Thursday, October 11, 2012

Rwanda: Journey to the Land of a Thousand Hills

Rwanda, also known as the Land of a Thousand Hills, ‘Des Mille Collines’ in the language of the Belgian colonists that ruled the country for more than half a century and the French that came to influence much of its direction after that until… until the catastrophic genocides of the 90s.

A small country, located close to the heart of the African continent. A hilly country with hardly any flat land, hence its name.

It is not really surprising that prior to the 90s, no one really knew of this country, until the genocides put it firmly onto the world physce. The award winning film, ‘Hotel Rwanda’, which portrayed the actions of the hotel’s manager, Paul Rusesabagina, in trying to save the genocide victims, did in no small part, to spread the word of what happened in this small central African country called Rwanda to the world.

For the chance to visit this legendary hotel alone, Hotel Des Mille Collines, did I volunteer to join Linus’s side trip into Rwanda. At least it was better than hanging around Lake Bunyonyi in neighboring Uganda with nothing to do for the day while our other (more well heeled) members are looking for gorillas in the Ugandan foothills.

There is however, a catch. Unlike Kenya and Uganda, Rwanda requires Malaysians to apply for a visa AND they do not offer visa application facilities at the border (strangely, Singaporeans are exempted from getting a visa). Rather, you’d have to apply a visa online at their immigration website where you’ll be issued with a number which you will quote when arriving at their border outpost. We did not do that.

Thus, with generous doses of optimism as well as the reassurance from our Africa Travel Co. guide, John, that we’ll surely get through despite our ‘handicap’, we paid our USD50/each to cover the cost of having a driver take us into Rwanda in his car.

We departed from the Lake Bunyonyi campsite at 730am, hopping into the car driven my John’s contact, Mike.

When we reached the nearby town of Kibale, Mike switched with another guy called Milton whom we found out is going to be our ‘guide’ for the day. Mike apparently owns the car, Milton works for him.

From Kibale, it’s just a short 15 minute drive through single carriage roads to the Uganda-Rwanda border. As in previous border crossings, you’ll know you are close to the border when you see a logjam of lorries on the road.

Getting out from Uganda is easy. It’s getting into Rwanda that now proves hard.
The Rwandan entry card, for us the start of a lengthy process to get in...
Walking across no-man’s land from the Uganda border office, we ended up at its Rwandan counterpart. Here, there are noticeably more people leaving Rwanda than entering, so the counter is remarkably ‘empty’.

Initially, the immigration officer refused to issue us a pass for us to enter Rwanda, seemingly laying to rest any hopes of us entering the country. However, that was before Linus worked his ‘magic’ and managed to convince her to reconsider (perhaps that’s the reason why I always seem to include this artistic blokes in my trips ;)).

Rwanda's National Community Service Day (Umuganda) falls
on every last Saturday of the month. It's their version of
our own 'Gotong Royong' minus the armed guards... o_O
The immigration officer relented and asked for our passports. From here, it’s a wait of almost 2 hours, while the officer made a number of phone calls as she flipped through our passports. We were called into the office to meet her superior after that.

Despite John’s, our guide back in Lake Bunyonyi, offer to speak the immigration officers to explain the situation on our behalf, none of them were interested to listen or even hold on to the phone to talk to him. It looks like it was left to us to get ourselves across.

The immigration officer’s superior casually asked us our purpose of visit as well as our professions and when he is satisfied, finally instructed his subordinate to issue us a ONE DAY pass, expiring at the stroke of midnight.

We thank the man before trotting out of his office to start the application.

Paying the standard USD30, we got our stamps and hopped into the car to head for the capital city, Kigali.
Nearing Kigali, more modern buildings in sight.

It was a 1 ½ hour drive from the border to the capital, along the way we saw some very interesting sights. It was apparently Umuganda (National Community Service Day)  in Rwanda and it is held EVERY last Saturday of the month. Participation is compulsory for Rwandans and on this day, shops close until about 1pm in the afternoon when the cleaning activities are completed. You can see people sweeping the roads and surroundings under the watchful eyes of the army and police. I guess it’s an apparent social experiment to foster integration among the people after decades of inter-tribal hostility.

I am told that it is even against the law to identify oneself by tribal affiliation anymore. There are no more ‘Hutu’ or ‘Tutsi’ but rather, everyone identifies themselves as Rwandan. Hmm, perhaps there is something to learn here…

In fact, a lot of East Africans I spoke to seems to hold Rwanda in very high regard. Almost everyone was praising the current government's social engineering works. It is also worth noting that it's economy is improving as well.

