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Understanding Africa: Rwanda

Rwanda is the cleanest, most well maintained and safest country in the region, by far. It truly is the Gem of Africa. So why don’t people go here? What really goes on in the Land of a Thousand Hills? What about those beautiful Gorillas? And wasn’t there that horrible thing that happened 20 years ago?

At university I studied renewable engineering with my good friend Mike. Since then he has been living almost exclusively in Africa with his partner Melba, working on development projects in renewable energies, whilst I on the other hand, have been working in the Oil & Gas industry. After a brief visit home, he convinced myself and our fellow uni-mate Ben to visit them in Rwanda and experience a different kind of life, so we popped on a flight and paid them a visit.

First impressions

I tried not to create expectations before my trip, but I couldn’t help myself worrying about how safe it was going to be. When we first arrived however, it was not what I had expected at all. It was clean, quiet and modern, like you might expect from any city in Europe, barring the holes in the pavement. Mike and Melba greeted us with a big hug at the airport and introduced us to our first Rwandan, their house mate Denyse. Denyse is an angel. She spent the whole week ferrying us around to bars and restaurants so that we could drink, leant us her car to go on a road trip, and even gave Ben and I her room to sleep in. Denyse has a great job with Oxfam and earns a decent salary, but chooses to live n a house with no electrical appliances, no hot water and cooks in a charcoal outhouse. When I asked her why, she said that she just prefers a simpler life. Denyse, like most Rwandans, is a Christian and believes in Christian values. She works for a charity and is in her heart a deeply charitable person. Why then would she succumb to unnecessary home comforts not afforded to most of her fellow people? Mike and Melba also live in the same house out of choice.

The second Rwandan I met was a police officer. “Leave these Muzungus in the car and pick up a shovel.” said the policemen to Denyse, Mike’s Rwandan house mate. Muzungu is actually a polite word for white man, since the actual word for Englishman translates to ‘The Cager.’ It just so happened that the day we arrived, the last Saturday of the month, was community service day. This is a compulsory exercise where everyone gets together and helps the local community by doing some labour or cleaning the streets. while in principle this sounds like a great thing, it actual projects a grim image of the iron fist of the Rwandan government. The only reason we were able to escape labour was because the beautiful Denyse managed to convince at least 10 officers that they shouldn’t make our first impression of Rwanda a bad one.

Mike told me another story about the Rwandan police force. He had a conversation with a local guy about a thief being gunned down in the street for stealing a wing mirror. “That would never happen in Europe.” Mike explained, to which the man replied “I know, you guys don’t steal over there, right?” Mike was stunned to silence, not just by this man’s acceptance of totalitarian policing, but also of his view that Europeans are beyond crime at all. Actually Rwandan police are incorruptible. They will never accept a bribe, in fact they will throw you in prison for suggesting it, quite unlike in Kenya where they will arrest you for no reason other than for the purpose of soliciting a bribe.

“So why is Rwanda so nice?” I asked Mike. “Rwanda is Africa Easy Mode.” he tells me, “Just wait till you get to Kenya!” After some experience, I am inclined to agree with him. “After the whole genocide thing” he continues, “everyone was like ‘right, come on guys, let’s sort this out’ and now Rwanda is the most stable country in the region.” Mike is obviously simplifying a complex socio-political situation into an anecdote, but he’s not far off. After the events of 1994, most of the perpetrators of the atrocities fled into neighbouring countries, and everyone who was left was so horrified that all they wanted was for a chance at normal life again. With some help from western governments and organizations, the infrastructure and economy was repaired, and things got back to normal, but the emotional and physical scars will never be forgotten.

I had a chance to visit the Genocide memorial in Kigali, something that everyone should do once in their lives. I could not possibly have prepared myself for what was to come. Ben and I were two grown men sharing a pair of headphones, crying our eyes out as we walked through the museum. Here are some of the personal accounts I remember:

“If someone came up to me and said “I murdered your wife and children” I would forgive them, but you cannot forgive if you don’t know who was to blame. Forgiveness is a gift that they can still give to us.”

“The saddest thing was the silence. After people being killed day and night, there was no more sound. No one could even talk about it any more. It was as if Rwanda had been erased from the earth.”

“I saw a baby breast feeding itself off its own dead mother. I did nothing to stop the baby. I could not. I was so lost myself. It was like walking through a Bush after it has already been burnt.”

“Now released prisoners from the genocidiers stand beside victims at the memorial and they know why they do so…the focus was not on revenge but forgiveness.”

