I was invited to go to Rwanda for three nights in the beginning of June this year by Rwandair & the Serena Hotel group. I must be completely honest in knowing that the trip would not include a trip to see the Gorillas (Rwanda is one of only two countries in which mountain gorillas can be visited safely) I wasn’t expect much of this country in the middle of Africa. People just see Rwanda as the country with gorillas and of course they see the country for the devastating genocide that rocked the world in 1994. Unfortunately there is just no way of talking about Rwanda without somebody bringing up the movie Hotel Rwanda & the genocide. Not exactly the only thing this country wants to be known for, but they are content in the fact that they might be a lesson to the world to prevent something like this happening again. But before I get into detail on this let me get back to my trip.
Flying Rwandair for the first time, I was a bit sceptic flying on a middle Africa based airline that is not that well known yet. But after receiving good service and having a good take-off I was having a relaxing time watching the beautiful continent unfolding under us with the flight crossing the Great Rift Valley and Lake Malawi. Luckily I had a nice window seat. It was just little less than a 4 hour flight but time flew by quickly. Landing was a bit bumpy due to the mountain winds and the misty weather, but we landed at the small airport in the capital of Kigali. It was just before landing at this airport on the 6th of April 1994, when President Juvénal Habyarimana of Rwanda was returning from a summit in Tanzania when a surface-to-air missile shot his plane out of the sky over Rwanda's capital city of Kigali which triggered the genocide. Strangely enough the plane crashed into the president’s own barracks and after the investigation of witness’s testimony years later it was found that the missile was launched from one of the president’s own military camps.
The Airport is small but what really surprised me was the sign behind the immigration counters that was promoting people to bring their businesses to Rwanda and the 5 easy steps to obtain business rights. There was also an automated counter for locals to scan their passports to re-enter the country in a few seconds. Something the South African government can definitely invest in. And if that wasn’t the only surprise I was handed scissors to cut the plastic from my bag that was wrapped at OR Tambo International Airport (me and my scepticism flying airlines I have never flown before). I was told that I wasn’t allowed to step out of the airport with any plastic bag or even the wrapping around my suitcase, to prevent littering in their country. I was very impressed with this rule but I doubted the implementation of it, as a lot of good rules like this never get implemented properly. Stepping out of the airport I was already looking around for plastic bags and litter just to see if I was right with my cynicism, but I was proven wrong. Not even a cigarette bud in sight. I have just arrived in the cleanest country I have ever travelled to. Again I was thinking that there is so much South Africa can learn from this country after just being there for a few minutes.
We were picked up by two 4x4 vehicles at the airport and we were off to the Kigali Serena hotel situated in the middle of Kigali city. On the way to the city centre we passed the parliament building. From the distance the parliament would appear like any other normal parliament in the world, yet there are shell holes in the town-facing-side of the parliament. Rebels occupied the parliament and government troops fired rockets onto the parliament to recover the parliament. Hence today those scars from the civil war are still visible.
The city was almost knocked to the ground during the 100 days of the genocide but today new modern buildings are shooting up everywhere thanks to the governments stand on promoting other countries to invest and bring their business to Rwanda. The Serena hotel is situated in the middle of the city facing the mountain from witch Kigali derived its name from. The name "Kigali" comprises the Bantu prefix "ki" and Rwanda "gali" meaning "broad." Seeing a glimpse of the other hotels in Kigali I will rate the Kigali Serena as the best looking by far. The service and the staff are very good, starting from the welcome at the door to the service in the restaurant. The beautiful kept gardens and swimming pool made it look like a hidden oasis surrounded by the hotel building itself. Here we had a very nice buffet lunch before our drive to the west of the country.
Just after lunch we jumped in the 4x4 heading to the road to the west that started immediately with a steep pass. Suddenly it dawned on me why they call Rwanda the country of a thousand hills. Already after the first kilometre we have raised a few meters higher than the city. Not the greatest road to get stuck behind a truck. Although a lot of the cyclist appreciate these trucks, because they hang on to the back going uphill. A dangerous ploy but saying that I really don’t blame them for doing it with steep passes likes these. The maximum speed limit in Rwanda is 80km/h which sounds very slow but with a country that mostly consists of mountains, steep passes and villages on the edge of the road it’s understandable. This also gives you a chance of enjoying the beautiful mountainous scenery with the locals vegetable gardens filling up the inside of the valleys next to the rivers with their self-made channels to give everyone fare access to the water.
On the road to the west we passed a lot of small villages and a few beautiful waterfalls. At a distance we even saw bits of the Volcanoes National Parks Mountains sticking out through the mist. These mountains consisting of five of the eight volcanoes of the Virunga Mountains (Karisimbi, Bisoke, Muhabura, Gahinga and Sabyinyo)and the park is also home of the critically endangered mountain gorilla. The park was the base for the zoologist Dian Fossey.
We were on our way to Lake Kivu; the name comes from kivu which means "lake". It lies on the border between the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Rwanda, and is in the Albertine Rift, the western branch of the East African Rift. Lake Kivu empties into the Ruzizi River, which flows southwards into Lake Tanganyika. Just before arriving at the lake the landscape changes from the smaller vegetable gardens to bigger tea plantations. Tea & coffee are the biggest exports of the country with the high altitudes, steep slopes and volcanic soils providing favourable conditions.
