East Africa

Summer 2007

Part 4: Southern Rwanda

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Tuesday August 21st (day 6): Gisenyi to Butare

We woke up in Gisenyi and got on a Belvedere bus back to Kigali. This was our best ride yet as the bus was almost empty and made few stops.
In Kigali we switched to a minibus to Butare in the south of Rwanda. As always we enjoyed watching the Rwandese landscapes during the ride.

August 21st-24th (days 6-9): Butare

Butare is considered to be the intellectual center of Rwanda because it houses the national university and the national museum. It doesn't look the part though; the following picture summarises the town pretty well.
Still, we spent three nights in Butare because we visited Gikongoro and Nyungwe forest from here, and it was a very nice base, most of all because the food in the restaurant of Hotel Ibis (which has mostly European guests) was just excellent.The only other place where we'd spend three nights was Arusha.
There were also a good supermarket, run by a Lebanese guy, and a good internet cafe. In the supermarket Danny discovered cheap little bags with concentrated juice. Since actual juice bottles were very expensive and likely to have bacteria, this was a fantastic discovery. I really hate drinking water (it just makes me more thirsty) but with these bags we could make refreshing orange juice from our water bottles. We bought dozens of them and would look for them everywhere for the rest of the journey.
Hotel Ibis was above our budget so we didn't stay there. We spent the first night in hotel Beaux-Arts, but since that place only had cold water we switched to the more upscale hotel Faucon for the next two nights. This would actually result in a police chase when we left, but more about that later :)

One evening I phoned my parents in Belgium, and the next day I mailed them this picture which Danny made during the phone call. We'd already seen in Kigali how crafty Rwandese guys have managed to turn ordinary phones into mobile phones. You can see them walking around with these big telephones everywhere; they are effectively walking phone booths. This particular guy seems to have ancestors among the Twa people (the pygmys of Rwanda) btw, or perhaps he was just small.
On the main street of Butare, across hotel Ibis, there is an interesting shop that sells very beautiful Congolese statues and masks. It is owned by a Congolese guy who returns to his country regularly to buy these things, and he had a nice background story to tell about each object. Perhaps it was all clever sales talk, but we didn't see such a quality collection anywhere else in Africa so I think he was legit. His asking prices were high though (100$ for the masks) and we didn't get to return there to haggle. It would have been very hard to choose just one mask anyway.

Wednesday August 22nd (day 7): Gikongoro and the national museum

Gikongoro genocide memorial

Gikongoro lies 30km west of Butare. This town used to have a well-known technical college, which was the scene of a particularly brutal massacre during the 1994 genocide. Thousands of Tutsis had sought refuge in the buildings of the college after the mayor of Gikongoro had told them they'd be protected there, but it was a trap. The Interahamwe came and slaughtered everyone; man, woman and child.

The college is now called the Murambi Genocide Memorial Centre. Hundreds of corpses have been preserved with powdered lime and were left in the room as a macabre testimony of what happened here. From the way the Lonely Planet described it, I had understood that the bodies were preserved in the exact positions in which they had been left behind by the killers, and that's why I wanted to visit this place: to stare evil in the face.

We took a minibus to Gikongoro and found out that the college was actually 4km outside the town. We got two scooter-taxis to take us there, just like in Kampala, and it was a fun ride through the ever beautiful Rwandan landscape. These pictures were made when we walked back afterwards.
After a while we crossed a local man who was also on the back of a scooter. He waved to stop me (Danny's scooter was far ahead already) and asked me where we were going. It turned out he was the guide of the memorial, and he said he'd follow us in five minutes. So I continued to the college and found Danny there; the place was closed so it was good I'd met that guy. When he showed up he walked us to what used to be the classrooms behind the main building.
The guide unlocked room after room for us. Most rooms were full of bodies, put on display on big tables. Though unrecognisable because of the lime powder, the wounds that had killed these people were often clear. One room had a collection of skulls and bones, and one just had the clothes of some of the victims. I knew from reading about this place that it was okay to take pictures, but to be sure I asked the guide and he said that that was the point: to show this to the world. So we took pictures...
During the days before we came here I had often wondered how I'd react to this place. I'd imagined that I would be moved as never before, that I would cry, that I'd be angry, that I'd be inspired to fight for a better world, or that I would just come to regret seeing this horrible scene.

To be honest, I didn't feel much at all. The main reason I'd wanted to come was that I thought the bodies had been preserved as they were found; I'd thought it would give me a more intense feel for the depravities of which humans are capable than I already have from reading about them. But as it was, the place just felt weird and inappropriate. Unrecognisable corpses stacked on tables as if they're museum exhibits; I don't see the point.

In between the rooms, the guide was telling us that his brother and other members of his family had been killed here, and muttered to himself how terrible it was as if reliving it in his mind. It didn't seem sincere to me, but what do I know about what it's like to have such memories. In any case it made our presence more awkward still. At the end of the tour we were brought to the main building where we were asked to make a donation.

