Rebirth of Rwanda – a renaissance story.
Like many people, I knew very little about Rwanda, other than the terrible events that happened here in 1994.
It’s interesting to me how many people still believe Rwanda is a dangerous place…26 years after the genocide. The Rwandan genocide, though devastating in the loss of lives (an estimated one-million Tutsis), lasted only 100 days.
In the 26 years since, Rwanda has had a renaissance. It hasn’t been easy and it hasn’t been perfect. Following the brutal civil unrest that began on April 7, 1994 and ended three months later, Rwanda struggled to put itself back together.
Government was in disarray (both the President and Prime Minister had been murdered), infrastructure was not in place to handle the hundreds of thousands of children and adults misplaced, orphaned, and suffering both physical and mental trauma. I can only imagine the chaos.
Today Rwanda shows few immediate scars from the horrible events of that spring in 1994, and tourism is on the uptick. It’s inexpensive and friendly and fascinating. Many people come to see the gorillas but we came to just see a wee bit of Rwanda as our final stop in our three-month tour of East Africa.
A brief history lesson. It’s complicated but here is a simple synopsis (learn more here);
The Belgians began issuing ID cards to all Rwandans over the age of 10 in 1932-1933. These ID cards, the first Rwandans ever had, showed which tribe they belonged to, Hutu, Tutsi, Twa, or Naturalist. In 1962 Rwanda gained independence but class structure continued to cause conflict. In 1994 President Juvénal Habyarimana was Hutu but he was a moderate Hutu, and class system favoring the Tutsis remained. A faction of Hutu was quietly rising up and this faction was extreme. For months they planned a type of coup.
On the evening of April 6th, a plane carrying the President and several of his advisors as well as the President of Burundi was shot down on approach to Kigali airport. It is still unknown who shot the plane down with a surface to air missile. Scenarios speculate it was shot down by the Hutu extremists who then blamed the Tutsis in an effort to incite the genocide. Another scenario is that the Rwandan Patriotic Front led by Paul Kagame was responsible in an effort to eliminate the old regime.
On the morning of April 7th the killing began. Hutus began massacring men, women and children, using the tribal identity cards to choose who lived and who died. Hutus also killed moderate Hutus and forced moderate Hutus to murder their own Tutsi neighbors or they would be killed. Belgium had a peacekeepers force in place, who tried to protect the Prime Minister, but all 12 of the Belgian peacekeepers were killed along with the Prime Minister and her husband. The United Nations was totally unprepared for the magnitude of the killing spree and no other country came forward to assist.
Meanwhile one million people were killed before the insurgent RFP army led by Tutsi Paul Kagame (who later went on to become President in 2000) took control of the bloody war.
Today in Kigali
Today President Kagame is leading the country forward with a focus on technology and tourism as well as other industries. There is construction everywhere, even though the majority of the Rwandan population remains agrarian.
A visit to Kigali is a must to see the Kigali Genocide Memorial and the Belgian Peacekeepers Memorial. Both are worth a visit and give a truthful albeit painful chronology of what happened to the beautiful people of Rwanda during the genocide. You can also stop by the Hotel des Mille Collines, also known as Hotel Rwanda.
There is another museum, newly opened that we did not visit called the Campaign Against Genocide. This museum explains how the insurgents took the country back. We are sorry we did not get to see this one.
Seeing gorillas (and chimpanzees) is the biggest tourist draw in Rwanda, but since we had already done that we chose to spend four days on Lake Kivu, about a four hour drive from Kigali. The town of Gisenyi sits right on the border of the Democratic Republic of Congo. Congo is a country currently in turmoil and we had no interest going there. But the people of Gisenyi and its Congolese sister town of Gomo pass back and forth over the border with ease.
During our short visit we enjoyed a lovely boat tour of the lake to see the many islands in this gigantic lake ( maximum depth of 475 m (1,558 ft) and is 90km long (56 miles) and 50km wide (31 miles)) as well as to see the fishing industry, hot springs, busy market place and to get a good look at the DRC from the water side. Lake Kivu has methane gas from surrounding volcanoes that Rwanda is attempting to harness for electricity.
On our second day we had a wonderful 18 km day hike (one way with a return by boat) with a guide along the Congo Nile Trail. The trail goes 227 km along the east side of Lake Kivu, which marks the divide between the Congo drainage basin and the Nile drainage basin. This is probably our favorite thing we did in Rwanda. It’s a tough hike, even just doing the 18 km (you can walk the entire 227 km) but it provides beautiful views of the lake, lots of bird watching and opportunities to learn about agriculture of Rwanda (particularly the coffee). But our favorite thing was all the kids we met along the route, most going to and from school from their rural mountain villages. We passed a primary school and all the kids were out in the courtyard and they ran out into the dusty dirt road to hug us. They call us muzunga (pale skin) and are genuinely happy to see us.
Both of our tours in the Lake Kivu region we did with Ames Tours. I highly recommend them.
One of the most astonishing things we learned about the people of Rwanda is regarding the monthly celebration of Umuganda, which roughly translates to community day.
On the last Saturday of EVERY month, from 8am – 11am in the morning, all adult citizens are required to participate in Umuganda. We had not been made aware of Umuganda, and stepped outside at 9am on Saturday morning to an absolute ghost town – no cars, no taxis, no motos, no people, no shops open…not even a dog or cat. It was eerie. We then learned about Umuganda. Police patrol the main streets because no one is supposed to be driving. Everyone should be in their village and neighborhood helping each other.
Community projects are undertaken through out the entire country on Umuganda. It might be helping someone whose home is in need of repair. It might be clearing a field or repairing a bridge. It might be just families working together to build or harvest. It might be adding a room onto the school or building an entire road. It’s an age-old tradition in this country, fully supported by the people, mandated by the government and a bit shocking for an unprepared visitor.
In the 110 countries I have been to, I’ve never seen anything like it. I can’t begin to imagine something like this in my home country of the United States. Selfless, productive, loving and revered. Wow.
Rwanda is tiny, about the size of the state of Maryland. It has endured a great deal. Our short visit to Rwanda was very eye-opening. We met some wonderfully kind and proud people. The population has few elderly, both due to the genocide and the difficult agrarian lifestyle. But I am convinced I have never met a harder working population than Rwanda. Everyone is working – man, woman, and child. The Tutsi are in charge of the government now, and big efforts continue for all people whether Tutsi or Hutu to live together as Rwandans. Rwandan proud. Rebirth of Rwanda, a renaissance story.
We wish them continued success.
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Absolutely inspiring story – to see how they have come back over the years is amazing and I think the world should hear more stories like this to encourage us to support these communities.March 15, 2020 at 2:39 am
Thank you FaithMarch 15, 2020 at 4:21 am
The history of Rwanda is so heartbreaking. I’ve always had a hard time wrapping my head around killing just because someone is from a different tribe or ethnic group, but we see it happen over and over around the world. Thank you for sharing this story. Our church in Phoenix Arizona has a child sponsorship program for children in Rwanda. Try to do their part to help. Umuganda sounds like a wonderful way to help heal the country. It would be amazing if this happened in the U.S. or anywhere. Even if it was only once or twice a year.March 15, 2020 at 7:58 am
I agree! Thanks so much.March 15, 2020 at 8:17 am
This was so interesting! I would love to go there, not only for the gorillas, but for the people. And Umuganda! What a fabulous concept. I wonder if they’d let you join in and help.March 13, 2021 at 10:53 am
It was a thrill of a lifetime!March 13, 2021 at 4:42 pm