Perhaps the most bewildering thing about Rwanda, is just how ordinary and normal it feels when you travel around the country. It’s history, and the genocide which was perpetuated on its people, looms large everywhere you go. There are memorials to the dead in almost every village and hamlet in the country: inescapable reminders that, for Rwandans, there was no corner of their country left untouched by the brutality, no community or family that didn’t suffer death and destruction.
Yet, in this most exceptional of places, life continues to be lived in the most seemingly unexceptional way. That says a great deal about the resilience of Rwanda and Rwandans.
Rwandans don’t want to forget what happened in those murderous days in 1994, when a deliberate and terrible wave of violence was unleashed across the whole country. They certainly don’t want the international community to forget what happened here. The same international community which stood idly by, passively allowing the genocide to claim the lives of nearly one million people. Men, women and children, old and young, were slaughtered by the military and Hutu militias, many tortured and killed in the most horrific manner imaginable.
If the genocide defines people’s perceptions of Rwanda, Rwandans also want the world to know that their country is much, much more than just that one catastrophic period in its history. Talking to people as you travel around the country is humbling, and every person I met had a thirst to know where I was from, what my life was like and whether I was enjoying my time in their country. Some people talked openly about the family members and friends they lost in the genocide, but mostly it seemed inappropriate to ask too many questions.
There is a wealth of information – news stories, academic research, biographies, histories, documentaries and films – detailing Rwanda’s history and descent into genocide. The film, Hotel Rwanda, is one of the more moving accounts; and the book, Shake Hands with the Devil: The Failure of Humanity in Rwanda, by General Roméo Dallaire, the UN Commander in Rwanda, is a startlingly human account of someone forced to witness the genocide first-hand without the power to prevent it.
In Rwanda, its impossible to avoid the legacy and memory of the genocide, but this wasn’t the reason I wanted to visit. A friend had returned from Rwanda and her description of the country and its people fascinated me, made me want to understand it better. In the end, it was the opportunity to see one of the most iconic of all creatures on this planet, the Mountain Gorilla, that tipped me over the edge into booking my flights.
A couple of weeks isn’t a lot of time, but Rwanda is a small country with probably the best maintained roads in Africa. Travelling is easy and quick, although if you want to get to some more distant places, hiring a 4×4 is probably the best idea. The thing that struck me most about Rwanda, is just how beautiful and verdant the countryside is. Although it is hard to escape the fact that, in this tiny country with a growing population, almost all the available land is already used for agriculture.
This is important. Land rights were one of the hidden causes of the genocide, and competition for land and water could cause future conflicts. Its also important because some of the last remaining wilderness areas are under serious threat from agriculture. This is putting pressure on the habitats and animals which could be the source of a tourism boom; while the loss of trees for firewood and to clear land for crops, could severely effect the watershed.
Rwanda is addressing these, and many other issues, with limited resources, but from my experience it is looking to the future with confidence. Although it’s involvement in the conflict and theft of natural resources in neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo, casts a long shadow over that future.
Travelling around the country though, Rwanda struck me a stable, safe and welcoming. It certainly deserves the name the Ministry of Tourism has bestowed upon the country – Land of a Thousands Hills. There are hills everywhere, including the volcanic Virunga mountain range, home to mountain gorillas which roam across the borders of the Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda and Uganda. It was a journey I’m unlikely to forget any time soon.