Rwandering around

2009-01-13 00:00

My friend Kate and I usually go on a road trip once a year, but this year she moved to Canada, so we decided to meet each other halfway. I knew nothing about Rwanda, apart from a vague recollection of some fighting between Hutus and Tutsis round about the same time as we were celebrating the new South Africa in 1994. I was unprepared.

My plane landed during the season’s first rain storm and all the passengers cheered for the pilot. As I handed over my yellow card and my passport, the customs official at Kigali International Airport beamed at me. “We welcome you in Rwanda. Please enjoy our beautiful country.”

Kate met me with her father who works as a geologist in the Democratic Republic of Congo. We strolled down the road from our hotel to an open-air Italian restaurant with a view over the city, tried a local beer, Mutzig, and had possibly the most delicious pizza I’ve ever eaten.

Beneath the hundreds of public taxi-motorbikes scooting along the red-earthed roads and the women swathed in bright coloured fabrics; beneath the frenzy of this central African capital city, were clean streets. Kate’s dad explained that in 2005, the government declared plastic bags illegal, made bottles recyclable and promulgated a law called umaganda. This law provides that on the last Saturday of the month, every person is required to clean the streets and gardens or maintain the national buildings, hospitals and schools.

During the two days we spent in Kigali we packed in a few sights. The Kigali Genocide Memorial Centre is heartbreaking. It gives a solid history and perspective from which to marvel at the progress the country has made. Development was one of the first things I had noticed when we drove through the city. Every third plot is being built on or repaired.

A traditional market is a must on an African travel. The hustle and bustle of traders, strange fruit stacked high, towers of ground cassava root, passages of the patterned fabrics worn by the women and little stalls of bottled oils and spices. We visited Caplaki craft market which contained hardwood sculptures in every shape and size, many of which came from Congo or Cameroon. One of the local crafts is pottery, which is a tradition of the Batwa people. Another is bead making: tiny strips of colourful rolled-up paper finished with a varnish coat.

The three of us drove to Gisenyi, which is a town on the banks of the fault lake, Kivu. We ate a meal at the Serena Hotel on the water’s edge, spread our towels on the golden sand and lay down to soak up the sun. I had assumed that the temperature on the Equator would be blistering hot, but at this high altitude it is perfect, hardly varying from day to night and, apparently, season to season.

As a day trip, we drove between the coast and banana-covered hillsides in search of the hot springs mentioned in our guidebook. The locals believe that water from these springs promotes healing. Naïvely thinking we were heading towards some sort of health spa, Kate and I were surprised when we arrived at the site of a few smelly, orange puddles of bubbling, boiling water. Kate’s father, being a geologist, was delighted and we got a free science lesson.

Paradis Malahide is a lovely restaurant on the bank of the lake, around the corner from Rubona’s small harbour. Rubona is the home of the Bralirwa brewery, the birthplace of the local beer, Primus, which we sampled as we looked out over an idyllic scene of fishermen kayaking past a tiny island.

For lunch, we ordered the catch of the day and chips — either potato or banana. Some say that bananas are the staple diet. I’d eaten the Rwandan table-fruit banana which is incredibly sweet and small, so I thought I’d be adventurous. Mildly disappointed and mildly relieved, I found the banana-shaped chips tasted very much like potato. Bananas in Rwanda are categorised almost like potatoes in Europe: chips, baked, roasted and mashed. They even make banana beer and wine.

At 4 am we were on our way to Parc National de Volcans without even a cup of coffee. By seven we were climbing to the top of a hill that seemed as high as the volcanoes we could see in the surrounding panorama. A forest of waist-high stinging nettles later, we were introduced to gorillas. I couldn’t believe they weren’t men in suits until I saw a baby clutching its mother. Munching on their elegantly rolled leaves, they talked in grunts and yawns. After having seen a few of the only gorillas left in the wild, somehow the return walk didn’t sting as much.

With her dad back at work, Kate wanted to hire a car in Kigali so we could drive ourselves. Through some mysterious connection during our investigative phone calls, a woman contacted us saying she had a car for us, presenting a vehicle with tinted windows, a furry dashboard, stuffed toys in the rear window and a dorsal fin.

“Does it come with all these men?” asked Kate, tongue-in-cheek. Four enormous men in kaftans stepped out. Kate got in and turned the key, which produced a click and no more. Two more dubious cars later, we reluctantly settled on the only other means of private transport: chauffeur-driven taxi.

Travel in Rwanda should be measured by time, not by kilometres. Apart from pedestrians and potholes, Rwanda is a country of hills and the roads wind along the tops of them. During the eight-hour drive covering approximately 350 kilometres between Kigali and Nyungwe National Park, we had a good chance to observe the lay of the land. Rwanda has a huge population spread out over the tiny country which is almost entirely cultivated. The first settlers from europe reported that it was a land of milk and honey. Beekeeping is an ancient tradition and honey-filled Amarula bottles are sold at roadside stands. The hillsides are a patchwork of luminous tea fields, coffee farms and banana plantations. Even though the milk is either powdered or imported long-life, the tea has a good toffee colour and the coffee is delicious.

The sun rose through the fields and tea pickers, with woven baskets on their backs, were on their way to work as we were on our way to track chimpanzees. They are notoriously difficult to follow once they’ve left their overnight nest, but we were privileged to see the stooped, almost-human figure on the path. The Albertine Rift has 13 species of endemic primates and on our way out of the forest we saw a troop of colobus and a lone mona monkey. Interested in birds, Kate had hoped to see a Turaco but we only heard its call and found a beautiful bright blue- and-red feather.

En route to Kigali, we popped into a pottery workshop in a village called Gutagara and observed an old man spin an elegant vase on a rustic turntable with his foot. I was in heaven when I entered the storeroom, greeted by my dream kitchen’s worth of crockery in exquisite blues and earth tones. And so affordable. I made a mental note to return with an empty bag.

Thirteen days after we arrived, Kate’s father said goodbye to us at the airport, she to fly north and me to fly south. We celebrated the development, culture, cuisine and diverse nature experiences we’d had together in this lovely little country, sitting in the boarding lounge with a banana beer.

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