The land of 1,000 hills

7 August, 2014

I wonder if it’s possible for me to get to an African airport, and on a plane, in a calm and collected manner.  As I prepared for my vacation in Rwanda, my first mistake came when I tried to be responsible by checking the status of my flight online.  The times on the ticket and website differed…by 3 hours…meaning that the website said that my flight would leave 3 hours earlier than I expected.  The new departure time was only 1 ½ hours away, with at least a 30 minute drive from my hotel to the runway.

So there I was, with my bare-footed and equally disaster prone friend (sorry dude), bag half-packed, driving through the streets of Lusaka, trying to call the airport and the airline, while trying desperately to get a South African GPS to pick up Zambian roads, before blocking taxi drivers in the middle of the street to ask directions, and making it to the terminal with an hour before take-off, only to discover it was a false alarm.  Arriving 4 hours before my actual flight departure enabled me to regain my composure with the aid of some wine.

Kigali of Contrasts

Mention Rwanda to anyone and it will, most likely, conjure up images of a dangerous, warring nation – the kind of place that can leave 800,000 people brutally murdered in the space of 3 months.  While this image of 20 years ago may still be stuck in our minds, the Rwanda of today presents a very different picture.

As I touched down in Kigali, I was nervously scouring my mind for remnants of French within the gray matter, only to be met with English everywhere I turned.  In a bid for unity and access to the global economic community, the government recognised the need for English and made it an official language in 2008, alongside Kinyarwandan and French.

The next surprise from Rwanda came as I tried to exit the airport, and was stopped by security personnel ordering me to dispose of all my plastic.  In an extremely progressive and environmentally conscious move, Rwanda became the first country in the world to ban the plastic bag in 2007.  Let’s be clear – this is not a single store, or even a single city that is making this move, but an entire country!

Rwanda’s commitment to a modern and sustainable environment is even more visible as you step outside on to the streets.  Not only does the cleanliness here surpass anything I’ve seen elsewhere, but the streets are lined with trees, there are footpaths for pedestrians, majestic mansions and modern apartment blocks absorb the hillsides surrounded by lovingly manicured gardens, streets are systematically named (or rather numbered), and there is a conspicuous absence of potholes.

If this isn’t enough to overwhelm you, on our drive from the airport we passed a statue of a woman with a child, created as a symbol that women can stand strong on their own.  This message seems to be reaching the population loud and clear, with 64% of the country’s parliament made up of the better sex (ie. women).  Add to this that the nation has mandated for each community to get together one Saturday a month to do community service, and I was beginning to think I’d landed in the wrong country….or continent…or planet.  Was this really Rwanda?

Yes, Rwanda is a country of surprise and contrasts, which was to become even more pronounced over the following few days.

I was fortunate to be visiting this beautiful place with two others, a French friend and a Belgian / Rwandan friend who was returning for the first time in 20 years.  I was also being hosted by the kindest Rwandan family ever (I may be biased).  This situation led me through a privileged intimate journey of reminiscing and revisiting the memories and places important to my friend and hosts.

The daytimes were spent having a “cultural induction”.  On the first day my hosts recounted their personal experiences of pain, loss, survival and luck during one of the most horrific genocides in the world’s history and the war preceding it.  We then visited my friend’s family home, school and local haunts.  The second day was spent in the village, being chased by kids playing “spot the muzungu (white person)”, while visiting my friend’s grandmother’s house at the end of a dirt road to nowhere.  It is a pretty special moment being taught how to make banana beer by an 84-year old greying and petite (but strong!), Rwandan woman, who’s happily chugging back a cold bottle of dark ale, joyous at having family and foreigners in her home.

Grandma

In comparison, the night times were spent having sundowners at the 5-star Serena Hotel, dining at the fancy Upstairs Bistro, dancing the night away at the Papyrus cocktail bar, enjoying Thai cuisine at Zen, then crashing “Diner en Blanc” – an annual event where people dress in white and are taken to a secret location for a night of frivolity.  It is really difficult to explain the absurdity of entering a vacant block in Kigali to find a party of 600 incredibly beautiful Africans, dressed in sexy white outfits, dancing to Nigerian dance breaks, and ending the night with public marriage proposals.  I felt like I’d crashed a set of an Eddie Murphy movie featuring an angelic sirority party.