The list of survivor accounts is longer than the wall of names of the victims, because most of them were either never found, or never identified. The fact that a Rwandan can stand next to the person that murdered their family and morn them together, is something that I almost couldn’t believe. It just goes to show how strong the focus is on forgiveness and unity in the country. If you want to learn more I would advise against looking on Wikipedia or BBC websites. If you want to get a real feel for what happened, visit the Genocide Archive of Rwanda.

Pragmatism and African time

One thing that impressed me deeply about the Rwandan people are their pragmatism. They don’t sit around all day complaining that they don’t have things, they simply go and make them. On one of our first nights in Rwanda we went to a bowling alley for dinner and, well, you can’t not laugh. They are hand-operated. It’s just about the most hilarious thing I’ve ever seen. Since modern machinery is expensive, but labour is cheap, when you knock down the pins, little hands suddenly appear from the dark and sweep away the remnants, sometimes scoring you additional points if they accidentally knock more pins over. They couldn’t give a toss about health and safety, they just want to get it done.

Mike and I used to work out together at our uni gym, so when I asked him how he was keeping fit, he took Ben and I to his local gym to see how they do things there. As engineers, we were thrilled to see that, in place of proper weights, they had welded car differentials to the ends of axles to make barbells. For cable machines they had rigged a system of pulley that lifted buckets of nuts and bolts off the ground. Ingenious. This is the kind of thing I love about Rwanda, and Africa in general. You can buy 1 cigarette from a shop, or 1 roll of toilet paper from a multi-pack. If a garage can’t fix your car, the mechanic will drive with you to the next town to see if they can, and the next town, until someone fixes it and drives them all home. Cars have infinite mileage and there’s no such thing as an MOT.

As we were driving through the countryside we saw people walking for miles with everything from bricks to bananas balanced on their heads. Their skills at this could rival even the most highly trained Chinese acrobats . They do this because there are no cars to transport goods, but stuff still needs to get done, so they just do it on African time. Most of these people aren’t even being paid for doing this , but at the end of the day someone will have a house, and that’s what’s important. The feeling is that if they are doing nothing, then they might as well be helping out. This kind of philosophy , is something that’s really missing from a lot of places in this world.

Mike’s project in Rwanda (when he’s not moonlighting as a bike mechanic for their national team) is to develop a new kind of electric induction cooker that could replace charcoal cooking and stop deforestation in the country. The only problem with this, apart from the fact that it only works with certain kinds of pots, is that Rwandan homes don’t really have kitchens. Instead they cook in a little black outhouse on a coal stove. Since Mike’s cooker is still in the development stage we ate out a lot. In most restaurants in Rwanda you will wait a seriously long time for food. This is called African Time. This is can be frustrating, and is kind of bizarre since there are always a ton of people working in restaurants. The problem is, they are only really being employed for the sake of not having unemployment, so there is about twice as many people as there is stuff to do. You’d think this would make it faster, but actually they just all get in each other’s way and mix up your banana chips with your fried bananas (they are both identical).

Getting around

Even though Mike has only been living in Rwanda for about 3 months, he’s no Muzungu. He seems to speak Kiriwanda with a surprising fluency. Every time we need to get anywhere he hails a bunch of motorbike taxis, or motos, and get’s us the Rwandan price of about 10p per kilometre. Now, the first time you get on one of these you will likely cling on for dear life to the drivers back as it meanders through, and across, traffic at high speed. Once you get used to them, and you realise that the driver really doesn’t mind if you spoon them, you can sit up, relax and enjoy the view.

One of my most beautiful memories of Kigali is driving on the back of a moto at night. Kigali is spread over a number of hills, and at night they light up like fibre optic domes. At a certain hour the traffic clears and a sweet smell of honeysuckle rises through the air. It hits you and you loosen your helmet, suddenly wishing that your journey would be just that little bit longer. After a few days in Kigali the four of us set off on a road trip in Denyse’s car and headed for the hills. Rwanda is a lush green country filled with bananas, tea plantations and mangoes, and driving through it is probably the best part (as long as you have a four wheel drive car). Unfortunately we wrecked Denyse’s Toyota Espacia and had to glue it back together when we got back to town.

It’s called the land of a thousand hills for a reason, and it’s choc-a-block with forests and small villages. All along the road you’ll find people walking who will stare at you for no other reason than they’ve probably not seen a Muzungu in a while and are curious. Nearly every kid we passed shouted out “Muzungu!” at the top of their voice, waving a chasing the car. It’s cute at first but it gets old real fast. We stopped for a break to soak in the view at one point and about 30 children all crowded around in silence, watching us like we were in a zoo. I still remember probably the most bizarre sight I saw: a little boy ran across the road barefoot and scrambled up a hill. As we turned the bend there was an ancient looking women sitting on the corner with white eyes full of cataracts, wearing shabby clothes, but holding a beautiful new rainbow coloured umbrella over her head. As we passed by, a picturesque green dairy farm revolved behind her and she followed us with her ears the whole time.

