A look at the peaceful and prosperous Rwanda

BY Tamara Hinson

6th Jun 2018 Travel

A look at the peaceful and prosperous Rwanda

Despite the devastation of the genocide in 1994, when Tamara Hinson visited Rwanda, she found a country determined to rebuild

I’m sitting on a sun-drenched patio, sipping what might just be the world’s best salted caramel milkshake. At a nearby table, a young woman with freshly-manicured nails taps away at her laptop, while her friend snaps a couple of selfies, then orders another espresso. But the setting isn’t Manhattan, Paris or London. It’s Kigali, the capital of Rwanda—a country shattered by by genocide in 1994.

When I visit, I discover one of the greenest, cleanest countries I’ve come across. There’s not a scrap of litter, and the city is filled with huge, leafy parks. I feel perfectly safe wandering along its wide, tree-lined boulevards well after sunset, although it’s hardly surprising—in 2017, the World Economic Forum voted Rwanda the world’s ninth-safest country and Africa’s safest.

"I’ve never seen kids skip to school so enthusiastically. I suspect that for locals of a certain age, this passion for self-improvement has its roots in Rwanda’s darkest days"

Visitor numbers are rising, and tourists are venturing further afield. Years ago, the majority made a beeline to the gorilla-filled Volcanoes National Park, but these days, growing numbers are discovering Rwanda’s other treasures. They’re soaking up the arts scene in Kigali, spotting the Big Five in Akagera National Park or relaxing on the tea plantations near the protected Nyungwe forest.

Colourful fabrics and woven goods displayed in a Kigali shop front in Rwanda

My first observation is that the entire nation seems obsessed with bettering itself. At a Kigali supermarket, I find shelves filled with self-help books (more memorable titles include 100 Tricks To Appear Smart and So The B*****d Broke Your Heart: Now What?). And I’ve never seen kids skip to school so enthusiastically. I suspect that for locals of a certain age, this passion for self-improvement has its roots in Rwanda’s darkest days. One afternoon, my taxi driver, Pete, casually tells me he was just a boy when the genocide happened. He walked hundreds of miles to escape the killings, passing through Burundi and Tanzania. During the journey he saw feral dogs sniffing at corpses piled by the roadside. He missed out on a huge chunk of his education. Like many young Rwandans, he’s determined to make up for lost time, and is studying hard in the hope of attending college abroad.

The relatively recent popularity of cricket is also tied to the country’s post-genocide recovery. Before 1994, Rwanda was a Francophone country. There was little interest in cricket. During the genocide, refugees fled to nearby countries colonised by the British, returning with a new-found love of the sport. Eric Dusingizimana is the captain of the national cricket team. In 2016, to raise money for a new cricket ground, he broke the Guinness World Record for the longest individual batting session. He began batting at 8am (Tony Blair threw one of the many balls he deflected) and set a new record two days later.

A boy diving into Lake Kivu

I meet Eric at the old cricket ground, on the site of a college. Students sit on the grass, killing time before lessons. Before the genocide, this was home to the École Technique Officielle, a school run by catholic priests. It was also where UN peacekeepers set up camp, which is why thousands of Tutsis sought refuge at the site. When, on April 11 1994, the UN pulled out without warning, the Hutu militia waiting outside the gates stormed in, killing 2,000 Tutsis in a matter of hours.

For Eric, who studied civil engineering at university, the construction of a new cricket ground wasn’t just about providing Rwanda’s cricketers with better facilities. It’s a symbol of the country’s recovery from genocide. On a guided tour of the site, Eric shows me the club house, with its beautiful curved roof. “It’s been designed to mimic the trajectory of a bouncing cricket ball,” he explains. The pitch is surrounded by raised, grassy banks and Eric tells me locals love to come and sit here, soaking up the spectacular views over Rwanda’s green hills. My favourite bit is the ground’s Yorkshire Tea Bar—the tea brand which purchases 15 per cent of Rwanda’s total tea production and finances various cricketing initiatives in the country.

Eric Dusingizimana, captain of Rwanda’s cricket team

As much as I’d love to join the locals sprawled on the grassy slopes, I’ve got a bus to catch. I’m heading to Lake Kivu, an enormous rift valley, freshwater lake which straddles the border between Rwanda and The Congo. It takes around four hours to get there by road. A private taxi transfer would cost me around £150, but I choose the cheaper option—a £4 trip on a local bus.

