The idealist in me was excited about Rwanda. I had heard about the monthly community service day called Umuganda. I had read that plastic bags were banned and that the streets were unusually clean. And I knew that one of my all-time favorite organizations, Partners in Health, had helped to establish health programs in Rwanda that were being used as a model for countries in West Africa dealing with Ebola. I wanted to see Rwanda in action.
Did my time in Rwanda live up to to my hopes for it? Yes and no. It turned out my lengthy bus travel to Rwanda took a bit of a toll. I was left exhausted and felt periodically sick while I was there. Moreover, communication could be difficult. I spoke only basic French and found it tough to learn more than a few phrases in Kinyarwanda. Even beyond that, though, cultural understanding was difficult. I found it harder to connect to Rwandans–who can be very quiet and reserved–than it was in other African countries. I sometimes got blank stares in response to a question. I once had to bend down to a counter and turn my ear to hear a receptionist’s words. I experienced culture shock for the first time in these travels, and I noticed my patience was thin.
Still, as I look back, I also remember a lot of the kindnesses, in particular a guest house manager who took an hour of his day to drive me to other guest houses when it turned out his place didn’t work for me. And my lasting memories of Rwanda are of its strength in the face of what I can only imagine is tremendous grief, as well as a place with color–in the forests, steep mountains and farmlands that are nourished by the rains to rich and varied greens, and in the art forms I saw so many places. Here are some of the highlights:
- Visiting the Ecole D’Art in Nyundo, Rwanda: The Ecole D’Art is the first school of its kind in Rwanda. According to one of the teachers I met there, the creation of the school is part of an effort to alleviate poverty in the country by offering routes to more of a variety of careers. Students from across the country audition to attend the school with a focus in music or art. I met students there for sculpture and drawing. They showed me their work, describing what the pieces meant to them, and asked me about my own creative interests. I especially enjoyed sitting in on a music class where the teacher worked with the kids on improvisation and on creating their own songs.
- Art Galleries in Kigali: I visited three galleries in Kigali: Ivuka Arts Centre, Inema Arts Center and Yego Arts. I loved being around the creativity and all that color! At Inema, I also stuck around to watch a kids dance class where they practiced a routine in the traditional Rwandan dance form called Intore.
- I visited several museums and memorial sites to learn more about the genocide: Kigali Memorial Centre, the Presidential Palace Museum, the Ntarama Church and the Nyamata Church. Each of these was powerful and affecting. The Kigali Memorial Centre gave the most complete overview of the events leading up to the genocide, what happened and how the country is recovering. The grounds of the Presidential Palace Museum hold some of the debris of the plane crash that killed former President Habyarimana on 6 April 1994 and acted as the final trigger of the genocide. The museum was also a fascinating peek into the life and work of President Habyarimana and the events leading up to the genocide and following it. The two churches–where people had gone for refuge–were both sites of mass killings during the genocide. Each church has clothing and remains of the victims. The day before I visited Ntarama Church they had found more remains that they showed me in a wheelbarrow in the church. Seeing those remains and the workers digging mass graves next to the church especially brought home the ongoing nature of the country’s recovery. Reading and hearing about the events in all of these places, I cried both from the overwhelming sadness of what happened and from being moved by the way much of the country is committed to healing. A powerful slogan you see everywhere is “Kwibuka: Remember, Unite, Renew.”
- Trekking to See the Mountain Gorillas: I had already visited the mountain gorillas in the DRC but decided to do it again in Rwanda. On this day, we trekked to the Hirwa group. It was a special day seeing babies climb bamboo stalks and swing on vines. The adolescents in the group would knock them off, and the babies would climb up again. At one point, one adult pounded its chest. For quite a while, I watched as one younger gorilla cozied into the chest of another to sleep. Shortly before our allotted hour ended, the silverback stood up and sauntered down the hill away from us–the perfect ending to the time. (Patience at Bambou Tours helped me organize my permit, transportation and lodging at a good price.)
- Moto Taxis: I got a kick out of zooming up and down the hills of Kigali on the back of a moto. With their ability to maneuver to the front of the line at stop lights, the motos are the preferred mode of transportation in Kigali. They are also cheap. Depending on the distance you may pay $.50-$1.50 (U.S.) per trip. Flag down a driver, he hands you a helmet, and off you go.
- Brochettes: Brochettes (kebabs) are a staple on many restaurant menus in Kigali. I most often ordered the fish or goat brochettes. The best I tasted were at the Green Corner restaurant in Nyamirambo. While the wait for the food was about an hour after I ordered (bring a book when dining alone in Africa!), the results were delish: fresh and flavorful tilapia brochettes and grilled chicken.
- Shopping! I found the crafts in Rwanda to be some of the best I saw in my African travels. Beautiful woven baskets in rich colors, the spiral and geometric designs of the Imigongo paintings, a mix of colorful and cheap African markets along with stores run by designers who are making modern clothing with the African kitenge. I loved shopping in the crowded Kimironko market full of food, fabric, crafts and seamstresses making everything from vests to dresses. I also found my new favorite clothing store at Rwanda Clothing. The designer, Joselyne Umutoniwase, has an excellent eye, knows how clothes should fit and will make alterations to get it just right for your body.
- I spent one morning on a tour of the Nyamirambo area in Kigali. Nyamirambo is a mixed neighborhood and home to many of the Muslims who live in Kigali. It was colorful, relaxed and lively. The tour was offered by the Nyamirambo Women’s Centre, an excellent place to shop for quality crafts. If you visit Kigali, make a stop in Nyamirambo (and be sure to eat at the Green Corner!).