I only added Rwanda to my journey on account of its proximity to southwestern Uganda, where I needed to be for a gorilla trek. After striking out on a train across Tanzania, I was down to a pair of options, both of which cost about the same:
- A four day journey overland on buses through Nairobi and Kampala
- A 90 minute flight to Kigali, followed by 5 or 6 hours overland on buses
I went with the latter, which gave me time to check out Zanzibar and saved me from having to backtrack to the capitals of Uganda and Kenya at a later time.
I fly by the seat of my pants, more or less, on this journey, which meant I didn’t get approved for my East Africa Tourist Visa before landing in Rwanda. Oops.
Lucky for me, the computer system went down just after I paid for my visa, and I was able to show my receipt to the immigration agent and talk my way into an EATV.
Minus a scare when my Schwab card got stuck in an ATM for a very long 5 minutes, things were off to a great start in Rwanda. My bag made it, I was finally able to get cash, and a boda boda to the Mamba Club was easy to grab just across the street. By the way, I can’t say enough good things about my trusty traveling companion, Charles Schwab. Unlimited ATM rebates world wide and the best customer service I’ve ever experienced. No better checking account for travelers…or anyone!
It was only seconds after stepping out of the airport that Rwanda began to pleasantly surprise me. The roads were quality, all boda bodas are required to have helmets for their passengers, rules of the road are obeyed, I got a fair price without haggling (a rarity in Africa), and the city was green and clean. No exaggeration, I felt as if I’d stepped into an African twilight zone in a very good way.
Part of the reason Rwanda is so clean is that plastic shopping bags are banned, which truly makes a difference. Most countries I’ve traveled to in this continent are littered with bags because they quite literally give you a plastic bag for everything you buy…and then another bag for your bag. It’s crazy. So it was truly incredible to see such a clean city in the middle of Africa. Kudos to Rwanda.
The next revelation was Virunga beer, which I had the distinct pleasure of trying at the Mamba Club. I like my beers dark or strong, or both, and at 6.5 percent with a smooth, slightly sweet taste, Virunga Mist and I became acquainted often during my week in Rwanda. After having several questionable beers in Africa that make PBR seem like it comes from a craft brewery, this was fantastic.
I met some great people at Mamba, which led to an unexpected foray into the DRC, some long nights, and a meet-up in Kampala, too.
Of course, it wasn’t all flowers and bunnies in Rwanda. By a long shot.
Just over 20 years ago the country went through a gruesome genocide, when the Hutus indiscriminately slaughtered over half a million (some estimates put the total at 1M) Tutsis and Tutsi sympathizers in a matter of 3 months. Think about that. Staggering.
My visit to the Kigali Genocide Memorial (free, donations welcome) was an eye-opening and eye-moistening experience. An excellent museum that vividly chronicles the before, during, and after of the genocide, its graphic images, touching videos, and narratives that don’t mince words, it’s a must-visit. Moreover, the museum is surrounded by mass graves, where the remains of 250,000 victims rest.
Again, these numbers are so shocking that they’re hard to wrap one’s head around. It was hard to enjoy my coffee at the cafe after my visit knowing that just meters away lay the remains of a quarter million innocent victims whose only crime was belonging to the Tutsi tribe.
The day after getting a solid background on the genocide, I visited two former Catholic churches, now genocide memorials, about 30km south of Kigali.
People fleeing the city when the violence erupted went to these houses of worship to seek refuge. Unfortunately, many were betrayed by priests and church officials and these buildings provided no escape from the murderers.
Skulls and bones are piled far and wide at both the Ntarama and Nyamata sites, as are the blood-stained clothing and belongings of the victims. 5000 remains are interred at the former in mass graves, while 45,000 lay at the latter, 10,000 of which were killed inside the church.
The manner in which these men, women, and children were exterminated without mercy was something that gave me goose bumps and rendered me silent for a long time.
Most died butchered at the hands of machete-wielding assailants. Women, many of which were raped first, had long poles impaled through their genitals and out of their heads or torsos. Babies were taken from their mothers, grabbed by the legs, and crushed against walls. Grenades were used to blast open the church doors at Nyamata, machine guns sprayed the inside with bullets.
The UN had a chance to intervene and prevent many, many deaths, but, sadly, did nothing besides apologize for their inaction after the fact. The United Nations is doing little when it can do a lot about similar scenarios currently being played out in Darfur and Burundi. It’s unfathomable.
We have a tendency as humans to fail to learn from our mistakes, but sitting idly while thousands are being exterminated is avoidable and inexcusable.
I met a Rwandan expat who was adopted as a child and grew up in Belgium during my last night in Kigali. He and his brother were making a 2nd trip to Rwanda to try to find his parents or siblings. The completely different reasons for our presence in Rwanda really hit home.
People in Rwanda live in peace now, but it’s still hard to believe that such harmony exists. Many live, work, and interact with those who were responsible for atrocities against their families. I have a hard time believing I could do the same.
That was a big revelation. And a true testament to the resilience of the human spirit and our capacity to forgive and move on.
I had the opportunity to visit the Dachau concentration camp, which was incredibly touching, as was the Museum of Memory and Tolerance in Mexico City (one of the best museums I have been to on this trip). However, I think that because the genocide took place during my lifetime, I met multiple people affected by the extermination, and I saw very vivid reminders of the dark history of Rwanda, that it affected me most.
Rwanda was a revelation for many different reasons, and I am incredible thankful that the journey took me there.