In the Kinyarwanda language there is an expression: “At night God comes to sleep in Rwanda.” In April 2013, entering my 34th year, I decided to go sleep in Rwanda for a brief time. It proved to be the most life-affirming and simultaneously heart-wrenching experience of my life, and the country remains the most beautiful land I have ever had the privilege of setting foot in.
Rwanda is situated a few degrees south of the Equator and is bordered by Uganda, Tanzania, Burundi and the Democratic Republic of Congo in the Great Lakes region of Africa. At 26,338 square kilometres, Rwanda is the world’s 149th-largest country… in other words, tiny!
We entered the capital Kigali on the red-eye Kenyan Airways flight from Nairobi, and as I lined up to speak with customs about my visa on arrival, my British travelling companions took full opportunity of their freedom from this task to go buy several bottles of Amarula Cream for breakfast. Just as I was set to exit from the bowels of the airport an armed officer stepped up to me.
“Kigali is plastic free, sir.”
After disposing of the plastic bag I was carrying, I met my colleagues in a coffee shop and headed downtown. The first impression a visitor to Rwanda has is an immediate appreciation of the plush greenery. It’s like entering the interior of a ripe fertile fruit.
Kigali, like all of the country, is around 1,500m above sea level and this enhances the aesthetic qualities of a land generously endowed with mountain ranges and lakes. Blessed with a moderate high altitude climate that belies its tropical location, the Rwandan capital provides both a comfortable and welcoming introduction to this land of a thousand hills and an ideal springboard from which to explore this magical country.
However, the local Kigali dog populace did not prove so welcoming and within 24 hours disaster struck in the most absurd way imaginable. I woke after my first night in Rwanda to the sound of an incoming text message.
I have never experienced an unsolicited hallucination before, but the contents of this message had me convinced I’d finally gone completely sideways. When I showed it to my workmate who was staying in the same Indian restaurant-cum-hotel he was rendered equally speechless. Within the timeframe of landing, getting drunk on Amarula Cream and falling asleep at a former colleague’s house in downtown Kigali, the message informed me that a vital member of our travelling posse had lost his passport because it had been devoured by a Rwandan canine.
The ramifications of this were too awful to contemplate — especially with travel looming on the same day. With my friend’s burgundy ID floating in the digestive tract of a Rwandan cur, we set off for Lake Kivu on the border with the troubled Democratic Republic of Congo.
As I placed a sympathetic hand on his shoulder at the Kigali bus terminal, he told me how it happened: he had placed his trusted British documentation on a table and fallen asleep. The housedog promptly sniffed it out and ate it. It was a blow from which my friend would not recover.
After a crowded and visually spectacular journey through the mountains on hill-hugging highways, we arrived at the city of Gisenyi in the West of Rwanda. The city features resorts on the shores of Lake Kivu and is contiguous with the troubled town of Goma across the border in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
The region is home to Bralirwa — the only brewery in Rwanda, which manufactures various local beers such as Primus and Mutzig as well as Amstel and Guinness — and Lake Kivu, the sixth-biggest lake in Africa. But, proving beyond a doubt that no matter how bad things get they can always get worse, my friend who had lost his passport to a hungry dog was stricken with a savage bout of food poisoning... brought on by what I deemed to be some of the best fish I had ever tasted.
Of the five members of the group he was the only one rendered ill by the fish. This sadly spelt the end for him. He took the bus back to Kigali as soon as he was capable and then moved on to London with an emergency passport.
The remaining members couldn’t let this tragic turn of events sap our morale, as we were going to need every ounce of strength we could muster as we set off for the Virunga Mountain range — where gorillas and volcanoes awaited.
“Do not attempt to climb Mount Bisoke in the wet season, which is in April; do not climb this volcano if you are not an experienced mountaineer; make sure you have enough supplies, like water; and please make sure you have the correct mountain-climbing attire,” it reads in the guidebook. We were not privy to this information — and given that it was in fact April, none of us had any experience going up mountains, we had very little water and were dressed like we were going for a Sunday stroll, it may have proved useful. On the other hand, it may have prevented us from choosing to go up.
The peak of Mount Bisoke sits at an elevation of 3,711 metres and is an active volcano — with the benefit of hindsight I’m glad our desperately unlucky friend did not accompany us, as it no doubt would have erupted! There were times when we crawled through mud on all fours for what seemed an eternity, hour after hour. At some point I broke through the pain barrier and was in a strange euphoric state — which was shattered on the way down.
The eldest member of our group suffered terribly and at times broke into what sounded like fluent Chinese and at other times made noises similar to what I was to hear the next day from a silverback gorilla. When he reached the summit, about an hour behind us, he was not coping well. His face was grey and he was shaking terribly, cursing all the while, and when some mountaineering snob offered him a sardine I felt compelled to intervene, dragging him away for a hard-boiled egg.
Just as he sat down the Rwandan trackers gleefully announced it was time to make the descent. I seriously contemplated kicking our older colleague into the bubbling crater, a mercy killing of sorts. The descent was done for the most part on one’s backside, and I came crashing down at least 20 times. By this stage our elder counterpart had his own personal escort, both of whom were carrying automatic weapons, and the tirade of virulent Chinese and gorilla mating calls flowing from him had me convinced they would shoot him.
Gorillas in the Mist
The next day we were up at dawn to go see gorillas. We had paid US$750 (VND16 million) for this privilege, and like imbeciles destroyed ourselves physically the day before.
“Can’t we just go to a zoo and see them?” I asked, only half-joking.
We trekked about three hours before our guide started making a series of low grunting noises, and sensing we were close to the gorillas I started making the same ridiculous noise, done to placate the silverback! Stepping through a series of vines, we were suddenly and magically in the living room of a group of gorillas, close enough to touch, there they were. A rustling high up in the canopy informed of the silverback’s presence, and this precipitated a jealous spat between two of his females. When he came into view it was a sight to behold, the most powerful looking specimen I had ever seen. He was not so impressed with us, and spent most of his time drinking from a vine that we were told was alcoholic.
20 Years Ago
As we left the gorillas our ranger gave us a moving talk about the genocide of 1994.
The result of growing tension between the Hutu majority and Tutsi minority, the spark point came when a plane carrying the Hutu President, Juvénal Habyarimana, was shot down. The following day the conservative elements of the Hutus went on the rampage, slaughtering moderate Hutu and Tutsi. By the time the genocidal killings came to an end, 20 percent of the population were lost to the madness.
Although there has since been a period of reconciliation and healing, Rwanda remains unstable and tension still bubbles under the surface. Everyone in the country has been scarred by this trauma in some way, and despite much forgiveness, it is a memory that is difficult to forget.
Yet, such is the beauty of this altitude land, that it remains one of the most stunning travel locations in Africa. In the same way that so many people now head to Cambodia, which had its period of genocide in the late 1970s, travellers should not be put off by the scars of the past.
As our ranger explained to us, as a nation, Rwandans must never allow anything so terrible to occur again.