East Africa

Summer 2007

Part 2: Northern Rwanda

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History of Rwanda

During the Scramble for Africa in the late 19th century, Rwanda ended up in German hands along with Burundi and Tanganyika, but during World War I Belgian forces occupied Rwanda and Burundi from Congo and they would remain Belgian colonies until 1962. Like the Germans before them, the Belgian colonizers used upper class Tutsi to dominate the rest of the population, strengthening a class divide that had already existed before colonization. Shortly before independence Belgium suddenly put the Hutu in power however, and there has been violence between Hutu and Tutsi ever since, with both sides committing massacres against the other side when in power.
Belgium's king Boudewijn visiting Rwanda during colonial times. This picture was on display in the genocide memorial.
In April 1994, after the Hutu presidents of both Rwanda and Burundi were killed when their plane was shot down, the Hutu-led Rwandese military and the Interahamwe militia started carrying out a plan to exterminate the Rwandese Tutsi, killing 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus in three months. This was also when 10 Belgian UN soldiers were mutilated and killed by Rwandese soldiers. The Rwandan genocide only ended when the rebel Tutsi army RPF, led by Paul Kagame, conquered the country from Uganda (where many Rwandese Tutsi had lived as refugees for decades after previous rounds of violence). The genocide perpetrators fled to Eastern Congo, and in 1996 the RPF invaded Congo to attack them there.

To get a feel of what the Rwandese genocide was like, I recommend the excellent movie Hotel Rwanda, which tells the story of how the manager of the luxurious hotel Milles Collines in Kigali (then owned by Belgian airliner Sabena) turned his hotel into a refuge for hundreds of Tutsis and managed to save their lives. We saw this movie a few days before we started this journey.

Rwanda today

From all this you wouldn't expect Rwanda to be a tourist destination, but it's actually one of the most stable and rapidly developing countries in Africa now and is perfectly safe for visitors. Many western tourists who are traveling in Kenya or Tanzania make a quick detour to Rwanda to visit the gorillas in the northern mountains (where Dian Fossey lived and worked) but that didn't interest us much, certainly not enough to pay the $500 permit. Still, I very much wanted to go to Rwanda, mainly to see how it was doing 13 years after the genocide, and also because of the historic ties with Belgium. At first we were just going to check out Kigali and climb one of the volcanoes in the north, but plans changed drastically and we ended up spending about a week in various places all over the country. It was well worth it.

Hutu and Tutsi

The first question on many people's mind about Rwanda is: what's the difference between Hutu and Tutsi? Originally it was an ethnical difference, with the Hutu being typical Africans while the dominant Tutsi looked similar to Ethiopians (thinner, taller, lighter skin). The difference gradually became a social one though; rich Hutu came to be considered Tutsi while poor Tutsi came to be called Hutu, and there was a lot of intermarriage. In our time about half the Rwandese can still be visibly recognised as Hutu or Tutsi, but the other half could be either. Ever since colonial times everyone was classified as either Hutu or Tutsi on their papers though, and during the genocide what your papers said meant the difference between life and death.

Nowadays there's another way to tell. Along with the victorious RPF, many Tutsi refugees came back to Rwanda from Uganda where they had grown up. Since Uganda is a former British colony, they speak English as their second language, while people who grew up in Rwanda (mostly Hutu as most Tutsi inside Rwanda were killed in the genocide) speak French as their second language, since it was a Belgian colony. In Rwanda we were often not sure whether to talk French or English to someone, and given the associations, we felt we had to be careful never to assume anything. Also, when we were discussing the country and its people with each other while among locals (e.g. on a bus), we spoke of Hungarians and Turks instead of Hutu and Tutsi, so as not to cause offense.

Friday August 17th (day 2): Entering Rwanda

We'd left Kampala in Uganda shortly after noon and arrived at the border at dusk. At the Ugandese side of the border we had to leave the bus, put our luggage next to it to be checked, and walk to the Rwandese side. Now I'd made sure beforehand that tourists could buy a Rwandese visa at the border, but it turned out that you needed to request the visa through a website several days in advance. Since we couldn't possible afford the time to go back and wait for a Rwandese visa several days, this meant that we would have to give up on visiting Rwanda, Congo and Burundi altogether and just head straight to Tanzania, half ruining our journey on day 2 already. The other two Europeans on the bus, an Irish couple, hadn't known about this procedure either, and they needed to catch a plane in Kigali.

