Feb. 2020: Amakuru! Hello in Kinyarwanda, the official first language of the nation, followed by Swahili -being the most common in all Africa, and then French.
Man my French Canadian did not stick, it would have been much easier to get by, but gratefully English is also widely understood.
Now let’s see, I left you off with chapter two after my time volunteering at the game reserve with some beloved animals like lions, tigers, zebras, ostrich’s and so forth. At the time I was really upset I had to leave them, but I know I will come back again another day, most definitely. I still think of them….
When the driver reluctantly took me away from the park, it was a somber road ahead until we finally entered the metropolitan city of Johannesburg. I felt a weight in my heart drop as she dropped me off at the all too familiar airport. There were so many people it was bewildering. Luckily I had something, or someone, to look forward to as a distraction. An old friend of mine whom I hadn’t seen in 12 years came to pick me and we had a 22 hour catch up before my next take off. Like I said before this trip was certainly a reunion tour with people from the past. Andrew I befriended in Thailand back in 2007 and we kept bumping into each other in the same places whilst travelling those tropical lands. He and I kept messaging one another throughout the years but had missed a lot, obviously. He wanted to show me Joburg as how a local lived on a typical day. It was already late afternoon so we snacked on some biltong (jerky essentially), then drove around to pick up dinner ingredients as with the essentials like beer, gin and wood. We were gonna cook ourselves a braii (an outdoor grill) in his backyard. We ate well, talked of our past adventures, relationships, jobs etc., and wondered when and where we think we might bump into each other next. Travellers always have an itinerary in mind. Since the virus all my plans have fallen through for a while, there were places lined up for the rest of this year yet. I am not used to being in one place for too long so this is a big test for me, like some kind of joke. In retrospect I am now very happy I did these trips in the knick of time before we shut down international border crossings, but only I wouldn’t have rushed them as I did in which I only did then because I had bigger plans for upcoming Spring (today.) Who knows when we can travel abroad again? The new world is upon us and we are all in the same boat, awaiting it to unveil. We are all in this together no matter where we are.
My friend and I watched some cricket (the sport) the national News (President Cyril Ramaphosa of South Africa 🇿🇦 was addressing the new outbreak spread of Covd-19 at the time) and then we ended the night playing darts and he went to bed early to get up for work. I had a flight out the next day at 3pm so in the morning he made an oatmeal medley and we said our goodbye, hopefully not for so long this time. So when he was already out to the office I did some much needed laundry still covered in dirt from the reserve grounds, then walked around the quaint Parkhurst neighborhood in the blazing sun looking for a cafe. The stores were quite extravagant as it was a wealthy area and I did enjoy window shopping, but that’s all I could do. I ended up having a last, regional Gin and Tonic as Johannesburg is known for the delightful concoctions, and then I had to pack my fresh, clean clothes and order a taxi to that same airport once more.
On my flight to Rwanda 🇷🇼 it was rather interesting as the passenger beside me was an interesting fellow. He was also from Toronto, the same city I reside in, but he was actually born and raised there. Needless to say he guessed right away I was Canadian instead of American, and we both double fisted a red and white wine as we were in the last row and would not get returning service. He was also African and bilingual too, worked in and out of various countries throughout Africa as an oncologist. He said he would fly up to 7 different places a week sometimes. On this trip he had a very important meeting at the Hotel Des Mille Collines, where the shocking film Hotel Rwanda was shot. Unbeknownst to myself I would randomly find my new acquaintance at that very hotel days later, or rather he spotted me as I was eating a rather posh artichoke salad out on the terrace, and he came up recognizing me immediately to shake my hand and wish me well on my trip, and that “too bad I had just missed the President!?” He was having THE meeting there with Mr. Paul Kagame whom I could have met briefly had I arrived 10 minutes previous. Not sure what I would have said but I still think fondly that this person who met me on a plane thought I was remotely even worthy of being considered to greet any political leader.
Fun fact: Rwanda is amazing to be the first ever country to have primarily a female party in parliament at 61.3% for the Upper House – the Senate and at 38.5% for the Lower House – Chamber of Deputies. Incredible especially as women have overcome a lot of tragedy, grew up orphaned from the mass genocide, and are still not considered a big part of society. That’s sadly too often the case in many countries to this day. But if this can be a leading example to the world, then testify!!!
If women in power have a majority say, it’s no wonder this country is turning around to be a peaceful place. It may have been horrific in the past, but now rather they are focusing on a harmonious future together. I’ll explain it more after I tell you about the calamitous events to ensure the understanding of why or how it is now.
