Rwanda. A country where the first thing that comes to mind when people hear the name: the horrific, tragic genocide of twenty years ago. When we mentioned that we were looking forward to visiting Rwanda, we weren’t entirely surprised by the confused looks and cocked heads: “Why?”
We weren't headed to see the mountain gorillas as most people visiting Rwanda purely for tourism might do. We'd read about trekking, volcanoes and lakes, but mainly we were curious and wanted to see the country for ourselves. Atrocities should not be forgotten, but we know that people and places are resilient and they evolve, that life moves on. As interested as we were to learn more about the Rwandan genocide and its causes, our focus was to understand better Rwanda’s present and the future it hopes to build.
So what did we find? What surprised us about Rwanda? Read on.
1) Rwanda = The Switzerland of Africa?
The “Singapore of Africa” or “Switzerland of Africa.” Whichever analogy you choose, the meaning is clear: order, cleanliness, calm, rules enforced. To a surprising degree.
We arrived in Rwanda after a long bus ride from Kampala, Uganda. Even at the border, we could sense a different feeling crossing into Rwanda – greater calm, slower movement. Streets were wide and clean, with little to no trash to be found. Motorcycle taxi drivers wore helmets and safety vests. Honking was almost non-existent. There was none of the frenzy of humanity and movement we’d become accustomed to in Kampala. This order isn't reserved for cities, either. As we trekked through villages in Musanze district, we found front yard gardens and paths there were also well maintained.
This is an image of Rwanda vastly different than most people imagine — with genocide, chaos, and lawlessness still in mind. After speaking to both locals and expats who had lived there for a while, the emphasis on order began to make sense. To rebuild a country after an atrocity like the genocide, where 100 days in the spring of 1994 left more than one million Rwandans dead (approximately 14% of the population), a society that hoped to recover at all might need a sense of security and stability. In some cases, order and rules can help achieve this.
With stability –- and an eye to human rights as a basis of discourse — reconciliation and rebuilding can occur.
2) Ubiquitous Rwandan genocide reminders
Our visit this year to Rwanda coincided with the 20th anniversary of the Rwandan genocide. The calendar year is packed with events for remembrance, Kwibuka in the local language of Kinyarwanda.
Throughout the country, we found memorial signs that read Kwibuka 20: Remember, Unite, Renew. Signs were everywhere, in big towns and small, serving as a reminder that every village and every person was affected by the genocide.
We visited the Genocide Memorial in Kigali to learn more about the conditions that led up to an environment where such systematic killing could occur. It very well done and provides the historical and socio-economic background of the Hutus and Tutsis, as well as the propaganda and psychological games that were used to motivate ordinary people to kill their neighbors. The narrative is also quite damning of the role of the Belgian colonial powers in actively fomenting distrust between Hutus and Tutsis. It shines a light also on the fact that the international community turned a blind eye to the events even as United Nations officials working in Rwanda called for help. Although some may argue the exact figures, it’s estimated that as few as 4,000 U.N. troops sent in at the beginning could have prevented the slaughter that unfolded over the next 100 days.
All that said, the memorial's message is as even and even-handed as one could imagine emerging in the wake of such an atrocity. If you visit Rwanda, we highly recommend spending a few hours there.
We didn’t make any special trips to other genocide museums or memorials, including those that marked mass graves or churches where people were slaughtered. Quite honestly, there was only so much we could digest emotionally.
3) Rwanda, more than mountain gorillas
Most travelers come to Rwanda to see the mountain gorillas at Volcanoes National Park and leave, often to nearby countries as part of a broader trip in the region. This is really a shame as the country has some incredibly beautiful landscape, including lakes, volcanos and mountains. Not to mention the opportunity to visit local markets and villages to get a feel for everyday life in Rwanda. Note: We did not go mountain gorilla trekking in Rwanda as we were fortunate to see them in neighboring Uganda.
