A central African country with a recent history of having suffered one of the worst-ever genocides evokes a certain kind of imagery. It is unlikely to be on your list of places-to-be-seen-before-you-die. But those who happen to travel to the country, on business or work, as I did, or for a face-to-face interaction with famous silverback mountain gorillas, Rwanda can be a revelation. It surprises you.
A reference to Rwanda, in most parts of the world, is almost always associated with the genocide of 1994, the ethnic cleansing of minority, but politically and economically dominant, Tutsis, by the Hutus. Close to a million people were killed over a period of about 100 days, almost 10 per cent of the then population of the country. Almost every citizen of the country today is a first-generation survivor, or their families. Almost everyone has a personal tale of the genocide. Almost everyone has seen, if not undergone, the suffering.
The genocide looms heavy over the lives of the Rwandans. It is the reference point of every conversation, the backdrop of every social and economic initiative, of every business activity. There is no attempt to hide it, no attempt to run away from it. And yet, it hasn’t stopped the country from moving ahead, at a remarkable pace. Today, Rwanda happens to be one of the fastest growing economies in Africa, with a growth rate of over six per cent. For a country that is roughly half the size of Uttarakhand or Himachal Pradesh, it attracts almost a million international tourists every year. That is already about one-seventh of what India gets. This, when it has little other than the mountain gorillas to show off.
Capital Kigali is both political and business centre. Located on hills, it is very similar in appearance to small towns in lower Himalayas in north India. Up and down roads, layer-wise buildings, and gaps in habitations as one moves from one hillock to the other. But that is where the resemblance ends. Kigali is unlike any other Indian hill town. It has wide, beautiful tree-lined avenues, fairly orderly, honk-free, traffic, and is remarkably clean and tidy. Open cemented drains run on either side of the road, unclogged by garbage or plastic. In fact, Kigali is entirely plastic-free.
A sizeable proportion of the residents of Kigali happen to be expats from western countries, working for the large number of UN bodies, aid agencies and other international organisations that are very active in the country. A lot of infrastructure in the city caters to their tastes and styles. They are also the reason for the large number of big SUVs on the road. There is a significant presence of Indian and Chinese companies as well. The Indians are engaged in businesses related to textiles, agriculture and floriculture, and electronics, while the Chinese have almost monopolised civil construction happening all around the country.
Kigali, which has almost entirely been rebuilt in the last twenty years, has less than a dozen high-rise buildings, all concentrated in the business district that co-exists with the traditional bustling bazaar. Buildings, even the newly-constructed ones, are simple and understated, and not glitzy, though a new convention centre right opposite the Parliament stands out. This circular convention centre, which is decked up in bright green in the evenings, recently hosted the meeting of the Montreal Protocol on Ozone Depleting Substances that resulted in a landmark agreement being finalised.
There are not many go-to places for tourists, but a visit to Kigali cannot be complete without a trip to the genocide museum. Situated in a quieter part of the town, overlooking a valley, the museum is frequented as much by the visitors as locals for whom it is a sort of pilgrimage. Within the campus of the museum is a mass graveyard that has remains of 250,000 people killed in the genocide. The graveyard is covered with cemented platform and is surrounded by beautiful gardens. Locals come here regularly, offering flowers and prayers to their loved ones.
The three-storeyed main museum building tries to tell the tale of those 100 days of mass killing through pictures and videos. Every visitor is first led to a room where a genocide documentary is played on a large TV screen. Having thus given the basic introduction of the events of 1994, the visitors are asked go and see the stories of massacres and suffering. Photos, audio-video and text tell these stories in a blunt manner. There are no diplomatic niceties to adhere to. There are plenty of references to how the world looked the other way when the massacre was going on and did not come for help. The role of UN agencies is questioned, and so is that of France and Belgium, the former colonial power.
