Visiting Rwanda was a big deal for me. Ever since watching “Hotel Rwanda” years ago, I developed a strange fascination with the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. Most people probably stopped at watching the film. I began to read numerous books on the topic, such as “We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will be Killed With Our Families: Stories from Rwanda” and “Shaking Hands with the Devil” by Romeo Dallaire, who headed UNAMIR in Rwanda during the genocide. Maybe it is simply a fascination with how cruel humanity can be. I have followed topics such as the North Korean dictatorship, the Pol Pot regime in Cambodia, and various brutal dictatorships as Mobutu Seke in neighboring Zaire.
After reading so many accounts of what happened in those three months in 1994, I felt a certain need to go to Rwanda and see some of those places to somehow make a physical connection. As part of a journey across Ethiopia, Uganda and Rwanda, I made the trip.
The first problem with visiting Rwanda is that Kigali’s International Airport has very few international flights. Most trips from North America would require two stops. Luckily, I built an itinerary from JFK going to Addis Ababa, then flying from Addis Ababa after my Ethiopia trip on Ethiopian Airlines, and departing via Turkish Airlines with a non-plane change stop in Entebbe and then a layover in Istanbul. Turkish Airlines is consistently the best option to get to Rwanda from North America.
I have not just read about the genocide in Rwanda. I also have read a lot about what has been done in Rwanda to re-built its society and infrastructure from scratch and the good and maybe bad of what Rwanda has turned into. The first sign of that is at the newer-looking airport, where the lack of flights means a pretty quick turnaround at the Visa encounter (I had mine within a few minutes and they even take credit cards!) and before I knew it, I was on my way at the Golf Hill Residence in Nyumarata, a neighborhood popular with expatriates, embassies and so on.
The Golf Hill Residence was not my first choice by any measure, but Kigali hotels are ridiculously expensive. Compared to Addis Ababa or Nairobi or Cape Town, $100USD does not get you a smart hotel. $250-300 does. As my budget is not quite that high, I went for the far more economic Golf Hill Residence.
There are a few ways I found you could explore Kigali. The city is hill after hill, so short walks are fine but longer ones wore me out. There are motorbike taxis which are inexpensive and fun. Regular taxis may or may not try to rip you off, and unfortunately, I didn’t find these easily available on the street everywhere, so I split my time between the above modes of transport and a driver, Faustin, arranged by my hotel. Given that it wasn’t peak season, he charged about $60USD per day and worked hard.
Kigali Genocide Memorial
250,000 bodies are buried under this memorial site in a giant mass grave. Some of the skulls and bones are displayed in a central room in the museum. The memorial is free, but of course it is nice to donate something for it. I opted for the audio guide but sort of wished I hadn’t. It costs $15USD and doesn’t have headphones, so you are trying to prop it up to your ear and it makes a racket inside.
To begin with, visitors watch an introductory video with some of the survivors discussing their experience and life afterward. The museum is then chronologically-ordered to discuss the historic Hutu and Tutsi division under colonial rule, the first killings in pre-independence and eventually the 70’s, 80’s and 1990, because the 1994 genocide was not the first Tutsi killing. There are some horrifying videos of what happened in 1994 – but not a lot. I guess it is not a surprise that with almost all foreigners gone, video cameras were unlikely to be floating around and people were unlikely to venture into the street to videotape the Interhamwe butchering people. Maybe it’s for the best – I don’t know if I would want to sit through that footage.
The museum also goes into great detail about reconciliation and rebuilding. There is a strong rebuke about France’s role in arming the Interhamwe and trying to keep the genocidal regime in power for the sake of Francophonie.
Hotel des Mis Collines
I suspect everyone who has seen Hotel Rwanda makes a trip to Hotel des Mis Collines. I took my own trip there to spend a couple of hours and grab lunch by it’s famous poolside, where white people can be found sunbathing and drinking. The hotel is under new management now and definitely exudes luxury and being the oasis. It was a nice place to stop for lunch and it looks like a great place to stay but far removed from the history the precedes it, and guess what – that is probably for the best.
For a really amazing view of the city, take the elevator up to the Ubumwe Hotel close by the Mis Collines (a couple of photos above). The 360 views stretch all across the top floor, which houses a restaurant, bar and pool. No one will bother you if you want to just pop up to see the view and take a few photos.
