We arrive in Kigali, the capital city of Rwanda after a mere 50 minute flight which felt pretty dreamy. RwandaAir is a highly recommended airline, everything was lovely. Anyways, here's a bizarro fact: Rwanda has banned plastic bags from the entire country. They are prohibited. Ya man, the government started this mandatory community clean up where one day of every month or something, each and every Rwandan needs to participate in cleaning up the streets of Kigali (and I think everywhere?) for a few hours or they are fined. Pretty amazing concept isn't it?! So I guess they started this cleanup program and were shocked by the number of plastic bags just hanging out, not going anywhere so they banned plastic bags all together. Go in any shop in Rwanda these days and you'll get either a paper bag or a fabric bag. And they're actually really serious about it. We read stories about how upon arrival at the airport, officials will actually comb through your luggage and remove any plastic bags. This means any of those loose bags you keep stashed for a million different purposes but also all your ziploc and stuff that is keeping your shampoo/bug spray/soap from exploding all over your backpack. Great concept, it really is and I'm all for it, except I'd like to keep my ziplocs, the plastic bag my shoes are in and also, most importantly, heaven help me if I'm going to give up my "possible bus puke plastic bag". So naturally, before we left Uganda we spent a few minutes, not a lie, hiding a handful of plastic bags in the deepest most secretive reaches of our backpacks like a bunch criminals in prison hiding contraband. Feeling pretty good about my stealthy ways yet also still not wanting to risk losing my "possible bus puke bag" you couldn't believe how fast our luggage was off that belt, on our backs and we were out the door before any official looking person went through it. I guess there are some slight perks to a midnight arrival time as it seems the important airport people just aren't working.
Prior to coming here, we had also heard several people describe Rwandans/Rwandese (I'm gonna say Rwandans because I like it better) as much less friendly, much more reserved and more stand-offish than Ugandans. So at 12:30 am after a crappy 24 hours, we were overjoyed when our airport taxi driver was actually the most wonderful, warm, friendly, lovely person ever, a perfect introduction to this country.
He dropped us off at our hotel. As per all expensive homes/accommodation in Africa, it was behind a tall compound wall guarded by a single security man who let us in. It turns out our
hotel wasn't actually a hotel but more of an apartment so no other people to be found and also no reception. And the security guy didn't speak a single one word of English. Rwanda much like so many of the colonized African countries, actually has quite a unique history of national language whereby their local language is Kinyarwanda, however, their official language was French for a significant portion of their history. Much like how the language of instruction in Uganda was English, the same went for Rwanda except for French so the vast majority of the educated population speaks French as well as Kinyarwanda. But given the foul taste in their mouth of the French after the genocide, Rwanda wanted to distance itself from everything French and changed their official language to English in recent years. So even though many of the educated, elite and/or young speak English currently, there is still going to be a delay where the older generation speaks Kinyarwanda/French with the population slowly switching over time. Actually I've heard that Rwanda recruits Ugandan teachers because there is a shortage of Rwandan teachers who can speak English in order to teach English. Crazy across border stuff. Anyways, back to weird hotel. Given no people or reception, this Kinyarwanda/French speaking security guard led us to our room. Or, rather two rooms because the single room for 6 people we had booked turned out to be two double rooms which in theory, would be double what we had signed up to pay. We tried to explain to the security guy that this is not our booking and he tried to call someone but no answer so basically for a period of time we were all sitting in one room awkwardly and silently staring at each other, us being all like "we don't want to take two rooms and then end up having to pay for it" and him being all like, "I'mmmmmm not sure what to do now". We lingered in this non-communicative stalemate for awhile, we can't really communicate but neither one of us wants to just leave. Eventually we just released this poor man from any further obligation, took two rooms to end it all and figured we'd deal with whatever comes in the morning.
On the surface the room looked quite lovely except me and mom's room actually stunk so much. Later I found a squished gecko on the floor by the door. Having been a childhood owner of many a caught-pond-frog-pets, some lived some died, I immediately put 2 and 2 together here. What can I say, I know my stinky reptile/amphibians. What kind of place is this?!
This place was so, so weird. There was nobody around, no guests, no reception and only the security guy. And we were out in the suburbs of Kigali close to nothing. Like imagine Mckenzie Lake but in Kigali and with giant gated compounds. We were pretty well itching to get out of there asap but we had already booked for two nights and couldn't cancel at this point without paying anyways so we ended up having a big chat with the owner about the screw around on room bookings and how we just aren't gonna pay for two rooms. She insisted we needed to and that booking.com "listed whatever it wants so they can make money" which by this point in the trip, we know is just factually false. We cut our losses as best we could and planned to get out of there asap once our two days were over. Bc man this place was beautiful but just for the love, so weird.
In the meantime, because of the Entebbe Airplane Screw Around, mom now only had one day in Kigali and not even that because she had to leave to the airport at 9:30 pm. So we decided to make the most of it jamming a ton of stuff to that day. We took a taxi from the suburbs into the centre of town. And we hit up a supposedly super cheap buffet at, no word of a lie, "Fantastic Restaurant". As soon as we walked up we were a bit overwhelmed by just how "African" it looked and seriously considered giving it a pass but we didn't, we went for it because it was only 4 bucks for an entire buffet, can't beat that deal.
