The first time it really hit me that I was somewhere in the middle of Africa was when I looked out of the window of our pocket sized RwandAir plane as we flew over lush green jungles and winding rivers. The sky was smoky grey with clouds and our plane seemed to sway along with the wind as it made its way towards the city of Kigali.
To say that I was excited about Kigali will be an understatement. This was going to be the starting point of my East African overland trip. Flipping through the pages of the in-flight magazine, I came across an article which highlighted the developments Rwanda has made in the fields of infrastructure and technology and how countries from different corners of the world are now interested in investing in Rwanda. There were pictures of President Paul Kagame addressing business leaders from other parts of Africa. On the next page were pictures of wide highways, skyscrapers and people smartly dressed in business suits. Rwanda didn’t look anything like the typical African country that we see on international news channels, rife with civil wars and poverty. Tired and a little punch drunk from the inflight drinks, I dozed off while reading an article about Rwanda leading the digital revolution.
By the time I woke up the forests and rivers had given way for a hilly spread out city dotted with houses that had orange tiled roofs. A screechy message from the pilot announced that we were about to start our descent.
The place I stayed at, Discover Rwanda Hostel, is located up on a hill with nice views of the city. It is clean, has a spacious common area and friendly staff. Beer is reasonably priced and cold. The dorms however were a different story. Eight bunk beds a room with no fans and loads of mosquitoes. At night, as you lie awake in your bed, tired, pillow damp with sweat, you realise that the humidity is the least of your problems. You can hear the hymn of swarms of mosquitos flying around your bed, trying to find a way to get to you. The only thing that separates you from being eaten alive is a thin mosquito net. You can only hope that they won’t find the holes you had seen in the net when you were making your bed.
It took me a few days to find the trick to get good sleep in that hostel but once I did, the heat or the mosquitoes weren’t issues anymore. The trick is to drink a lot and then just crash.
The best place to drink and hang out near the hostel is a place called Car Wash. And the reason why it is called that, is because it is exactly that. It is a fully operating gas station and a car wash. Weird smells, frantic beeps, flashing headlights… the whole deal.
On my first night, it was already dark by the time I reached the station. I walked around for 10 minutes before someone pointed me in the right direction. Car Wash is home to a few really cool bars, popular with expats, locals and tourists alike. The place had live telecast of football games on big screens, buzzing pool tables, delicious brochettes and beer. This was the place to be in the evenings.
The 10 minute moto-cab rides back to the hostel with the cool breeze and winding roads after an enjoyable evening at the Car Wash were just as intoxicating as the alcohol they served. (Moto-cabs are motorcycle taxis. Awesome fun!)
Moto-cabs of Kigali, apart from being fun and cheap, are also a great way to see the city. We would pass hospitals, markets, churches, and barbershops. We would see kids walking to school, people heading to work or hanging out in coffee shops. It is hard not to fall in love with the laid-back vibe. Life in Kigali is good!
However, as a foreigner sometimes it can be a little difficult to communicate with the drivers which may lead to you getting dropped off at the wrong places. I remember this one time, while going to the Nyabugogo Market, I got dropped at a sub-urby looking place. The kind of place where seeing a foreigner walking around will turn heads. I am still not sure where exactly I was dropped off but it must have been somewhere in the outskirts of the city. After walking around a bit and asking around for the location of the market, it became evident that I was at the wrong place.
Before hiring another moto for the market, I decided to visit a small cafe for a cup of coffee. The cafe had a couple of seats, more like planks of wood balanced on few square rocks, outside overlooking the main road. By the time the coffee arrived, I had already become the centre of attraction. People passing by, other customers of the coffee shop and the nearby shopkeepers stared at me. Few kids had surrounded me, but they were too shy to talk. Just smiles and curious looks. With so many eyes on me, it is without a doubt the most awkward cup of coffee I have had in my life.
But then, I tried something and it worked. I held out my hand and all the kids, one by one came and high-fived me. Some of them went for seconds! All the intrigue and shyness turned into laughter and as simple as that was, I will rank it as one of the best experiences I have had during my travels.
Of course, no trip to Kigali is complete without visiting the Memorial Centre, which is dedicated to the most painful chapter in Rwandan history, the genocide, in which a section of the population, Tutsi, were slaughtered by the ruling Hutu government. 20% of the Rwandan population at the time were killed within a span of 3 months. That’s almost a million people!!
There were testimonials of survivors, gory videos of people being hacked to death by machetes and stories of how neighbours and lifelong friends killed one another. Clothes and other belongings of the victims along with a library of their pictures were on display. Outside the main building, were open graves where hundreds of victims are buried. On one of the floors was a section dedicated to the children who were killed in the genocide. The displays in this section were the most moving. Pictures of happy, healthy kids with captions that included age, hobbies, favourite food and then reason of death. Shot in the head. Hacked to death.
Incredibly disturbing stuff.
But the thing is, I have been to a few such places with dark, violent histories. Phnom Penh’s Killing Fields, Genocide museum and Hiroshima’s Peace memorial come to mind. And though all these places have a lot of things in common, the Rwandan Genocide stands out for one major reason. This one is very very recent.
This happened in 1994.
So just 22 years ago, a large group of people decided it was a good idea to kill a million people, including children, in the most brutal way possible and the rest of the world, all the superpowers and what not included, went..
“Meh. Not my problem.”
Which brings me back to the articles and pictures of the inflight magazine along with the wonderful experiences I have had during my stay in Kigali. It is admirable the kind of progress that the country has made not just in terms of technology, healthcare etc. but also in terms of forgiveness and moving on. It must take a special kind of inner strength to forgive the next door neighbour, co-worker or friend who killed your loved ones.
There is a famous saying that “Those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”
But we have to ask ourselves, how much have we learned?
As I write this, the Syrian crisis have escalated even further and many civilians in Aleppo are caught in the middle. I’ll quote one Radhwan Salem from this USA Today article.
“Where are our supporters? Believers in humanity, I don’t understand how can the entire world watch this and do nothing. Oh, God, help us.”