The red dusty earth stained my sandalled feet, as I walked down the path from the umudugudu. The term for village was one of a few words in the Kinyarwanda language that I managed to pick up in my four days here. As I walked along the path, people would pass me in the other direction. “Miruwe,” I would say, “Miruwe!” they would reply back.
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While the scars of the 1994 Rwandan genocide still run deep, the country has done a remarkable job of healing its wounds and is turning towards the future with a surprising measure of optimism. Many Rwandans sought refuge in Congo, Uganda and Tanzania during the war, and now, 17 years later, the government has taken significant measures to eliminate clashing tribal identities, including eliminating the mandatory ethnic identity card (identifying Tutsis from Hutus), and has successfully rallied the country under the unified Rwandan banner. In the hopes of stimulating its developing economy through ecotourism, the country is now also protecting its most vital natural resource – the mountain gorilla.
Anne and I arrived in Rwinkwavu on Monday morning, after deciding to stay in Kigali the night before. We were exhausted after our gorilla trek earlier on Sunday and decided instead to have a nice leisurely dinner in Kigali and a good sleep, then drive the remaining 2 hours southeast from Kigali the next morning to the place where she works.
After stocking up on groceries, and a few other bits and pieces, we were on our way to Rwinkwavu. We drove on a newly paved motorway for most of the distance, passing villages and farms along the way. The rolling hills gave way to pastures for cattle and goats to graze. Every kilometre or so, a little yellow box appeared at the side of the road, stamped with “Fibre Optic Cable”. As part of the investment in the national infrastructure, the Rwandan government has laid fibre optic cable around the entire country, but has yet to ‘flip the switch’.
As we got to Kabarondo, we turned off the main road onto a dirt side road, following the signs for “Rwinkwavu Hospital” and “Akagera Game Reserve, 10km” which were on the corner. I would be visiting the game reserve and national park later in the afternoon. As we drove down the bumpy dirt road the colour of paprika, children would emerge in their blue school uniforms walking home from school, and others would be working the hand-pump well to fetch water for their families. Just like we experienced in the north, the kids were super excited to see us, and would jump and up and down when we waved back at them.
We arrived in Rwinkwavu, a sprawling village where PIH has its project. (CLICK HERE to read more about the project, and CLICK HERE to read an inspiring story resulting from the intervention) The Rwinkwavu hospital, training centre and library are only part of the ongoing development to support and promote health in this poor rural district of around 150,000 people. Rwanda has one of the lowest incidences of HIV/AIDS in Africa, and due to its altitude also has a relatively low rate of malaria. As we turned off the dirt road onto a path heading up a hill, Anne pointed out Amahoro House – a centre where ex-pat and some local staff are housed and we could get meals. As I write this, I am sitting on the front porch of Amahoro house, which is perched mid-way up a hill, overlooking a sprawling savannah.
We drove into the little village to Anne’s home – known as ‘Gatoto’s House’. Anne shares the little yellow stone and concrete house with three housemates: Catherine and Celia, both American from Boston, and Sally from the UK. The house is in the middle of the ‘umudugudu’ – or village, about a 10 minute walk from the training centre. It was nice to be integrated into a neighbourhood. The four-room house has a detached annex with two more bedrooms, and a detached kitchen, bathing room and latrine in the backyard. Unlike many of the neighbours, Gatoto’s house has a refrigerator and gas stove. There is also running water, which is collected from the roof during rainstorms, and fed into a raised water tower at the side of the house. The backyard has a little fire pit, which we made use of on Tuesday night.
Electricity in the house is typically African (i.e. reliably unreliable), and it’s not unusual for just two or three of the rooms to have power, and the rest of the house to be out… or just the kitchen, or just the annex… or often none at all… no two days are the same, it’s always an adventure! The girls have made their home very much their own, by having curtains and pillows sewn by a local seamstress, planting flowers and grass in the front, and herbs and tomatoes in the back. Catherine has cleared a small plot of land behind the yard, and plans to plant lettuce, arugula, and other vegetables. A hammock is tied between the tree in the back, and a rafter from the kitchen. Since we had a driver to bring us back to Rwink, Anne also decided to purchase a mirror in Kigali, and it was placed in the back by the sink.
After bringing our bags into the house, and meeting the lovely 21-year old housekeeper, Jane, Anne left for work, and I was off with the driver to Akagera Game Reserve. Although the park is only 10km down the dirt road, it was about a one hour drive over a bumpy dirt road to get to the south gate. Square mud-brick homes lined the sides of the road, and women were working in the fields, many with babies swaddled to their backs, turning the soil and pulling weeds. The largest cash crop in Rwanda is bananas, and there are over 40 varieties that are cultivated here. A newer-introduced crop which has also taken off in this area is pineapple, and as we drove towards the park, we saw groves and groves of pineapples growing up the terraced hills.
Akagera National Park covers 1,200km in eastern Rwanda, against the Tanzanian border. Much of the savannah area of the park was settled in the late 1990s by former refugees returning after the end of the Rwandan Civil War. Due to land shortages, in 1997 the western boundary was regazetted and much of the land allocated as farms to returning refugees. The southern boundary used to be in Rwinkwavu, and is now further north. The park was reduced in size from over 2,500km to its current size. Although much of the best savannah grazing land is now outside the park boundaries, what remains of Akagera is some of the most diverse and scenic landscape in Africa.
