A Travellerspoint blog


Life on a hill far away

sunny 24 °C


We hit Rwanda at the perfect time.
The rains are just starting when we arrived - so we can hide in our nice dry house, rather than in our leaky tent. Last night it rained so hard all night that I couldn't sleep, thinking that our house was going to slide down the hill. Then this morning the first patient I saw broke his arm as his house did fall down in the rain overnight!


More importantly the country has just pulled itself out of one of the bloodiest civil wars in history and is making a huge effort to rebuild itself. There is such an incredible welcoming and positive vibe – even the genocidaires out and about working in padi fields and on building projects seem friendly! (genocidaires in pink, regular convicts in orange)

In addition Rwanda is changing from being Francophone to Anglophone. The Country joined the English speaking East African Community recently and The Commonwealth last week. The government has made a decree that all educated people should learn English over the next 3yrs, so there is a huge need for English teachers and the students are incredibly enthusiastic and excited to be taught by someone who's mother tongue is English.


Polly is a qualified 'English as a Foreign Language' teacher and has been loving teaching the teachers at the local 2ndry school, the hospital staff and some domestic staff. She is also home schooling the missionaries kids and trying to broaden the repertoire of the “English Choir” - which actually isn't very English and isn't very choir-like!!


Rob has been working in the hospital. Which has been a very positive experience.

Rob: The first thing that hit me as I walked through the wards is that there are empty beds and very few patients with HIV and TB. The Hospital I worked at in South Africa served a population half the size of Shyira's yet was probably 4x as busy. In SA HIV, TB and drug Resistant TB are spiralling out of control. The HIV problem seems to have been tackled aggressively by the Government here and, unlike SA, no sex before marriage and monogamous relationships seem the norm rather than the exception, consequently the prevalence of HIV here is 15x less than SA. Despite having a far lower GDP Rwanda has a better selection of Antiretroviral Drugs and people are started on treatment far earlier than SA which is great at both prolonging life for the HIV patients and preventing transmission (once someone is on Antiretrovirals they are far less contagious).


Of course another explanation of why Shyira is less busy is that it is perched upon a rather steep hill, there are no tarred roads for miles, no public transport to speak of and the ambulance service consists of a very bumpy, precarious ride in a wicker stretcher on the shoulders some of the local men up and down precipitous slopes, for a fee!

With the lack of HIV work here, the medicine has been rather more traditional 'Bush Dr' than it was in SA. With the patients presenting with surgical rather than medical problems. There are lots of conditions that are so easily preventable with better infrastucture and access to healthcare.


What happens if you wait 2 months before going to the doctor with an infected finger..

Shyira also supports 11 heath centres, each of these have full time staff but also need regular visits from the doctor. My clinic is called Jomba – meaning mountain, and for good reason. The hike is uphill all the way and takes 1 ½ hours if you are fit (as all Rwandans are!). The path ascends 850 vertical meters! It is the highlight of my week. Every Friday, leaving the hospital in the early morning mist and then an hour later looking out over the blanket of cloud to the volcanoes in the distance (but still only half way to clinic!):


Paediactrics is very different to what I am used to, HIV is vanishingly rare. Malnutrition, malaria, diarrhoea are the common killers – subsistence lifestyle is tough even when you live somewhere as lush and fertile as Rwanda. I always used to think that a life with no cars, no bills to pay, and no tesco – where all you have to worry about is growing enough food for the family and a little for market would be great, but here I see it is not as stress free as I once thought.

Of course, working in a resource poor country, it is easy to find areas in which with a little training and a small amount of cash mortality can be decreased. Rob had wanted to identify one such area that he could work on during our 3 months. And he found it – improving children's care by starting up a paediatric 'Critical Care Area'. This area would house seriously ill children and ensure the basics were done well and that oxygen could be administered – currently Shyira cannot supply oxygen to critically ill patients even though it owns 3 functional oxygen concentrators! The problem is that the solar electricity is only available in theatre (O.R.) and the admin block. This is now being routed down to a bay in the paeds ward which will allow this live saving gas to save lives – the little bay will be repainted, supplied with some basic equipment and called 'Paed Critical Care'!


As we are now stationary for a few months it gives a chance for visitors. Our first visitors arrived less than 24hrs after us. Chris and Jigs, great friends from SA, who have been travelling on a dirt bike and making small promo films for charities that need publicity – check out www.africauncut.co.za.

It was so fun to catch up and compare notes and get tips for our northward route especially as next week we will be back on the road and heading towards Uganda with our new friend Miriam and Pol's sister Beth!

