First impressions of Rwanda
09.11.2009 26 °C
Although physically the cycling is now not too bad... psychologically it's getting tough.... it's just difficult to keep going day after day...
Hitting deep sand, just as its getting really hot is really not too good for morale...
Anyhow we pushed on and came to a glorious sustained downhill which led us to this beautiful little river that we could rest by until late afternoon when the blistering heat starts to soften.
The river was also an excellent opportunity to wash the pound of red dust off that made us both look like we have been using too much fake tan!
Late afternoon came, we carried on, rejuvenated by the cool river water and the thought that tomorrow we would be finishing our 1200km off road section and be back of wonderful, beautiful tar!!
The following morning we were up early, almost as excited as if it were Christmas morning, just 10km later there it was; all our dreams come true, some ramshackled little guesthouses, homes and a few shops and that fantastic invention – TAAARRRMAAAC!
It was just how we remembered it: Flat, smooth and above all fast... it's amazing how the things that you take for granted in everyday life are so much more exciting when you've experienced life without them! A hot shower, water you can drink straight from the tap, (for that matter a tap!) a bar of Cadburys Dairy Milk chocolate, electricity... and all those things were awaiting and beckoning us towards Rwanda.
Even with Tar, hills are hills and huge hills are huge hills and as we approached the Rwandan border we started to realise why it is called 'Land of a Thousand Hills'. Fortunately God had pity on little Rob and Polly struggling up the hills and sent a UN convoy of armoured cars, tanks, and trucks loaded on the back of huge slow lorries. As they trundeled past us we tried to grab hold, we missed the first couple but the drivers soon saw what we were trying to do so graciously slowed down just enough so we could catch the rear bracket and then they were off again... with us attached!
Of course we let go at the top of the hills, as we were far faster than the lorries going downhill!
Soon the GPS was beeping at us to let us know were were a few km from the Rwandan border.
And then we saw it, the beautiful River Kagera, Tanzania to the south, Rwanda to the north.
Crossing the border was a joy, the normal shady characters hassling and changing money were instead well dressed, hospitable and polite (but did still try to give us a terrible exchange rate!)
“Rwanda is spectacular to behold. Throughout it's center, a winding succession of steep, tightly terraced sloped radiates out from small roadside settlements and solitary compounds. Gashes of red clay and black loam mark fresh hoe work; eucalyptus trees flash silver against brilliant green tea plantations; banana trees are everywhere. On the theme of hills, Rwanda produces countless variations: jagged rain forests, round shouldered buttes, undulating moors, broad swells of savanna, volcanic peaks sharp as filed teeth. During the rainy season, the clouds are huge, low and fast, mists cling to the highland hollows, lightening flickers through the nights, and during the day the land is lustrous.” (Philip Gourevitch)
Once over the border and cycling again, it was as if we had crossed into a different continent rather than a different country. In comparison to Tanzania where you would see a small village every 20km or so in Rwanda there were people everywhere.
Every square inch of the steep sided hills were inhabited and intensively cultivated. As we greeted people in English/French/Swahili/Zulu they looked at us blankly (we were going to have to learn some Kinyarwandan).
Seeing the men working the fields, pounding maze to make flour and chopping the banana palms, we couldn't help our minds drifting back to the Genocide of 1994 when 1million of the 8 million inhabitants were massacred over 100 days by their neighbours using these same hoes, clubs and machetes.
As dusk approached we started to look for a place to stay (there wouldn't be the possibility of wild camping here). The little houses became closer to one another and we realised we were in a village. Stopping to ask if they knew of a place to stay we were immediately surrounded by a group of 50 people, looking at us both bemused and amused! Soon the villager who could speak English was summoned – Laurent was very helpful and we were welcomed into a small guesthouse and bar with no sign to distinguish it from the neighbour's home. Although everyone was exceptionally friendly we both slept badly thanks to some very persistent mosquitoes, eery night-time noises and dreams of people being massacred in the courtyard outside our bedroom. (maybe we've been on larium too long)
Laurent and our host after our first night in Rwanda
Bleary eyed we pushed on, motivated by the possibility of a night in crisp white sheets in Kigali. However 60km before Kigali we hit Kayanza, a nice little town with a beautiful lake and guesthouse. This guesthouse had everything we had dreamed of and more, HOT running water, electricity, clean linen and a beautiful view!