I paid the admission to the park, and arranged for a boat safari on Lake Ihena, the eastern shore of which is on the Tanzanian border. As we pulled into the launch area, two baboons hopped out of the grass at the side of the road, and sat in the middle of the road. One eyed us carefully, then turned back to the leaves he was eating. A large swarm of Marabou storks were being fed scraps of fish from fishermen that were pulling in their catch. I boarded the boat, and pushed off shore.
Within two minutes, we had come upon our first group of hippopotamus, soaking just under the surface of the cool water with only their nostrils, eyes and ears poking out. A hippo’s skin is very sensitive to the sun, and so they stay cool by staying underwater or in mud during the hot daytime hours. To my surprize, I learned that the quiet, and seemingly shy hippopotamus, whose weight averages between 1.5 and 3 tonnes, is actually one of the most aggressive creatures in the world and is often regarded as one of the most dangerous animals in Africa.
As the boat crossed over to a small island in the middle of the lake, a number of birds appeared, including a black and white Pied Kingfisher, who watched us intently for a moment, then took off to fish. We cruised along the shore, and came upon a mother crocodile, protecting her nest of around 60 eggs. She was as still as a statue, but I could feel her eye on us at every moment. We continued along the shore of the island, and discovered a group of trees full of Darters and their nests. These large awkward birds would fly away from the boat as we approached, land on another branch, and take off as we got close again.
After our return, we drove away from the boat launch, and saw more baboons eating leaves in trees, and walking along the side of the road. We drove past a small herd of gazelles, including two males with the characteristic curly antlers. We returned to Rwinkwavu, through the rolling hills of terraced banana and pineapple plantations.
Anne was waiting for me when I got to the house, and we went to the training centre together to access the internet. She showed me around the square building built around a central garden, with a koi pond (filled with tadpoles, but no koi) in the middle. In one corner of the building was a large open-air porch with tables and chairs, overlooking the stunning vista over the valley. This is where I spent most of the next few days, working on school work, and letting the beauty of the landscape sink in.
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About two weeks ago, the kitchen at Gatoto’s house was broken into. After interrogating some of the local children, it came to be known that four – 11 year old boys had entered through the small window at the back, having stolen all the perishable food, and more importantly, the BBQ lighter which Anne had brought from the US to light the gas stove. Anne and her housemate approached the boys’ fathers, who were completely mortified at the situation – they eventually returned the BBQ lighter (albeit nearly empty of fuel), and one of the fathers said that he couldn’t sleep for three days until it was found. They came over to apologize, and during the conversation, Anne and her housemates invited the rest of the neighbours over to get to know them. So a small get-together was planned for Tuesday evening.
A case of Fanta and a case of Beer were ordered, and was delivered on the back of a bicycle that evening. As we were finishing our dinner, the neighbours started arriving. We brought everyone into the back yard, and handed out the beer and Fanta (the beer being infinitely more popular than the Fanta). I started working on building a fire in the fire pit, and one of the men took over. He put some logs together, blew on the fire, but not much happened so he walked away. I went back to the fire pit to try and get it going and Loralie, one of the local ladies shooed me away. She put some of the logs together, then asked for a machete. Hesitantly, we handed over our machete, and she proceeded to expertly make one of the logs into kindling. The fire was a roaring inferno in no time.
With about 20 of the neighbours sitting on our back step, drinking beer and staring blankly at us, it was time for a speech. Through an interpreter, Anne introduced herself to the group, and said that they were sorry they hadn’t had a chance to introduce themselves sooner, and that she was happy to be part of their neighbourhood. They then introduced me, as Anne’s friend visiting for four days from Canada. I said in my speech, “I want to thank you for including me in this get-together tonight, and that I am glad that my friends have such caring neighbours. Knowing that they are so far from home, and so far from their families, it makes me happy to know that they are welcome here.”.
One by one, the neighbours also spoke, welcoming them to the neighbourhood, and the village chief then stated that he would ensure the girls’ safety. Funny enough, almost everyone that spoke also invited me to return to Rwinkwavu, and to stay! One of the ladies then said that she was the neighbour directly across the street. Anne asked whether she had children, to which she replied she had four. Anne asked what their names are, and after the lady told her, Anne joked that she would have to write down the names, because she would never remember them.
Anne stated to the group, “We will have to come over to your house sometime, and you can teach us how to dance!” So some of the ladies, including Loralie then started clapping and singing, and the group started dancing. All in all, it was a fun night, filled with song, dance, beer, and a just a hint of awkwardness.
At the end of the evening, when it came time for people to head home, everyone came and shook our hands. Loralie, who by that time had had three beers (and probably a few more before coming over) plunked herself down, and refused to leave. When the village chief gently pressed her to leave, she didn’t want to. The chief said to her (as we later learned through the interpretor), that he had assured us of our safety, and that Loralie’s behaviour was not reflecting that promise he made. So she reluctantly left (though she was supported under both arms). Just before the festivities finished, the neighbour from across the street came back, and handed Anne a little note with her children’s names written on it.
As my time in Rwanda draws to a close, I realize now that I had fallen in love with this country, and its people. A country, who 17 years ago was realatively unknown to the greater world, then became the stop story on the nightly news through a series horrific events, has now emerged as a thriving and vibrant land, with poor but proud people who are working extremely hard to rebuild everything from its infrastructure to its mental health. The government recently decided to make English an official language alongside French and Kinyarwanda, and most of the children who attend school are now learning English.
It will be interesting to watch what happens over the next 5 to 10 years. The current president is overwhelmingly popular, and has done a lot of good for the country. I hope to return someday soon, and take the neighbours up on their suggestion.