We walk up the narrow stairwell that opens into the restaurant and we are one of only a handful of people in there. Me and mom go up first to the buffet table while Bridger waits with our stuff. There was a ton of food so we naturally did what you do in a buffet and picked a small bit of everything to taste and then you can go back to get more of your favorites for round 2, the whole time the kindly staff following us along labeling every last bin. This was obviously a buffet with rules because as we got to the meat section, the staff labeled "chicken" and "beef" and then very neutrally informed us to "choose one" and then "take two pieces". This would be our first lesson in the "novelty factor" of meat in Africa. It would also be our first lesson in "buffets" in Africa because turns out a "buffet" does NOT mean go back multiple times and have whatever you want but "fill your plate up once as much as you can because you only get one plate". Even though we got a good taste of a variety of Rwandan food, it was a bit of a buffet as we know it bust.
Oh my gosh I can't even begin to describe Kigali. It's not even Africa, it really isn't. Where Kampala was what you would imagine as a classic African city with crazy traffic, old short buildings, red and dusty roads everywhere the concrete wasn't with nothing urban or metropolitan about it, Kigali was just the opposite. Kigali was absolutely green, manicured and beautiful. Everything seemed brand new, there was a ton of development going on, impressive skyscraper-like buildings dominated the downtown skyline, it was SO clean and it seemed like there was a police officer on every corner. All the roads were paved and, get this, lined and people drove within their own lane and signaled to change lanes and otherwise followed classic driving rules! Traffic jams seemed few and far between.
There were still bodas bodas as taxis, though in Rwanda they are called motos (Bridger kept calling them bodas and when I explained that here they were called motos he ended up somehow merging the two and calling them moda modas haha) and each one is regulated in that the driver must wear a pinny identifying them as an official moto driver AND, the best part, not only wear a helmet but carry a helmet for their passenger. And they are strictly only allowed to carry one passenger and from what we found, they do not push the boundaries on this rule. You honestly would have thought you were in a western country the way it looked and operated. Everything about Kigali screamed new, chic, refined and with a very high degree of law and order. The fact that just 20 years ago a massive systematic genocide could have happened in this very place was just too much to handle. Bridger and I were absolutely floored by how unbelievable it was that the genocide actually happened here of all places. But it wasn't just unbelievable in the traditional sense of the word where something is crazy and you can't believe it but you just accept because it is truth..both Bridger and I had endless chats over our time in Rwanda trying to wrap our head around the magnitude of what happened in this seeming unlikeliest of places and we both came to the conclusion that it was a new level of unbelievable...it was absolutely incomprehensible that such a thing happened here. It is difficult to delineate the difference between unbelievable and incomprehensible such that doing so feels like playing with semantics, yet doing so was essential in order for us to fully process the mental complexity that we experienced here. Incomprehensible in the sense that, despite knowing irrefutably that such a thing happened in this very place, we are literally continue to be unable to entertain the idea. Being in this city, we unequivocally cannot (and believe me we have actually tried) imagine this as the same city full of roadblocks, where madmen/militia's prowled the streets, grenades and gunfire blasted constantly and human beings were literally dragged out of vehicles by other human beings and cut to death with machetes in the middle of the street, a scene so vividly described by Romeo Dallaire, the Canadian UN general on the ground in Rwanda during the genocide in his book "Shake Hands with the Devil". To be honest, it was much easier to imagine and consider the possibility that such a thing could have happened in Kampala as it just seemed a bit more...primitive if you will.
But this was Kigali, a city that was much "closer to home" than Kampala and it was a bit unnerving because it made you a feel a bit like, if the genocide happened here, no place is immune from the rapid decent into madness that they experienced. Faced with the profound incongruities that we were observing and experiencing, Bridger and I, both having been quite well read on the situation in Rwanda long before this trip, were both in unanimous agreement that to be here was truly the most surreal moment of this trip and potentially our lives. Of course we also realize that the Kigali of today probably looks extremely different from the Kigali of 20 years ago. We have since been told that essentially "new" Kigali is a city built of "guilt alleviating" aid money from other nations who failed to actively intervene to end the genocide.
Given the occurrence of the genocide in 1994 (it's SO not that long ago!!), a large part of what tourists (and locals as well) do in Rwanda revolves around educating yourself about the genocide and paying tribute through visits to the endless memorials scattered through the country. Even though we never ever took a boda in Kampala for the danger factor, given the significantly less traffic and the helmet, I felt much more confident taking them in Kigali. On our first day we jumped on a moto (even mom jumped right on no problem!) and went over to the Genocide Memorial museum.
