border there are still wanted posters for people who played an influential role in the genocide but who fled and have to this day not been caught. Like the Nazis still being found around the globe some 70 years later, will we still be looking for these men and if they are found and put to justice do they bring solace to countless people who had their childhoods ripped away from them?
The exhibition shows many videos of Tutsi survivors speaking about their loss and it becomes very apparent that present day Rwanda is still very aware of what happened in 1994. Having seen the film ‘Shake Hands with the Devil” I knew that Romeo Dallaire had alerted the UN about the impending violence, he called for more UN troops to stop what he knew was coming but the UN denied him and told the peacekeepers that they could only fire if fired upon and they were not able to protect Rwandans. The Hutu militia, Interhamwe and Impuzamugambi had effectively trained themselves to kill 1000 Tutsi in 20 minutes, they forced people to kill their neighbours and friends. The terror faced by the Tutsis and Tutsi sympathizers is inconceivable, being chased down by dogs as they tried to hide in the bush or having priests turn on them, being massacred in churches and schools. The memorial is a powerful communicator of how things can get out of control when power, poverty, and blatant discrimination without education are manipulated to persuade murder.
Upstairs they have a hall remembering the children who were murdered, their picture is shown along with an information fact sheet detailing their favourite food, games, hopes and dreams, and how and where they died. The Memorial also has a hall of genocides around the world where you can learn about the genocides of Cambodia, Namibia, Bosnia, the Holocaust, etc…
As inconceivable as this level of violence was, what feels more inconceivable to me is how Rwanda has come back from the genocide in less than 25 years. They had to implement a program of restorative justice throughout the country in order to help victims heal and move on and to reintegrate perpetrators into society and allow both perpetrators and victims to live side by side. People who actively participated in the violence were too many and thus how could you possibly prosecute them all but how could you live next to the person who killed your family, how do you forgive them? Many people who participated in the genocide are still in jail and will never get out, others served heir sentence, admitted guilt and had extensive community service and finally had to attend restorative justice hearings. During these hearings survivors and the accused would hash it out through apologies and forgiveness. At the end of the day it seems people just needed to move forward and build a peaceful, successful society for future generations. One of the survivors said on a video that his generation will never stop suffering from the genocide and his children’s generations would continue to bear that pain but hopefully his grandchildren’s generation would be free from the burden.
The exhibition outlines the way Rwanda used restorative justice and peaceful education so you can’t help but get swept up in emotion thinking about what a success story Rwanda is and that hopefully they can teach other nations the value behind their community service driven social model. One Saturday every month there is mandatory community service across the nation, this is partly why the land is so clean and if you do not participate you will be fined. It’s an incredible notion to think of an entire country being civically engaged, you can volunteer at any time to do community service and people do, you see older ladies sweeping rocks and twigs off the roadside and you will never see a speck of garbage anywhere. After visiting Rwanda and the Genocide Memorial, I am truly and utterly fascinated by this country not mention how polite and respectful everyone was towards one another.
It took us a full hour at the memorial café to decompress and discuss what we had learned, and that was certainly the point the memorial makes; these issues need to be faced, considered and discussed in order to educate and prevent the same thing from happening again.
Since we were leaving the next morning on a bus to Kampala we were told to get our bus tickets the day before, thankfully we listened because we got there just in time to buy the last 2 seats. The bus station was the most chaotic place I experienced in Rwanda but was by far much less intense than the bus station in Lusaka, Zambia (never again!).
Yvan, our driver from Hotel 2000, stayed in touch with us while we were trekking in the Congo so we invited him out for dinner at Republika, a well recommended restaurant on the same street as Papyrus nightclub and a few other bars and restaurants. We ordered the Cassava Ugali (way better than maize ugali) with a meat and sauce dish as well as friend plantains. This was another contender for best meal in East Africa! Yvan we learned, is basically a magician, he can raise and lower his eyebrows t lightning speed whilst at the same time wiggle his ears….and unprecedented feat of course and extremely entertaining for us! We also learned that he is from Burundi and came to Rwanda 2 years prior because of the conflict in his home. Due to his young age he was no longer safe in Burundi and thus Rwanda had accepted many refugees from there, Burundi is far more French than Rwanda is these days and so in just 2 years he had taught himself English and while he thinks his English is not good enough, we had a full fledged conversation for a few hours with him in which I translated nothing for him from French…So Non! Yvan your English is fantastique!!!\
After dinner Yvan regrettably had to leave due to an early work day so Maysa and I, still eager to check out the nightlife in Kigali, headed over to Papyrus, this time the place was jammed, there was a line to get in and the music inspired some serious dance action. Most people were lounging about or standing around talking in groups, it wasn’t the most social, meet new people kind of atmosphere but we made the best of it dancing like fools until one of us forced the other to leave because we had an 8-hour bus ride to Kampala the next morning.
Genuinely sad to leave, we boarded a packed bus headed to Kampala, Uganda. Our last views of Rwanda were nothing short of breathtaking and although bus photography is rarely good, I managed to capture one final shot of the green forever hills of Rwanda rolling by.