First of all, let me begin by wishing all of you a Very Happy New Year! I’m sure you are as glad as I am to say good-bye to 2020. Now let’s look forward to a brighter 2021 where the travel we have missed so much can begin to resume! I am optimistic and so would like to begin the New Year talking about Rwanda, a country that surprised me in all the right ways. I think it is the perfect country to spotlight with the idea of new beginnings in a new year!
I haven’t been able to stop talking about this amazing destination since I visited it in the fall of 2019. The world can learn so much from this small country, aptly named ‘The Land of a Thousand Hills.’ It taught me not only how a country having undergone unthinkable atrocities moved forward, it also made me look inward and re-evaluate. Whatever pre-conceived notions you may have about Rwanda, whatever you think you know about Rwanda… please visit. It will blow you away!! 1994’s horrific genocide does not define this country. But how many of us have looked beyond 1994 and the ‘Hollywood-ized’ movie ‘Hotel Rwanda’ at how this small nation has strived to heal and thrive?
Clean, clean, clean. Safe, safe, safe. Rwanda is the safest country in Africa and one of the safest in the world. Rwanda has set the bar not only for other African nations, but for other nations across the globe. 61% of the parliament consists of women. The majority of the population is under the age of 30. Both notable observations…
When HE President Kagame was elected to office, his priority was and still is conservation. Plastic is banned. The pilot even makes an announcement prior to landing to leave plastic bags on the plane. I love that! Before even landing, impressive…
Arriving in the capital city of Kigali, I really didn’t know what to expect. I love not having expectations, leaving myself to go in pure, able to absorb and experience as a child would. I’m not always so successful in that regard, but I try. I was a clean slate onto whom Rwanda’s artistic strokes painted a masterpiece.
Rwandans are so adamant that nothing close to 1994 ever happens again, that they have chosen a very progressive path forward in healing. To avoid a long-winded description of what that constitutes, I will try to summarize succinctly.
- Perpetrators from the genocide serving time in prison express their desire for forgiveness to the warden.
- They are then sent to the village where they committed their crimes.
- They go before the village council and citizens and confess everything in detail.
- If deemed sincere, they are then sent back to prison to serve out 50% of their sentence.
- Once released, they are sent back to that same village to live side by side with the survivors. At first, survivors and perpetrators don’t speak to each other. Each is suspicious of the other’s motives towards them. But human nature prevails and eventually they begin to talk, and with talking comes healing. With healing, feelings of revenge and hatred dissipate, and they learn to trust each other and even become friends.
In the reconciliation village I visited, through an interpreter, I heard the story of a perpetrator and a survivor. Through my tears, I sat listening to both stories, transfixed. So far removed from my world, I have rarely been as moved as I was that day.
I fell in love with these children in the village we visited
When the genocide in Rwanda ended, women were left to pick up the pieces of their shattered country. This age-old tradition took on a new and powerful meaning. In order to provide for themselves, their families, and the countless orphans left in the destruction’s wake, many banded together to form artisan cooperatives—overcoming past differences to work together towards a brighter future.
These determined women decided to use traditional agaseke baskets as a symbol of Rwanda’s newfound peace, and the baskets’ iconic zigzag patterns came to represent the image of two women holding hands—embracing reconciliation, unity, and hope for the future of Rwanda. The result is beautifully woven baskets called ‘peace baskets’.
Traditional Grass Peace Baskets
The last Saturday of every month, everyone works on a community project. If you have a Saturday job, this takes precedence. We were able to participate and help build a road! Prior to arriving, trucks had left piles of dirt. Shovels, hoes & tools miraculously appeared. It was quite the scene. Everyone was working & all were smiling and laughing!
Yep! The ever-present milk bar is Rwanda’s version of a neighborhood pub. Milk is such a big part of the culture, that there are milk bars throughout. Just how it sounds. You belly up, order your poison…fermented or non-fermented, have a drink and you’re off! There are regular bars, too, but it’s not such a big deal here.
MOUNTAIN GORILLA TREKKING
This is the most popular activity for visitors and what Rwanda is currently most known for. You must secure a permit prior to embarking on the trek into Volcanoes National Park. The permit gives you 1 hour with a gorilla family. Your group will be provided with a guide. You may also hire your own porter for a very reasonable price. Do yourself a favor and hire the porter! They literally push you up muddy slopes, pull you through brambles, carry your pack and warn you when your head is about to collide with a low hanging branch. The trek can be physically demanding and the porters are a godsend.
The length of your hike is tough to predict. It all depends on how far your gorilla family has traveled since the scouts saw them at the end of the prior day. Gorillas don’t tend to cover a lot of ground in a day, but you might find the family after only an hour or you may need to go 5 or 6 hours before you find them. Once you do, though, you will forget all about that killer hike you just did. It is an experience like no other.
Wrestling our way though thick jungle vines, we were rewarded with our first sighting of a young mountain gorilla. Making our way deeper into the area, we emerged through a thicket and there was the whole family. Our family was one of the larger ones with 25 members. For an hour, we watched, following them as they moved slowly around. It was such a joy laughing at the youngsters showing off with front and back rolls. We observed Mamas holding their babies tight while napping and saw toddlers climbing onto their mama’s backs as they made their way to another spot. The stunning silverback came within a breadth of my feet as he walked past, leading the way for his family.
Your guide will teach you some of their language, so if you’re talented, you can try to make the sounds. The guides are very proficient at the gorilla language, though, so will be making the sounds throughout, keeping the gorillas calm… assuring them that there’s no danger.
The annual baby mountain gorilla naming ceremony. What started out small is now a huge event and world renown. Each year, Rwanda holds a huge event to name the baby gorillas which were born that year. I was lucky enough to attend the event. 25 baby gorillas were named. A panel of 25 handpicked ‘namers’ have the privilege of naming a baby. The namers in essence become grandparents that day. The panel of namers ranged from diplomats, to a princess, to the president of the WWF to Naomi Campbell & Ne-Yo. And a very impressive young Rwandan man who took it upon himself to build a road in his village BY HIMSELF! In a nutshell, when he was 16, a village member passed away because the road to their village was so bad that medical supplies couldn’t get to the villager in time. This young man took it upon himself to go out at 3:00 am every morning, before school and outside of times to help his family on the farm, to build a decent road to his village. Talk about an inspiring story.
In the Nyungwe Forest, you can go chimpanzee trekking. It isn’t as easy to see the chimps because, well… they’re active and move around a lot and are a lot quicker than mountain gorillas. It is a beautiful hike through a gorgeous national park and if the gods are on your side, you will see joyful chimps jumping, swinging and playing. Golden monkeys are also around, so keep your eyes open.
You can see the Big 5 in Rwanda at Akagera National Park. In addition, there are Nile crocodiles and lots of hippos! What makes a safari experience different here from other popular safari locations is the diversity of terrain. There are hills and small mountains & lakes.
Rwanda deserves your attention. Yes, the mountain gorillas are amazing and definitely worth the trek, but please do yourselves a favor and go beyond. Delve deeper. Rwanda deserves it.
You’ve probably heard people say how life changing a trip to Africa is. Speaking for myself, my life has been forever changed. THIS is why I travel.
My profound thanks to Kathy M for her friendship and for introducing me to Rwanda.
There are no more Tutsis or Hutus. Everyone is Rwandan.
healing, forgiveness, never again