Rwanda wasn’t on my radar as a place to visit until the end of January, when I started hearing from a few friends in New York about the burgeoning tourism industry there. Rwanda still didn’t make it onto my “Must-see/go/do” list, but by the time I left in February it had been upgraded from “As in the genocide?” to “I’d love to go there if I have a chance.” So when I found out that I could add a two-day layover in Kigali to my August flight from Johannesburg to Nairobi for just an extra $50, I jumped at the opportunity.
I spent two full days on a truck to get to the Joburg airport from my previous stop, Vic Falls, and then took an overnight flight from Joburg to Kigali, so I was not exactly at my best when I arrived there, but Rwanda gave me the best welcome I could ask for — great coffee at the airport and a gorgeous sunrise on the way to my hotel.
I’m sad to admit that all I knew about Rwanda before I arrived there was what I’d read about the genocide, and as usual, I hadn’t made any plans in advance, so I wasn’t quite sure what to expect or even what to do once I got there. The guy at the front desk at my hotel was well-meaning but didn’t speak much English, so he wasn’t much help either. Almost all Rwandans speak Kinyarwanda (unlike most African countries, Rwanda has only one indigenous language), and most of the ~10% that speak a second language speak French because Rwanda was once a Belgian colony. Rwanda’s linguistic policies are changing, though — English is now considered the main official language, so school-age Rwandans are more likely to learn English than French.
Luckily, Fred the Cabdriver (who had brought me to the hotel from the airport) overheard my pathetic attempt to communicate in severely broken, high-school-era French (my big breakthrough: “Voir Kigali?”) and came to the rescue, offering to show me around the city for a reasonable price. I dropped my backpack off, took a power nap, and headed out.
Our first destination was the genocide memorial museum in Kigali. Warning: This is about to get sad. I hope that you’ll still read it, but if you’re not up for it, I’ll understand. Just don’t give up on Rwanda! You can skip the next four or five paragraphs and see beauty and culture and dancing.
But for the brave, back to the genocide museum. The museum is is built on top of one of the city’s many hills, surrounded by beautiful gardens and city views. Photos were allowed outside and in the gardens, but not inside of the museum.
Fred turned out to be not only a great driver, but an interesting person to see Kigali with. His grandparents had left Rwanda in the 50s or 60s, when Tutsis first began fearing for their lives in the country, and he and his parents were born and raised in Uganda. He moved from Kampala to Kigali just a few years ago, looking for better economic opportunities. Even though he had never lived in Rwanda until 15 years after the genocide, as we walked through one of the memorial rooms with photos of victims, he pointed to several families that he had known before they were killed. I had read that because the death toll in the genocide was so massive and far-reaching, it would be impossible to find any Rwandan untouched by it. It’s not that I didn’t believe that from reading it, but talking with Fred made it real.
The genocide lasted for about 100 days, and estimates of the number of people killed range from 800,000 to one million — not including the huge numbers of lives lost in massacres that took place for decades before the genocide or in refugee camps afterwards (which some people have called a second genocide). To give you an idea of the scale of the death toll, it’s roughly equivalent to having the Twin Towers fall three times a day for three months, in a country with a population that was about the same size as New York City’s.
I wish that I could find the right words to communicate the emotional impact of going through the museum, but I wouldn’t even know where to begin. I’m not sure that such words exist. I left the museum feeling like anything that I could think of to say could only minimize the horror of the actual events and would be somehow disrespectful to both victims and survivors.
The one thought I had that I do want to share, hopefully without sounding too preachy, is this: Over and over, I’ve seen the words “Never Again” feature prominently in museums and memorials all over the world commemorating victims of the holocaust and other comparable tragedies (can you really compare tragedies? I guess I kind of just did, but it feels wrong). And yet, racial violence and genocide continue to take place around the world, often without much resistance from … well, anyone other than those who are directly affected. So when we say “Never Again,” do we really mean it? And if so, why are we failing so miserably and is there anything that you or I can do to change that? I have absolutely no answers, but it must be at least worth thinking about.
I don’t generally like to get so heavy on this blog, but I don’t think I could write authentically about going to Rwanda without that aspect of it. That said, there is so much more to Rwanda than genocide, and the best part of going there was seeing how much beauty and culture and warmth the country has to offer despite its tragic history.
Kigali, the capital city, is modern, lively, and beautiful, not to mention incredibly clean (plastic bags are illegal!).
In the afternoon, Fred and I got coffee and snacks at Bourbon Coffee, a Rwandan coffee company that has outposts in New York and D.C. I’ve since been to the New York one and the coffee was good, but the Kigali locations are definitely superior, with interesting spiced coffees and the best banana bread I have ever tasted. Then we headed to the Presidential Palace Museum, which was once the home of Juvenal Habyarimana, the former president who was instrumental in creating an anti-Tutsi environment before the genocide and whose assassination is considered by many to have been a catalyst for the genocide. The tour of his home was really interesting, and you can see actual pieces of the plane that he was flying in when it was shot down just outside the grounds.
That night, I had dinner at a French / Rwandan restaurant with a great view of the city and (later) the almost-full moon. The menu translations were questionable but the food was delicious.
I had planned to see a few more sights on my second day in Kigali, but somehow I ended up with an invitation to a cultural festival taking place that day in Nyanza. Nyanza is about an hour and a half drive from Kigali, so day two in Rwanda started early, with another amazing sunrise.
Rwanda is known as Pays des Milles Collines, the Land of a Thousand Hills, and driving up and down all of the hills on the way to Nyanza gave me the chance to see view after view after view of Rwanda’s beautiful countryside.
The festival itself was a great experience. The location was, predictably, on top of a hill with great views, and everything was decorated in the colors of the Rwandan flag.
The other attendees were a combination of local families and upper-class Rwandans decked out in traditional formalwear (which, interestingly, looked similar to saris and not at all like the traditional clothing I’ve seen in other African countries), so it was great for people-watching.
When the prime minister arrived, these longhorn cattle were brought to him as a sign of respect. At least, I think that’s what happened. Everything was in Kinyarwanda and Fred was a great driver and guide but not much of a translator.
After some speeches that, judging by the crowd’s reactions, were part funny, part touching, and part thoughtful, we were treated to a show of traditional music and dancing that was a lot of fun to watch. The festival was a celebration of harvest day, so the dances included fruits, vegetables, and farming equipment as props. There was also a ceremonial dance that ended with drinking urwagwa, a locally-brewed banana beer, out of clay pots.
The festival ended up taking the entire day, and then I had to leave Rwanda the next morning to meet a new tour group in Nairobi, but I was really happy to have gotten to see a little bit of the country. My overall synopsis: Emotional. Thought-provoking. Hilly. Beautiful. Will definitely have to go back for more than two days.