The Visa as of late now has 2 other adjoining countries on it. So if you get the East African Visa you can visit all 3 of Rwanda, Uganda and Kenya. If I had more time I would have done all of them, but I know I’ll be back in Africa one day again soon… or well, after this pandemic and I can save more money again. Something to look forward to. Once you’ve been, you certainly do think to yourself “I dream of Africa.”
However if you leave even 1 of the 3 countries to another out of the triangle on that particular Visa, then you are not allowed re-entry to either anymore. I think it cost $100 US and lasts 90 days, so you can enjoy a month in each. Sadly for me I only spent less than a week there, but saw enough, though there was more on my itinerary. If it hadn’t been for some inconveniences I would have seen more ex: gorilla trek I will soon mention, and going to the beautiful Kivu Lake at Gysenyi (I booked a day tour but then got screwed over by the travel agency, you’ll hear me bitch about them furthermore soon too.)
This new Visa with Rwanda and Uganda in particular is a big deal, since the Presidents of both countries were in a major dispute over a shared border. This conflict led the leaders into accusations of espionage and of soldiers coming in to attack civilians. President Museveni of Uganda and Kagame of Rwanda have very recently resolved this, opening the trading border where sales would flow more frequently and at a lower cost for both the people’s. They had seen enough violence during their days, so this peace agreement to sign a pact to ease tensions is going to affect their nation’s positions in a positive manner in future.
Typically in February it is damned hot in Africa, and I love it, damn it! Give me the sun, that heat. Except in Rwanda there are 2 rainy seasons and rest assured there were a few days in which took me by complete surprise, like when I went around the city hopping from place to place and wanted to end my day at the museum.
Turns out there was a storm coming that day, thus when I came outside after hours inside the museum, it was a full-on monsoon. It was completely out of left field since it was boiling out just a couple hours before.
Turns out there was a storm coming that day, thus when I came outside after hours inside the museum, it was a full-on monsoon. It was completely out of left field since it was boiling out just a couple hours before. Needless to say I was in a tank top and shorts unprepared for the obnoxious weather, so I got totally soaked. I stayed at the outdoor terrace as long as I could sipping on African coffee in hopes to stay warm, but who was I kidding? it was utterly freezing! The museum cafe eventually had to close, so I was basically stranded on top the hill in the harsh, cold rain until I eventually saw a car taxi come by, which seemed miraculous as most transit vehicles are motorbikes and that’s what I had taken all day prior. I felt like such a sitting duck tourist, which I was, cause everyone had an umbrella or some makeshift covering or hood or jacket, and had all seemed to have scattered in time before the mudslide down the hills. Oh yeah, Rwanda is known as the country of a thousand hills but the way. People are super fit walking around I tell ya. My last motorcycle taxi struggled so hard up a steep hill that I almost jumped off to walk, it was puffing with both our weight in first gear. I kept thinking of the little engine that could…
Later that wet and windy evening when I finally made it back to my room, mud up my knees and absolutely drenched, with the little wifi I received for a moment there I saw -on social media of all places- that there was indeed a flood warning in the Capitol, Kigali, where I was staying. Riiiiiiiight. Didn’t get the memo.
So some things to know about Rwanda; it is a growing, developing country with a population of 12.6 million mostly living in rural areas as it is landlocked.The economy has grown back since 1994 (we will get to that horrible business later) with their massive agriculture. The lands provide good farming and their biggest export is tea and coffee. Their tourism is in high demand for seeing the now protected gorillas in their natural habitat alive, well and free. It’s rare as there are so few left due to awful hunting of these amazing apes, mostly for ‘bush meat’. That was my main reason initially for choosing Rwanda over other countries this particular trip, yet most unfortunately in every sense of the word it is ridiculously expensive and I fear only rich people can afford to actually see them. However in hindsight that’s probably better so that we don’t disturb the remaining, beautiful beasts and continue to not let other predators in, like HUMANS -hunters. So I suppose the less people, the less risk. Their location must be kept secret after all.
