Like the rest of the world, I watched in horror the news as the Rwandan genocide unfolded in 1994. Years later, when learning about post-colonial Africa becomes an almost all-consuming obsession for me, I take a very academic approach to this dark episode in the history of humanity. I devour every book, article, movie I can find on it, from memoirs and PhD dissertations to Hollywood blockbusters. Anything that can help me understand how human beings can reach this level of horror. And how Rwanda, led by Paul Kagame (Rwanda’s current president and the leader of the Tutsi liberation front that ended the genocide) goes from a warn torn nation to becoming one of the most developed economies in the African continent. A miracle.
After years of planning and reading, my chance to go finally comes in early 2019. I am living in my beloved Johannesburg at the time, and as soon as I hear there is a national holiday coming up, I buy my flights to Kigali. I try to convince my friend Tinashe to come. He is Zimbabwean, also based in Johannesburg, and like most people in this South African metropolis, has a habit of planning everything last minute. He regularly buys his flights to Harare the day before, so I don’t believe he is actually coming until I arrive to the boarding gate and he is there. This time he bought his flights the day before and booked his accommodation on the same day. My organised self, shaped by years of living in London, where people plan their weekends 2 months in advance, is close to having a heart attack.
The flight to Kigali is at 4am, bringing me pleasant memories of sleep deprived travels around Indonesia. Unlike Indonesia, where airports are buzzing with activity at any time of the day, Johannesburg’s OR Tambo is empty. I only find a few lost souls, all looking for the flight to Kigali, which is in the most hidden corner of the airport. I find Tinashe asleep in a bench, and I breath in relief that he made it.
As soon as we land, it is apparent that Kigali is a world apart from Johannesburg. Getting two sim cards takes us a whole hour, something I hadn’t experienced anywhere else in the world. Then there is the issue of getting a taxi. There is no uber. No grab. No go-jek. Only a very basic app, developed by Volkswagen, that allows you to connect with a very small number of drivers. The app doesn’t seem to include a reliable map, so we have to direct our drivers to our destination. It is still early in the morning, and Kigali’s inhabitants are on their way to work. The city is very green, houses spread all over the hills, not too much traffic, and no one seems to be in a particular hurry. Everyone seems quite relaxed. Coming from the wild, intense yet comfortable life in Johannesburg, this placidness is a shock.
I am staying at Hotel Mille Collines, made famous by the “Hotel Rwanda” movie. During the genocide, many Tutsi families took refuge here. As a history buff, there was nowhere else I could stay. The hotel has a spectacular location on top of a hill, overlooking pretty Kigali, with a great pool and outdoor restaurant. Unfortunately, the rooms don’t seem to have been refurbished for years, and they look very different than the pictures I saw online when I made the booking. I am exhausted, but I argue for a room change, and after a long conversation, the hotel management is very accommodating.
Moving around Kigali can be quite tricky. The taxi app doesn’t always work, and the taxi and motorbike drivers don’t always know how to read a map or understand French/ English. Sometimes we have to give up going to certain places, but we mostly manage. We start our tour at Inzora Rooftop Café, a cute café on the rooftop of a bookstore. Given I found it on Culture Trip, it is not surprising that it’s mostly visited by expats and tourists. The café has nice views and a very relaxed atmosphere, so we stay there longer than planned.
For the evening, we treat ourselves – we walk to the restaurant! In Johannesburg, walking somewhere, especially at night, doesn’t tend to be a very good idea, so we make the most of Kigali’s safety. The city is incredibly clean and safe (beating, on both accounts, my home country Spain), like a peaceful oasis. We have dinner at Repub Lounge, in Kimihurura. The restaurant has a nice terrace with local food and again, nice views (every establishment seems to have a view in this city). We try local dishes like Sambaza (fried fish from Lake Kivu), Nyama (meat, just like in Zulu), and fish in Isombe (cassava leaves).
The next day we head to the Genocide Museum. It’s at the top of my to-do list and I ready myself for all sorts of emotions. The museum, a homage to the victims of the genocide, is incredibly and tactfully well designed. We start outside, with the monument to those who died – big, collective graves, covered with cement. Relatives come here to leave flowers and honour their deceased. The graves are surrounded by trees, and the names of the victims are written on the wall. It is peaceful but incredibly tragic, and I feel an immense sadness. This is the accumulation of pain of hundreds of thousands of people, in one of the worst tragedies the world has seen. 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus died between April and July 1994.