We arrived in Kigali at about 1pm, heading straight to the Genocide Museum to find it CLOSED!
Outside the Kigali Genocide Memorial. It's closed when we arrived
It appears that not only did we arrive on Umuganda, we arrived on the same day the top brass of the East African Community’s police force have decided to drop by at the museum for an official visit!
Operating Hours for the Kigali Genocide Memorial
We waited for almost an hour, chatting with some of the surprisingly international visitors waiting outside with us before the top brass left and we were allowed in.
Loitering around the front entrance...
Entrance to the museum is free. However, a fee is required if you intend to take photographs. You can also hire a physical guide or settle for an audio ‘guide’ to rent. Donations are most welcomed.

We did not pay for the photos nor hired a guide. ;) We did however, put in some token donations.

Stepping into the museum, one would be immediately struck by the darkness. I guess the lack of light is to enhance the experience reading about this dark part of Rwandan history. And ‘reading’ is generally what you will be spending most of your time doing. There are many nicely done panels of narratives detailing the background of the genocide. There are a lot of references to Rwandan politicians although to a neophyte like us, one might find it a little bit confusing to keep track if you do not already have a background of the genocide. Rwandan names seem to be generously peppered throughout without first introducing them to the reader who they were and what role did they play. I won't be detailing the Genocide here in this blog. There are many better sources to gleam information of it, I'd refer you to wikipedia for now. ;)

There were a few audio visual stations, playing pictures of the massacre along the way but what was a disappointment for me was the lack of much physical exhibits. Aside from the narrative panels, I count one old rifle and 3 machetes as display items.

Also, I sort of have this sense of ‘history being written by the victors’ as I read through the narratives. Maybe it’s not surprising because the current President, Paul Kagame, was also the rebel leader that commanded the army that swept through Rwanda that eventually ended the genocide. 
The current President of Rwanda, Paul Kagame

Blame was placed on the Belgian colonials for creating the ‘Hutu/Tutsi’ separation while the French were blamed for aiding the discriminatory governments after Rwanda’s independence. Maybe this is one reason the present government is trying to change their present national language from French to English, or so I am told!

The second floor of the museum was divided into two segments: one, an exhibit of panels showcasing pictures of children that had been murdered in the Rwandan genocide and the other section, a general presentation of other genocides that had occurred throughout the world. Aside from the Holocaust, the Killing Fields, the Balkan Wars of the 90s and even the turn of the century massacre of Armenians in the Caucasus, I was surprised that I didn’t know anything about the Namibian Genocide/Herero Genocide perpetuated by German colonists also in the early 20th century under the command of General Lothar Von Trotha.

It took more than an hour before we finally stepped out into the outdoor courtyard of the museum. There is a genocide archive, a wifi equipped café, a souvenir shop and a memorial housing 250,000 victims of the genocide.

The archive was closed and I was looking forward to having lunch at our next stop, so I paused by the memorial to give my respects to the dead. Symbolic coffins draped in the Rwandan flag were laid in a pit beneath a glass panel. I guess the remains of the dead were buried beneath the concrete bottom of the pit that housed the coffin further below.
One of the Burial Pits housing part of 250,000 victims of the Rwandan Genocide
I dropped by the souvenir shop next, for the first time in this Africa trip seeing rather ‘reasonable’ prices. This was before Nakuru, I didn’t know I could get things cheaper, but then again, proceeds from the sales of the souvenirs would go to the running of the museum. 
A closer look at the tomb.
I bought a wooden carving of an antelope for USD7, USD8 for a bead necklace, USD3 for a miniature Rwandan drum and USD1 for a number of Jesus figurines.

Thus, ends our visit to the museum and onwards to our next destination, the ‘in’famous Hotel Rwanda!

But first, we have to locate our driver.

Calling our driver, we were told he was conducting ‘business’ in town so we needed to ‘wait’ for him to get back for another 30 minutes.
Seeing as we have nothing else to do, we descended alongside the road leading to the museum and wandered into a local supermarket. 
Happy Shopkeepers... we left a little bit of 'Malaysia' here...