We decided to walk back to the town to enjoy the landscape along the way. The guide started walking with us, but when we crossed a group of Americans in a minibus he went back with them. For the rest of the day I'd still feel the effect of the heavy smell of the lime, I shouldn't have breathed in those rooms.


Back in Gikongoro town we came across this billboard...
After the genocide, more than 100,000 people were accused of participating in it, and the new government found it impossible to organise that many trials (they've managed 10,000 so far). So in 2001, with prisons crammed full of suspects, they started the gacaca ([gachacha]) courts, which are inspired by a traditional local justice system. Those suspected of leading the genocide or of commiting acts of sexual abuse are still trialed by the state, but 'ordinary' killers and lesser criminals now have to appear before the local gacaca courts, run by civilians. Anyone can come and testify for or against the accused, who are always dressed in pink jumpsuits.

In the area around Butare we would often see men in pink jumpsuits doing forced labour - they are a common sight all across Rwanda actually. These are all men accused or convicted of participating in the genocide, and the forced labour is their punishment, but strangely they are not being guarded - they are said to have little motivation to escape. This probably speaks volumes about the scale of the crime - everyone was involved somehow and there's no running away from the past. Sometimes we saw these convicts just chatting with other people or walking on a busy street alone, just like ordinary citizens.

When we returned to Butare from Gikongoro, we found the town very quiet. When we went to have lunch at the hotel Ibis, it seemed to be closed, but then the waiter opened the door and beckoned us in. The terrace was closed but we could still have lunch inside, where other foreigners were already eating. It turned out there was going to be a gacaca in Butare that afternoon, and the whole economy was to come to a forced standstill. Apparently this was happening here every Wednesday. That evening in the internet cafe I talked to a Dutch girl who said she'd been to the gacaca; it had been right in town and anyone could just walk in. Damn, I really regretted missing that.

National Museum

Unaware that we could see a gacaca, we passed the afternoon with a visit to the National Museum, which was a 2km walk from the center. The nice building it is in was a present from Belgium when Rwanda celebrated 25 years of indepence. The museum itself wasn't very interesting, but the excellent souvenir shop made up for it.
The dream catcher is rather fragile, especially the figures with umbrellas, but I made it my mission to get it home safely. It certainly wouldn't survive in a backpack, so for the next two weeks and a half I would carry it in a separate bag and hold it on my lap during all the bumpy bus rides, and now it's hanging here in our house, undamaged.

The most interesting exhibits of the museum itself were the traditional huts, of which there were some reconstructions both inside and out in the museum garden.
I also liked seeing the colonial money that was on display, since I knew my family once used this very money. To this day, Rwanda, Congo and Burundi all still call their currency "francs", which is a nice reminder of the Belgian franc which doesn't exist anymore itself.

Thursday August 23rd (day 8): Nyungwe forest

Nyungwe forest is a national park of 970 km2 that lies in the southwest of Rwanda, 90km west of Butare. It contains one of the oldest rainforests in Africa, which is why we wanted to see it. It also has many colobus monkeys and chimpansees. We left Butare at 8am and after switching minibusses we arrived at the main entrance to the national park at 11:15. As always we made pictures during the ride.
For the last hour we had already been driving through the national park over a smooth asphalted road that was in mint condition and was being permanently cleared of overgrowth by groups of workers. Strange, considering that there was hardly any traffic on it and there are plenty of other roads in Rwanda that could use the work.

According to the LP you could do unguided hikes along the various trails that begin at the entrance of the national park, provided you buy a 20$ permit. This was what we wanted to do, but it turned out that things had recently changed and now you were required to pay an extra 30$ for a ranger to guide you around, which is pure extortion. I argued with the rangers at the entrance for a long time while my mood kept plummeting, even offering to pay them 30$ to not guide us, but they didn't budge. Rules are rules in Rwanda.

In the end we just walked away, much to the rangers' amazement. I truly hate being guided around when there's no need, and I wasn't gonna pay 30$ for something I hate, but I would have paid for the pleasure of turning down those rangers :) I'm pretty sure there were no other visitors to the forest that day, so they saw their only business walk away.

