Saturday, 4 October 2008


Random Thoughts on an Amazing Trip
Touched all five regions of Rwanda in 10 days – a truly invigorating, exciting yet knackering experience :)
North to Ruhengeri and Virungari; South to Murambi, Butare and Nyanza; East to Akagera; West to Kibuye and Central Kigali.
Could I recommend Ethiopian Airlines? Can’t fault them for price. Baggage handling at Heathrow was excellent. Don’t touch their veggie alternative in flight food – even if you have to go hungry! Leave plenty of time at the other end and check they have issued the right tickets for the right flight! You get what you pay for.
Marion's house is well cute. Shared with her three cats Shula, Mao and Ishuheri (shue). Off a main street in Kigali. Brick built but on a very traditional line with a thatched roof made from tree branches:
Over the road, beyond the yellow gate, is Ndolies. A local grocery shop that has within it the ability to change any currency into any other currency at better than bank rate :)
Round the back is a small circular out house that used to house a guard, not a very good guard, who has now been exchanged for a Kazie. Every home should have a Kazie!
The mode of transport of choice is the moto. Cheap n exciting. You may have mis givings but you have to, eventually, travel by moto. They look more dangerous than they are, don’t travel fast just a bit irratically, but by far the cheapest and most available form of public transport.
One cameo worth relating. Day two, night time, and the three of us set off on moto’s to a restaurant on the far side of Kigali. Rwandese do not like to disappoint so will always answer ‘yes’ to ‘do you know where’ and ‘do you have’ questions when often they haven’t a clue. More than once moto’s had to be redirected to the correct destination. After a while I was aware that the other two motos were not behind me. My driver only spoke Swahili. Needless to say I did not. The street lights were out, a common occurrence in night time Kigali, I hadn’t a clue where we were going (thing is, did he?) or the direction back to Marion’s if he did not and no mobile phone. Was I pleased when the other two suddenly turned the corner and rejoined me. Don’t get me wrong I still felt very safe, for all its chequered past Rwandese currently treats visitors very well – once you come to terms with Musungu, more of that later. 
We did the rounds of eating places in Kigali. But the best. The timing was set around Marilyn’s birthday the high spot of which was a trip, organised by Marion, to Kigali’s famous Indian restaurant, India Khazana. We awaited the meal. The lights went out. No one paid heed as power cuts are a regular feature of night time Kigali. A tray of candle lights appeared across the room and the delightful sound of the entire catering crew, bedecked in traditional costume, sang the 'jambo' song that dove tailed into 'happy birthday' and danced their way across the restaurant. Even as they approached the table, and the strains of ‘happy birthday to you’ emerged Marilyn was still convinced it must be someone else’s birthday. Round the table they gyrated carrying Marilyn and Marion with them in the dance. Wonderful :)
But the gorilla trek has to be the high point. We were all issued with the tall walking sticks – with appropriately carved gorilla figurine carved tops. Setting off at a jaunty pace we crossed acres of potatoes fields, careful not to damage crops, passed a preserved old style native village. Nonchalantly swinging walking sticks we were beginning to wonder why we really needed them. Over the wall, half way up the steep muddy incline and you know why you needed walking sticks! Also later coming back down they saved many a tumble. 
We were a team of 8 tourists – 3 Brits, 3 American and 2 Antipodeans + guides and pack carriers. A couple of hours into the trek and the first sighting of gorilla. We carefully closed in on each other, we looking for photo opportunity they looking for food (and a bit of posing for the tourists). The guides had a great way with conversing with the gorillas. The big silver back had an enormous propensity for eating vegetation and, naturally enough, breaking wind. Mother, baby, big ben were almost as close to us as you are to this screen. Truly fascinating. If you ever get the chance try to ignore the cost – Rwanda does have an emerging economy and many gorillas to support – it is one of life’s amazing experiences.

