First thought when you hear Rwanda? Gorillas and genocide? I’m not sure what I was thinking when I stepped off the plane…desert? dirty? dangerous? Actually, it is lush, clean and safe with some of the best hotels I’ve ever experienced. What I’ve discovered is completely different than all my expectations.
Not least because of the fabulous job the government has done managing Covid. There are not many cases; there is lots of testing. Workers in tourism have received at least one shot of the vaccine with a second dose expected soon. Masks are mandatory indoors and outside in crowded spaces; fines are levied. Everyone I spoke with said they wore them as much for their community as for themselves.
This sense of community and shared destiny is never far from the surface. Perhaps it is the only way for the country to heal after the shocking 3 months of horror that left over a million people brutally murdered when the government of the day ordered the slaughter of all Tutsi and moderate Hutus. The largest memorial, in Kigali, carefully documents the history of the country as it lead up to the events of spring 1994, what actually happened and how the country has recovered. Visiting is an emotional experience but it really helps in understanding the country of today and its incredible progress.
A few fun facts… Rwanda is small, about the same size as Albania. It’s land locked and high up. I’ve noticed the altitude. It makes trekking more challenging but keeps things cool. You’ll need a jacket even this close to the equator. There is almost no corruption. Women out-number men in Parliament. English is widely spoken & taught in school. Plastic bags are banned. The coffee regularly wins awards.
Kigali is the capital (since independence from Belgium in 1962). It deserves to be more than a one night stop en route to gorillas. The city is surprisingly sophisticated with a remarkable art scene and fabulous restaurants. A foody destination. The streets are spotless, the shopping great, the people fashionable. I felt dowdy in my safari style.
Safari is what most expect when planning a trip to Africa. Did you know Rwanda has lions, rhinos, elephants, leopards, buffalo and giraffe? I did not. Turns out, it is a great place to see the Big Five. Akagera National Park was founded in 1934 by the occupying Belgian government to preserve its biodiversity. This huge park, to the east, was almost destroyed after the genocide when returning Rwandans killed many of the animals and started farming the land. In 2010 the Park was restored and missing animals reintroduced. Conservation is huge in Rwanda and strongly supported by the government.
Primates are still the big deal. And yes, I am getting to the gorillas. But first, there are also 13 primate species, including colonies of chimpanzees, in Nyungwe Forest Park one of the best preserved rainforests in Africa. Poaching was a problem here too.
As it was in Volcanoes National Park where Dian Fossey did her research. It is the home of the rare Mountain gorillas that Rwanda is most famous for. The government continues its huge efforts to protect the gorillas & their habitat. The most successful way is by ensuring the entire community benefits from tourism and the incomes that trekkers bring. There is now more to be gains from conserving the gorillas. And other wildlife. A portion of the permit fee goes directly to help locals, ex poachers now track the gorillas for tourists who also support employment in hotels and restaurants. The gorilla population has been slowly growing. There are now about 1000. The opportunity to see these majestic animals is life changing.
So much more than gorillas and genocide, I am completely wowed by Rwanda. You will be too.