Rwanda was not part of our original itinerary. It was actually someplace I imagined to be unstable and dangerous. My only associations with the country were of the mass genocide that killed a million people in 100 days back in 1994 and the movie Hotel Rwanda. Maybe these low expectations had something to do with the great time we had…but more likely the country itself and the people we met made our week there memorable.
Right off the bat we noticed differences between Rwanda and its neighboring east african countries. The roads were paved and had street lights. Motorbikes were registered and the drivers provided customers with helmets; and the whole country was clean — not only were the streets litter free, they were also immaculate! After speaking with our host we learned that the country was also very safe and that we’d have no issues walking around after dark. These things may sound insignificant but after three months in Africa our patience had worn thin and we appreciated small comforts like these.
During our stay we learned about Rwanda’s tragic history. We visited the Kigali Genocide Memorial Center, a sterile but informative museum. Then we took a local bus 30 kilometers south to the small town of Nyamata. During the genocide 10,000 people sought refuge in this town’s church. All were killed. Now the church serves as a chilling reminder of the genocide. The blood covered clothing of the deceased is strewn along the church pews. Coming here is a gripping but necessary experience.
We stayed at a huge home in Central Kigali that we found on airbnb and quickly befriended Songa, the caretaker. He grew up as a Tutsi refugee in the DRC and joined the RPF’s assault on the Hutu extremists when he was sixteen. We had just finished watching documentaries on Kagame and the end of the genocide and naturally had plenty of questions for him. He explained how he traversed the compact mountain ranges of Rwanda on foot with the liberation front. How women fought alongside men. How Kagame was a brilliant tactician and a fan of Abraham Lincoln. After all these years he still expressed disappointment with missing Kigali’s liberation (he was shot the week before and celebrated from his hospital bed.)
It was a bit surreal to hear Songa’s stories over beers. He eagerly showed us his wounds from the three bullets he took. He also asked us all about the US. It turns out he’s a big country music fan and especially loves Alan Jackson. He also likes westerns and would visit Texas if he ever got the chance to come to the US. He was just about the only person we met in Africa that didn’t like Obama (he preferred Bush.) We told him that he’d fit in well in Texas.
It’s interesting to see how a person’s life experiences shape their views. For Songa, stability is paramount. He likes George W. because he committed resources to the military. He loves Kagame because he’s managed to move past Hutus and Tutsis and unite as peaceful Rwandans. To him, stability is much more important than civil rights. At the end of the day Kagame is a benevolent dictator but that seems to be what is needed. You don’t go from anarchy to democracy overnight. Regardless, this country seems to be moving in the right direction.