Saturday, March 12, 2011

Travel TidBits: Rwanda - Along the road

Leaving Tanzania for Rwanda, Africa

Our wake-up call was at 3:15 am! We are leaving Arusha to fly to Nairobi and on to Kigali, the capital of Rwanda, and the only connection was at 6am! The Kilimanjaro Airport is about 45 minutes away and our taxi picks us up at 4am and we make it well in time for the first flight and uneventfully to our connection to Kigali via a stop in Berundi. Neither flight is full and we have the choice of window seats and see the landscape change form dry arid land to lush mountain terrain over Burundi. The mountains we see below are part of the volcano mountain chain that span Uganda in the north, The Democratic Republic of Congo in the West, Berundi in the south and Rwanda. The Vulcano National Park that we are visiting in Rwanda is part of a larger conservation area/National Parks, the Virunda Massive with 5 vulcanos administered by their respective countries: Uganda, Congo and Rwanda. It is the only place in the world where the mountain gorillas can be found in the wild. These parks have been formed in ~1935 and the gorillas have been studied first here by Dian Fossey who lived and researched the gorillas until her death in ~1985. She was a fierce defender of these magnificent animals, our very closest cousins with an overlap in DNA of about 98%. Her work and life has been documented in several books and the film: Gorillas in the Mist. Dian Fossey lived among the gorillas for 18 years and was the first to report on their behavior in the 1970ties. She fought hard to prevent pouching in the volcano parks in all three surrounding countries and she found her ultimate death at the hands of those who no longer supported her. She is buried in these mountains where she lived and worked next to her beloved gorilla “Digit”, the first to ‘accept her presence’ into the gorilla family. Today, one can trek up the mountains to visit her cabin and grave but it is a long hike in steep terrain.

We land in Kigali and are met by our driver Martin and Flavia, a representative of The Far Horizon tour company. A brief overview of our activities – and we are on our way. Our first impression of Kigali is that we have ‘come back into modern civilization’, the roads are paved, the cars are not all dilapidated, there are flowers and gardens. We learn that following 1994 Genocide, Rwanda has had a stable government that has turned the country around in the last 15 years. Reports of a recent international economic monetary fund surveying African countries state that Rwanda is the least corrupt country in East Africa. Martin tells us that there is emphasis on education with all children going to school and that almost all roads in Rwanda are paved – we welcome to learn this since we have 2-3 hours to drive to the Vulcano National Park and are still rattled from the dirt roads in Tanzania. Since this will be the only time in Kigali, we asked to visit the Rwanda Genocide Museum that was created in 2004 to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the mass murder event. As we tour the museum, we learn that the funds for this very impressive museum were donated to the country and that is was created by a group of people that also was instrumental in establishing the Holocaust museum in the Washington DC. We take an audio-guided tour to understand better the history of the country that was first colonized in the late 1900 by Germany and then Belgium and that much of the roots for the genocide were planted during those times. The Rwandan society included about 15 % Tutsies, 80 % Hutus and 5% Twa, a pygmy tribe. These groups – not really considered tribes - had lived in harmony throughout centuries but the Europeans were instrumental in initiating racial separation based on facial characteristics. Rwanda gained independence in 1964 and the ruling party was mainly Hutus. The minorities were suppressed; many Tutsies fled the country and found refuge in the neighboring Congo and Uganda. It is believed that the Rwandan government actively supported the eradication of Tutsies and that the radical elements were supplied by the government with weapons that ultimately were used against the Tutsies in a genocidal event starting on April 7th of 1994 and lasting for 3 months. Close to a million people were murdered in the most brutal way and the Tutsies were systematically eradicated while the world powers stood by without coming to the aid of the country. The Genocide memorial provides many more details leading up to the April 1994 events, personal accounts, and pictures of people murdered in the streets, their own houses, in churches using machetes and primitive tools of destruction. The museum ground also serves as a mass grave for about 200,000 remains of those who perished. A wall of names commemorates those who are buried here with more remains still being found and buried in these grounds. Learning about the genocide in so much detail gave us a somber start into our stay in this rather beautiful country. But we wanted to learn its history which ultimately may have lead to the success of the country as it is today.