While in Kayonza we got chatting to a smartly dressed young man who was picking up some racing bikers in full kit.
Simon Peter had lost his entire family in the genocide and was living on the streets in Kigali when he was taken in by a young man and taken along to church. Since becoming a Christian he has managed to forgive those who he saw brutally kill his family and is now working with a charity giving hope to other street children. Meeting him was such an inspiration and helped calm our bad dreams and reinforce the sense that this is a hopeful country, that forgiveness and reconciliation are possible and the future is from bleak.
We found it difficult to prise ourselves away from the luxury of Seeds of Peace and the friendly birdlife but we did eventually manage to get our bums back on the bikes and get to Kigali.
Our new friend Simon Peter had recommended a place to stay in Kigali run by an American missionary organisation that he works with, on our arrival we were befriended by Rhonda, A middle aged American in Rwanda to facilitate the adoption of Rwandan orphans into American homes. She immediately befriended us and the following day took us on a tour of town.
After a morning of peaceful luxury drinking coffee and buying 'essentials' like jam and chocolate we were jarred out of our little western bubble and confronted with a frightening image of Rwanda, of feelings that remain so raw and a peace that is so fragile.
Driving ahead of us in the rush hour traffic was the truck in the photo above. The men are convicted genocidaires. They are dressed in pink to remind them and onlookers how the water ran pink with blood during those 100 days of terror. As we watched them they tried to catch our attention, winking, smiling, waving. Not wanting to encourage their jovial behaviour we tried to ignore them.
We then stopped at some traffic lights. That moment a minibus pulled up next to us. A thick-set black man in his late thirties sat a few rows back in the bus with a look of such intense hatred frozen on his face. He glared at the genocidaires, not blinking, not moving for 2 or 3 minutes while we waited for the lights to change. The hatred was so charged I half expected him to break out the side of the bus and attack the men.
The lights changed. We followed the truck left as the minibus headed straight on – the man still fixing the convicts with his stare. We passed a crowd of young men on the pavement and were horrified to see one of them give the prisoners the 'thumbs up' seeming to respect and show appreciation for what they stood for. The murderers smiled and acknowledged the young man with a nod of the head.
As we cycle around Rwanda we don't go far before passing a mass grave, and there is no doubt that most of the people we pass either witnessed or committed horrific things in 1994, and yet life carries on, and the people you talk to are normal and in fact very friendly individuals.
After the genoside there were 120 000 prisoners in jails only designed to hold 40 000, in some prisons people slept at night criss crossed ontop of each other. It was predicted that even with a fully functioning judicial system (most judges, lawyers and clerks had either been killed or were instrumental in the killing so have fled the country) it would take almost 200 years to process all the cases.
In Janurary 2003 many of those prisoners started to be released. The President had passed a decree that any elderly, sick or lower-level killers who had confessed their crimes could be released, they would then be tried in their own villages by their own elders, with the other villagers acting as witnesses in traditional 'Gacaca courts'. Billboards went up around the country “The Truth Heals”.
“If only there were evil people somewhere committing evil deeds and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts trough the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart.” Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn
Imagine yourself as a survivor, who lost most or all of your family, seeing your neighbors who killed your loved ones returning to their homes and intact families.
Desmond Tutu wrote; “There is no future without forgiveness” but imagine the reality of how difficult forgiving these people is. However, many (but by no means all) have asked for forgiveness and are trying to help the survivors in practical ways. Society seems to be rebuilding.
Of the countries we have passed through, Rwanda seems the most hopeful and progressive. It is a country that has plummed the depths of human depravity and now appears to be united behind a visionary and non corrupt Christian president (Paul Kigame – the leader of the rebel RPF army that invaded from Uganda and stopped the slaughter). If forgiveness and reconciliation can continue to free the hearts of individuals in Rwanda there is no doubt that it will prosper.