Posted by robandpol 01:37 Archived in Rwanda Tagged bicycle Comments (2)

Christmas in Rwanda

a little different to at home!

overcast 23 °C

Christmas in Africa is so refreshing as the pressure to go out present buying weeks and months in advance just isn't there. However we were reminded that Christmas was just around the corner with the arrival of Stina and Jon, (Rob's sister and brother in law) bearing gifts and delicious Christmas cake that Sti had been 'feeding' with sherry over the last few months - one of the more discreet ways to get alcohol onto Shyira hill!


With a couple of days to go before the big day we thought we'd better get out and do some Christmas shopping. There's not too much choice as it seems there is only a market for the bare essentials of Rwandan life and seeing as our parents wouldn't be very happy with a bag of beans or some fresh veg, we put our thinking caps on and went for a walk for inspiration... and it came:

Rwandan coffee

Rwandan Tea

and beautiful handmade pots made by a local pygmy lady.

We went on an early morning walk up the mountain to Jomba on christmas eve. It was a cold morning and the morning mists shrouded the view for most of the way. Everyone we met was full of the joys; greeting us animatedly and wishing us a happy christmas. The phrase quickly stuck and we were soon able to return the greeting. By the time we reached the top the mists had evaporated and we spent a while absorbing the views.

Back down on Shyira hill we had to turn our thoughts to Christmas dinner. Our neighbours, the Kings, managed to get their hands on a turkey – lucky them!


But we had to rely on Jemima and Dafney who had become very friendly and trusting over the past few weeks. I have to say we did feel a bit bad as they allowed us to pick them up and they put up no resistance as Rob placed their head on the chopping board. We consoled ourselves knowing that they had a much better life and death than most turkeys back home!


Jemima and Dafney with Mr Duck in the good old days (ie before Christmas eve) Mr Duck still comes looking for his wives :(

In a society where everything usually stops as the sun goes down, and most people are fast asleep by 8.30pm it was a surprise to be woken at midnight by loud drumming which continued on until dawn. It is a Rwandan tradition to anticipate the arrival of an important chief by drumming through the night and clearly Jesus is regarded as such.

Church kicked off in style – incredible as many of the congregation had spent 4hrs in church on Christmas eve and many of the young men would have been drumming through the night. The huge church was jammed full but there was not a Christmas carol to be heard – more the atmosphere of a semi formal rave.

“Wow” shouted Rob “these people really are glad it's Christmas day” as the pastor in full white robes started showing the young'ns how to really move, while singing into a red megaphone as the sound system went on the blink again.

The church has many choirs and they all took their turn singing and dancing to varying degrees of perfection which meant a lot of sitting and listening for the non Choir members. I was joined by a lost looking little boy, thinning hair, round face, sad and expressionless, dry skin, pot belly and swollen ankles – all the classic signs of severe kwashiokor malnutrition. He simply climbed up on my lap and sat – it was impossible to get a smile out of him, his body had gone into shut down mode, any emotion - a waste of energy, even his pulse was slow.

Sitting there, not understanding a word of the service, guts rumbling, looking forward to the Christmas feast, Pol read a verse that hit home:

'Suppose a brother or sister has no clothes or food. Suppose one of you says to them, “Go. I hope everything turns out fine for you. Keep warm. Eat well.” And you do nothing about what they really need. Then what good have you done?
It is the same with faith. If it doesn't cause us do do something then it is dead.'

The little boy stared blankly as Pol read the verse.


Christmas in Africa is not without it's challenges.

Posted by robandpol 09:44 Archived in Rwanda Tagged bicycle Comments (3)

How to Plan an Epic African Bike Ride

Check out Travel Unravelled

sunny 24 °C

The Travellerspoint people asked us to write a couple of articles about planning a bike ride. Stuff like how to avoid getting trampled by elephants. Check them out at:


Posted by robandpol 10:06 Archived in Rwanda Tagged bicycle Comments (0)

Dust bowl (Kibondo) to Kigali (RWANDA!)

First impressions of Rwanda

storm 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...

refreshing river

refreshing river

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!

huge hills

huge hills

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.

rwanda/tanzania border

rwanda/tanzania 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)

1st night in rwanda

1st night in rwanda

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!

seeds of peace

seeds of peace

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.

friendly wildlife

friendly wildlife

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.

rwandan coffee

rwandan coffee

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.

mass grave - one of many

mass grave - one of many

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.

beautiful hills

beautiful hills

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.

Posted by robandpol 10:25 Archived in Rwanda Tagged bicycle Comments (4)

We're Famous! (well in South Wales anyway!)

rain 30 °C

Hi people.

Just spotted this article about us online - is quite fun - check it out.


Posted by robandpol 11:02 Archived in Rwanda Tagged bicycle Comments (1)

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