It really does appear to be that they are hidden away off a path that takes hours or days (depending on starting point) to hike to their destination and actually see them, and you can only witness their behaviour for an hour. One must earn a glance and obviously there is no interaction with the gorillas, just the chance to be fortunate enough to observe them as they are going about their day in the wild. One day I’ll be able to afford the hike to see them, and I hope that they’ll still be around then. 🙏🏽🦍
Coffee is sensational in Rwanda, it’s earthy and rich, tastes like the real deal. My ritual was to wander around a neighborhood until I could smell beans roasting, and then sit down and enjoy my cuppa joe with a biscuit to dip into it. Breakfast of champs. From there I’d figure out where I was closest to and would research where to go that day (wifi was a must as well.) I liked those morning starts, it was a blind mission and got me to other areas unplanned. *Most Rwandans don’t even drink coffee, but it’s responsible for 80% of export farming and is highly regarded for their economy. My room at the Bed and Breakfast didn’t serve coffee but they offered of course, breakfast. Nonetheless it was astonishingly huge and I couldn’t even get through a quarter of it, also I saw cockroaches in the room (shudder here) so I was concerned they crawled in my food, so I just told them not to make me meals furthermore, I simply said I had no appetite first thing in the morning. My favourite place I’d recommend to you for the view is Inorza Roof top Cafe and Book Store. Great java and a plethora of great books.
It was in that very cafe where I found out that I was very close to the Inema Art Centre. It was a swift 15 minute walk from there and it’s a community driven, charity based, youth art initiative. Proceeds of anything sold from the gallery goes towards funding the kids and keeping them safe and creative. I 100% support this place and bought my roommate a hand made, painted bow tie that a 12 year old designed. Impressive. Trust me I would have purchased every canvas if I so could, they are brilliantly talented.
Like many of my friends who think it is still very dangerous to go to Rwanda, I assure you anywhere in the world can be and I felt safe, though out of place sometimes. For the duration of my stay in Kigali it didn’t seem rude or disrespectful when one did a double back glance at me. I only once got pressured into buying things and that was at the infamous Kimironko Market. It was full of life and colours, exotic fruits, grains, fabrics, faces of old and young. I wanted to photograph everyone and everything, but as soon as you show any interest, a group of vendors are on you, trying to get you excited about their product for sale and it can be very overwhelming. The market I do recommend if you visit, it’s hard to resist it’s charm. I didn’t take any photos in the end though.
Yes I got many stares and shouts of “mazungo!!!!” which only means “white” whenever I passed by, but I never felt threatened. It was more out of amusement or curiosity that a western woman would be there solo, also with bright, blond hair and tattoos, so I’m sure I might have been the estranged anomaly in town as I often was the only white person around and the locals were simply shocked (it seemed). I would say “Amakuru” politely and keep calm, carry on my way. This was in the outskirts of Remuera Village mostly. In other areas I didn’t even get a head turn, as if suddenly it became multicultural at the change of a road sign.
Let’s not assume ever I’d get ripped off, but being a foreigner one often gets misguided by price, especially in transport services, so I always google map the distance then estimate the fare ahead of time. I’d write a location on a piece of paper if I thought I could not pronounce it properly to show to my random driver. I was also extra cautious, even wrote how many Kms away my desired destination was because one guy did try to take advantage; but I do not blame him, I simply laughed at him when he expected me to pay that much for a 2 minute ride. Fast learner here, I’m adaptable. If they were honest and fast or just plain friendly I’d give a bigger tip.
As I was saying earlier I missed a day tour that I paid $200 for that would have been worth it, provided I got to go. Avoid ‘Viator Tours’! Or as I call them now ‘Violator Tours’ because I actually felt violated of my right to a refund. It was advertised on the site that there was a pick up from KGL (Kigali airport.) I was a mere 10 minutes away from there, so it was perfect. We were to drive a couple hours through gorgeous landscape to our final destination, the Great Lake of Kivu, via the Nyambyumba Hot Springs. How awesome does that sound! It was a lot of money to me but to be out in the countryside was an opportunity I couldn’t pass up. Although when I checked the invoice they e mailed me post booking, it had changed from the KGL pick up location to GYI (Gisenyi airport.) Well that was not advertised, so it was a blatant lie! It would have taken me a taxi to the local bus station, a few hours on said bus, with exchanges at uncertain scheduled stop times in between, plus a 21 minute walk to another station close enough by. I calculated that could have taken up to 6 hours man!? As long as the tour and that was only one way. The pick up in the car said 2.5 hours which I could handle. So I obviously called them right away and cancelled, but as it was less than 48 hours notice Viator refused to refund me 🤬.
Basically these travel agencies are savage, they sucker you online and the poor, actual tour guides in the country (like Usalama Tours) who do all the work only get a small percentage of the fee, the major cut still goes to these booking applications that apparently have false advertising. I felt so naive and used, I was pissed off. Usalama had the decency to call me and offer a discount on another day, but I had spent my “adventure budget” for Kigali on that one, so I couldn’t justify it. Viator took $200 from me just for me to cancel immediately due to the false location info, all they had to do with it was set up a bank transfer on their web page and post a fun photo. Needless to say, I’ll never book with them ever again. Be forewarned, fellow travelers.
