Rwanda: Pays des mille collines.

Kigali, August 2022.

There is a law here that says every home must have an outside light. And so, as my travel-and-flight-bedraggled body was transported entre les mille collines from Kigali airport to the hotel at 3:30am, the twinkling lights in the valleys were like fireflies welcoming me to another dimension.

Even at this absurd hour, with a raging migraine, I had enough wits about myself to detect a sort of charm in the air intermingling with the semi-familiar scents of this continent: earth, wood fires, flowers, humans.

Even the driver, who had to wait at the airport for an additional 3+ hours due to the delays upon delays of my flight, met me with a smile, a hakuna matata and a warm welcome to his country, as if he genuinely has a stake in its future and an impact on how things go.

There’s history here, and much of it is not pretty. One cannot visit Rwanda without coming away knowing some new things (and perhaps weighing an equal number of questions) about the depths of human behaviour.

Rwanda’s history is intermingled with Colonialism, racism, classism and political corruption. It’s hard to just dip a toe into the history because there are so many moving parts, and I’m bound to leave out something significant or miss a step. This timeline outlines the events leading up to 1994.

The problem with Colonialism in general, and Rwanda’s case in particular, is that something of an African caste system had been invented through Western, white, stereotypes commingled with political whim and personal favours. So as Belgium helped build their government, they also managed to foment a systematic divide between Hutu and Tutsi (there wasn’t one, until a class structure was manufactured), helping neatly stack some of the kindling for what was to come.

  • In 1957, a document called the Buhutu Manifesto was published. It essentially outlined the racial divide in Rwanda and called for Hutu liberation.
  • In 1962, Rwanda gained Independence, installing Hutu leaders who set Tutsi quotas throughout the political, social and educational systems.
  • In 1990, the 10 Hutu Commandments was published in an anti-Tutsi newspaper called Kangura. This vile document added sparks to the kindling.
  • Between 1990-1994, Tutsis waged a civil war against the Hutu government. At the same time, Hutus targeted and killed Tutsis but not nearly at the same scale as what was to come. UN Peacekeepers were sent in.
  • On April 6th, 1994, President Habyarimana was assassinated.
  • On April 7th, 1994, the killings began in earnest. In 100 days, Hutus slaughtered 1 million Tutsis across this country roughly the size of Massachusetts. Friends murdered friends. Neighbours macheted neighbours. Members of the same church killed each other. The stories are horrific. This was not a war; it was a deliberate and unfathomable mission to completely annihilate a portion of the population. By hand.

This video, from the Kigali Genocide Memorial, helps explain.

The first full evening I spent in Kigali, as I was looking at the peaceful swimming pool in my hotel (Hôtel des Mille Collines), it dawned on me that this was the very same pool from which refugees of the mayhem happening outside its walls drank because the Interahamwe militia had shut the hotel’s water supply. I wondered who and how many my room had sheltered. I wondered if I could ever be as strong as those who witnessed and endured the ugliest side of mankind.

So it was fitting that one of the first places on our itinerary was the genocide memorial. It was sobering. 250,000 bodies are interred here, in this beautiful building surrounded by gardens and an amphitheater. What struck me were the stories. As you enter the place, you hear survivors’ accounts and their fears. As you leave, you hear the same individuals talking about how they and their country have grown. They talk about resilience and unity. They talk about forward momentum and forgiveness and not dwelling on the past while building a future that doesn’t let history repeat itself.

As it was before outsiders manufactured a pecking order, there are no tribes here, only humans.

I think it’s important for the developed world to understand what happened in Rwanda, and to remember that this happened in very modern times, 50 years after the Holocaust, under the watch of Western nations who failed at their primary task of ensuring peace. It’s also important to see how this tiny country picked itself up and focused on bringing wrongdoers to justice and healing itself.

Kigali, now, is a vibrant, clean spotless, energetic city, bubbling with infrastructure projects and plastered with billboards inviting ecotourism. The government is running water lines to remote villages, installing streetlights on all the major roads, promoting education (Rwanda has 72% literacy rate, which is outstanding for a developing nation), vaccination efforts (the nurse at the travel clinic I visited before my trip said they had an 80% COVID vaccination rate!) and wildlife conservation.

Rwanda is called the land of mille collines, a thousand hills. The green of the trees contrasts against the rich terracotta soil; the hillsides are terraced with banana palms and lush fields; the Virunga mountains, dormant volcanoes that loom large in the mist, mark the edges of the land like a dam holding back the wilderness like a verdant sea that wants to spill out.

As we reached the Northern Province, home to Volcanoes National Park and the Virunga Mountains, it felt a little Jurassic Park-ish, and I could see Dian Fossey’s enchantment with the place. It feels as though you’ve landed in a sort of wild and magical spot. Some of the best ways to describe Rwanda, especially the mountains, are sensual: It sounds like birdsong emerging from a deep silence. It smells like jasmine and campfires and petrichor. It tastes like an autumn garden, rooty vegetables and earthy spices. It feels like a tapestry of bark and bamboo and mountain mist. The many shades of green and earth and clay could fill a box of crayons.

