An unexpected lovestory: Rwanda

The Rwandan border post was a very relaxed affair, apart from the fact that it is currently rebuilt – on both the Tanzanian and the Rwandan side – and thus the road between the countries is a dirt track covered with bulldozers and Africans running around in Japanese construction worker gear (because the rebuild is financed by the Japanese), and all customs and immigration offices have been moved to containers next to the huge concrete skeletons that will house them in a few months, probably. And private people take 500 Shillings from you so you can have a wee in a toilet and not with 200 people around you. But the officials were all friendly and reasonably fast, and after changing our last Tanzanian Shillings into Rwandan Franc, we were off to country No. 5 on our route. Rwanda greeted us with an impressive waterfall right at the crossing between the two countries, and lots of rolling hills, terraced fields and good roads afterwards. And people! We had not seen so many people on the roads since Malawi! And as in Malawi as well, the motorized vehicles were quite scarce in the beginning, with most people being on foot or bicycle. Riding a bicycle in Rwanda seems half curse and half bliss. We saw lots of people pushing heavily loaded bikes up loooong ascents, but we also saw them wizzing down on the other side. Sometimes even whizzing past. As people seemed to have a lot less respect for motorists here than in Tanzania (probably due to seeing not that many), we slowed down to our Malawi pace and rode along these hills very chilled. Also partly because we had again missed a sign explanining the speed limits at the border, so we stuck to the 40 and 80 km/h signs when we saw them and were on our lookout for the speed-police in between. After three days in Rwanda we still waited to see some of them, and started hoping they don’t exist here. It is strange for a country which is otherwise very strict with its rules and law-and-order reputation to not enforce road regulations. In general, everything seems so neat and orderly here – the plastered houses with the hedges and brick walls, the clean roads with rubbish bins (!), the orderly terraced fields –  that one wonders… is that just how Rwandans have always been, or is this focus on order and structure a result from the chaos and violence they experienced during the civil war and the genocide? It is maybe Rwandas curse that one cannot drive through this country without thinking of what happened here.

We always look out for differences when we enter a new country, and apart from the already described neatness, another difference we soon realized was the WOW-effect we had on people here. In all countries we passed through up to know we had attracted people – two Mzungus on huge motorbikes, that’s something funny to look at. Nearly always one or two who came over and started the Wheredoyoucomefrom-wheredoyougoto conversation. But in Rwanda, it felt like we were a magnet in a box of nails. Whenever we stopped, we attracted so many people in such a short time – and when you have a small crowd, people always stop to see what’s the matter – that we rather opted to move on after a few minutes. The peeps were all friendly, but being surrounded by an ever-growing crowd of people who mostly don’t speak any language you know, but are very interested in you and your bike, does not help when you are thirsty, hungry, hot and tired after a day of riding. Still we had some nice experiences during our short stops, including one where we bought awesome, sweet orange bananas – the lady had to work hard on Anne to convince her that they were really fruit and not cooking bananas, in the end she took the banana and peeled it for her (funny Mzungu…). Another time a whole school of schoolchildren decended on us. By now we can recognize the look of urgency on the face when a schoolkid wrecks his brain for the English words and phrases he knows because it does not want to waste this precious opportunity to practice and show what he knows. It is incredible how happy these kids look when they manage to have a short conversation with you, and how happy it makes us in return. Lots of grins and laughter every time that happens. Sometimes it can get a bit zoo-like – Anne once felt a light kick on her boot and turned around to see that one kid had apparently told the other to do that, and now that they had her attention both were oggling her curiously. Very much in the same way that one rapps at the glas barrier to get a reaction from the lazy monkey that does not want to move.

The interest was less pronounced once we came closer to Kigali, but still after waiting in front of the GIZ office for 5 minutes, there were 10 moto-riders (small motorbike taxis) blocking the street to oggle at Jan and the two bikes parked next to him. When we said goodbye and rode off, some were taking pictures with their phones.

In Kigali, we were invited to stay at the house of Eva, a GIZ colleague whom Anne had met some months before during a workshop in Nairobi. Turned out that another colleague whom we had met during preparations in Bad Honnef was also here (not in Burundi, as we had falsely thought…), and we all got together in the evening at the Carwash, a laid back open air bar which attracts a mixed crowd of expats and locals, and which was swamped with people watching the Italy against Urugay match with feelings between agony and delight (mostly delight, not many Italy supporters here). We tried two local beers, quizzed our friends on Rwanda and tried to calculate where we would be for the last world cup game. Went to bed exhausted but very happy – a great first day in Rwanda indeed.

