To gaze on the landscape of Rwanda is, one might suppose, to see the world at its most tranquil. Dramatic storms may flash and echo across the many hills but it seems as if nothing human could disturb these steep banks of banana trees, the electric green expanses of tea plantations and the ramshackle cottages sprinkled throughout.
The reality is different. Since gaining independence from Belgium in 1962, Rwanda’s quiet progress has been studded with explosions of ethnically motivated violence. Hutu persecution of Tutsis surfaced at regular intervals culminating, in 1994, in the most rapid mass killing in recorded history. More than 800,000 individuals – about three-quarters of the Tutsi population – were killed in just 100 days.
Even 16 years later, such a blood-soaked history might seem to limit Rwanda’s potential as a tourist destination but the country’s stoic, dignified people are determined to move on. The villages, towns and countryside may be teeming with memorials to the dead but they all bear the same message: “Never again”. And tourists are coming back, tempted not just by the inspiring qualities of a nation determined to look to a united future, but by the richness of its attractions. This, after all, is a country that can bring you within touching distance of the endangered mountain gorilla and offer breathtaking vistas across the misty, oceanic expanse of Lake Kivu. Nyungwe, Africa’s largest mountainous rainforest, teems with 250 bird and 13 primate species while, to the east, visitors can spot lions, leopards, elephants and giraffes in Akagera National Park.
Rwanda can’t yet match the comparatively sumptuous surroundings of Kenya or Tanzania. Food here starts and often ends with the ubiquitous beef or goat brochette, though tilapia or Nile perch provide a welcome respite as one approaches the shores of Kivu. The capital, Kigali, can at first glance appear somewhat colourless, almost un-African, lacking baked red roads and incomprehensible chaos. Instead, there are signs of progress, such as wide, smooth tarmac, functioning traffic lights and a 24-hour shopping centre.
Once again, though, appearances can be deceptive. Just 20 minutes from Kigali’s centre is Nyamirambo, one of the oldest parts of the city, where the Indians and Arabs established trading posts, and where east Africa meets west. If Kigali is a city reaching for the stars then it is here, in this historic, cosmopolitan quarter, that it remains grounded.
It’s no surprise, then, that Nyamirambo was chosen by tour operator New Dawn Associates as the location for its “This is Africa” itinerary. New Dawn aims to uncover the “real Rwanda”, working alongside community projects that include a rural coffee collective and a refugee camp to ensure the profits of tourism reach the people who need it most. In the case of This is Africa, the guides are members of the Nyamirambo Women’s Centre, an association set up in 2007 to provide education and employment for local women. These are the women who will lead us through the neighbourhood, showing us their market and local businesses and concluding with a cookery lesson and home-cooked lunch.
We begin at the centre itself, where we meet Mary Nyangoma, a 35-year-old single mother of two. “When the group started we were just women helping each other,” she says, speaking English learnt here at the centre. “When one of us was sick, another would try to help. Even just talking about problems can make life easier.” Now, with funding from Europe, along with the proceeds from its association with New Dawn, the centre provides free lessons in English and literacy. Before we set off, Mary gives us a crash course in the Rwandese language, Kinyarwanda. “The people you’ll meet here won’t speak any English,” she says, laughing. We’ve barely set foot inside the market when we’re spotted by a group of children. They squeal mzungu (white person) and become our entourage, giggling whenever we catch their eye. I try out a Kinyarwanda greeting to an explosion of laughter.
From amid stalls laden with passion fruit, pumpkins and sweet potatoes, a stern-faced old woman blocks my path. “She says you have to take her picture,” says Mary. When I do, the stern face creases into a huge smile, and nearby stallholders whoop and cheer while my model poses. I’m beginning to wonder whether I’m the tourist or the attraction, but the laughter is infectious.
Next we visit Mary Dusingize, who runs a hair-braiding salon from her front room. After telling me how much she benefits from the centre, she offers to demonstrate her braiding skills on my hair. I make a hasty exit.
Finally we visit a local home to make posho, east African cornbread concocted from water and maize flour. The resulting white, jelly-like mass accompanies a feast of beans, plantain, cassava and groundnut sauce.
What resonates about the This is Africa tour isn’t the exotic bustle of a quarter that’s rarely visited by tourists or the heady smells of a neighbourhood market. Instead what lingers in the memory is the pride of Nyamirambo’s residents, the way a stern face cracks into a smile or a stranger welcomes you into their home. This is how we scratch beneath the surface of Rwanda: not through its landscape but through the dignity and warmth of its people.
New Dawn Associates: The ‘This is Africa’ tour costs $50-$60 per person, depending on group size. Of a $60 fee, $35 goes to the Nyamirambo Women’s Centre. www.newdawnassociates.com
Advisory: The UK Foreign Office advises against travel to certain parts of Rwanda; see www.fco.gov.uk for details
Art of destruction
To gain a perspective on the events of 1994, most tourists visit Kigali’s excellent Genocide Memorial or the nearby Nyamata church, where, even today, the remains of thousands of bodies stand sentinel to the memory of the atrocities. Elsewhere, however, are mementoes of a different kind. Rwesero Palace, two hours from Kigali, is Rwanda’s foremost repository of contemporary art and, in addition to works stretching back to the 1920s, its bright, spacious rooms hold thought-provoking and inspiring responses to the genocide.
In Janvier Ndorimana’s “Scène Folle” (1999), a dark mix of teeth, eyes, machetes and disembodied limbs could depict the slaughter of Tutsis in their beds, but it could equally represent the nightmares of those who will never forget the events they witnessed. The two raw, elemental figures in Guy Karangwa’s “Dance Nocturne” (1998) are alive with menace, particularly when contrasted with the innocent pastoral scenes of Rwandese art pre-1994. While some more recent works can appear trite in comparison, others communicate the spirit of reconciliation that inspires modern Rwanda. A sculpture of an embrace shrouded in grief, “Meeting Again” (2009) by Jules Hagumimana, speaks of the survivors’ courage, and a determination to rebuild, but never forget.
Rwesero Palace Art Museum, Nyanza, www.museum.gov.rw