We focused our time in Rwanda on three areas – the town of Kibuye on the shores of Lake Kivu, Musanze district in the north and the capital city of Kigali. Although we could have explored other areas such as Akagera National Park and Nyungwe Forest, we were traveling with our friend, Shannon, and found ourselves content to take our time and relax after being on the road for a heavy travel month in Ethiopia and Uganda.
Our first stop in Kibuye on the shores of Lake Kivu with a peaceful (and cheap) guest house run by the Catholic church overlooking the lake was just what we needed. I’m almost embarrassed by how much time we spent on the balcony gazing out over the lake, watching the light play games and absorbing the changes in the sky as the day progressed.
In Musanze, the jumping off point for Volcanoes National Park and Rwanda's gorilla treks, we took a couple of day trips by jeep and on foot to see the twin lakes (Lake Burera and Lake Ruhondo), the nearby volcanoes, and a scattering of local towns and villages.
If you’re curious about the practical travel details for Kibuye, Musanze and Kigali, we’ve provided them at the end of this article here.
4) First country to ban plastic bags
“Open your bags, please,” the Rwandan official asked at the land border crossing with Uganda.
While this is not an uncommon request at borders around the world – officials often search for contraband like alcohol, drugs, banned fruits and vegetables – Rwandan officials hunt for something more curious, plastic bags.
Border officials rifled through our backpacks. When they found a plastic bag, they would force us to remove its contents and hand it over. A bit of an inconvenience, but I was happy to forfeit a few bags for a worthwhile cause. If you’ve ever seen a landscape swamped in plastic bags, you’ll understand what I mean. And you'll understand why Rwanda takes the approach they do.
So it is that Rwanda is the first country in the world to ban plastic bags (2006). And they take it seriously.
As you travel through the country, you’ll notice that it is remarkably — and quite beautifully — plastic bag free. And when you buy something, the store provides you a paper or woven bag instead.
A nationwide plastic bag ban. It’s possible, and it's an inspiration.
5) Inimitable African head-carrying balance
It’s not as if we'd never seen women carry things balanced on their heads before, but in Rwanda this practice seems to be taken to an entirely new level of artistry and color. A common scene on the street: four or five women walking, talking, laughing and gesticulating dramatically — all while keeping their necks perfectly erect and large baskets of food or agricultural tools on their heads steady.
The posture, strength and beauty of it all — incredible. Would make the top models in the world jealous.
6) The slow food movement is taken literally in Rwanda
One feature that struck us in Rwanda was the glacial pace of food preparation and restaurant service. As in, you often must invest hours and plan ahead for meals.
First off, there is no street food in Rwanda — for hygienic reasons, we're told. So options for a quick bite to eat are slim to none. So we often ate in restaurants, avoiding buffets where food had been sitting around, and ordering items a la carte.
We have no idea what was happening in those kitchens. At times, something as simple as beans and rice, fried chicken or pasta would take an hour or two – or sometimes several – to appear. This happened consistently, independent of the price level of the eating establishment. It progressed to the point where we were forced to strategize food ordering schedules several hours in advance to avoid becoming ravenous and gnawing on our hands.
I’m all for slow food and fresh ingredients, but Rwanda took it to a whole new extreme.
7) Overnight language switch from French to English
“Parlez-vous français? Do you speak English?” This is how I approached everyone in Rwanda. I wasn’t linguistically schizophrenic. Rather, I just wanted to cover all communication bases. Older Rwandans often responded in French. Younger folks, English. Here’s why.
Until 2008, Rwandan schools and classes were administered in French language. Then one day, the government declared English the country’s official language in schools. Poof. That was it.
The reasons for the switch are many: English is more of a universal business language, most of Rwanda’s neighbors are English-speaking, and shared business language promotes trade and exchange. Not to mention, the switch further distances the country from Belgium and France and its colonial history with them.
However, the sudden switch meant linguistic confusion as instructors accustomed to teaching in French were suddenly expected to teach in English. Sink or swim, I suppose. As time passes, the level of English will improve as more English-speaking teachers are integrated into the school system. For now, however, it’s an advantage to speak a little French while traveling in Rwanda.
