Unfortunately this post is very delayed. I had the opportunity to travel to Kigali, Rwanda back in August 2011 while taking a delivery flight for RwandAir’s first brand new airplane; a Boeing 737-800. Time went on and I never got this story posted, but I really want to share what it was like visiting Rwanda.
Most people, including myself, have some preconceived notions of what kind of place Rwanda is in the world. I think many define it either by the genocide of 1994 or the fact that it is an African country, so it must be hot, poor and not a place to visit. Let me tell you, my preconceived notions were very wrong and I cannot wait to return to Rwanda again. I hope sharing my experiences while visiting can help change your ideas of the country as well.
Rwanda is a country with a population of around 11.7 million and is about the size of the state of Maryland. Farming is a large part of the population, where some people farm to make a living, and others are farming to feed their families.
Tourism is also a growing economic resource for the country. It was unbelievably easy to get from Kigali back home to Seattle. Even though I can easily have more than one stop flying across the US, I only had one stop in Amsterdam getting from Rwanda back to Seattle in about 24 hours. Took one non-stop KLM flight from KGL to AMS, then another non-stop Delta flight from AMS to SEA. Flying south to Johannesburg or north to Cairo also provides many other easy connections to the US.
Let’s get talking about the negative part of Rwanda out of the way: the 1994 genocide. The chances are you have heard of this or gotten a pretty good idea at how horrid this was by watching the move Hotel Rwanda. Over 800,000 people were slaughtered, families ruined and a nation put in turmoil in only over 100 days. At that time, the country lost as much as 20% of their population, had a weak infrastructure and no power to most of the nation. During my five days in the country I couldn’t believe that this tragedy happened only 15 years ago. It is astounding how much the people of Rwanda have been able to work hard and try to move past a difficult recent history.
Quite simplly, the genocide is a very important part of the Rwandan history, but by no means defines who they are today. That is the old Rwanda that no longer exists and people around the world should not judge an entire nation and people by what happened so long ago.
It is Green and Not That Hot
Who knew? I assumed since Rwanda is pretty much located on the equator and is in Africa, it would be hot, humid and brown. Turns out it is tepid, not humid and mostly green. Since Rwanda is at such a high altitude, even though it is near the equator, it stays relatively comfortable and consistent throughout the year. Since it has its rainy season (which is just starting), a good part of the country is lush with greenery. Part of the reason for the climate is Rwanda’s elevation. The lowest point in the country is 3,000 feet above sea level and the highest is almost at 15,000 feet at Mount Karisimbi.
Visit Genocide Museum
I will warn you, that a visit to the Genocide Museum is extremely powerful. I would suggest doing it near the end of the day, since it will put you in a downer mood afterwards. It is not easy to get through, but you cannot get the true feeling of how bad the genocide was without it. The detailed stories, the unedited photos and skulls of some of those that died are beyond powerful.
It is still hard to really grasp what happened and how it has made an impact even after a visit to the museum. Even today, many citizens walk around with machetes (a common weapon used during the genocide), which are used to everyday labor, but they are still a reminder.
Even though difficult, make sure to give yourself enough time to go through the whole museum.
There are only a few ATMs where you are able to withdraw money. If you plan to go to one, you will be welcomed by an armed guard with a large gun. They are plenty nice and all, but it would be easier to just make sure you bring some cash with you.
If you bring your own local currency, you can change it out at your hotel or the airport. Do not plan on using your credit cards very much — since most places will not accept them.
Rwanda is Safe
During part of my visit I was escorted by locals, but I also had quite a bit of free time to wonder around on my own and pretty far away from my hotel. Being 6’1, 250lb white man, it was pretty obvious that I was from out of town. I never felt uncomfortable or unsafe, even while having my expensive camera with me.
Get Out of Town
To get the real experience, one needs to get out of town. You do not have to go far to see hundreds of people walking down the highway with food and goods on their heads. Many people still farm their own food for survival and make houses out of what they can find.
Get Your Shots
Yellow Fever vaccines are required to enter Rwanda or to return to most other countries. I only had a week’s notice and had no problem getting it completed. Make sure to speak with your doctor, since they are probably going to recommend a whole set of shots and pills for you to take before departing to Rwanda. I opted for pretty much everything, since I didn’t want to ruin my trip. I had all sorts of food and never got sick, but I steered clear of any tap water or ice. I slowly kept eating more vegetables and fruit and never had any issues.
There is an Official Cleaning Day Once Per Month
Talk about clean. Every last Saturday of the month, Rwanda has a cleaning day where it is mandated that citizens and businesses stop what they are doing and spend the morning cleaning. Our RwandAir Boeing 737 actually arrived on cleaning day and everyone who came to the airport to participate had to show paperwork that they were allowed to be out and about and not clean.
This concept creates a strong sense of community and obviously keeps the country clean.
Go See Some Gorillas
Unfortunately I was not able to do this, but a few of the people I was with had the opportunity to go trek out into the woods and check out Gorillas. You need to plan way in advance and it can be quite costly, but you cannot beat being only a few feet away from one of nature’s most amazing animals.
The Real Hotel Rwanda Means Something Different to Us
I was invited to go to the real Hotel Rwanda, that is really called Hà´tel des Mille Collines, and I was a bit freaked out. We weren’t going to check out the hotel, but to go to a dance club in the basement. Dance clubs are not really my scene, but I had to check this out — why would they put such a happy, fun thing into a place with such a troubled past. Well, it is because of my American perspective.
There is Some Amazing Food
Not all the food I tried was something I would want to try again, but I have to say it was unique. But most of the food that I ate was amazing. We were able to make it to the Republika Lounge in Kigali twice and one of the most interesting things was banana wine. Not exactly what one might think, but still a good drink.
Taxi, Motorbikes or Your Feet
How much guts do you have? How much money do you have? If you have a lot of guts and not much money, taking a motorcycle taxi is for you. These are pretty much dirt cheap and consist of you riding on the back of a person’s dirt bike to your destination. It can get a little scary weaving in and out of cars, when it is raining, while it is dark. I am one that doesn’t have that much guts, so for a bit more there are quite a few taxi’s located around Kigali. There is also a bus system, mostly consisting of vans, but they are very crowded and I would suggest avoiding them if possible.
If you want to try a full local experience, then just walk. It didn’t matter where we went or how far away we were from any structures, there were people walking everywhere. Either business people walking to lunch to people with water jugs on their heads going home. A sidewalk is not required. Many of the citizens have no form of transportation and would carry furniture, food and much more miles from town to their homes.
Springboard into Africa
Kigali is a great place to start an African adventure. Pretty centralized, there are flights from Air Burundi, Air Uganda, Ethiopian Airlines, Kenya Airways, South African Airways and of course RwandAir that can take you to many destinations inside Africa. Not to mention Brussels, KLM, Qatar and Turkish which can take you out of Africa.