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Rwanda: raw, reconciled and reunited

From past to present, everything about this African country really inspired me, leaving me with a fire in my soul to want to be a better person and do better in the world.

After an epic set of flights (which took me from Gold Coast – Melbourne – Perth – Johannesburg – Kigali) I finally stepped foot in an African country I had not yet been, Rwanda.

Things didn’t exactly start smoothly, as I had opted for the ‘pay by EFTPOS card’ option for my visa on arrival at Kigali Airport. The machines were down and after being escorted out of the terminal by airport guard to a nearby ATM machine only to learn that was also not working, I was having to talk my way into the country already. Tip – just take the USD50 cash it costs for an entry visa.

Heading into Kigali my first impressions (and a sentiment that stuck with me to the end of the journey in fact) is you could be mistaken for being in a different country when visiting Rwanda. Forget the raw, authentic and traditional Africa. There is no bustling streets throwing up dust and muck, there is no excited chaos about the groups of people that congregate around street corners and there is no feeling of having to watch your back every two minutes.

It is unlike other African countries, maybe even unlike any other country in the world. The roads are impeccably maintained, rubbish is nearly non-existent and the feeling of safety is strong.

Don’t get me wrong, I love the excitement of Africa in its beautiful chaos, but it was slightly refreshing to see a different Africa. A progressive Africa that is quickly moving forward, that is considerate of the environment and conservation, that values the expression of arts and culture and where things are going well.

My first day exploring Kigali taught me it was a long and painful road to get to this point however.

Unfortunately, many of us in the rest of the world know very little about what happened in Rwanda and think we do from the stories we are told through movies like Hotel Rwanda. Yes, some insight can be gained from such a movie, but true to Hollywood form, it is a story of heroics that I am to learn were very misplaced.

A phrase commonly uttered on the clean streets of Rwanda is “love means forgiveness”. If you know anything about Rwanda’s history, you will understand the importance Rwandans place on forgiveness. Love and forgiveness have been the driving force behind the country’s astounding progress and development following the tragic events that occurred in 1994.

The Rwandan genocide, also known as the genocide against the Tutsi, was a genocidal mass slaughter of Tutsi in Rwanda by members of the Hutu majority government. Over a 100-day period from 7 April to mid-July 1994, an estimated 500,000 to 1,000,000 Rwandans were killed, constituting as many as 70 percent of the Tutsi population.

Without delving too much into the past, it was a horrific time for Rwandans. A visit to the Kigali Genocide Memorial provides a better insight into Rwanda’s harrowing past. Thirty-two-year-old Lydie Mutesi guided me around the memorial. She would have been eight years old at the time of the genocide, just a child. Now a mother with children herself, at times she paused to regain composure, the pain still evident in her recollections.

“It will always hurt, but we have to move on,” she confessed.

I had a dying urge to just hug her and any other Rwandan I came across since. Taking some time to absorb the immense emotions that overcame me, I moved to a quieter part of the memorial grounds. Walking through the memorial stirs chilling emotions while reading stories of the lives lost and the survivor’s despair, tragedy and courage as panicked silent screams ring out in deafening imagery. The memorial’s simplicity allows the drama of the story to have maximum impact.

Both sides of the conflict have learned how to ask forgiveness as well as forgive their aggressors and now work beside each other in rebuilding their communities. They have fallen in love with each other and even started families together. Such an inspirational story of reconciliation and reunification is remarkable to learn from and witness first-hand.

It was a tough day and introduction to Rwanda but I felt it was important to honour the victims and survivors today.

Trying to lift the sadness from the experience, I looked towards where Rwanda is today. Ever since the 1994 genocide, Rwanda has moved forward in leaps and bounds. Not only in reconciliation and forgiveness from that fateful event, but in development and conservation. If there ever was a country that the rest of the world can aspire to, it would be Rwanda.

The name Rwanda literally means ‘expanding’, and its capital city, Kigali, takes meaning from something large, fitting for a country that has grown so much in the past 24 years and continues to propel forward.

The sense of community is strong, and everyone is involved in sustaining the country’s movement. I am delighted to learn about Umuganda, where every last Saturday of the month everyone does community work, regardless of status, to clean and look after the environment. I applaud Rwanda for such a thing and wished more countries in the world adopted this approach.

Moving beyond the city skylines, I headed out into the countryside. Known as the “land of a thousand hills”, green is a word that best describes Rwanda. Not only green in colour, with the rich rolling hills that are ever present on the horizon, but green on sustainability and conservation.

Single-use plastic bags are illegal in the entire country and will be confiscated upon arrival. Once again, my mind is blown to think an entire country can adhere to this when Australia recently had a meltdown when plastic bags were banned in just two supermarket chains. I had this sense of embarrassment wash over me.

Due to this effective ban and other factors, Rwanda was ranked number three of the greenest destinations of the world in 2015. Dubbed the Singapore of Africa, you can clearly see why the moment you arrive in Kigali – it is astonishingly clean by any standards.

In addition to the environment care is the conservation of the wildlife and national parks. Famous for their mountain gorillas, Rwanda has put a lot of effort into conservation to protect these precious primates.