The next day we searched town for the Ugandan High Commission, to get our East Africa Visum. As Germans, we did not need a Visum for Rwanda, whyever, but that does not apply for Uganda and Kenya. It took us a while to find the commission, tucked away on the top of one of the many hills of Kigali, but we succeeded. We were told we could pick up the Visa the next day, and decided to use the rest of the day to go to the Kigali Genocide Memorial. While searching for the Commission in the morning we had already come past, and visited, the Belgian memorial for the killed Belgian UN soldiers and citizens. Though we truly felt for the soldiers and their families, it was still weird, to see this dedicated museum and memorial to 10-20 people, telling their story only (and the way of storytelling reminded us much of another old style of European history-telling – the brave and upright Europeans and the treacherous Africans). Maybe thats also the reason why the Rwandan government has blocked the road that leads to the memorial – you now have to go on the premises of the bank/university and walk through a gap in the fence to reach it.
The Kigali Genocide Memorial was telling the bigger story of course. By no means untinted and without another interest very visible here, but still very informative and mostly very well curated. The memorial does not only recount the history, but also lets victims – and in one case also a perpetrator – tell their stories. A lot of blame is put on the International Community, especially the UN for letting it happen, and to Belgium and France for their respective roles (probably a reason why French is now no longer encouraged as language by the Rwandan government). While some of this is well founded, it is interesting that this international perspective is also the final comment of the memorial – first at the end of a video message, and then also through another exihibition on the second floor, giving insights into genocides in Namibia, Armenia, Germany, Cambodia and Yugoslavia.
We think this angle of looking at the Rwandan genocide helps a lot with the true intent of this memorial: to unite Rwandans as one people, and to prevent something like this from ever happening again. Because in one way the Rwandan genocide seems special still: in that the perpetrators and the victims have to live so veryvery close to each other, directly after the atrocious events. They have to overcome the past and never forget it at the same time, day by day seeing their neighbour pass, who maybe killed their daughter, or whose cousin one killed. Most other genocides end up in all or most of the victim group being extinct or pushed out of the country. Not so Rwanda. There are still Hutu refugees in Congo, mostly misinformed by rebel groups that they will be killed when they return to Rwanda. But most people have actually returned, Hutu and Tutsi, and try to build the country anew. And they are doing an amazing job, under a lot of pressure from a very authoritarian government (and now we skip the discussion what would happen without this government, and when Rwandans might enjoy a more open political society, and what needs to happen for this to happen and not end in war again… Because we sure don’t know enough about Rwanda to do more than guess). Probably most Germans start to relate to Rwanda and Rwandans early on when travelling around the country and visiting the memorials. Every genocide is unique of course, and the Holocaust has a whole other background and dimension than Rwandas genocide. But still, you feel united in that also the Rwandans ask themselves the question, all the time: How could this happen? How could we do this to each other? What kind of people are we? When we saw a Rwandan school class being herded through the Memorial, and then coming out and the teacher taking a picture of the whole group in front, it was a strong deja-vu.

We ended up staying three days in Kigali, and decided to do another detour in Rwanda as our friends had convinced us that we had to see Lake Kivu. The road to the lake is, like most roads in Rwanda, tarred to perfection. The road ALONG the lake, however, is still a rocky dirt road, part of the Congo Nile Trail, and an awesome ride. Apparently the Chinese have also already started here, and the road is getting flattened and tarred from the South onwards to the North end of the lake. As we started in the middle and went up North, we still had the “Original”. Beautiful winding roads along hills and frequent glimpses of the lake. It took us 4+ hours to cover the 80km, with the roughest patch at the very end – half a km of ridiculously ripped up volvanic rock, that beat even Lesotho’s rock roads. Afterwards, the tar road down to Gisenyi seemed like a featherbed.
We were camping at Inzu Lodge, a super neat place with very hospitable staff and a stunning view on the lake. The road up to the lodge though nearly was too much for Anne, who was already quite exhausted by the Congo Nile trail. Never stop on a steep rocky incline, it only gets worse… Under much cheering by the local kids and a lot of motor revving, she made it finally to the parking area. We enjoyed our stay including the single Rwandan meal on the menue: meat, cassava leaf spinach, beans and manioc.
The next morning we left for Uganda but not without some difficulties on the first 70-100 metres down to the road. It doesn’t help to watch a loved one struggling down a steep slope and then trying to be on top of the situation while you would actually feel like shitting your pants. Anyway, with a lot of sliding and swearing Jan made it down to the road and was very happy to dry the day’s first sweat taking our last Rwandan bends to meet our friends in Kisoro, Uganda.

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