As we walked, we were greeted by stares from the locals, intrigued perhaps at our East Asian features. :) We wandered into a local supermarket at the bottom of the hill that housed the museum and bought bottles of Coca Cola to quench our thirst. Linus managed to flip out a RM1 note to hand to a grateful shopkeeper before we were whisked by our driver to Hotel Rwanda.
Outside Hotel 'Rwanda'
(Des Mille Collines is actually a more romantised French name for the country as well, so in effect, Hotel 'Rwanda' is correct translation).

Kigali, the capital, is built on a hill. There are hardly any flat stretches of road and the buildings are terraced in layers one on top of the other.
Kigali is at the background... (You know la, we being Malaysians, we HAVE to be in the picture to proof we were there, otherwise you'd think I took some picture of Kigali from the web and wrote about it... ;))
The City of Kigali, Rwanda is built on a hill...

Houses are terraced up to cover the whole hill
Rwandan Public Toilet. Don't ask me why I took a picture of it, ask Linus! He has some 'fascination' with it. ;p Did someone say that, "The state of a nation's public toilet reflects the mentality of it's people"?
Hotel ‘Rwanda’ or more accurately, Hotel Des Mille Collines, is a 4 star hotel located in a rather posh section of the city. For room rates and booking, please follow the link above.

If you are thinking of relating the hotel you saw in the movie Hotel Rwanda to the real thing, you are in for a disappointment. The film was not shot in the real hotel for some reason but actually in South Africa. The real hotel has chosen to distance itself from the genocide, so you’d not see anything that would make reference to it. It looks like it is marketing itself as just ‘any other hotel’.

Passing through a metal detector, we headed to the famous swimming pool where there is a restaurant.

The menu does not appear to be very extensive in terms of entrees so Linus, his girlfriend, Ping and myself have to make do with what that is available. Admittedly, this would be the 1st time we’d be eating decent food in the almost 2 weeks of travelling.
The Menu at Des Mille Collines. Not many entrees. Click on the picture to zoom in.
I ordered the ‘cannot go wrong’ Spaghetti Bolognese, Ping ordered Chicken Burger while Linus and girlfriend shared the Beef Burger. Prices were not prohibitively expensive, almost on the same level as Kuala Lumpur. The waiter however spoke French, with a smattering of English. ;)
My order of Spaghetti Bolognese, it feels good to eat 'proper' food... ;)

Ping's order of Chicken Burger. Linus and Girlfriend's is the same except for the Beef Patty.
Around us were groups of mostly Europeans and one what looked like an Indian family. They might have been tourist from India but then again, there is quite a sizable community of Indians in Africa that have settled here for hundreds of years. 
Indian family at Des Mille Collines

Now what peeked my eyebrow was that large group of Koreans that I happen to bump in the Genocide Museum though. Rwanda seems like to me, a place off the beaten trail, unless you are truly interested about the genocide.
Time to chow down...

This here is some VERY HOT chili! I want more! :D
Having had our fill, we called the waiter over for the bill. I paid in US dollars and belatedly realized my error when I ended up with a stack of Rwandan Francs. Considering that we don’t intend to stay here, that was some money I need to unnecessarily spend!
Rwandan Francs, about RWF650 = USD1 (Aug 2012)
We moved to the shops just outside the main lobby, finding ourselves in one offering gorilla treks in Rwanda. Looking at the prices, it appears that it is more expensive than what you’d find in Uganda. It cost USD750 per head here compared to the stated USD500 in Uganda (not inclusive transport and tipping).
Gorilla Trek in Rwanda anyone?

The sun was about to set but Linus still had just this one last place to visit before we head home. After talking to the driver, he managed to yoke out a trip to the Caplaki souvenir center in Kigali. 
Outside the souvenir center. Bargaining expected, IF you know where to start...
We drove to the center and found the prices quite fitting for muzungus. :p After walking through a few shops, the driver came a calling, urging us to leave before it gets really dark. Considering the roads in Africa mostly without streetlamps, this is a understandable concern. 
Sunset! Time to head home...

We therefore jumped back into the car and head back to the border.

Compared to the chilly reception we got from the Rwandans, we got an additional 2 days stamped on our passports when we asked for a 5 day visa. All this for free. Well, at least Wisma Putra seems to be doing some good.

After this is back to our camp in Lake Bunyonyi and a good night’s sleep!

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for including Kaplaki in your post. I am one of the shop owners at kaplaki, number 11 check our website and continue communicating with us if any interested idea you share with us at