Although in 1994 the country suffered from war and genocide Rwanda is now the safest country in east Africa and I’m not exaggerating when I tell you that I often feel safer walking down the street at night in Kigali then I do in my hometown of Toronto.
Kigali was actually rated one of the cleanest cities in the world and it’s not hard to see why. The streets of Rwanda are spotless. You will not see any litter or trash on the road and one day every month Rwandans have Umuganda. A day when all of the shops are close and everyone performs community service, from fixing a neighbour’s fence to digging a ditch, to picking up trash or fixing the road.
3. Kind People
I know you can find this everywhere but I’ve found it to be especially true in Rwanda. If you need directions just ask anyone on the street, often people will take time out of their day to walk you to your destination and make sure you get where you are going. I’ve made so many close friends over the years in Rwanda, and I now consider some of these friends family.
4. Breathtaking landscapes
Everywhere you turn in this country you are faced with a picture perfect, breathtaking landscape. If only you could capture it’s beauty in a photograph, trust me. I’ve tried.
5. Discover coffee at it’s source
Rwanda’s hills are lush with vegetation, thanks to the volcanic soil and the large amounts of rainwater that falls here. Rwanda is filled with coffee plantations that you can visit and learn all about how coffee is made. I promise you will have a new appreciation for it once you realize how much work goes into a single cup.
6. Tea Tasting
Another main export of Rwanda is tea. As you drive through the countryside you will be struck by the vibrant green of the tea fields that span miles upon miles. If you pull over and ask politely you will often get a tour and a tasting, or you can schedule one in advance.
The food in Rwanda is so good. With a lot of new restaurants popping up every time I visit. You can find excellent Indian food, traditional Rwandan cuisine or five star dining. Whatever you fancy it’s available in Kigali.
Paved roads, traffic lights, movie theatres, cafes and even a bowling alley Kigali is a modern and vibrant city with so much to see and do.
Whether you are looking for live music, Karaoke, or a night club; Kigali has it all. A few good places to check out are
– Papyrus – Pronounced by locals as papa-ruus, with an amazing view of the city you can dance the night away at Papyrus. They offer some of the best DJs, great service and they have a fun and unpretentious atmosphere. They are located in the Kimihurura district of Kigali. If night life isn’t your thing and you fancy checking them out during the day or early evening they also have a restaurant and bakery.
–Car Wash – Yes, that’s right has some of the best Karaoke in the city. Cheap drinks, good food and a great vibe.
– Nyamirambo was voted one of the coolest neighbourhoods in Kigali and if you are looking for some wild night life just head over to that district and do some bar hopping. There are lots of options and the party usually doesn’t stop until the sun comes up.
10.The Startup and Tech Scene
Kigali is becoming a hub for startups and entrepreneurs. Stop by K-lab in the telecom building an open space for IT entrepreneurs to collaborate and innovate in Kigali, or innovation village above the Kigali public library a open space with movie nights and art exhibits, it’s also houses Shokola storytellers cafe. The coffee, banana bread and fresh juice are the perfect snack for a productive afternoon and the wifi is great.