It is and will be really challenging to write about this stuff in a way that conveys both the sensitivity and the power of these visits without sounding like a "war tourist", something that I constantly grappled with as we visited these sites in the next several weeks. Anyways, the museum-memorial was a gruelling several hour affair filled with horribly sickening and graphic stories and images but was exceptionally well done. It was completed by an external NGO agency that seeks to research and understand genocide and all of it's complexities in order to prevent it from happening again. The first exhibit was essentially a definition of genocide and a historical look at the countries and context in which genocide occurred in the past from the Herero in Namibia to the Armenians in Turkey, the Holocaust, Cambodia, Bosnia. This was followed by a very in depth look at the history and the genocide as it unfolded specifically in Rwanda. Again, very well done it both Bridger and I were highly appreciative that we had both read Romeo Dallaire's book as it just gave added depth and context to what we were reading now. I won't go into too much detail here but basically Rwanda has a long history of colonial meddling which rather arbitrarily divided Rwandans into Hutu and Tutsi and gave power and status to one group over the other which cultivated a long history of resentment and conflict that culminated into a civil war between the government and rebel forces (at that time Hutu and Tutsi respectively). Somewhere within this chaos the Hutus planned and, with the assistance of the radicalist radio station RTLM which spewed racial propaganda and hatred which served to incite fear and retribution, executed a systematic genocide against the Tutsi minority as well as Hutu moderates where in only 100 days approximately 800 000+ Rwandan men, women and children were literally hacked to death by machete, the primarily killing weapon of this barbaric effort. The sheer number of victims in such a short time is again, on a scale of completely and utterly incomprehensible, pays testament to the organized and systematic nature of the mass extermination of an entire group of people. Throughout our visits to the several genocide memorials across the country, I can't even begin to express to you how palpable the feeling of terror was even 20 years later. It is no word of a lie to say that the Tutsis at this time were literally registered and actively and maliciously hunted while the international community stood by without intervening despite every effort by Romeo Dallaire to convince the world to behave on the contrary. I saw him speak once upon a time during my undergraduate degree and the man is so mindblowingly smart, you cannot let your mind drift for one minute without being completely and utterly lost. You have to really process exactly what he is saying as he is saying it and stay with him to a degree that I'd never experienced to date. Gosh I would LOVE to see him speak again.
One of the exhibits in the museum was a room full of several foot high portraits of children, some babies, with a little plaque below each saying their name, favorite toy, best friend, favorite food, last words and how they were killed. It was gut-wrenching to read and almost immediately I became too overcome and had stop reading and leave because it was just too much. Next up, a room with a documentary video playing but more importantly where loved ones can come and hang up a photo of their deceased family member as tribute. The walls of this room is covered top to bottom in 4x6 photographs of people killed. Once again, it takes seconds to become completely choked up and overcome.
Outside the memorial are several terraces built into the hillside which are mass graves for those killed as well as several plaques listing the names of the genocide victims.
The memorial remains free to visit (foreigners are welcome to make a donation) so that it remains accessible to Rwandans to come to grieve and/or pay tribute to/visit family members and friends who were killed. Visitors were permitted to take pictures outside here, though photos inside the museum were not permitted. Though somewhat disappointing, I think it actually added to the experience to just be present. Definitely this was not an uplifting visit but a necessary one to fully understand the extend of healing and rebuilding that this country continues to undergo 20 years later.
Our next stop was a visit to the Hotel Des Mille Collines or as you probably know it, "Hotel Rwanda". This was a very fancy, very expensive hotel at the time of the genocide that, with the help of the Rwandan Hutu manager and the UN stationed there, somehow ended up as a site of refuge for over 1000 Tutsi and moderate Hutu refugees who flocked here to avoid the genocidaires. To go there today, you would never know that this was the fanciest hotel for the whose who of Kigali in 1994 as the front looked very modest and, I'd imagine, rather unchanged since 1994.
But step inside and it's a whole new glamorous world. We wandered through a bit and decided to grab supper at the poolside restaurant with the dozens of other couples, families and NGO workers who cheerfully lingered poolside, a stark contrast to 1994. Today, though not nearly the belle of the ball anymore and greatly in need of a revamp, Hotel Des Mille Collines continues to cater to Kigali's elite (and backpacking hobos like ourselves) much like it did 20 years ago.
We ended up staying a bit too long poolside because we didn't get back to the hotel until like 8:00 pm and mom's flight left Rwanda back to Calgary at 10:30 pm. That was stupid. Because of course there was nobody at "reception" at this ghost hotel to call us a taxi, only the security guard as always. Thank goodness we had stopped earlier in the day and bought a Rwandan SIM card so we could actually call the owner ourselves who assured us she'd ordered a taxi to the airport and it would be here promptly. Good because we only have 2.5 hours before international flight leave time. You'd think we would have learned after Uganda-Rwanda flight disaster but no. We waited and waited and now it was 8:45 and still no taxi. Fearing a repeat performance of "miss your flight 2015", mom was starting to get a little anxious, as you would. After a few more calls it finally showed up at almost 9 pm and we all arrived at the airport at 9:20 pm with just over an hour before fly time for an international flight. Out of necessity we said a quick goodbye and mom ran into the airport, ending the "mom journey 2015". Great trip, always sad when they're over :(