On another day I stuck out my hand on the road and caught a motorcycle ride for a decent price to the rural parts outside of the city centre or the village I was staying in already. I discovered in Nyarurama there was a mentioned Heaven Garden Rebero that sounded irresistible. I made it all the way there crossing many small towns and passing by locals carrying bundles on their heads, walking up the slopes of the valleys, with children’s little feet kicking balls, mangy dogs looking for scraps, mama’s cooking over fire pits, clothes drying on pegs silhouetting chipped-paint homes. I got dropped off on the dirt road by a back gated entrance with security guards holding guns. They didn’t speak English but let me through I assume because I looked like a tourist. I looked up at the garden and I could tell it was going to be glorious. I saw in the distance the roof of a magnificent building but didn’t realize then what it was. I started walking up a hill among tulips and within seconds got stopped by another security guard. He brought me into an “office” that was more like a cubby, he was watching tv and asked me if I was a hotel guest. Ahhh, that’s what that building was. I said no but that I had come a bit out of the way to walk the garden. He put out his hand and asked for a thousand francs *the currency is Rwandan Francs still. Ex: 400 RWF = $5.50 Cad. At the time I had only 1600 RWF on me and I needed to hail a bike back too, so I sweetly asked if I could look around for a few minutes and offered him a small tip. He said 10 minutes was fine but no photos. It seemed like it would take 40 minutes to cover the grounds, and it would have been nice to have checked out the hotel, but I doubt that fancy place would have let me in. Regardless I snuck a few photos then walked back up the now muddy road as it was beginning to trickle down. I was planning on walking, defeated, until I found a place with shelter or a biker going past to take me back to Gisa Stay.
Much to my surprise and a great way to spend an afternoon, I stumbled upon something I didn’t even bother to research as I was under the impression this rural town had zero of them. Seeing as I am a bartender, I was extremely relieved when I discovered there was a distillery there! But how did they make their spirits?
The mystical, mountain top landmark was called 1000 Hills Distillery. They did small batch and crafted, premium, triple distilled liquors. Two whiskey-loving gents back in 2014 decided to create a vineyard originally, but then working with the farmers they learned of resilience, going green, and starting a different micro-business sourcing materials locally. Since harvesting off these lands were predominant in coffee, they have a famous coffee liqueur. These guys wanted to work with the communities and adapted to using technical training to increase crop and livestock production.
They also harvest 1.5 million liters of rainwater to produce their liquor. It has been filtered and the water tastes amazing I must say. I can see where they get it all from as it was heavily pouring while I was there doing a tasting. In the vat room, you could hear the drops pound the metal roof, caught into barrel-like vessels. With the by-product methanol, they work in association with the local Government to create low-cost mosquito repellent, which is a major health risk and nuisance there, anywhere really.
That wet afternoon at the bar I tried all of the spirits that consisted of a vodka, spiced rum, a macadamia nut liqueur, a London dry gin (the winner for me) and a single malt whisky. As it was still raining after the presentation it happened to be “happy hour” so I waited it out, having an Old Fashioned.
Nonetheless I was getting rather tipsy and still had a journey back and was getting worried. My new friend, the barkeep, he was cool and he knew it wasn’t going to stop raining any time soon for me to get my motorbike taxi home. Kindly he offered me a lift with his friend who was picking up some staff at a cheaper rate than a car hire would be. Of course I had to wait longer so I drank a domestic ale while it got darker, colder, and I got drunker. The friend couldn’t drop me off to my door, but I didn’t mind a 9 block walk to sober up. It was really alive seeing people at night. By then the rain had at last stopped. There was moisture in the air and a craziness to the vibe. The locals were partying that night. I just wanted a shower (fingers crossed the hot water was turned on) and then the bed, hoping I wouldn’t find a flood or any disgusting roaches in the room. If you want to check out 1000 Hills products when visiting, but don’t necessarily want to go to the distillery, you can find them at airports at any of the Duty Frees and at all the major hotel bars and restaurants in all of Rwanda.
On my last night I treated myself to an exquisite meal. It was all outdoor but covered, thankfully, as the hot day had also turned to rain. I enjoyed beautiful, regional wines, had a starter and entree, I went all out at a lovely Spanish restaurant. I know I should have eaten local food for my last meal, but as a wino, I craved it and had a feeling I’d find a great one at that spot. After my dinner I stepped out in the courtyard and sipped my bouquet by the firepit. Once again I found myself cold but the meal, wine and fire compensated.