At first I wasn't really worried, having always gotten through similar situations in other countries with patience, politeness and bribery. But after an hour of discussing with the ranking officer, a young Tutsi who was nicely dressed and spoke very good English, things looked very bad. We twice tried to bribe him, and so did the Irish couple, but he wouldn't have it and seemed sincerely offended by it. As we'd experience again later, the Rwandese government seems to have succesfully stamped out corruption, which is truly amazing for a developing country and probably one of the main reasons why the country is doing so well.

So picture our situation: we were standing in the no man's land between the two border posts, it was now pitch black and getting cold, insects were out in full force making a lot of noise and trying to eat us, our bus was ready to depart without us, our Ugandan visa was already stamped, the Ugandese border post was closed, and after an hour of arguing the Rwandese official was still adamant that none of us could get a visa. While the Irish girl was still trying to persuade him, we were seriously thinking about how we would best spend the night out here in the open between the two borders without a tent (we had mosquito nets but nothing to attach them to).

It's the Irish girl's perseverance that probably saved the day. She used her female charm on the guy and kept urging him to keep trying to call his superiors in Kigali (he'd tried before but noone was picking up since it was past office hours). When we had already fetched our luggage from the bus and basically given up, the border guy finally got someone on the phone and seconds later we were suddenly allowed to buy a visa.

Now it was just a matter of keeping the bus driver from leaving while we were going through all the paperwork to get a visa. When we finally got on the bus, the locals cheered for us rather than act annoyed because we kept them all waiting so long. We got to Kigali around 9pm, bought Rwandese francs at the bus station and took a taxi to hotel Isimbi, where we got a great meal. The room had satellite TV and we were brought two buckets of hot water to wash up - what more could you want? :)
Dinner in hotel Isimbi in Kigali

Saturday August 18th (day 3): Kigali to Gisenyi


In the morning we walked around the center of Kigali, which looks far more developed than Kampala or any other African city we'd see and has lots more construction activity going on. Having seen the movie Hotel Rwanda just a few days before, we had to go check out the hotel Les Milles Collines, which is prospering once again due to the fame the movie brought it. It is completely walled around and guarded so there wasn't much to see.
Danny walking towards the gate of the hotel Milles Collines
Hotel Milles Collines
Danny in the center of Kigali. This was actually taken when we passed through Kigali again a few days later.
Danny and me near the Kigali Memorial Centre, with behind us one of the central hills of Kigali

Then we took a taxi to the Kigali Memorial Centre on an adjacent hill. The memorial recounts the Rwandese genocide of 1994, but also has a floor about other major genocides of recent history. The facts about the 1994 genocide are presented in an admirably serene way, with no tendency to exagerate and with just the right amount (not too much) visual horror. However, not a thing is said about earlier massacres in which Hutu were slaughtered by Tutsi, which is a major shortcoming.

The exhibition itself is very similar to the Yad Vashem holocaust museum in Jerusalem, but one thing was very different: almost everyone around us there (the staff, the other visitors) had actually lived through these gruesome events themselves.
Statues in the central hall of the memorial
Pictures of some of the victims
An ID card handed out by the Belgian colonial authorities. Note how it classified every individual as a Hutu, Tutsi or Twa (pygmy) at the top left.
Picture of a gacaca tribunal taking place. These traditional courts of justice are now used to put genocide suspects (dressed in pink) on trial.
On the right pictures of the massacre of the Herero people of Namibia by the Germans in 1904 (when Rwanda was also a German colony). The next room deals with the holocaust.

After visiting the memorial we went back to the center and had lunch in a restaurant that was part of a supermarket. The presence of a supermarket is a sure sign of a developing economy, as I've learned during my travels. This particular supermarket had lots of Belgian products, including stuff from Colruyt, rather funny for us. At about 2pm we were back at the bus station where we'd arrived the evening before and got on a minibus to Gisenyi.
Lunch in Kigali
The bus station in Kigali
The outskirts of Kigali

Minibus to Gisenyi

This was a 4h30 ride during which we got to see the beautiful Rwandese landscape for the first time, as it had been dark when we drove into Rwanda the evening before. Rwanda is nicknamed the land of the thousand hills (= les milles collines - hence the name of the hotel) and indeed the whole country seems to consist of high rolling hills. In densely populated Rwanda every bit of land is used for agriculture, so all these hills are covered with fields. Unfortunately it was cloudy almost the whole time we spent in Rwanda, so we don't have any really good pictures of the lovely landscapes.
Landscape between Kigali and Ruhengeri
Drive-by photography
Another hill
No bit of land is left unused in Rwanda
Here's a little movie made during the ride. Of course the minibus was packed with people.
When the minibus made a stop somewhere I got to talk with some fellow passengers. As would happen again during every other talk we had with locals in Rwanda, Congo and Burundi, they were very friendly and welcoming and reacted positively when we told them we're Belgian. Almost everyone we talked to turned out to have a cousin living in some Belgian city, but of course in Africa 'cousin' is a loose term.
Talking with fellow passengers during a stop
The other side of the road at the same spot
During my Peru and Bolivia trip I was often wondering what it would feel like to be a Spanish tourist there, being constantly confronted with all the destruction and atrocities committed by your fellow countrymen in the past. I had thought it might be similar for us here, but it never was, firstly because there are no physical reminders of the past, and secondly because the locals don't seem to associate Belgians with colonialism but only with current relations, which are good.

