Not only is it possibly the cleanest African country, but Rwanda has come a long way since the bloody memories of the genocide in 1994. It’s also about more than just gorilla trekking and visiting game parks…
On landing in the capital of Rwanda, the thing that immediately strikes me is how pristine the city is. I’ve visited Kigali twice over the past five years and on both occasions, it was the Rwandan ‘culture-of-cleanliness’ that left a lasting impression.
My experiences on both trips reinforced my opinion that not only can it claim to be the cleanest African country, but Rwanda has come a long way since the bloody memories of the genocide in 1994 that wiped out nearly one million people in just 90 days. Plus, I discovered, it is about more than searching for great apes and visiting game parks…
Booming for business
Currently, the majority of visitors to this tiny country, situated between Uganda and the DRC, are business people. That could be the reason for Kigali being home to an astounding eco-friendly conference centre.
Built at a cost of $300m and opened in 2016, it is the most expensive building in Africa and has hosted many international conferences since its inauguration.
The future is female – also in Rwanda
Women feature in management roles of many of the large corporations in Rwanda, including the national air carrier, RwandAir. In fact, at 64% Rwanda leads Africa in the number of women in senior government positions.
There are also 30,000 female coffee growers who account for much of the coffee production in the country. So, if you are a coffee aficionado, this is the place for you!
When in Rwanda, it’s best to eat what the locals eat. The staples are bananas, plantains and cassava.
Lovers of goat meat, like me, are easily satisfied as the most prominent street food is goat kebabs (brochettes). It’s also affordable. During a walk from my hotel at Lake Kivu, I stopped at an open-air restaurant/bar on the beach. For R50, I indulged in brochettes served with a mound of French fries, accompanied by a Primus beer (one of the top local beers).
Thought-provoking heritage and museums
Various day tours are on offer in Kigali and, this time, I paid a return visit to the Kigali Genocide Memorial. Within 90 days, from April to June 1994, about one million men, women, and children of the Tutsi population were slaughtered by Hutus for no reason (other than being of the wrong racial group).
250 000 souls are buried at the memorial site and I was moved to tears at various points of my visit. Set aside at least two hours to fully comprehend the atrocious acts and the repercussions it has had on Rwanda and its people post-1994.
Opened in 2017, in the Gasabo District, the Campaign Against Genocide Museum is adjacent to the parliament building. This is one of eight museums in Kigali that encourages visitors to find out more about the heritage of this amazing African country.
My day tour included a stop at the bustling, aroma-filled Kimironko Market. I made sure that my driver accompanied me as I traversed the various aisles looking for bargains, while bartering with the stallholders.
Upcycling and art
Being interested in local artists, a visit to the Ivuka Art Studio was included in my tour. The self-taught local artists create pieces made from recycled materials, such as old car tyres, plastic- and glass bottles and cast-off denim jeans.
Lake Kivu and surrounds
Lake Kivu is where the locals go to play – and you’d miss out if you didn’t visit the area. The lake is so huge that it could easily be mistaken for an ocean. At 2700km2, 89km long and 480m deep, it is one of the five largest lakes in Africa and ranks 50th in the world.
The drive to and from Lake Kivu is along a scenic and convoluted road shared by bicycles, motorbikes, pedestrians, trucks and cars. It’s incredible how they all seem to get to their destinations safely! A straight road between Kigali and Lake Kivu was not possible.
Had it been, the 150km journey would take less than two hours instead of the three-plus hours that is the current norm. Driving past the roadside markets gave me the impression that the rural population are proactive – both farming and selling produce or involved in the thriving honey production industry.
Rwanda has picked itself up, and dusted itself off post-1994, whilst remembering and honouring those who suffered at the hand of the genocide. It also intends to become a tourist destination for reasons other than gorilla trekking.
There’s a vibrancy to the capital city Kigali, and my interactions with the locals confirmed that, given the brutal past, the ‘new’ Rwanda has emerged stronger and more united than ever. Plus, it has plenty to offer the rest of the world.
Good to know
- Language: Most Rwandans can speak English.
- Currency: Rwandan franc. Foreign-exchange bureaus offer better rates than banks.
- Electronics: South Africans should always take the relevant electrical adaptors with you. Rwanda uses the Type J and Type C outlets.
- Tipping: If you are going to tip, use the local currency.
- Clothes: Light cotton clothing is the norm. If in doubt about the dress code in public spaces, err on the conservative side.
- Streetsmart: Saying “no” will usually deter unwanted attention from street vendors.
- Security: There are security checks at most shopping malls. Allow yourself extra time when going to the airport as security is very tight for departing visitors.
- Vaccinations: Check with your local travel clinic.
Driving in Rwanda is not for the faint-hearted. Scooters swarm around the streets and the traffic, at least to an outsider like me, seemed to be constantly on the brink of a log-jam or a major accident. Yet neither of these seemed to occur. Taxis are easily obtainable and for the very adventurous, the ride on one of the scooters can be exhilarating.
South African travellers need valid visas, which can be purchased at the Kigali Airport on arrival ($30 per person).
The risk of malaria is high. I recommend taking prophylactics.
SAA flies direct to Kigali daily from Johannesburg, operated by SAA codeshare partner and fellow Star Alliance member RwandAir. Book your tickets with SAA today!
Words by David Batzofin