Let’s get to the severe past of the Rwandan peoples. It’s hard to get through but we all are aware of the horrid events that took place in 1994 over a course of 100 brutal days. I learned it all at the Kigali Genocide Memorial, where the remains of over 25,000 people were buried. I don’t think I’ve ever cried so hard (except for break ups in years prior, or more recently when Trump was elected.)
This historic event was utterly devastating. How could someone turn on their own kind? This sort of hatred brews from misunderstanding, manipulation and being led in the wrong direction, absolute travesty.
In 1916 the Belgian League of Nations mandate after WWII was part of a system with German East Africa called the territory of Ruanda-Urundi. The end of the Belgian trusteeship was in 1962 where Rwanda had declared itself a Republic. However back in the early 1930s the Belgians introduced ethnic identity cards to those at the age of 10 years old and up into groups; Hutus, the majority at 85%, the Tutsis at 14% and Twa at 1%. This was basically an indirect rule of racial hierarchy, regardless they were the same. The Belgians brought in religion and Christianity apparently favoured the minority of the Tutsi, saying they were smarter, more cooperative, even better looking. They actually invented a face measuring device to see how big your nose is from the side profile. Wow!? This division and so called favouritism saying the Tutsi were a superior race (remember, they came from the same place) thus this made the majority, the Hutus, start to get jealous of their friends and neighbors. After many years of being divided, ill advised, discriminated against and being provided the power of suggestion that the Hutus were not moving on in life was due to the Tutsis holding them down, hatred was bred. Many Tutsis ran off to the then independent and re-named Burundi when other mass killings of Tutsi occurred. Until that tragic day later when the Hutus finally went beyond reason and decided to take their power back, so they thought.
In Greek genos- group, race. In Latin cide- act of killing.
In other words or translation, destruction to a nation or race. Hitler tried to “cleanse” the world of Jews. Many others in war believed in this theory. Trying to wipe out an entire ethnic group.
On a tragic day in April straight up until July, a civil war started. Hutus who just yesterday had their friends over, were now enemies if that friend happened to be Tutsi. Do not read on as this is graphic content; I won’t go into detail because it will shatter your heart, but what they did to them was beyond fathom and completely merciless. Most of the slaughter wasn’t even direct murder. Tutsis were treated as pure evil, their ankles sliced so that they couldn’t run away from their fate. Mothers holding their dead babies before they were brutally raped and mutilated, repeatedly. Women and children sadly got it the worst, to set an example for future generations. There was a section at the memorial for the kids, stating their name, age, what they loved about their parents, their favourite food or play time, and how they were slain. It is astonishing and the most awful thing you can imagine. Nobody deserves that, especially a scared 4 year old torn away from her family.
This unnecessary and most foul duration of these crimes against the Tutsi lasted 100 days. Over 3 months of agony, violence, loss, torture, fear and tears.
When the film Hotel Rwanda came out, Nick Noltes character depicting a UN soldier to help the situation had a line that still haunts me. Don Cheadles character had asked Nolte why the US who had been exposed to the horrors of this event, why no salvation was on its way, no aid was coming. He wondered how the world could be aware of it and yet do nothing. Noltes response was “…. because to them you’re not even (n word), you’re just Africans.” That has left a sting in my veins for years. We don’t care unless it’s our problem.
As for today the orphans left have grown up. The few remaining survivors are tortured by the past. The Hutus of war are still ashamed and writhing with guilt. These people witnessed those horrors of 1994 and stepped over corpses of their suffered brothers, sisters, uncles, parents, grandmothers, friends, teachers. They didn’t even have the church or government or hospital for safety, there was no protection.
Today they say Kwibuku, which means Remember, Unite, Re new.
So on a hopeful note, they choose to remember to remind themselves to never let that kind of violence ever take place again. I think Rwanda is the most progressive country now after all they went through. They believe in Ubumuntu, a symbol for uniting Rwandans TOGETHER. They do not want to resort to vengeance anymore, but grow forward. The Memorial was created by both the Government And the Aegis Trust *2004 started the National Commission for the Fight Against Genocide. This teaches peace to all ages, education to enable people to relinquish revenge, put down weapons and champion humanity side by side.
It may seem hard to be able to forgive the acts of the past, but that is why it’s such a forward thinking place now, and I respect it so much for being able to do that. I wish them all the peace moving on, all Rwandans as one.
Maraekhohsi – thank you.
*next chapter is Tel Aviv in Israel 🇮🇱