My taxi driver pulls into Kigali’s dusty bus station, and it’s chaos— a tangled mess of belching, revving minibuses sagging low under the weight of their cargo, whether it’s the passengers shoe-horned inside, or the household appliances and sacks of fruit strapped onto roofs. Locals swarm around my taxi, banging on the windows. They’re ticket sellers, and my driver tells me to hand one of the men 4,000 Rwandan Francs—roughly £3.30. I pass some crumpled notes out the window and seconds later, the ticket seller reappears and passes me a bus ticket, printed with my name. He then swings my bags onto his shoulder and leads me to a nearby bus, where he shows me to my seat, piles my bags onto my lap and disappears into the crowd with a wave. Seconds later, I’m on my way to Lake Kivu.

"My driver was just a boy when the genocide happened. Like many, he’s determined to make up for lost time"

As we head up into the hills surrounding Kigali, the traffic thins and the trees thicken. The driver cranks up the radio and passengers sing along in Kinyarwanda, Rwanda’s national language. I try to resist the temptation to nod off but fail, and I’m woken when the Rwandan woman sitting next to me taps me and indicates I should catch 40 winks on her shoulder rather than doing my best impression of a nodding dog. But to doze off would be to miss Rwanda’s best bits. We chug through dusty villages filled with rainbow-hued wooden houses, past fields of sugar cane and small towns where every other business seems to be a bicycle repair shop. It’s hardly surprising. As a keen cyclist I go everywhere by bike, and I’m rather proud of my ability to pedal home carrying a week’s shopping. But I’ve got nothing on Rwanda’s cyclists, who easily load up their bikes with everything from armchairs to huge bales of hay.

Tea brands fund cricketing initiatives

The other cargo of choice seems to be chunks of sugar cane the length of telephone poles, tucked under the arms of cyclists who still somehow manage to steer and brake. Others have dozens of plastic water tanks strapped to their back.

At one point, during an uphill traffic jam, I notice some cyclists perilously close to the back of a lorry grinding slowly up a hill. On closer inspection, I notice that they’re all clinging to the rear bumper of the lorry as it slowly splutters up the steep incline. I’ve got the utmost respect for them, but can’t imagine adopting this approach on my weekly shop any time soon.

More organised chaos awaits in Gisenyi, a town on the banks of Lake Kivu. I’ve obviously got my helpless tourist look perfected, because it’s not long before a local comes to my rescue—in this case, an armed security guard outside a bank who asks me if I need help. I explain, in English, that I’m trying to get to a nearby hotel but he replies in Kinyarwanda and it’s clear he doesn’t understand. He disappears inside, only to reappear with the bank manager, who tells me he knows of my hotel and that he’ll be able to arrange for a taxi to come and collect me. Two minutes later a taxi arrives and I’m en route. I spend the rest of the day sprawled on a sun-lounger on a palm-fringed beach at the beautiful Lake Kivu Serena Hotel.Back in Kigali, I finish my trip with a spot of retail therapy. Firstly at Go Kigali, a boutique inside the Kigali Marriott (the brand’s first Sub-Saharan property), where a string of gallery-style shops sells everything from paintings to colourful homeware—I settle for a coaster made from fabric-covered beer bottle caps.

 A smiling group of elementary school children proudly wear their school uniform, Kigali

My final and favourite stop is Nyamirambo Women’s Centre, an NGO launched by 18 Rwandan women in 2007. The aim of the project is to empower women by providing them with training, education and a source of income. It’s expanded to fill several buildings. There’s a library of donated books for local women learning to read and write, and in the beautiful boutique, shelves heaving with colourful children’s clothes, stuffed toys made from brightly-printed fabric and woven bowls in eye-wateringly bright hues. Next door, local women clatter away at sewing machines. Nadége, the sales manager, tells me that visitors can now sign up for cookery classes, site tours and craft workshops. This centre is one of several businesses set up to help empower Rwandans. Another favourite is Kigali-based Question Coffee, where coffee is made with beans grown on cooperatives run predominantly by female growers.

As I head to the airport, moto-taxis (Rwanda’s main form of transport—there’s even an Uber-esque app for them) buzz past, local kids sashay down the streets in shirt-and-trouser combos sewn from colourfully printed swathes of kitenge (printed cotton fabric), and women catwalk to work in beautiful sarong-like mishanana. Suddenly, the onesie I’d pack to wear on the flight back to London looks rather boring.