It wasn’t until the vehicles left the outskirts of Kigali, the capital city of Rwanda that the true culture of this fascinating country began to emerge. Kigali, had appeared a modern, busy city, with plenty of development, including the arrival of several large chain hotels, but not the Rwanda our group hoped to see.
Rwanda is known as the “Land of a Thousand Hills“, so it came as little surprise to discover it was mountainous. Well-maintained roads, snake up steep inclines, weaving through thick, often primary rain forest, climbing almost directly into the clouds.
However, much of the land is cultivated, it could easily be known as the “Land of Infinite Terraces“, as many hillsides have been impressively converted for farming.
Plantain, tea, coffee, pineapple, sugar cane, corn, sweet potatoes, cassava and Irish potatoes are just some of the important crops produced. More than ninety percent of the Rwandan people make a living from agriculture, most growing their own produce on small holdings of a hectare or less.
The importance of agriculture is plain to see, women and children in particular can be seen carrying all manner of produce balanced on their heads. Skillfully transporting them many miles, between home and local markets where they can be sold or exchanged. Even in the middle of nowhere, often miles from the nearest habitation, there seems to be a steady stream of men, women and rag tag children moving between villages, even the smallest child learns to hike from a very young age.
Rwanda appears an extremely hard working nation. Anybody witnessing the heavy loads being transported by bicycle, often requiring pushing up hills so steep they are impossible to ride, is left in little doubt of their industrious nature. However, with typical ingenuity and improvisation, they often grab hold of slow moving lorries to hitch a lift up the steepest hills whenever the opportunity presents itself.
Thankfully, apart from the memorial in almost every town, their is little evidence of the genocide. Rwanda has reconciled itself with it’s past and moving on, the only other sign are the bright orange jumpsuit of imprisoned perpetrators working alongside their victims in the fields.
It is also a remarkably clean country, though considering the industrious nature of the residents, not so surprising. A common sight along the roads are husband and wife teams armed with machetes cutting back the forest and keeping the verges clear from undergrowth. This appears to be carried out on a voluntary basis, providing a public service for the benefit of all, but it also appears impressively effective, as the roadside verges are neat and tidy even far from the nearest town.
It was fascinating observing the culture of Rwanda through the windows of our vehicles, but the best moments were always when we stopped, enabling us to engage directly with the people. Every opportunity to jump out and connect with the many characters, especially the children was eagerly embraced.
The children would often ask for money, but were never aggressive, their behaviour ranged from giggling and shy to posing eagerly, even producing baby goats or sheep as their modelling accessory.
At times they would appear from nowhere, enthusiastically crowding round the “muzungu“, which means white people, some holding out their hands but most just curious and excited to see us.
As we drove through villages we were greeted by happy, smiling faces and waving hands. Adults too, not just children, calls of “muzungu” could clearly be heard even through the closed windows of the safari jeeps. The word isn’t used in a derogatory way, it is not name calling, just a description, after all how else should they describe us?
My favourite encounter was with a group of young boys that just seemed to materialise, like ghosts through a slight mist. Some were carrying water canisters and others balancing heavy piles of firewood on their heads, taking a break from their chores to peer at the muzungu. When we tried to take their picture, they hid behind trees and road signs, giggling shyly, I joined in the game, hiding and suddenly jumping out and pretending to take a photo in quick draw fashion. The more obvious my attempt to conceal myself, and exaggerated my photography the louder their laughter.
We played for several minutes, having great fun; our game of photography hide and seek. When I pretended to run up a particularly steep, dirt track in an attempt to photograph some younger boys, slipping in the wet mud, they ran off giggling excitedly. Climbing back into the vehicle, I was still smiling broadly ten miles further on.
During our journey around the country we passed several markets, hustling, bustling hives of activity with buyers and sellers drawn from miles around to trade. Disappointingly, we never had the opportunity to stop and experience this important aspect of cultural Rwanda.
Therefore, a final day visit to the market in Kigali was gratefully and enthusiastically welcomed. Less random than the provincial markets, an established, larger market, with actual stalls and aisles, on first appearances resembling similar town markets in Europe. Wandering between the aisles, exploring the eclectic stalls selling locally produced handicrafts, fresh fruit, vegetables, aromatic herbs or spices and piles of tiny whitebait like fish.
It soon becomes obvious however, this is an African market; colourfully dressed women test the ripeness of fruit, squeezing it to establish how firm it is, before bartering for the best price. Their dresses, brightly patterned, even garish and often more vibrant than the exotic fruits on sale. They gather in groups, possibly discussing which stalls offer the best tea or price for bananas.
Young, lean, muscled men wearing sportswear or European football club shirts hang around, possibly traders, but more likely the movers and shifters of the market.
Just outside, on the busy streets, more young men perch on motorcycles, often with the engine running. They wait patiently for a fare, couriering goods and people around the city, weaving through the congested streets at rush hour.
Kigali does have plenty of culture to offer too, and not that difficult to find for those willing to look.
Our encounter with gorillas was a special moment to be treasured forever, and performers of Iby’Iwacu Cultural Village provided an entertaining, insightful glimpse of Rwandan society.
However, the spontaneous encounters with the people were especially memorable, and ensured the journey was always interesting. Despite some long drives it was rare anybody slept, eyes usually glued to the road, ensuring nothing was missed, each enjoying a personal portrait of Rwanda.
I enjoyed travelling through Rwanda as a guest of Uber Luxe Safaris but all experiences shared here are my own.