Rwanda, it conjures memories of one of the darkest chapters in recent history, when the world forgot, or worse, ignored, the absolute horror that was taking place in the heart of central Africa. While the UN condemned what was going on, in the same breath they pulled back. The maundering Interahamwe went on a 100 day reign of terror, killing an estimated 1’000’000, mainly Tutsi, but also moderate Hutu civilians. After the RPF (Rwandan Patriotic Front), led by current president Paul Kagame, moved in and took control in 1994, modern Rwanda has emerged from its tumultuous past as a beacon of how to pull a country back from the brink.
Whatever can be said of Kagame, it’s hard to argue that he has been critical in turning Rwanda into a peaceful modern society, with goals of education for all, empowerment of women, and the most important, reconciliation of its Hutu, Tutsi and Twa tribes to identify once again as one people – Rwandans.
Entering Rwanda and particularly the capital Kigali, is like catching a bus back to Europe (except for all the motorbike taxis), people obey traffic signals and even zebra crossings and all this wrapped up in a modern gleaming city with fancy cafes and patisseries. The city’s beautiful hilly back drop makes scooting around on a ‘boda-boda’ fun on its own. While here, we went to 2 genocide memorials, that are very well curated, and sent shivers down the spine. Nyamata church, where 10,000 people were murdered, has mass graves and the clothing of the victims, with bullet holes in the roof and wall as a stark reminder of what happened here. The Kigali Genocide memorial also leaves a somber feel, has all the back story to the massacre, as well as stories of hope from survivors, but one thing remains certain, everyone in Rwanda was, and still is affected to this day.
Leaving Kigali we headed towards the DRC border (eventually right to the border as Mark has always wanted to go) with an eye to walk a section of the Congo-Nile trail. With a naive expectation of “it will probably be like Nepal” we were sorely mistaken. Accommodation was rare and expensive, which is such a shame, as the trail itself, with a view over Lake Kivu towards DRC provided stunning scenery.
If the trail was to invigorate the local economy one can be unsure if it has succeeded. People seem genuinely curious as to why these “mzungu” are walking when they don’t have to, and to find a bottle of water resembled a minor treasure hunt, as you got bounced around from shop to shop until a vendor could find a dusty bottle they had tucked away somewhere they had forgotten about. Food was a whole different problem, especially as we had to walk over 20km a day between guesthouses, relying on the odd (fairly tasty) deep fried donoughty type things the locals enjoy. All that said, it was a great experience, there is certainly nothing ‘put on’ for tourists, you get to enjoy the real day to day, people hauling massive loads on their heads on the frequently muddy roads, yet still managing a double handed wave and a smile. In some instances entire villages joined into a vociferous chorus of “Hello…Bonjour, how are you!?” accompanied by huge smiles from old to young. We were a particular hit with the school kids, at one point taking shelter from the rain we attracted no less than 10 kids, and in one village after we’d turned off the main track, no less than 30 kids, all vying to take our hands and help us navigate the one road through town, with 5 kids on each hand. It was a fun experience, and we’d love to walk the whole trail some day, if accommodation options improved a little.
Back in Kigali, we excitedly awaited the arrival of our good friend from NZ, Claire. Fresh from climbing Kilimanjaro and before going to assist locals to empower themselves and their villages in Malawi through The Hunger Project NZ, Claire manged to find time to join us for a spot of Gorilla trekking. This had been a source of much consternation for Mark, finding a way to get to see them without paying extortionate rates was difficult, almost as difficult as finding information on one of the most popular things to do in Africa. Thankfully, we found a great company and it was all go. Ironically, after meeting in Rwanda we had to leave back into Uganda the next day to Bwindi Impenetrable Rain Forest, to trek the following day.
We left on our way after our briefing through village life and edged closer to the thick jungle ahead. Roughly an hour had passed and we stood at the edge of an impressive, untouched section of virgin rain forest. Funnily enough, after about 5 minutes the gorillas had decided they didn’t want to wait to meet us. Out popped one, and then 2 silverbacks, a baby, a young female. They happily munched away at the vegetation, unperturbed by our presence one followed us, and one of the silverbacks thought “stuff going around when I can go through!”, before proceeding straight towards us, forcing one person to get hauled out the way as he brushed past, showing who was the boss of this forest, as if his hulking frame didn’t already prove this fact. He then sat down and let out a small grunt, before getting stuck back into some more tasty leaves. Seeing them in real life, up very close and personal is a life long bucket list item, and it sends shivers down the spine to be in their domain, and even looking back thing about one of the young ones playing in the bush makes us realise how lucky we are.
The effort to protect these gentle giants has been a great success, and hats off to the three government services of Uganda, Rwanda and DRC that are involved (if we are being honest it’s about the only thing DRC has got right in a while). The gorilla population is growing thanks to efforts from the national park services and the dedication of the guides and rangers that protect them, sometimes with their lives in the case of Virunga National Park in the Congo. Our primate pals are officially off the critically endangered list with numbers now up over 1000, which is fantastic news, and makes the steep price tag that much more tolerable, knowing that the results the national parks are getting are very much tangible.
Now for us it’s out of East Africa, which has been amazing, especially the wildlife in Kenya and Uganda, also the fact that we got to experience some of it with Claire. We now begin the long, almost 4,000km journey south to Johannesburg, thankfully with a couple of short stop-offs along the way.
@catchustravelling all the way to South Africa (and beyond) on Instagram