We started following the empty road back in the direction we had come from, intending to make a nice day of it on our own and try to see the forest from the road as best we could. My mood improved immediately, because hey we were walking through Rwanda on a sunny day (the first one this trip) with beautiful trees all around us - what's not to like? After a while we saw a small path going down into the forest so we followed it until we came across one of the hiking trails. We didn't want to risk running into the rangers (since we had neither a permit nor a guide) so we went back a little, found a place to sit down and ate the lunch we'd brought (dry sandwiches and cans of mackerel) among the trees.
After lunch we continued along the road until we came across a track going into the forest, so we made our second foray into it. After a while we got some very nice views, seeing as far as lake Kivu and beyond. We also saw many different kinds of trees, some of them very strange. Nyungwe forest has 270 different species of trees and we must have seen a few dozen.
After a while we turned around, returned to the road and continued in the direction of Butare. The following pics were made on the road; as you can see it provided a nice walk by itself.
The second picture was taken at the start of an actual hiking trail. We'd already seen this sign from the minibus, but hadn't been sure how far it was from the entrance. Since we'd taken pictures of all the maps at the entrance of the national park, and since the sign mentioned the name of the trail, we could look up the right map on our cameras. We learned that this trail was actually a climb up Mont Bigugu, and the map said it would take seven hours to get to the top and back.

It was 1:45pm now, so we had about four hours of daylight left which would probably have been just about enough to make it to the top and get back to the road before dark (these hiking maps usually exagerate the times needed). Unfortunately, the last bus back to Butare would pass through the forest around 4pm. Or so we'd been told, but we couldn't risk being stuck for the night in this forest, so we only had two hours to do this trail. We decided to just try and get as far as we could and started climbing. We got higher and higher quite fast and started thinking we might actually make it to the top in a new world record time, but then the path started descending again for a long time.
After walking for over an hour we got to a nice viewing point where we saw lake Kivu again, and we sat down to enjoy it while eating the rest of our food.
We then rushed back all the way to the road and started walking towards Butare again, planning to stop the first bus that passed us. After just a few minutes though we were passed by a jeep, which stopped 200m ahead of us and waited. Inside were an African driver with a white passenger of around 50 old. The latter asked where we were going and then told us to get in the back. Wow, what a stroke of good fortune. It had taken us over three hours by minibus to get here; we'd be back within an hour by jeep for free.

I tried talking to the guy, but though he'd kindly picked us up he didn't seem interested. All I got out of him was that he was a Serbian working in Rwanda on some ecological tourism program, and that he was returning to Kigali where he lived. Which reminded us how small Rwanda is; it seems bigger when you travel with slow public transport :) We spent the rest of the ride making pictures of the landscape, and as there was some sunny these were the best pictures of the Rwandese landscapes I got all week.

Friday August 24th (day 9): Leaving Rwanda

We left Butare in the morning. Now as I mentioned before we'd switched hotels after the first night in Butare because the first hotel didn't have warm water. I'd made the woman at the second hotel (the much more expensive hotel Faucon) assure us five times that there would be hot water there before booking a room, but it never worked and we only had cold showers there. Not a big deal, but very unpleasant after a day of walking.

So when we left this morning, we decided not to pay the 10000 francs (20$) that we still owed (we'd already paid 20000 or 40$ in advance), since we hadn't gotten what we were promised. We just walked out and thought that was it, but when we were already sitting on the bus to Bujumbura the woman suddenly showed up and started asking for her money. I refused to pay and explained why.

Then the bus left and again we thought that was it, but about 10km out of town we saw the bus being chased by a Rwandan police car which pulled us over. Out of the car came two cops and the hotel lady - ouch. At first the cop was very arrogant because he thought we'd sneaked out of the hotel without paying anything, and he told us several times to get off the bus - which would cost us a day. But as I explained the whole thing (my French was getting really good after a week in Rwanda and Congo), showed him the receipt of the 20000 that we did pay (thank heavens I kept that) and argued that she should actually repay us, he got friendly with us and annoyed with the woman. In the end I just offered to pay the remaining 10000 though (we had just about that much Rwandese money left, luckily) so as not to keep the whole bus waiting any longer, and that settled it.

The people on the bus (all Rwandese or Burundese) were all very friendly and patient, laughing about the whole thing, so it was a nice experience actually. The hotel wasn't worth the extra 10000 francs, but being chased down by the Rwandan police certainly was :) Anyway, here are the last pictures of Rwanda...

About Rwanda

Some final words on Rwanda. I'm very glad I visited this country, it's very interesting in more ways than one. My main question going in was: how does this country cope with its recent past, in which one part of the population tried to exterminate the other? The answer is: amazingly well, if your expectations are at all realistic. You'd expect there to be a lot of tension in the air, but I never felt that. What I did feel was a general but unspoken air of tristesse. You can see it in the faces of many Rwandans.

In contrast with that there is a marked economic dynamism, which sets Rwanda apart from most of Africa (or from the other four countries we visited in any case). You see it in the well-kept roads, in all the construction going on, in the lack of corruption, in the relative efficiency of daily commerce and in the dilligence of invididual Rwandans. It seems to be the East-African Lebanon; a country that is also markedly more dynamic than its neighbouring countries. I wonder if it's a coincidence that Lebanon too has had bloody internal conflicts.

Finally, the landscapes of Rwanda are beautiful, and so are many of the people.

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