Sadly, after just over a week, it was my time to go, and so Mike two’s up on a moto with me down to the city bus station to get a ticket for the overnight bus to Uganda. These buses don’t joke about. It was like a scene from the fast and the furious. They’re all lit up like Christmas trees, LEDs and banging tunes, chromed out wheels and leather seats (in the VIP section). Unfortunately for me who bought a VIP seat for the, (which are located right at the front), they play ear splitting Afrobeat in the cockpit all night to keep the driver awake. This has got to have been one of the most uncomfortable journeys of my life. On top of the roads being bad, the music and the lights were like some kind of sensory torture. The border was also a joke. I basically got kicked out in the middle of the night and had to wonder across no-man’s land spooning my passport and beating away the touts selling fake money and cigarettes.

Things not to miss

As part of our little road trip we spent a few days kicking around Lake Kivu, which is one of the biggest lakes in Africa, separating Rwanda from the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). This vast expanse of water holds host to a striking array of scenery. In the south at Gisenyi, mushroom islands stick out of snaking waterways like a scene from South East Asia. We hired canoes for next to nothing and paddles out to enjoy the sunset, sipping local banana beer, which is vile FYI. In the north in Kichigi there are beautiful sandy beaches that look over open water like the Mediterranean, dotted with little resorts and boulevards. I got told not to swim too far out however, as blinking in the distance near the DRC side there is a natural gas rig polluting the lake. Classic Africa. We were going to do a border run but apparently you’ll pay $200 for a single entry visa. Also DRC is a bad place, don’t go there.

Ben really wanted to do gorilla trekking, so we stopped off in Virunga under the shadow of the volcano. If you looked on a Rwandan tourist brochure this would be the only thing on it. Ask anyone else who has even heard of Rwanda and “gorillas” is the second word they’ll say after “genocide.” It’s even on their money. The guide took Ben so close he could have touched them and they surrounded their group like they weren’t even there. He told me that one of the bull males came up and beat his chest at them and they all had to make supplicating gestures towards him so as not to get beaten to death. When I asked him how it was he said “Amazing! But not worth $800.” Yes $800 for one morning. If you have the money do it, but I passed.

The mountain gorillas are severely endangered, mainly because farmers have expanded into their jungle and consider them a nuisance. They used to just shoot them, but now the Rwandan government employs a huge task force to keep them under check, both the farmers and the gorillas. This seems to be working well and this is why you’ll pay top dollar to see them. It does actually seem to feed back into program and would be working well if not for the DRC side just giving free reign to anyone with a few dollars.

Besides the fact that it’s a massive cliché, I actually had the most fun just hanging out with some local kids. When we were in Virunga we decided to break out of our sheltered camp site and hang out with some goat herders, after losing an epic animal noise competition against them through the fence. We headed off across the farms and into the forest. Now, being a film-maker, I wanted to take pictures with all the kids, but Mike was very against this. “Imagine if you lived in a poverty in England” he put it, “and rich foreigners kept coming into your neighbourhood on tours and taking pictures with you to show how poor you were. How would you feel?” He has a valid point.

He is also against giving money to beggars, or letting people over charge you, even for a quick moto ride. “It’s a false economy” he said, “If you give them money, they will know that the next foreigner will give them money, so they will stop working because they know they can make more money begging. So the whole community turns into beggars, and what happens when the tourists go away? Suddenly the whole thing collapses and they are left with less than they started with.” I kept thinking about this each time I someone asked me for money, but it’s hard to remain so stolid when someone appears to be suffering right in front of your face. I’m still unsure on this.

It rained fiercely that day and the kids led us to shelter in a local barn. Here, as the rain chattered against the corrugated iron rooftop, we had a song and dance competition. We never could have planned it and it was one of the most magical experiences of my life. Obviously I could go on all day about Rwanda, and I do in my travel journal, which may well soon be available to download or buy in a shop! I’ll keep you updated. My advice then is hit the road, explore the mountains and meet local people. You don’t need to speak the language to understand each other. Avoid restaurants. Eat croissants.

If you’ve been to Rwanda, or have any comments about the country or anything I’ve said, leave a comment below and start the dialogue, and don’t forget to check out the gallery for some of my favourite pics of this stunning country.

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