Inside the museum, we walk through corridors of horror. A timeline of events, stories of victims and survivors, pictures, videos, letters, memories. A massacre that should never be forgotten. Tinashe and I walk in silence, observing, reading, learning, watching. There is not much to say. It’s just horrific, but also very well narrated.
Our tour continues at the Rwanda Art Museum, one of the most peculiar museums I have ever been to. It is located in the outskirts of the city, near the old airport. The place is the former presidential palace, and it is both a collection of contemporary Rwandan and international art, and a display of the plane crash that triggered the genocide. When the plane where Hutu president Juvenal Habyarimana was travelling in was shot down by a missile, it was seen by Hutu extremists as a declaration of war. The president had been in talks with Tutsi rebels, and his death started a killing spree all over the country.
We are alone at the museum, and a very helpful guide takes us around the art gallery. She is wearing a ‘mushanana’, the traditional garment of Rwanda, which is strikingly similar to the Indian sari, and is worn by women across Rwanda, Uganda and Burundi. The collection is spread all over the house, which spans two floors. The international pieces are a bit kitsch for my taste, but the Rwandan collection is much more interesting. Most of it is post-genocide art, and it seems as it has been a way for the artists to exorcise their traumas of having had to live through such a tragedy. The paintings show collective pain and a society torn by having had to watch a massacre. It is quite impactful.
We then move on to the garden, where the plane debris is located. It is quite a horrible coincidence that the plane would crash in the president’s own backyard. We are not allowed to take pictures as the investigation is still ongoing, although a Rwandan commission has determined that it was Hutu extremists who organised the assassination of Mr Habyarimana. As we look at the remains of the plane, surrounded by lots of ducks (which are randomly living in the museum grounds), we feel the whole set up of the museum is a bit surreal. Later we will meet a local Kigali artist who tells us that he doesn’t like coming to this museum as he feels the place is haunted by the ghost of the president.
The museum also has an exhibit showcasing local designers, and I take this a cue for some shopping. I have heard great things about Rwandan fashion designers, and I convince Tinashe to accompany me to visit the store of Inzuki Designs, a local designer of jewellery, accessories and interior décor. I absolutely love all their designs and I struggle to buy only a few things for myself and my mother, who by now has a big collection of jewellery and scarves from all around the world (mostly in blue tones).
Our last stop is the Inema Arts Center, a local institution. The gallery is quite small but has very interesting paintings from local artists and a bar. We sit for a beer and meet the owner and one of the artists, and end up staying for hours, chatting about Rwanda and art. We end up having dinner with them in a new restaurant, Soy Asian Table, run by a Filipino chef/ manager. Food is delicious and it has a great cocktail menu, and it also seems to be the place to be in Kigali for the expat population. It’s only our second day in the city and I am pretty sure I have already seen some of the foreigners who are having dinner around us.
Next day we wake up early, as we are doing a day trip to Lake Kivu, which borders with Democratic Republic of Congo, DRC. We wanted to visit the gorillas, but the visitor’s fee is USD 1,500 and we decide to leave that for when we visit a country with a cheaper fee, such as Uganda. After negotiating over whatsapp with lots of tour providers, one of Tinashe’s friend gives us the contact of Dawson, who is starting his tour business and will be our guide for the day. He is very punctual, his car is spacious and very new, and we know we are set for a great day.
The drive to Lake Kivu is approximately 3.5 hours, through very well maintained roads that cross green rolling hills, forests and rivers. Rwanda is, after all, the ‘Land of the Thousand Hills’. The landscape is serene and pretty, and very clean, partly thanks to ‘Umuganda’. This initiative, which takes place the last Saturday of every month, sees the whole country contributing to cleaning the streets and parks and other public spaces. It also seems to make people more conscious of their behaviour, and we rarely see anyone throwing garbage to the ground. We make a quick stop and buy meat skewers, grilled in a stall by the road. Unfortunately, I find out they are made of goat’s intestine, and after a small bite, I have to stop eating.
We arrive to Ginsenyi, which borders Goma, one of the most (in)famous cities in Africa, from what you read in the news. As the capital of the North Kivu province, it has been the scenario of civil wars, refugee camps during the genocide, ebola, cholera and volcano eruptions. To this day there are still rebel guerrillas in the area, attracted by the abundance of minerals in the province, and the conflict between them and the Congolese army has caused many deaths, sexual violence and the recruitment of child soldiers. The residents of Kivu must be one of the most suffering people in the planet. It is even more ironic that they live in in a ridiculously stunning landscape. Their pain is surrounded by green beauty. The Virunga National Park is one of the most biologically diverse areas in the planet and home of endangered gorillas. To the problems highlighted above, we also have to add illegal poaching, which has depleted the park’s mammal population as well as gotten many park rangers killed. This area has one of the largest concentrations of pain in the planet.