We arrived at night with just the absences of light showing us the lines of where the lake should be. It was also a Friday night which I think was the reason why all the locals were gathering and playing in the streets, which didn’t make it easy for our poor driver. It almost looked like the locals were in the streets to make use of the lights of the cars passing by. Dangerous!
Arriving at the Lake Kivu Serena Hotel we were again welcomed by the friendly faces of the reception staff. After being showed to our rooms we were taken to the restaurant where we were spoiled by a variety of food on the buffet table including beautiful grilled goat fillet. A lot of people will pull up their noses for goat but at least here they tell you it’s goat where in other African countries you will be told that it’s a nice piece of lamb. After a very good dinner I was off to bed after a long day of flying for almost four hours and then driving for four hours. It didn’t take long for me to fall asleep with the sounds of people getting together in the streets and now and then a vehicle that hooted most probably for another pedestrian taking a chance in the darkest of the night.
The next morning I was surprised by the lake that was just in front of the hotel. What a beautiful scene with the green mountains on the one side and the beautiful lake on the other. The lake covers a total surface area of some 2,700 km2 and stands at a height of 1,460 metres above sea level. 58% of the lake's waters lie within DRC borders. The lake bed sits upon a rift valley that is slowly being pulled apart, causing volcanic activity in the area, and making it particularly deep: its maximum depth of 480m is ranked eighteenth in the world. Another thing that makes the lake unique is that’s it’s one of three lakes in the world, that experience limnic eruptions. Lake Kivu has recently been found to contain approximately 55 billion cubic metres of dissolved methane gas at a depth of 300 metres. First being extracted to supply the local brewery with electricity, it’s now being extracted on a huge scale to supply the country with electricity.
We were picked up at the hotel after a good breakfast for a drive through the town of Gisenyi and to the border post of the DRC where our cameras were almost confiscated because we “might” have taken a picture that “might” have had a police officer in. After deleting the necessary pictures under the watchful eye of the police we were off to see the hot springs. The hot springs is a source which is used by a lot of the local people for bathing. But also because of the high temperatures of the water coming through the surface of the lake shore, locals even use this water for cooking as we saw some locals cooking a fish and a piece of corn directly in the water.
After this we were taken to a small lodge on the edge of the lake, where we boarded the Serena hotel boat for a cruise back to the hotel past the methane rig. Only then you realise how big the lake is. The rig is situated almost on the border with the DRC on the lake. A lot of birds use the rig as resting place when crossing the lake. About 10minutes from the rig we were back on the beach in front of the Serena Hotel.
At the hotel we were treated to a nice “beach” braai with local dancing and singing by the Intore dancers with their long white mains. After another busy day I was off to bed where I didn’t even hear the locals in the street as the previous night because I was sleeping as soon as my head touched my pillow.
The next morning we were picked up by the vehicles for our drive back to Kigali. At least we had a nice clear day in which we saw more of the scenery the road had to offer and we stopped at one of the waterfalls. We also stopped at a small village where some of the hottest chilli sauce was being produced. I am not sure how healthy it is but it is HOT!
Back in Kigali we checked in at the Kigali Serena Hotel and then we were off to the Genocide memorial. I am a huge fan of history and not knowing too much about the genocide than what was betrayed by the movie Hotel Rwanda, I was looking forward visiting the memorial.
I could just feel the morbid atmosphere as we arrived and I was soon to find out why. The museum hosts a few exhibitions of other genocides that occurred in the world and then it had the main exhibition explaining the series of events that caused the Rwanda genocide of 1994. It also had a room just with pictures of people, mothers, fathers, grannies, granddads, brothers, sisters, etc. that was killed in the genocide. Then it had a room with clothes that was worn by the victims and then a room with bones of some of the unknown victims.
The worst room that actually got me gasping for air was the room that had pictures of the baby & child victims. Each picture had information on their favourite food, favourite toys, their friend’s names and the way they were killed. I couldn’t stay in this room for too long because I just couldn’t take anymore and I had to go out for fresh air.
Outside they have a mass grave where 250,000 of the unknown victims were buried which I passed on my way back to the vehicle for our transfer back to the hotel. The drive back was in silence with everyone just trying to get to grips on what they have just seen and experience.
Back at the hotel we were given time to refresh and get ready for another well varied buffet dinner. A group of us decided to have refreshment next to the beautiful pool and we got stuck there talking about what we saw at the genocide museum and how surprised we were with the beauty of the country.
The next morning we were on our way back to the airport for our flight back to South Africa and I just couldn’t stop thinking of all the lessons us in South Africa can learn from a small country like this that was demolished to the ground not just with the genocide, but also after years of tribal fighting, suppression & discrimination. We have no idea what it is to keep our country clean; with people throwing out rubbish out of their car windows like it’s their duty to create job opportunities. We have so much fraud and here is a country which has big signboards giving their word to their citizens that they tolerate 0% fraud. Looking at the presidential residence you can see not a lot of funds were wasted on unneeded luxuries. We have no idea on what it is to do our bit for our country, with the Rwandese people doing their bit once a month for a whole day doing something for their country from maintaining the streets to the maintaining of government gardens, etc. But most of all what we need to learn from them is forgiveness. The way the one tribe forgave the other and now live in harmony is unimaginable, but still they did it and still do it. Not forgetting all the hardships and the evil that happened in the past like the genocide and civil/guerrilla wars, but learning from it.
In South Africa forgiveness is still to be found and unfortunately the Rwanda lesson is still to be learned.
Pictures and text by Juan Nel