I am not usually a big shopper, but on occasion, I like to go hunting for local crafts that are hard to find (or hard to find for a decent price) at home. For this, I arrived at Caplaki Market, a courtyard market of more than 30 different handicraft stalls. I was on the hunt for good masks, particularly from the area more than the typical Masai style you tend to find across East Africa. Ethiopia was a shopping bust – the handicrafts I found were limited in selection, usually very poor-quality and often extremely overpriced, so Caplaki was exactly what I wanted. You have some stalls that have more generic items – the typical wooden giraffes, elephants, etc…and some with some very nice masks. The challenge is that as the only visitor to the market at that point, every vendor beckoned me in and I had to make my rounds to see everything. The other challenge – prices!!! Sometimes the rule of thumb is is to get back to about 50% of the asking price. Not at Caplaki! Reasonable prices for the items probably hover around 25-30% of the asking price, most likely even less. One vendor wanted 100,000 Rwandan Francs for a larger size mask – almost $130USD. I had to bargain him down to 30,000RWF, which is far more than fair, even in an expensive country like Rwanda.
The transportation hub at Nyabugogo is a great way to see how this seemingly spread-out, quiet city can be chaotic like any other. Besides being the main spot for catching buses out of the city (I strongly recommend Modern Coast if you are heading up to Uganda vs. companies like Trinity), the place is littered with money changers, moto taxis, regular taxis and random shops.
I only spent three days in Rwanda, and I dedicated one of those days to visiting the genocide memorials at the churches of Nyamata and Ntarama.
There are two churches that sit close outside of Kigali and both are known for the mass massacres of Tutsis who hid in these churches, hoping to use them as sanctuary. Both are now simply memorials.
Nyamata’s Genocide Memorial looks like any other unassuming church, but as soon as you come close, you witness remnants of what happened here. The original front door, eventually destroyed by enough grenade and gunfire to be opened, is kept behind the modern front door. Bullet holes are all over the walls and ceiling. The walls and columns are still stained with blood, and most notably, the clothing of those massacred has been left in small stacks as the biggest memorial.
For the faint of heart, I do not recommend descending into the crypts behind the church. Piles of skulls and other bones are left out in the open around a tiny corridor. Needless to say, I made my exit pretty quickly from the crypt. Many of the skulls bear the marks of machete and other wounds.
Nyamata and Ntarama’s Genocide Church Memorials are close by each other, but each offers a different horror story behind those massacred at the church. At first appearance, Ntarama looks like a more well-kept church than Nyamata. The mass burial mount site is still a work in progress, and there are gardens behind the memorial site. Just like Nyamata, a guide is on hand to tell the story at Ntarama. A set of skulls and bones are on display inside the main church building, but mostly it was full of coffins.
The more horrifying elements are outside of the main church building. Kerosene was poured on the small kitchen building and the building was lit on fire by the Interhamwe before they finally collapsed the back wall. The Sunday School is particularly heartbreaking. Children, hiding in the school, were smashed against the back wall, where the bloodstains are still present. Messages of hope and peace mark the school now.
Kigali, the End
To be totally honest, I like many things about Kigali. It is a remarkably easy city to deal with, either on foot, in taxis or with a driver. I felt completely safe going pretty much anywhere, even wandering around the bus station by myself. The history is dear to my heart, but I also had to accept that 1994 was 23 years ago, and the beauty is that the country is not stuck where it was – it has re-built not just its society, but also a lot of the infrastructure. Kigali is incredibly clean and organized. A lot of the past is in the past – survivors of the genocide may be willing to talk about their experiences, but I did not find it appropriate to really dig at the topic too much unless it was brought up. So, overall, the history of what happened is now primarily left to some different memorials across the country.
The flip side – Kigali is not a terribly interesting city, and I doubt that tourism is going to become a huge industry simply because the feedback on a lot of the country’s non-Gorilla attractions, such as Lake Kivu and the other national park, are not terribly great. Most visitors are likely to be on business. I would love to return to spend more time some of the wonderful social projects, with Azizi providing hands-on experiences for visitors who want some immersion into traditional industries.
I would say one day is enough to catch some of the major points of interest such as the Genocide Memorial, the Hotel des Milles Collines, and take some time to drive and walk through to see what the city is like. A second day is ideal for Ntarama, Nyamata, and seeing a bit of rural life outside of the city. Outside of that, because it is not a chaotic city, it is a pretty peaceful place to relax on a terrace or balcony and grab a coffee or maybe a banana beer and watch the world go by. I highly recommend Brioche in Nyutarama for some delicious French pastries, small plates (quiches, baguette sandwiches, etc.) and wonderful coffees, not to mention a great vantage point.
Solo Traveler Comments:
- Extremely Safe
- Clean, non-chaotic city that is less stressful
- Some very unique memorials
- Plenty of convenience (grocery stores, cafes, etc.)
- Very Expensive Accommodation
- Limited airline connections
- Limited things to do
- Gorilla trekking is far more expensive than Uganda (and DRC)
- The cost of food and transportation are competitive with nearby countries