With all this in mind, we head to the border with Goma, with the beautiful Mount Nyiragongo in the background. The border is incredibly crowded, full of Congolese people who come to Rwanda to shop, and they are all carrying huge heavy bags back to Goma. At the time ebola has not arrived yet to the area, but there are numerous posters warning people about its dangers.
Surrounded by these thousands of people, Tinashe points out that I must be the only white person in miles around. Without thinking, I look at the skin in my arms, look at the skin of the people around me, and note that he is right. I do look different. In the last countries I have lived in, I am so used to being the minority, that I forget how different I look – I have to add that this is also thanks being very lucky and no one making me feel like I don’t have the right to be there. Dawson goes to talk to the army, who find it quite funny that a European tourist is excited about the prospect of getting photographed in the border, and allow us to take as many pictures as we want as long as the soldiers are not on them. They even encourage me to put my foot in the border, so officially I have been to DRC.
The border is very obvious even without the checkpoint. Whilst the Rwandan side next to the border is clean, organised, and relatively wealthy, the Congolese side is crowded and poor. It’s a huge contrast. Goma itself is quite wealthy thanks to the mining industry, and the city has mansions and an international airport, but influenced by what I have read about this city, I imagine it to be surrounded by poverty and displacement, but also beauty and hope. Not just any poverty, but the misery of those who have been through one armed conflict after the other. People who are used to running for their lives. Also hope, as there are a number of local initiatives to get the area back on its feet – from helping women who have been victims of the conflict , to preserving the environment and a thriving community of photographers and journalists. Humans can be amazingly resilient. The soldiers are smiling at me and it all seems calm but all these thoughts are racing through my head. I cannot believe I am here. It even feels a bit voyeuristic, coming to take my picture to this war scenario, and quickly heading back to the safety of our car and Rwanda.
For lunch we head to a restaurant on the shores of the lake, Paradis Malahide. It is on a relatively secluded spot, surrounded by nature. We eat small fried fish, but not before we have squeezed a lemon over them. This simple act takes me all the way back to where I come from, Andalucía. Worlds apart, but the same dish eaten the same way. After lunch we jump on a boat that takes us around the lake. With the gentle movement of the boat, Tinashe falls asleep, and I just anxiously look at the DRC shore. What lies out there? How do people live? How would it feel to set foot in there? I had researched visiting gorillas in the Virunga park, but the low entrance fee (USD 400) also comes with the risk of abduction. The Rwandan park fee might be cheap after all.
Now we are going past Goma, and we see some of its grander houses. The city looks green and peaceful from far away, powerless under imposing Mount Nyiragongo, still an active volcano. It is a striking and beautiful sight, and I cannot help shake the feeling that I want to visit the this side of the border too. Lost in these thoughts, we head back to Kigali. It has been an amazing day and Dawson has been a fantastic guide.
The following day, after enjoying my last moments in the pool of the Mille Collines, it is time to go back to Johannesburg. It has been a short but intense trip, full of emotions. I have really enjoyed Kigali and I am looking forward to coming back, as there is a lot still yet to see. Nevertheless, and rare in me, I am actually really excited to go back home. I have missed Johannesburg.
Arranging the trip:
- Hotel: I booked it through Booking.com
- Getting around: We used VWmove in Kigali, as well as local taxi and motorbike drivers
- Trip to Lake Kivu: Dawson can be contacted on +250 7888 25739 or email@example.com
- Books to read
- The girl who smiled beads, Clementine Wamariya
- The state of Africa: A history of the continent since independence, Martin Meredith
- Africa: Altered states, ordinary miracles, Richard Dowden
- In the footsteps of Mr Kurtz, Michela Wrong (about DR Congo, but very good to get context on the region)
- We wish to inform you that tomorrow we will be killed with our families, Philip Gourevitch
- Films to watch
- Shake hands with the devil, Roger Spottiswoode
- Black earth rising (TV show available on Netflix)
- Hotel Rwanda, Terry George
- A Sunday in Kigali, Robert Favreau
- Shooting dogs, Michael Caton-Jones
- Sometimes in April, Raoul Peck
- Women travellers
- I felt very comfortable at all times, both when I was wandering around Kigali by myself and when I was with my male friend
- Kigali is one of the safest places I have ever been to. We walked around at night and I took taxis by myself