white party

Gorillas in the Mist

Rwanda’s other claim to fame is its reputation as the land of 1000 hills.  However, as one magazine put it, “Whoever coined that term was lazy.  He obviously stopped at 1000 because there are way more than that”. I would take this further to say that they were also lazy in using the term hills.  These lumps on the landscape are clearly mountains, and in some places so steep I’d be tempted to call them cliffs.  It is enough to make a cyclist weep.

hills

As we made our way out of Kigali toward Musanze and Volcano National Park, we snaked around these millions of cliffs, mesmerised by the millions of people that build, live and grow crops on its terraced escarpments.  It is a long climb to get bananas!  Eucalypts – the global weed – made me feel at home around many bends, while tea plantations reminded me of Nepal, and then there were the potato, pyrethrum, carrot, banana, and cassava plantations, always with bicycles nearby to carry 400kg of produce slowly and patiently up those steep, long, winding roads.

What we were really here to see, though, was the volcanoes’ residents – the mountain gorillas.  Cornered into a tiny part of the world, there are fewer than 1000 gorillas remaining in the wild, but with strong conservation efforts (funded by a hefty US$750 permit fee, which are limited to ~40 permits per day), their numbers have increased by 27% in the last five years.

After a 40-minute drive along a bumpy 4WD track, we commenced our 1 hour ascent of the Bisoke volcano, passing first through farming villages until we reached the jungle’s edge.  From here, it was another hour’s slog along slippery and muddy buffalo tracks, forcing our way through dense, stinging forest.

The tranquillity of the environment was only disrupted by our occasional mishaps, such as my friend’s sinking into the mud.  Stuck up to her knees, I was too paralysed with laughter to help.  Nature got its own back when, a little further down the track, I stepped into a well-disguised hole.  As I tried to get out, my other foot went into another hole, as did my walking stick.  A guide quickly rushed to my aid but he too succumbed to the crack in the roots and, once again, I was too paralysed with laughter to do anything.  I really need to learn to respond to these situations more appropriately.

All this was soon forgotten as we suddenly came upon our target.  Nested in a small clearing, we spent an hour standing 4 metres away from the Ugenda family: two silverbacks (including one beating his chest as he tried unsuccessfully to exert his dominance before sulking in the corner); one black back (young adult male); a mother lovingly nursing her 6-month old; a couple of pesky teenagers; and one adult female who joined the group later after scaring the life out of me by emerging from the jungle and walking straight past my legs!

I can tell you now, there are few things as humbling in this world, as watching a 200kg silverback mountain gorilla pick his nose and eat it.  Our cousins are a classy lot.

gorillas 3

Back in human civilisation, we next drove to Gisenyi, where we watched the clouded sunset from the sandy shores of Lake Kivu.  Our plans to go swimming in the methane-filled lake the next morning were foiled by the day’s drizzling rain, so instead we ate French pastries and drank Rwandan coffee poolside at Serena Resort.  We took a quick walk along the sparkling (literally!) shore, and enjoyed a traditional Rwandan lunch at Paradis lodge, before doing a quick trip through the bustling Musanze markets (where vegetables come in packs of 50kg), and making our way back to Kigali.

kivu

Kigali Take 2

Back in Kigali, the merger of past and present continued.  A must for any visitor to the country is a journey through the Kigali Genocide Memorial – a 3 hour journey of disbelief and shame that compares little to the 60 years of colonialist-imposed division culminating in the death of more than 1/8 of the population at the hands of brainwashed neighbours, friends and family.  Such heaviness had to be washed down with some good food and wine, which we did at a local cafe, followed by an evening of socialising and dancing at the infamous Hotel des Milles Collines.

Our final day in the country was left for exploration.  We made use to motorbike taxis to head to the Nyamirambo quarters – a bustling muslim area of the capital – where we ended up wandering back streets (or rather back dirt tracks) through the densely populated suburb.  Then it was time for more coffee and pastries, before handicraft shopping and an evening of home-cooked Rwandan food (think fried green banana with cassava leaves).

Rwanda certainly has a blemished reputation thanks to a history that we should never, ever forget.  However, after spending just a short time in this country, it is clear to see that it is making extraordinary strides in developing a new image and a new story – one of modernity, progress and positivity.  I think we can all learn something from this extraordinary piece of the African pie.

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