The mountain gorillas are the world’s most endangered ape and are found only in small portions of protected afro Montane forests in northwest Rwanda, southwest Uganda and eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

I have trekked in Uganda to see gorillas, so I was quite keen to see the difference here in Rwanda. I learn that today nearly half of the world’s 1000 remaining mountain gorillas live at the intersection of Uganda, Rwanda, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo in the Virunga Mountains of central Africa.

The destination – Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Park. Consisting of 125 km2 of mountain forest and the six Virunga Volcanoes, the lush forested slopes of the mountains form an appropriately dramatic natural setting for what is arguably the most poignant and memorable wildlife experience in the world: gorilla trekking.

As the morning sun rose and filtered across the mountains, the mist slowly lifted like a curtain to unveil the main performance, the gorillas. It is easy to see why Dian’s description of ‘Gorillas in the mist’ is fitting.

A permit with set you back USD$1500, of which the money is put straight back into the protection and conservation of the gorillas. It is advisable to hire a porter for your trek, not only for the unfailing assistance as your trek and climb, but to help fund a living to the once poachers that pilfered the national park. It gives them incentive to stay on the anti-poaching path.

Beginning the exhilarating climb to the gorillas’ natural habitat starts off easy and you could be mistaken that you are in for a walk in the park. The stroll soon turns into a struggle as the forest thickens and before you know it, you are fighting with the dense undergrowth one foot-strangling step at a time.

The battle with the vegetation is worth it. Nothing can prepare you for the impact of emotions encountering a fully-grown silverback gorilla, up to three times the size of an average man, yet remarkably peaceable and tolerant of human visitors.

I spent time with the largest gorilla family in the park, the Kwitonda family, which means humbled in Kinyarwanda. To spend the hour with this family was truly humbling. A mother clutched her new-born baby as its wide eyes darted around exploring her surroundings from the safety of her mother’s arms, before heavily dropping into sleep. Nearby the children of the family played in boisterous bursts and rolling acrobatics. The silverback laid sprawled out, looking relaxed but always aware of everything that is going on. There was a real sense of family, each gorilla with their own personality and place.

Later I am to learn that the very baby gorilla I watched adoringly was to be named Urugori in the annual Kwita Izina. Urugori is a crown woman in Rwanda wear as a symbol of motherhood and also a sign of respect of women in the Rwandan culture. The name was chosen as a tribute to the mother of the baby gorilla “Kibyeyi” who is a prolific female in the Kwitonda family. The ceremony of giving a name to a newborn baby has been part of Rwandan culture for centuries and is known as Kwita Izina. This tradition has been passed on to the gorilla families.

The ceremony’s main goal is in helping monitor each individual gorilla and their groups in their natural habitat. This year saw the presentation of the names chosen for 21 gorillas born in the past year. The theme of this year’s Kwita Izina was “Conservation is Life,” and the activities in the lead up to the naming ceremony included community projects, educational programs, the “Conversation on Conservation” workshop and an exhibition.

Baby gorilla names were chosen by a variety of participants at the ceremony, including Rwandan and international officials, local and international conservationists, business leaders, sports personalities, musicians and others.

As a result of conservation efforts such as Kwita Izina, the population of the endangered mountain gorilla has increased to 604 in 2016 in the Virunga Massif compared to 480 in 2010. The Virunga Massif is comprised of Mikeno Sector of Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda and Mgahinga Gorilla National Park in Uganda. Mountain gorilla numbers in the entire area had fallen as low as 242 in 1981.

To protect anything, you have to care about it, and to care, you have to know that it’s there. When you need to conserve, one of the most important things is education. Nobody is going to fight for it unless they understand it and feel it. To experience the Rwanda’s gorillas, to feel the emotions of the Rwandan people and to understand a country that has fought and come so far was a memory that will be etched in my heart and deep in my soul for years to come. As is an undying urge to protect more, care more and forgive more.

If you want to read more about my adventures in Rwanda, please see the below published articles. While I was hosted by Rwanda Development Board and Visit Rwanda, they have not approved nor edited any of these articles and all words are my own.

MindFood Magazine – Forgiveness and Love

Roam – Where Wild Things Roam Magazine – Issue 2 – Focus on Rwanda

Where Wild Things Roam – Rwanda’s getting conservation right

Where Wild Things Roam – Trekking Rwanda

Travelling Solo – Going Solo in Rwanda

Travel Monitor  – SAA Flight Review

Travel Monitor – How to Sell Rwanda

Africa Encompassed – Hotel Review – Serena Kigali

Africa Encompassed – Hotel Review – Moriah Hill Resort

Africa Encompassed – Hotel Review – Akagera Lodge

Africa Encompassed – Rwanda’s Akagera National Park

Africa Encompassed – Rwanda’s rainforest paradise in Nyungwe

Africa Encompassed – Rwanda Encompassed

Africa Encompassed – Kwita Izina

Africa Encompassed – Rwanda engages in conversations on conservation

Captured Travel – Rwanda Conservation Events

Captured Travel – Best of Rwanda

Captured Travel – Rwanda a rising destination for luxury

If you want to get involved with the conservation of gorillas in Rwanda, please do get in touch with me. Where Wild Things Roam has launched special gorilla conservation tours. If you are interested or wanted more information, please email hello@wherewildthingsroamtravel.com.