The main hall is not very large but the photos and stories are too much to bear. An adjacent room displays tattered clothes and other belongings of the people, collected from the site of the massacres. And the room next to it has hundreds, probably thousands, of photographs of men and women, pinned together and hanging from the ceiling.
The museum also has separate sections on two of the other comparable genocides of the 20th century — the mass murders of Jews in Hitler’s Germany and the massacres in Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge of Pol Pot in the 1970s. But the most chilling part of the museum is a room called Kids’ Corner. Here, there are large portraits of children, aged between 2 and 12, during their happier times. On the photos are written their name, their age, the town or village their belonged to, and a short description of how they were killed — by machete, knife, tree log, stones.
Apart from the genocide museum, Kigali wants its visitors to see its numerous art galleries. Art apparently is quite popular with the youth and several of them graduate from art schools every year to become professional painters. Visitors can watch these painters live at work in these galleries. Interestingly, the genocide does not figure in their works. The paintings are mostly celebratory and use bright colours — very vibrant, very lively, very African. One does not need to be an art connoisseur to appreciate these paintings. They cost anything between USD 200 to USD 5000 or more. The artists do offer bargains to serious and patient customers.
Most visitors to Rwanda, however, come for a trek to the Volcanoes National Park for a meeting with gorillas. The Virunga mountain ranges — actually extinct volcanoes — spread over Rwanda, Congo and Uganda are home to half of the less than 1000 remaining mountain gorillas in the world. The male gorillas have white hair on their back, giving them the famous name of silverbacks.
The Volcanoes National Park is about 120 km north of Kigali, about two hours drive, on the border with Congo. On the way, one gets a glimpse of rural Rwanda which happens to be as neat and organised as Kigali. The drains continue on both sides of the highway throughout the journey, the roads, though not exactly multi-lane access-controlled expressways, are well paved and without any potholes, and traffic is light. Vehicles easily cruise along at 80-100 kmph. What appears like oversized bus-stands on the sides of the roads actually are sheds under which villagers sell fruits and vegetables in mornings and evenings. On a Sunday morning, people in every village are seen assembled for their weekly village meeting.
A giant gorilla made of bamboo, just ahead of the entrance to the Volcanoes National Park, marks the place where naming ceremony for every newborn gorilla is held. Each of these ceremonies is attended by no less than the President of Rwanda himself. The national park is home not just to gorillas but also a variety of other wild animals including golden monkeys. Visitors are asked to report early in the morning at the entrance, from where they have to trek on foot for a few kilometres in different teams. At USD 750 per person, the gorilla safari is quite expensive. The charges are considerably lesser if one prefers to go only for other attractions like the golden monkey. The money is almost entirely used for conservation efforts. This includes expenditure on the welfare of local communities which are an integral part of the conservation activities.
Having paid the fees, an encounter with the gorillas is assured. Forest guards track the gorilla movement closely and inform the guides accompanying the tourists about their latest position. The gorillas live in families, each comprising of about 8 to 12 members belonging to three generations. They roam around freely in the thick forest of bamboo trees which they love to feast on. The visitors are divided into groups of six or eight and are taken to meet one of the gorilla families. The visitors spend close to an hour with the gorillas, within a few feet distance, and are allowed to click photos to their heart’s content. The gorillas are quite well behaved and move around freely, unfazed by the presence of the guests who keep following them. Occasionally, they do offer a few moments of excitement as they get up erect and bleat their chest. One family of gorillas gets only one team of visitors during the day. They are not disturbed afterwards. The Rwandan government carefully balances its efforts to attract tourists with the conservation needs of the mountain gorillas.
In Kigali, the most popular form of public transport happens to be bike-taxis. While public buses and regular taxis are easily available, bike-taxies offer the cheapest and most convenient rides. They can be hailed anywhere. One only has to walk a few metres on the road to see a couple of bike-taxies approaching in their direction, an extra helmet dangling in their hands. Between one and three US dollars (1 USD is approximately 850 Rwandan franc), one can be dropped anywhere in the city.