8) Umuganda: Community Days
On the last Saturday of each month, all Rwandans are called upon for Umaganda (meaning “contribution”), a national day of mandatory community service. Rwandans are expected to show up to contribute to public projects, to help build and clean. If you don’t show up, you can expect a fine. (Expats we spoke to told us they are exempt, however. At least no one seems to pursue them should they choose not to participate.)
In addition to helping to keep the country clean and organized, community service days are also meant to strengthen social ties by encouraging all members across society to work together, to know both your neighbors and local government officials better. While this practice has been in place for over a century, it now plays a particularly important role in promoting unity and cooperation in Rwanda’s post-genocide culture and society.
We didn’t have a chance to witness these community days in action, but I rather like the concept and appreciate the leadership and commitment required to maintain the practice.
9) Heavy influence of foreign aid
Although we’ve seen our share of foreign aid during our travels in the developing world, Rwanda stood out. In Kigali, our ride from the bus station to our hostel alone was striking. We were amazed by the shiny new buildings one after another, each owned and run be an aid organization — international, multinational, religious. Shiny cars, fences, fresh paint all stood out.
In the aftermath of the genocide, the international community contributed heavily to help rebuild the country. Much of this aid was based on need, but it was also doled out in part to assuage the guilt of the international and religious communities who didn’t do more to halt the genocide in the first place. Although the Rwandan government invests in education and infrastructure to help the country become a center for trade and business, aid still plays an outsized role in the country’s GDP (40% of it in 2011).
The effects of heavy foreign aid, both good and bad, are clear as one travels throughout the country. We rarely saw huts or shacks. More sturdy cement homes with shiny new tin roofs were the norm. Schools were in good condition and roads were sealed and so far in good shape. On the down side, one also felt an undercurrent of expectation on the side of local people that foreign money and resources will always be there – a stroke against self-reliance. Begging, even amongst kids wearing clean school uniforms, was the norm as they looked to foreigners for handouts. My hope is that that over time circumstances might conspire so that the Rwandan people believe more in themselves than in others, particularly when it comes to developing their own country.
10) Markets are where the action is
Although Rwanda may aim to be the Switzerland or Singapore of Africa, it’s still Africa. And its markets are where you can still find some action and lingering bits of refreshing chaos. Piles of everything from beautiful multi-colored broad beans to carved chunks of cassava root stir the senses.
In the open air markets we visited, we found people weren’t especially accustomed to seeing or interacting with wazungu (the plural of mzungu or “white person”). At first, locals appeared a bit wary or uncertain of us, but once we asked a few questions about what they were selling and how they consumed or used them — herbs, root vegetables, beans, sorghum, etc. -– they opened up and the fun ensued.
Note: Knowing how to speak a bit of French definitely helps, particularly among the older crowd.
From our experience it seems as if most travelers in Rwanda are on a packaged tour and the country is aiming for a non-budget traveler crowd. It is possible to travel on a budget and arrange things independently, but it may take some extra time and effort. While public transportation between towns is efficient and reasonably priced, off track and independently arranged transport can by surprisingly pricey.
Here are our budget travel recommendations from our visit to Rwanda.
Kigali Travel Recommendations
For anything that you might want to know about Kigali – restaurants, bars, markets, shops, excursions, etc. – Living in Kigali is the first place to look. The founder (and our friend), Kirsty, has been living in Kigali for several years already.
Accommodation in Kigali Not a lot of good budget accommodation options in Kigali. We stayed at Discover Rwanda Hostel our first night, but thought the price ($42) was a bit high for a double room with a shared bathroom. On our return trip to Kigali, we were fortunate to stay with a couple of English teachers we met in Kibuye.