As we left Kigali on our way to the Vulcano National Park near Ruhengeri on the northern border of Rwanda, we drove through hilly country side where agriculture flourishes. The hills and mountain sides are very steep and terraced, and reminded me of the terraced mountains in Bhutan. The soil here is dark and very fertile and due to the warm climate and 2 rainy seasons, some of the crops yield up to 3 harvests during the year, such as potatoes. Coffee and tea are grown for cash crops and export, as well as an unassuming daisy flower that provides pyrethrum extract used in anti-insecticides all over the world. The further we leave Kigali behind, the more rural the landscape becomes. This being a Friday afternoon, it appears that the whole population is on the road – no, not in cars but on foot and bicycle. Women carry heavy loads on their heads, most bicycles are not ridden but rather used to carry sacks of potatoes, coal, containers filled with water since the rural population does not have electricity nor running water. It is hard to imagine for us that every drop of water needs to be carried home. We see public water places and springs and they are surrounded by people with bright yellow water canisters. Not only are these carried home on bicycle, but also on the head of children!! At one point, we pass by a group of men carrying a stretcher with a man lying on it. Was he sick or injured and were they taking him to the next doctor or rural hospital – we will never know. We see mothers with their babies strapped to their back in a cloth, with baskets of vegetable on their heads, chatting with their fellow women and walking up the hills. At one point, we see a women with a mattress on her head! No wonder people here are all thin, walking to and fro all the time. It strikes me that although most men wear sandals or shoes, there are women walking along the road barefoot! Their clothes typically consists of colored cotton cloth as the kangas we have seen in so many African styles in Moshi. Shoulders and often the heads are covered with a matching cloth. Rwanda is 95% Roman Catholic and we see very few Muslim women in their much more conservative headscarves or black robes.

Along the road, women carrying heavy loads on their heads and
babies strapped to their back (last one)

When we drive through Ruhengeri, the 2nd largest town in Rwanda with about 500,000 inhabitants, it does not really look like a big town and resembles much more the small villages with their storefront houses and shops built of cinder blocks. Passing by the university and hospital let us get a glimpse of the more modern youth with Western closing and some carrying computers.

Outside town, we again see the small mud huts built of sticks and mud probably enclosing a single room. Children play on the doorsteps and along the streets, looking rather ragged and like dirty little urchins. They wave as we drive by although I am not sure if this is a greeting or a question for food and money! Beyond Ruhengeri, we climb steadily up until we reach several little villages surrounding the entry into the Vulcano National Park. On both sides of the paved 2 lane road, more people either climbing up the hill some pushing their bicycles, or walking down the hill with a bit more stride in their walk. The bicycles going down often carry at least one passenger, sometimes more! It is a colorful scene and I wished I could take more photos but out of the moving car, the images are blurry and only approximate an impression of the street life here. The street vendors and local small storefronts are frequented by many, men sitting on plastic chairs chatting, smoking and maybe having a beer. Occasionally, some goats are herded home. Friday night and it seems every one gas a place to go to.

Walking along the road – women with their toddler, one (with yellow cloth)
with an additional child on the back and heavy loads on their heads.

Mud Hut with clothes drying – along the road

Women with a sack of goods waiting for a ride?

Ruhengeri – Street scene on Friday afternoon

People walking on a side road – Kinigi, Rwanda

We reach the Gorilla Mountain View Lodge around 5pm and are welcomed here. The rooms are all individual huts with thatched roofs located in a large area with lush grass and bushes. I see several hydrangeas, the moist cool climate very suited for these flowers. Butterfly bush and other vegetation familiar from my Californian home greet us as we walk to our cabin #15. The Mt Gorilla Lodge is rustic place but the cabins are well appointed. We have a fireplace and upon our entering, there is a knock on the door and our ”fire attendant” lights a wood fire. The temperatures here in the Vulcano Park at 2300m (~7000ft) are cool and the thunder storm passing through with heavy downpour lower the temperatures even more. During our stay here we cherish the cooler climate up here. After dinner in the main dining room the friendly fire attendant comes again and lights the wood which goes out again during the night. But we are warm under a good blanket – supplied with a hot water bottle! - and we were so tired from our long travel day that we sink into the pillows for a good night’s sleep.

Gorillas – Painting at the Lodge