In this semi-enchanted state, we headed out early in the morning to see the nature. Trek #1 was to find golden monkeys. With fewer than 3,000 remaining in the wild, golden monkeys are as protected as the mountain gorillas. So with armed rangers leading our expedition (to ward off buffaloes, we were told), we took off to see the little rascals. It wasn’t much of a trek, if I’m honest, because the rangers found the troop of monkeys at the edge of the forest moments before they (the monkeys) decided to raid the bordering field of unharvested potatoes. So instead of a game of hide and seek in the trees, we were treated to a view of the monkeys’ ingenuity and harvesting prowess. 10 points for use of tools and those opposable thumbs. If only humans looked at each other the way these golden monkeys look at their harvest! 😍

That night was one of the highlights of the trip for me. The new headquarters of the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund in Rwanda opened earlier this year, courtesy of a grant from Ellen DeGeneres (apparently a birthday present from Portia!). The evening culminated with a talk by one of the organization’s scientists and a representative from the institute. It was a wonderful couple of hours of Q&A with cocktails and snacks, talking about gorilla conservation efforts, whetting our appetite for the gorilla trek we were to do the next morning.

Protection of the gorillas is a high priority for the Rwandan government, so they partner closely with environmental groups like the Gorilla Fund to manage the health of the ecosystem and the safety of the animals themselves from poaching and human-animal contact. First, we were required to take a COVID PCR test prior to going to Volcanoes National Park, as mountain gorillas share 98% of human DNA and even one COVID infection could easily spread and wipe out an entire family.

There are 20 mountain gorilla families in Volcanoes National Park, and 12 of which are habituated enough to humans that the government permits just one hour of human contact per family per day. Therefore, to secure a permit and a time slot with the gorillas requires a steep permit fee, a bit of luck, and some negotiating amongst the guides. Mountain gorillas are always on the move, so the rangers set out early in the morning to find the various gorilla families, for both tourism and conservation efforts. They report back to the guides so the daily schedules can be fixed. Seems like a complicated process but it works! We were assigned to the Sabyinyo family, a large group with 2 silverbacks (huge adult males) and a mixture of black backs (teenage males), adult and juvenile females and babies and a moderate-level hike to reach them. Except for one gnarly section of trail, where our group’s porters had to help us maneuver down a treacherous and muddy slope, we had a fairly easy time getting to the spot in the crater where our gorilla family was lounging for the day.

Who knew that seeing mountain gorillas at such close range would feel like being a voyeur at someone else’s party? Guhonda, the huge silverback, the gentle and diplomatic father. We spent an hour watching him guard the lair as the other silverback plus their assorted wives, sisters, mistresses and children ate and frolicked in the jungle underbrush.

Every year, Rwanda celebrates Kwita Izina, the annual naming ceremony for the past year’s new baby gorillas. It is a grand event and I’m just sad we were about 5 days too early to witness it live, as celebrities from all over the world are invited to name baby gorillas. The new entrant from the Sabyinyo group is a male called Impanda, meaning Trumpet. According to the Rwanda Development Fund, the name was chosen to serve as a call to action for us all to play our part in protecting and restoring biodiversity.

Momma gorilla wrestles with baby

We rounded out the Rwanda part of the trip with a visit to Akagera National Park. Shortly after entering the park, we stopped to observe a massive owl in a mossy tree. Later, I would find out that it is a Verreaux’s eagle owl, the largest owl in Africa. At the time, it felt like that one bird held the park’s secrets, perhaps all the secrets.

After the genocide, nearly all of Rwanda’s wildlife was decimated. So the government, in an effort to rebuild both a natural habitat for Rwanda’s indigenous wildlife and create a destination for tourism, partnered with the NGO African Parks to breathe life back into this swath of land and repopulate flora and fauna. It currently boasts a population of both black and white rhinos, lions, elephants, giraffes, buffaloes and assorted gazelles and the like. Their K9 squad, foot patrols and radio tracking help keep poaching at bay and helps them create a safe space for these endangered animals. Hearing the rangers talk about protecting the park and its growth from essentially nothing, it wasn’t hard to see the passion for reinvention and forward momentum shining in their eyes as well.

I didn’t at all know what to expect when I landed in Kigali, but left feeling both heavier and lighter, and with a pang of sadness at the airport, a hope that I’d come back someday: to see more of the forests in the Northern Territory, to witness an expansion of Akagera and see a larger habitat for their blossoming wildlife populations, to see chimpanzees in Nuyngwe National Park, to see more of the sparkling lights in the valleys and smell the jasmine in the jungle-y air.

These are a few books I’ve read about Rwanda and its history, that I’d highly recommend: