Rwanda

After spending a nice week in Uganda we moved onto Rwanda, a country I had been interested in for a long time. Rwanda is a small landlocked country in central Africa which received a lot of attention due to the genocide committed there in 1994. Over a period of 100 days roughly 1 million people were killed when the Hutu majority slaughtered the Tutsi minority and any Hutus that were thought to sympathize with the Tutsis (read Shake Hands with the Devil for great insight into what happened).

Musanze

We crossed through the border after paying our $30 each and drove on through the day to Musanze in the northwest of the country. We stayed at a small camp called Red Rocks which is surrounded by volcanoes where the mountain gorillas live. We got up early the next morning to head to Volcanoes National Park to trek with gorillas. We hopped in the 4x4s at 6:15am to make it to the meeting point by 7.

Trekking in Rwanda seems a bit pricier than Uganda. We paid $750 each for the permit, guide, and scouts, which did not include transportation to and from the trekking site or food. The national park crosses into three countries, which are Rwanda (Volcanoes National Park), Uganda (Bwindi Impenetrable Forest), and the DRC (Virunga National Park). When we arrived at the meeting point we were given tea and coffee and watched a group of locals drum, sing, and dance. We were split into groups of eight and given a briefing on our upcoming day. We were told that our group of gorillas was named the fighting group in Swahili, and consisted of 12 gorillas that we would trek up the dormant volcano to meet. Any sick person was not allowed to trek as gorillas have 98% identical DNA to humans and could easily be wiped out from disease. A few years ago hundreds of the 800+ surviving wild mountain gorillas were killed by disease and since then things have tightened up significantly.

Volcanoes National Park
Volcanoes National Park is on the border of Rwanda, Uganda, and the DRC.

We broke off into our groups and headed to our respective starting sites, which were all separate from the others. We were given walking sticks, which I’ve never used in my life despite a few treks and a significant amount of day hikes. I was going to decline until I noticed that the stick was hand carved with gorillas in and on top of it. With our amazing looking walking sticks in hand we started our hike up a gradual hill toward the base of the closest volcano. Our guide talked about how the gorillas made it out of the park from time to time, and we saw why as we got to the wall of the park, which was at the base of the volcano. The wall was about four feet high and made of earth and stone with an un-gated opening for us to walk through.

As we headed up the mountain we found the type of hike we had been missing since we were in the Simien Mountains back in Ethiopia. The hike was steep and challenging, and unlike the Simiens it was through dense jungle. Our guide moved ahead of us, hacking a path through the brush and stinging nettle with his machete. We had two Brazilians with us that had a tough time making it up, being dragged and pushed uphill over the hour and half we trekked upward, but for the rest of us it was great fun. As the stinging nettle bit our arms and legs and people slid and fell, most of us had a sense of excitement and exertion we had been missing for a while.

Volcanoes National Park
Sissy posing for the camera as we hiked up one of the few easy parts of the mountain.

From time to time we would see gorilla droppings, and mid hike we were told abruptly to stop by our guide. He had us set our day bags and hiking sticks down and three scouts appeared from the jungle. We were told that the gorillas were nearby and they explained the etiquette we would use with them. We couldn’t bring sticks or point at them as they may mistake that for spears that had been thrown at them in the past, which in the face of an angry 400 pound silverback wouldn’t be an ideal situation. We were taught the very basics of the language gorillas use, which included a series of low grunts and squatting to show submission and friendliness to them, that their high screeches meant to be prepared for chest thumping, which was the last thing they would do before likely hurting you out of defense.

Volcanoes National Park
Our guide getting directions from his scouts that were already up the mountain.

After our brief lesson we were walked about 10 meters from where we stood and were confronted by a large group of gorillas. A member of our group initially thought they were boulders in the jungle until those boulders started moving. A silverback and a female lay farthest from us, while a few females moved around to either side of us and two babies played nearby. The gorillas were swarming with flies, however the insects were uninterested in us, and continued to flock to the gorillas. After a few minutes of observing the massive animals a baby started crawling and then walking upright toward us.

Mountain gorillas
A baby gorilla that stumbled up to us as we watched in awe.

The young gorilla was about a foot from me when the guide whispered for me to move back. Pretending I didn’t hear him, and then making a halfhearted attempted to inch back, I took pictures and stopped to watch the baby gorilla with its human-like features stumble around and eat leaves directly in front of us. After a few minutes the baby moved on along with the rest of the gorillas, down the hill through the jungle. We had been with them about 20 minutes at that point and were unsure if we’d see anymore or head back and call it a day.

Mountain Gorillas
The tiny gorilla was only a foot away from us!
Mountain Gorillas
The same baby gorilla was as interested in us as we were in it as it chomped some leaves and stared at us.

Our guide grabbed the Brazilian woman and told us to follow him and off we went down the steep mountain, through the jungle. We trudged, jumped, and slid down the mountain until we came upon a ravine where the gorillas had stopped to snack. We walked up the opposite side of the ravine while staring up at the gorillas only meters away until suddenly we were face to face with a large female, not even a meter from us. We were told to hurry up and move on so we didn’t agitate her, and up we went until again we were within a meter or two of a group of gorillas. While Sissy and another girl in our group were taking pictures I heard a member of our group behind us say a gorilla was coming down the path. As I turned around a gorilla walked right past me on all fours and with Sissy and our travel companion still facing forward taking pictures, the gorilla pushed right between them and kept walking onward. Sissy and our friend’s faces lit up with surprise, delight, and maybe a twinge of fear.

Mountain Gorillas
One of the many gorillas we came face to face with as we descended the mountain.
Mountain Gorillas
Sissy watching a gorilla that was less interested in us than we were in it.

After a total of about an hour and a half with the gorillas, we were told it was time to say goodbye. On our hike down the mountain we confronted one more gorilla eating, and heard the high pitched screeches telling us to get out of the way of another gorilla hidden in a bush. We worked our way down through low hanging trees, high brush, and more stinging nettle until we exited the park. On the hike back down to our starting point we saw two small chameleons on a bush and watched them fight as our guide held up a branch with both of them on it.

Sissy coming down the hill with her walking stick in hand.
Sissy coming down the hill with her walking stick in hand.

On the way back to our camp we swapped stories about our amazing experience and came to the conclusion that although we may have spent more money that one day than any other in our lives minus potentially a wedding, it had been worth every penny. The high permit fees are the means of funding the conservation of the gorillas and pretty much the only reason their numbers have been rebounding over the past decade or so. The fact that these gorillas weren’t at all afraid of people showed us that poaching was no longer a threat to them, and with their numbers growing we felt okay about the massive amount of money we spent.

Kigali

The next day we left Red Rocks Campsite and headed on to the capital of Rwanda, Kigali. Kigali was the site where the bulk of the massacres only 21 years before happened, and we planned to visit the genocide museum the following day. We stayed at Discover Rwanda Youth Hostel that night after knocking out some supply shopping at the local Nakumatt, our favorite grocery store that we had been going to throughout Kenya, Uganda, and now Rwanda. After a waterless afternoon and evening at the hostel, which was filled with the group trying to coerce the rat that had taken up residence on our truck to come out to meet its untimely demise, we headed to our tent to sleep.

We got up bright and early to head out on a sad but informative trip to the Kigali Rwanda Genocide Museum. Before we left I was catching up on world news since we hadn’t had internet in a bit, and I stumbled upon a story about Kigali. Behind the beautiful clean streets of Kigali, where a beggar or prostitute is near impossible to find, a camp has been set up on the outskirts of town where undesirables were being held. This detention camp is alleged to be government run and the people that are taken there are often beaten and have to bribe their way out. After reading Walking the Nile a month before where Levison Wood commented that he found Kigali to be a city full of tension, where the monthly city cleanup day is enforced by armed guards, we found the city to be gorgeous but with a very ugly underbelly that you have to look for to see.

Kigali Genocide Museum
The entrance to the Kigali Genocide Museum.

We arrived at the museum after a short 6km drive and found a beautiful building that was free of charge to enter. I paid the $20 fee to take photos, which I don’t think I’d do again, and we were seated in a room in front of a large TV where a video played. The short movie was exceptionally made and incredibly heartbreaking. Victims of the genocide, which roughly 90% of all Rwandans were in one way or another, spoke about their families being tortured and mutilated before being murdered in front of their eyes. They spoke about being raised as orphans, and becoming the heads of their households before being old enough to ride a bicycle.

Kigali Genocide Museum
Stories of the atrocities committed in the genocide in 1994.

Somberly we walked out of the room and moved to the next building, where we read about the underlying issues before 1994, where the Belgian colonists had created a division in Rwanda and named the taller, slender nosed people Tutsi, and the shorter, broader nosed people Hutu. This distinction had not existed before the 1800s, and the Beglians had given the minority class that they created power over the country, based on their belief that the Tutsis were smarter and more elegant. In 1961 Rwanda was granted freedom after a long period of unrest and anti-colonial movements. Even though they were now free, the Tutsi and Hutu division remained, with the majority Hutus having power over their previous rulers. The Tutsis largely fled the country due to persecution and created the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) which would invade the country in 1991.