The minibus drove through Ruhengeri, which lies near the Parc National des Volcans, a nature reserve around a linear series of seven big volcanoes (3500 to 4500 meter high). This is where people come to visit the mountain gorillas, and we had first planned to come here to climb one of the volcanos, but then we found out about the active volcano Nyiragongo in Congo and that was where we were going now.
Ruhengeri and one of the seven volcanoes
When we started approaching Gisenyi, which lies by lake Kivu, the landscape got flatter. On the pictures below you can already see the volcano Nyiragongo in Congo, which we were going to climb (cfr part 3).
Landscape near Gisenyi
There's the Nyiragongo
It was dark when we arrived in Gisenyi, because the minibus made big detours first to drop off people and pick up new ones for local rides. During the last part of the ride I had a long argument with the 'conductor' as he wanted to charge us a lot extra for our backpacks, though he never mentioned that at the start. Great practice for my French, and we found a reasonable compromise.

In Gisenyi we walked to the Auberge de Gisenyi, a guesthouse for locals with a popular restaurant on the courtyard where we had dinner. Before we left Kigali we had emailed a tour operator in Goma (Congo) to ask if he could take us to Nyiragongo the next day, and we had left for Gisenyi (which lies on the border with Congo) just hoping for the best. So it was a big relief that there was a message waiting for us at the guesthouse saying that we were being expected; we'd head straight to Congo the next morning.

After dinner we ventured out on the dark but busy unpaved street looking for an internet place but we didn't find any. In that one street we counted about a dozen hairdressers who were open for business though.

August 19th and 20th (days 4 and 5): Gisenyi

When we woke up and went out on the street in front of the guesthouse that morning, we were surprised to see the Nyiragongo right there towering above the town. It's great to get a good look like that on the mountain you're about to climb!
Gisenyi and the Nyiragongo
We were picked up at 8am and drove to the border, but I'll talk about our trip into Congo and our climb to the top of Nyiragongo in the next part.

The next day around noon we were back in Gisenyi already. Since we hadn't slept that night we wanted to treat ourselves to a nice hotel by the lake (hotel Palm Beach), but that one was closed for renovation. We were dropped off at another nice hotel (Peace Island) but this one was too far from the lake so we just walked out again. We ended up in the guest house City Lodge where we got a whole (mostly empty) apartment and an excellent meal (fish saté, which we ate a lot in Africa).

After lunch we hit the beach of lake Kivu. Now Kivu is a name that I wouldn't associate with a great swim; it was often mentioned in 1994 as a place where bodies were dumped, and the Kivu provinces of Congo are seeing gruesome violence to this day, but lake Kivu is in fact a lovely place and has great beaches in some places. The Lonely Planet speaks of "the Costa del Kivu", but also warns that you have to be careful where to swim because in some places volcanic gasses are released from the lake bed and have already asphyxiated quite a few people.
Me after a swim in lake Kivu
Welcome to the Costa del Kivu
I'm not sure whether these are huge cactusses or just very strange trees
To our surprise the public beach of Gisenyi turned out to be a clean and well-kept place (public beaches in poor countries are usually public dumps); you could easily picture mass tourism in a place like this. The way things are though, we were the only foreigners there. At first we were all alone in fact, but after a while some local guys (first one, in the end about seven) started hanging around nearby and eyeing our stuff conspicuously. No problem, we just had to take turns swimming in the lake while the other watched our backpacks. The water was just great btw.

After our swim we walked around the local market, found an internet place to talk to the home front, and for dinner ordered the same meal we'd had for lunch again because it was so good.
Sending some love to Belgium from Gisenyi
The next day we went to Butare in the south of Rwanda, but that's for part 4. First, read about our foray into Congo and check out the pictures of the Nyiragongo, the definite highlight of this journey, in part 3.

<< Part 1: Uganda    -   Back to Index   -    Part 3: Congo >>


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