Better known as Hotel Rwanda, was made famous by the movie. Although the details for the movie are a bit controversial in Rwanda. Paul Rusesabagina, played by Don Cheadle, is actually a persona non grata in Rwanda today and there is some controversy about how the events of this story actually unfolded. But, to this day the Mille Collins is a beautiful five star hotel and a popular hang out with expats on the weekends. On Sundays for about $20USD you can enjoy an all you can eat buffet and use the pool all day long. I treat myself to the Mille Collin about once a month when I’m in Rwanda but if you have a bigger budget you can also stay there. It’s in the centre of town and rooms start at about $190 USD per night. Book here
For those of you who didn’t know, Rwanda suffered a brutal genocide in 1994. 1 million people were slaughtered in 100 days. Since then Rwanda has made a remarkable recovery and this country has taught me more about forgiveness then I could have ever thought possible. To give you a little background into the history of the genocide. Hutus and Tustsi have lived side by side for many generations, Tustsi were the ruling class and were mostly cattle owners while Hutus were traditionally farmers. When the Belgians colonised Rwanda they started separating people by race and issuing identity or race cards. They put the minority Tutsi class in power and systematically oppressed the Hutus. When the Belgians left Rwanda they left power to the Hutus who then began oppressing the Tutsi class to get back at them for all the years of oppression that they had suffered under Belgian rule. There were many small genocides and killing campaigns that led to the big genocide in 1994 and many Tutsis fled the country during these campaigns and killing sprees. Paul Kagame (current president of Rwanda) and his family fled Rwanda when Paul was just a young boy. He grew up in a refugee camp in Uganda. Eventually Paul and other exiles started the RPF or Rwandan Patriotic front, an armed group who fought for refugees rights to return to Rwanda. The RPF invaded Rwanda in October of 1990 and this began the Rwandan civil war. Habyarimana’s government was one of hardline Hutu extremists who began planning the genocide shortly after. Eventually the Arusha Peace agreement was proposed as a power sharing option between the RPF and hardline Hutu Power government, although not everyone in Habyarimana’s government agreed with the signing of the Arusha Peace Accord. The genocide started on April 6th 1994 after president Habyarimana’s plane was shot on his way home from signing the Arusha Peace Accords. No one knows who shot it down. Shortly after, the roadblocks were up and the killing started. List were handed out and all moderate Hutus and Tustis began being executed in their homes, on the street, in their places of employment etc. On the first day of the genocide a force of 25 UN peacekeepers were sent to guard the moderate Hutu acting Prime Minister Madame Agathe Uwilingiyimana. 10 Belgian soldiers were taken into custody by the army, Madame Agathe was killed and the 10 Belgian soldiers were murdered. This was the government’s plan and it worked. Shortly after the UN began pulling its troops out of Rwanda and the genocide continued for 100 days before it was stopped by the RPF, the current ruling party. Rwanda has a sad and brutal history and although the country has come a long way since then I think it’s important to visit some of the memorials while you are there and pay your respects, and also try to understand what happened here. You have a few different choices:
– The Kigali Genocide Memorial at Gisozi – is located in Gisozi, ten minutes drive from the centre of town. The easiest way to reach the memorial is by car or taxi. The memorial is open 7 days a week from 8am to 5pm (except the last Saturday of each month) The memorial will bring you through the history of the Rwandan genocide, on the second floor you will find the history of genocides throughout the world and on the last floor you will get an intimate look into the story of some of the victims. I found the room filled with photographs of children the hardest to bare. It shows a photograph of a smiling child, tells their age, favourite toy or activity, and how they were killed.
Their mission is to:
– Provide a dignified place of burial for victims of the Genocide against the Tutsi
– To inform and educate visitors about the causes, implementation and consequences of the genocide, and other genocides in history.
– To teach visitors about what we can do to prevent future genocides.
– To provide a documentation centre to record evidence of the genocide, testimonies of genocide survivors and details of genocide victims.
– And to provide support for survivors, in particular orphans and widows.
– Camp Kigali is where the 10 Belgian peacekeepers were taken and killed. It is now a memorial to them. It is located in the centre of town right around the corner from the Serena Hotel. The 10 stone columns mark the spot where the 10 peacekeepers were murdered. Each stone column represents one of the soldiers and the horizontal cuts in the stone represent the soldiers age. The bullet sprayed building behind the memorial where the soldiers died, that was then the morgue now holds a small genocide memorial.
– The Churches and Nyamata and Ntarama – It’s hard to describe what you will experience in these churches but I can say that these churches have been preserved in a manner that is respectful but still confronts you with the atrocities that occurred during the genocide, but I won’t sugarcoat it. They have been left in pretty much the same condition they were found in after the massacres had taken place here, and they are not an easy place to spend time in. They will make you feel uncomfortable, but that is the point. These churches help you face the harsh reality of what happened here in 1994 while the world stood by and watched. It’s important to confront this reality and pay your respects. Located about 30 km south of Kigali the best way to reach these churches is by taxi or car.