Under the surface is always the genocide. Amongst such beauty it is even harder to comprehend why the genocide happened, though its marks and reminders are still all pervasive. There is no more poignant reminder than Murambi. Rows and rows of rooms full of bodies where they fell just covered in quick lime. I accept that you can read about it but until you stand in the middle of it - but there is little dignity for these people in death. A period that brings shame not just on their government of the day but also on the Belgian government, the Clinton administration, certain French troops and administrators, the United Nations - all of whom could have stoppped this but chose to look away -  as well as the perpetrators. Many brave and wonderful stories of the ‘Schindlers List’ type. How easily this could have been stopped before it started. The ability was there the will so clearly was not.
Back via the national museum and a much needed rest by the waters edge.
Upward and ever onward to Akagera national park. Marilyn's actual birthday and a 4am start - but still had time for the traditional blowing up of balloons et al. Rwanda holds the smallest portion of the park. As the population grows the park reduces in size. The larger areas are in Uganda and Tanzania as were most of the big game. It was the end of the dry season in Rwanda so some of the species had gone abroad in search of water. But we had the most wonderful trip through the park in an open top Land Rover care of Bizidanny - if you ever manage to get there this is the guy to tour with. Best value for money, best drivers - just the best. Still managed to track down Impala, Giraffe, Water Buffalo, Wort hog, Monkey, Gibbon and a large heard of Hippo bathing close enough to touch.

The journey to Kibuye and Lake Kivu is a trial. Many, many, many, many bends on a packed bus, though round almost every bend is a new vista, changing landscapes and impressive valleys. These guys certainly know their vehicles to within an inch when overtaking up mountainous bends. Once there it’s well worth it. Our room at Bethany was detached from the hotel right on the lake front with a veranda, surrounded by beautiful flowers and amazing birds, right by the lake side. Swimming in the lake is a treat, warm water. A great way to end the trip. It is something like the tenth largest inland lake in the world as is bounded by Congo and Tanzania. Sitting on a volcano the bottom third of its depth is methane, some of which is harvested and drives the local brewery, how neat is that :-p Occasionally, near the centre, the gas bubbles up n kills off the odd unsuspecting bather and they reckon it could host the largest inland tsunami one day – but that aside we had a seriously restful time.
Ignatius took us out on his boat. Landed on Napoleon Island (so called because it is shaped like Nappy’s hat) and climbed part way up a goat track to observe thousands of bats. We had not been fore warned of the trek so did not have appropriate footware so had to abandon the rest. Later we were offered a stop at an island for a swim. We pointed out to Iggy that we had no costumes, his response ‘we have life jackets on board’ met with some consternation. Marion tried explaining that he would endear himself more to tourists if he told them what to expect before he set off and he promised to put together a ‘proforma’ (techie speak seems to get everywhere these days).
Rwanda was a kingdom. It was also nearly three times its current size stretching into DR Congo and Uganda until the Berlin Conference, the root of so many territorial problems in Africa. The Mwami used to live in a traditional encampment - the only hut allowed three protruding roof prongs. Had the most amazing roof. Also had huts to store spices and beer :-p
Lasting impressions. Hectic, vibrant humanity. Poverty in a country struggling, and in ways succeeding, to emerge as an economy, rather than abject poverty. With a large proportion of the population still outside of the cash economy it is often difficult to see how this all works but it seems to in an organised chaotic sort of way. At the interphase of poverty and development is the Singer sowing machine - one person businesses working these post war machines to perfection. Contained within the population a lot of strong women, both in the local community and the NGO community, that can and does move the country slowly on. Jasmine and Teresa who set up Tabara to empower single parents. You get left with the children and there are no benefits, no childcare/creche, every day you must find food for the next day yet some have the strength and resourse to campaign to help others. Here tens of pounds change lives not millions. The many NGO's we met, real characters, working to help develop local initiatives. It was an invigorating time.
Oh yes, almost forgot, the calling of Muzungu at white people. A local term used widely for something like 'rich, white colonialist'. A habit some people have got into. Happens in many places. Many NGOs have perfected the kiryrwanda phrase meaning 'my name is not muzungu, I have a name, it is .....' which once used usually turns the whole thing round and endears you for at least making an effort in the local language - like it does most places. Didn't bother us much, part because we did not know what it meant, but if encountered constantly I can see how it would irritate. Also there is a pervasive desire to get a bit extra out of you on many transactions driven, I’m sure, as much by a desire to get one over on the Muzungu as to make a financial gain. Often only involving 200 - 300RWF (20 – 30 pence) and oft overlooked by the tourist, but so constant to volunteers and ex pats that they will retaliate all they way – however long it takes, and who could blame them :) Would we go back - tomorrow if it were possible!

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