The UN would station a very undermanned and underfunded peacekeeping mission in the country, which is intimately outlined in Shake Hands with the Devil, and would be witness to the bulk of the million deaths over 100 days starting in 1994. The shot that started the genocide was when the president at the time, Habiyarimana’s plane was shot down on his way home from Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania. It is believed that the Hutu government shot down the plane with the French backing the plan. The Hutus killing their own leader, who was also backed by the French, was believed to be done to incite hate and violence against the Tutsi people. There was evidence of planning long before the plan was shot down, with thousands of Hutus being organized into militias and armed with machetes, among other weapons.

We saw pictures of slaughtered Tutsis on the walls of the museum, pictures of young children with descriptions of their favorite toys, age at death, last words spoken, and method of slaughter. We read stories of how congregations were murdered by their pastors at Sunday prayer, how neighbors and friends raped and murdered their closest companions, and how the country plunged into the most accurate description of hell imaginable. A quote that stuck out to me was in the section about the resolution of the fighting which was next to the picture of a woman stating, “My neighbor was in prison because he killed my husband. In the Gacaca courts he revealed where two of my six children were buried. I got the remains of my children. That neighbor asked me for forgiveness. I thanked him for speaking the truth.”

Kigali Genocide Museum
The woman’s quote was among dozens of similar ones, but this one jumped out at me.

While there were plenty of revenge murders after the RPF won the war and took control of the country, the country eventually came together and denounced the titles of Hutu and Tutsi and now call themselves simply Rwandans. We ventured out of the building after an hour or more on the verge of tears and walked down a path to a mass grave that the museum was built next to. Approximately 250,000 slaughtered Rwandan bodies were buried in the garden, with a fraction of the names up on a wall nearby. There was simply no way to know exactly who was buried there, not with a quarter million people underground.

Kigali Genocide Museum
The walkway that lead to the mass graves at the site.

We left the museum to continue on to the Hotel des Milles Collines, which is the hotel the movie Hotel Rwanda was centered around. Eight of us hopped on the back of boda bodas, or motorcycle taxis, and were off on a fast and slightly terrifying trip to the hotel. I was ashamed to have my motorcycle come in near the back of the pack, so I paid my $1 for the 10 minute ride and we headed in. The hotel showed nothing of it’s past less the sign on the outside, which is the only indication it was the same as the hotel that housed and saved the lives of over a thousand Tutsi and moderate Hutu refugees only 21 years before.

Hotel des Milles Collines
The sign for the hotel was the only way we knew we were in the right place.

We intended to grab a coffee or beer at the hotel as we were sure it’d be expensive, but to our surprise despite the beautiful grounds and delicious looking food, the lunch buffet was a reasonable $9 per person. The food was absolutely amazing and after we enjoyed our three course buffet, some of us multiple times over, Sissy and I headed out for a few errands, and then back to the campsite after an emotionally exhausting day. Sissy and I went to Dachau concentration camp in Germany a few months before where tens of thousands were killed, but the horrors committed in the two countries were very different, in very different periods of time, and it is still incredibly hard to believe either of the mass genocides could have been committed, much less one of them within our lifetimes.

The next day we said goodbye to Rwanda after an entirely too short four nights in the country, and headed back to Uganda!

highlights

  • Trekking with mountain gorillas. Who knows how long we’ll be able to continue to do this since their numbers are so tiny and climate change, instability in the region (namely in the DRC), and poaching could render these amazing animals extinct at any time. The price to do it is absolutely astronomical, however the cash flow to the government and local people really is the only thing keeping these beautiful beasts alive.
  • The Kigali Genocide Museum. It will likely bring you to tears, and if you’re from the western world, it will likely make you feel ashamed that none of our countries did more to help. I’d recommend reading Shake Hands with the Devil before visiting to get a real feel for how utterly miserable our failure to these people was.
  • The Hotel des Milles Collines. It’s a nice upscale hotel now with amazing food and great facilities, but more importantly it’s a piece of history with one of the few positive stories from such a horrible time. Watch Hotel Rwanda before visiting if you haven’t seen it before or recently.

Recommendations

  • Get an East African Visa through your local Kenyan embassy before visiting Kenya,  Uganda, or Rwanda. The visa costs $100 and permits you to move relatively freely through the three countries, whereas we didn’t have time to do that since we were already traveling, and paid $280 per person for our visas instead. If you’ve read our other posts and can’t figure out the math behind the $280, it goes like this: Kenya $50, Uganda $100, Rwanda $30, Uganda again $100. Uganda should cost $100 one time if you stay within the East African block, but that wasn’t the case for us despite planning and protest.
  • Read Shake Hands with the Devil and watch Hotel Rwanda at a minimum before visiting. Knowing more of the backstory always helps no matter where you go, but here it is especially important.
  • If you can afford it, go gorilla trekking. You need to arrange the permit months in advance, so make sure you do that, and remember that transport and food is not included in the $750.

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