– The Presidential Palace Museum – Located 2km from Kigali International Airport is the former home of President Habyarimana. The FALCON 50 presidential plane that was carrying him and the president of Burundi home on that fateful night in April 1994 ironically crashed in his garden. You can see his former home, learn a little more about him and how he lived (he was extremely paranoid) and see wreckage from the plane.
It’s okay to ask questions but please be respectful. The people who maintain these memorial sites are often genocide survivors so please bare this in mind when you are asking questions. A lot of these sites will ask for donations and the donations go to the upkeep of the memorials, please give what you feel is appropriate but people will give around 5000rwf. Do not take pictures. If sometimes hard for your mind to make the connection between what you are seeing and reality but please remember that each one of the skulls you see lined up was a person, a person just like you with a family, hopes, dreams, aspirations and feelings. Do not photograph pictures of these skulls for your Instagram account. Treat these people with the same respect you would your mother, father, sister or brother. They were people, and although in some cases there is no one left to remember them, they deserve dignity.
It’s so easy to get around the country. Buses run from central bus stations in each city. In Kigali this is Nyabigogo but there is a smaller version in each town. Buses usually run every 30 mins to various destinations across the country and the buses are usually extremely on time, as in if the bus leaves at 4:30, it pulls out of the station at exactly 4:30. Tickets are reasonably priced and most buses are air conditioned. You can get from Kigali to Gisenyi, a 4 hour drive for around 2000rwf or about $4USD.
14. Nyungwe Forest
located in South Western Rwanda, Nyungwe forest is probably the best preserved and most biodiverse rainforest in Central Africa. Pack a sweater and some long pants because it tends to get very cold at night. There is a lot you can do in Nyungwe, from hiking, to trekking the Golden Monkeys to discovering the source of the Nile. If you are spending time in Rwanda definitely book Nyungwe Forest in for a few days.
15. Butare – A city of Artists
On your way back from Nyungwe, stop by Butare. This university town is a city full of artists and you can support them by buying some local artwork from the numerous roadside cooperatives. I would also highly recommend spending an afternoon at the National Museum. It goes through the history of Rwanda but doesn’t really discuss the genocide. There is a lot of information packed into these walls and you can spend hours reading about kings and customs. They also have a replica of the kings palace.
Okay, so when you think of Africa you probably think safari. Fair enough, well Rwanda has that too. You can visit Akagera National Park in the East of Rwanda and do a game drive. Lions have been recently reintroduced to the park, they also have hippos, buffalo, giraffe, everything your heart desires.
17. Gorilla Trekking and Diane Fossey’s Grave and research centre
Okay so anyone who has heard about Rwanda probably knows that this is one of the only places in the world where you can see mountain gorillas. You have the ability to hike up the Virunga Mountains in the North West of the country and observe these stunning creatures in their natural habitat. I have not met a single person who was disappointed by this experience. But there is more! Anyone who has studied Anthropology or seen Gorillas in the Mist may be interested in this one. Diane Fossey, the first person to really interact with Gorillas and champion of animal rights, she lead the fight to stop poaching in Rwanda and paid for it with her life. She was killed in the 1980s in Rwanda, no one has been found responsible for her murder but it is suspected that she was killed by the same poachers she was fighting against. She is buried next to her favourite gorilla, Digit. You can hike up to her old research centre, although most of it was destroyed in 1994, and visit her grave and the Gorilla graveyard. It’s a tough hike but it’s absolutely worth it. It’s also a lot cheaper then going to trek the gorillas if you want an alternative hiking option.
There are so many more reasons to visit the land of 1000 hills and a 1000 smiles but this should be a good list to get you started. I’ve been traveling to and from Rwanda for the past 6 years and it is practically my second home. I would also recommend learning some useful Kinyarwanda phrases before you go. Murakoze Cyan for reading 🙂