The view of downtown Kigali from the Genocide Memorial.

Kigali, Rwanda in the Land of a Thousand Hills

Kigali, Rwanda

October 22, 2014 – October 24, 2014

After one of our longest and most complicated travel days we found ourselves in the capital of our second African nation – Kigali, Rwanda. One of the nicest cities in all of Africa, Kigali is a modern city situated on beautiful rolling hills of lush tropical green. Whether you’re looking for specialty shopping or just a nice cup of coffee all can be found here.

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While Kigali may be lacking in exciting tourist attractions, there is a lot of history here, with many museums and memorials dedicated to the 1994 genocide. The city also offers a lot of modern shops and conveniences so if you are passing through to somewhere else in Africa it may be a good place to stop and pick up a few things which might be harder if not impossible to find elsewhere.

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Called the country of a thousand hills, the name perfectly describes what we saw of Rwanda. The entire country, and I do mean it literally, is nothing but rolling green hills and valleys, one right after another as far as you can see. It’s is hard to find a spot of any considerable size which is flat, unless you count Lake Kivu along the western border. Most of the land is lush green and dotted with small farms and a lot of banana trees. Rwanda is also home to the nicest public bus system and the cleanest and smoothest roads we found in East Africa.

With so many hills, it is not uncommon to see bicycles hanging on to big trucks to get a pull up a hill.
With so many hills, it is not uncommon to see bicycles hanging on to the back of big trucks to get a pull up a hill.

Genocide in Rwanda

Unfortunately one of the things Rwanda is best known for, at least to foreigners, is the horrible genocide which took place in the 90’s. However, upon visiting Rwanda, one thing is abundantly clear everywhere you look, the country is recovering quite well. Progress and pride for their country is everywhere. Many tourists may be avoiding the country because of its troubled past, but there is less crime and poverty here than in many other African nations, including all the nations we would end up visiting in Africa. The locals were always very welcoming and the public transportation here, particularly the buses are far better than anywhere else in East Africa making travel for tourists far easier and more inviting in Rwanda.

There are many books and websites which can give a far more complete description and reasoning for the genocide and I would encourage any reader to check them out, but I will attempt to give a short description of the events here.

To understand the violence one needs to look back in Rwanda’s history where signs of upcoming violence were evident. All citizens were given ID cards which showed whether they were Hutu (around 80% of the population) or Tutsi (around 20%) or another smaller minority. The Tutsi minority were favored by the country’s colonial European influence for a century, they were given preferential treatment and better jobs. Distinction between the two groups was made often by skin tone or even the width of a persons nose. Animosity built between the two groups, there were many smaller incidents of violence spread out over decades until everything boiled over in 1994. In 1994 around 800,000 Tutsi minorities and moderate Hutu’s were killed, mostly with machetes, by the radical Hutu Interahamwe Militia, over a period of 100 days of violence before military force finally stabilized the country. The massacre left the country in ruins, with a huge percentage of its population dead and bodies left in the streets, and the rest fleeing to neighboring countries in terror or to avoid persecution, or hiding out hoping for the violence to end.

The view of downtown Kigali from the Genocide Memorial.
The view of downtown Kigali from the Genocide Memorial.
Kigali seemed to be prone to harsh rainstorms, which popped up often while we were there, like this one which appeared as we were touring the Genocide Memorial.
Kigali seemed to be prone to harsh rainstorms, which popped up often while we were there, like this one which appeared as we were touring the Genocide Memorial.
With so much rain, and so many hills, the roads quickly become rivers.
With so much rain, and so many hills, the roads quickly become rivers.

Though Rwandans have made great progress after the genocide in 1994, they do not pretend it did not happen. There are memorials all over the country in an effort to make everyone learn from it, and to prevent the horrible tragedy from happening again. We visited two memorials in Kigali with two Austrians Adrian and Isabela who were staying at our hostel and driving their own vehicle around Africa.  In the comfort of their car, we visited the main Kigali Memorial Center and the Nyamata church memorial, outside of town. Thousands of terrified unarmed Tutsis were hiding from the militia in the church when the church’s pastor turned them in, and they were all slaughtered. The church still bares the evidence of the massacre, with some blood, and holes from bullets and grenade shrapnel everywhere. The clothes of the victims are stacked on the church pews and behind the church tombs have been made which display all the bones, many showing the marks of the machetes used to kill the victims. Visiting the church was a powerfully sobering and emotional experience and may be too disturbing for some.

The country has made amazing progress, with a lot of help of foreign aid money which has been put to good use. From our experience Rwanda was incredibly welcoming, and the people genuinely happy. From speaking with locals we learned that aside from a few cases in the first year after the violence, there have been no acts of revenge over the last twenty years, despite perpetrators and families of victims now living and working together. We learned that it is now taboo to ask someone whether they are Hutu or Tutsi, and new ID cards make no specification of what tribe anyone belongs to. Now the country’s motto is that they are all Rwandans, no differences. The country has impressively pushed forward and is trying to build a better future, and succeeding quite well from what we could see.

Kigali – The Clean City

Kigali and in fact all of Rwanda is very clean, plastic bags are outlawed in the country. Though it did not happen to us we have heard about customs agents looking through peoples bags and confiscating any plastic bags they find, in an effort to prevent
them from ending up along the road. Littering seems to be rare (at least compared to other African nations) and on the last Saturday of each month much of the population puts aside their jobs or whatever else they are doing and goes outside to clean up a portion of the street. As a result Kigali is one of the cleanest capital cities we have visited on our trip. The streets are nicely painted and trash free along with the nicely manicured parks.

We went for a walk through one of the many green valleys around downtown Kigali.
We went for a walk through one of the many green valleys around downtown Kigali with the manager Pieter and his dog Kiga.

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We stayed at TR Companion, a small bed and breakfast style place with great views of the surrounding hills.
We stayed at TR Companion, a small bed and breakfast style place with views of the surrounding hills.

Kigali, Rwanda turned out to be a nice break from the more hectic cities we had been traveling through in most of East Africa, and we would pass through the city on two more occasions before leaving Africa.

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