Food in Kigali: The highlight of our eating experience in Rwanda was Indian food at the restaurant of Blueberry Hotel in the Nyarutarama neighborhood. Highly recommend the paneer hadee and chicken kalimichi. Not cheap at $8-10 per dish, but portions are huge so it could last two meals. The menu was unusual and extraordinarily deep, and our dishes were nothing short of spectacular and featured a level of flavor and heat we often hope for in Indian restaurants but rarely find. Also recommended is Republika for carafes of wine and grilled meat.
Motorbike taxis: The best (and cheapest) way to get around the sprawling city of Kigali is on the back of a motorbike taxis. Every motorbike driver will have a proper helmet for you. Most rides will cost you a couple of dollars, but be sure to bargain and note that the first price given is usually the mzungu (white person) price.
Lake Kivu – Kibuye Travel Recommendations
We chose to base ourselves in Kibuye over Gisenyi as we heard that Kibuye was less developed for tourism and was more laid back than Gisenyi. And that it was. Highly recommend spending a few days in Kibuye to relax.
Accommodation and food: We highly recommend staying at Home Saint Jean, a simple guesthouse connected to the Catholic Church on a hill overlooking the lake. A great laid back feel. There are rooms for all budgets. We took a double room with shared bathroom for $12/night. Bigger rooms with en suite bathrooms directly overlooking the lake are more like $20-$35. We also ate all our meals here. Good, but slow going (see #6 above). Tel: +250784725107
Transportation: Buses connect Kigali and Kibuye regularly (about 2.5 hours), departing on the half hour. We took the public boat from Kibuye to Gisenyi that leaves from a pier near Hotel Golf on Tuesday and Friday at around 1PM (depends on when the boat arrives from Cyangugu), takes around 2 hours and costs 2500 Rfw ($4). We recommend this option instead of the long, winding bus ride.
Musanze / Ruhengeri Travel Recommendations
This town and area are the jumping off points for gorilla trekking and excursions into Volcano National Park, so there's a decent tourism infrastructure here.
Accommodation: We stayed at Amahoro Guesthouse – $30 for a double room, including breakfast. It's in a good location downtown so you can easily walk to things. The caretaker of the house, Muhoozi, is very friendly and welcoming and takes good care of you (including, cooking your beans should you buy them from the market like we did).
Restaurants: La Paillote was our favorite place in town as it had a solid menu of pasta, pizza, sandwiches, and fish plates for reasonable prices ($4-$8). It also serves up good coffee. Many of the cheaper restaurants in town serve up buffets, which we weren't so keen on. We prefer our food to be cooked fresh to order.
We also cooked our own meal by picking up beans, rice and vegetables (like pumpkin squash) at the market and cooking them in the guesthouse kitchen. Terrifically tasty with the few of the local spices, curry packets and a dash or two of Ethiopian spices thrown in.
Musanze Day Tours: We took two separate day tours with Amahoro Tours, organized at the guesthouse. The first tour was a jeep ride out to Lakes Burera and Ruhondo (aka, the twin lakes), driving through villages and communities along the way. If you do this tour, ask the driver to open the sun roof so that you have good photo opportunities and have fun waving at kids and people along the way. Cost: $80 total for half-day tour, maximum of six people
The second day trip we did was the mountain hike of Rugalika that begins from Red Rocks Guesthouse on the outskirts of Musanze (hop on a motorbike taxi to get there). It goes for several hours up into the hills to a school and then through a couple of villages and rural communities on the way back out. It was a good walk through rural areas, but if you only have time for one we'd recommend the jeep trip to the lakes. Cost: $20 per person.
Volcanoes National Park Treks: Our original plan was to do some trekking in Volcanoes National Park, but as the weather was iffy (cloudy and rainy) and the costs were high we opted for the day trips above instead. In addition to the park fees (usually $75 per person for day treks), you also need to arrange private transport from Musanze to the park entrance ($80/day). Any guesthouse can help you with this.
Transportation: Musanze is a well-connected spot, so you should have no problem getting in and out. It took about an 1-1.5 hours by bus from Gisenyi (Lake Kivu) and then 2.5 hours by bus to Kigali.