After two weeks in western Tanzania (see previous post), Mathieu and I crossed into Rwanda!
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Rwanda, officially the Republic of Rwanda, was a Belgium colony until gaining independence in 1962. Given its former colonization by the French-speaking Belgians, French is spoken throughout the country and is an official language along with English, Kinyarwanda, and Swahili. While it’s one of the smallest countries on the African mainland, about the size of the US state of New Jersey, Rwanda has one of the highest population densities in Africa (about 1,153 people/sq mi)[1,2]. That’s a lot of people in such a tiny country. And similar to our experience in western Tanzania, people were very friendly and very curious, and stared openly at us. It was still a bit unnerving to have all those sets of eyes watching our every move.
Upon entering Rwanda, the first thing we noticed were the roads. It was heaven to drive on the smooth paved roads, especially after being beat up on the last 125 mi (200 km) of the shockingly crappy road leaving Tanzania. We also very quickly noticed that they drive on the right side of the road (unlike every other country we’d visited). We were so busy admiring the lovely road that we nearly collided with an oncoming truck minutes after crossing the border. Gulp. A sign reminding us to drive on the right would have been helpful!
From the border, we drove to Kigali. Along the way, we went through bustling small towns and villages and passed mile after mile of lush, green cultivated land. From the wide river valleys to the tops of the hills, nearly every inch of ground was a patchwork of crops including rice, corn, potatoes, beans, bananas, cassava, tea, and coffee (the country’s main export). We spent several days in the modern capital city of Kigali, relaxing and playing in the wifi at our cozy hostel, exploring the neighborhood including the new, ultra-sleek sports arena and the bounty of veggies, fruits and colorful souvenirs at the local market, and enjoying some delicious international food while sipping Rwandan beer. While there, we also had some maintenance and minor repair (cracked exhaust pipe) done on Wily. We hadn’t needed repairs since two countries ago so I guess it was time.
We also visited the Genocide Memorial Museum and the Hotel des Mille Collines (where the events of the movie “Hotel Rwanda” actually occurred). We could not visit Rwanda without learning more about the horrific genocide of 1994. In just 100 days, over 800,000 people (Tutsi and moderate Hutu) were slaughtered by Hutu extremists in an effort to gain control of the country through ethnic cleansing. The Hutu’s spread hate propaganda via radio and newspapers urging Hutu civilians to kill all Tutsi. Neighbors killed neighbors and some husbands even killed their Tutsi wives, saying they’d be killed it they refused . Needless to say, it was difficult to read the stories and see the pictures from this horrific time. While the physical and emotional scars are still evident after 25 years, and the guilty are still being brought to trial, the sentiment of post-genocide Rwandans seems to be one of hope, forgiveness, and unity. People no longer identify as Tutsi or Hutu, just Rwandan. This sentiment was echoed by the new Rwandan friends we’d met at our hostel. They told us about the current state of Rwanda, it’s economic, social, and emotional well-being, which they described as being thriving, united and healing. And while several of these young men had lost their entire families in the genocide, they chose to focus on the current state of their country which they spoke about with positivity and obvious pride. They were inspiring.
From Kigali, we drove southwest to visit Nyungwe Forest National Park near the Burundi border. The park protects “the best preserved montane rainforest in Central Africa” and its numerous plant and animal species. Most people visit the park to see chimps and gorillas but these tours were out of our budget. So, after a night at a hilltop eco-camp overlooking fields of tea and the thick forest of the park, we spent a few hours driving through the park on the public roads. While we didn’t see the forests’ famous primates, we saw beautiful birds, baboons, and adorable L’hoest monkeys. It was a wonderful self-guided, free tour through this stunning rainforest.
After our scenic drive, we continued west to the town of Cyangugu on the shore of Lake Kivu, a large lake on the border between Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). We found what we thought was a good bush camp overlooking the lake and toasted a couple beers to celebrate the lovely day. As we were enjoying the view, two policemen approached. It turned out the volleyball court we planned to camp on was part of the nearby police compound. Oops. While obviously an unusual request, the officers easily agreed to let us camp there. They even turned on the court lights for us and ensured us they’d keep an eye out for us through the night. Talk about a safe place to bush camp!
The next morning, we said farewell to our hosts and drove north to Kibuye, another small town on the shores of Lake Kivu. Along the way, we passed through many more villages and more valleys and hills planted with rice, tea, etc… We’d hoped to bush camp along the lake, but as we’d find throughout the country, it was nearly impossible to find a spot with no people around. So we camped on the grass at a lakeside resort where we spent several days relaxing, swimming, reading, journaling, doing yoga, and just enjoying the view. It was wonderful to just relax and stay in the same beautiful place for several days.
We then continued north to Gisenyi, a border city also on the shores of Lake Kivu, across from Goma, DRC. While exploring the town a bit and eating some delicious local food, we stumbled upon an event: the Beach Volleyball World Tour. It was the weekend of the semi-finals of the international tour. Cool! And it was free for everyone to enjoy. We sat in the stands and joined the locals to watch the matches: England vs. Netherlands and Japan vs. Czech Republic. The crowd absolutely loved the guys on the English and Japanese teams, chanting their names and cheering wildly when they slammed the ball or scored a point. We enjoyed it so much that we returned the next day.
While in Gisenyi, we stayed with our new friends, Jean-François, Chouchou and their four kids: Yannis, Joaquim, Gwennael, and Alma (my peanut butter soul sister). They’d recently moved to Gisenyi from New York where they were former neighbors (and still close friends) of Mathieu’s sister, Celine, and her family. They didn’t know us but given our connection to Celine, this French-Congolese family (all of whom speak French, English and Swahili) welcomed us warmly into their home and made us feel like part of their wonderful crew. We had such a great time with them we stayed way longer than planned. Together we relaxed in their large garden, shared stories, played games, went to the local market, shared music (I still wake up with “Baby Shark” in my head!), and laughed a lot. On several occasions, Chouchou, Alma, and some of the boys joined me for a workout or yoga which was really fun. And we ate. Jean-François introduced us to sambaza, a tiny fish from Lake Kivu that is deep fried and salted. It’s a local delicacy so we couldn’t miss the chance to try it. And Chouchou introduced us to some traditional Congolese dishes, making us a huge meal of spiced stewed chicken, fried cassava leaves, steamed plantains, and ugali, a sort of bread made of cassava powder and corn meal (a staple in east Africa). I watched as she boiled the ugali mix in water until the right consistency, kneaded the thick dough with a large wooden mortal and pestle then formed it into individual rolls and let it sit. No baking necessary, just a lot of upper body strength. It was great to sit around the table with this big, happy family and share good conversation and delicious food.
Finally after six days, it was time to say goodbye. It was so hard to leave this lovely family but it was time to get back on the road [and the temporary import permit allowing Wily to be in the country was expiring that day]. So after many hugs, we left Gisenyi and drove north to the border. On the way, we visited the Dian Fossey Karisoke Research Center in Musanze. After hearing her name throughout my life, it was especially cool to explore the center’s exhibits recounting her life-long research and her efforts to conserve mountain gorillas in Rwanda. It was a nice end to our two weeks in this wonderful country.
I’ll let the pictures and videos illustrate the beauty of the landscapes and people of Rwanda. Enjoy!