Last December, when I was in Cambodia, I decided that I wanted to visit Rwanda during my African Stage. I was so impressed by the people of Cambodia and how they are so wonderfully friendly and pleasant, despite suffering so much in recent times, and I was interested to see if the same situation existed in Rwanda, where one of the 20th centuries worst genocides occurred a mere 12 years ago.
Adding that country, and by consequence the neighboring and similarly troubled country of Burundi, to the route meant taking a more complicated route through Tanzania, and cutting someplace else out of the plan to accommodate the extra time and distance needed to go there. That was tough task, but I had become more and more interested in going there so I had to work it out one way or the other.
Both countries are very similar, geographically. Each is about the size of the U.S. State of Maryland, mountainous and fertile. Both straddle the dividing range between the Nile river basin, flowing north to the Mediterranean Sea, and the Congo River basin, flowing west to the Atlantic, and large lakes, part of the Great Rift Valley system, form the western borders of both countries with the Democratic Republic of the Congo. With an average altitude of over 1,500 meters, the climate is quite pleasant and mild, though even in the dry season, when I visited, showers are still common.
Culturally and historically, the countries are also similar, though with a few notable distinctions. Both were established societies long before European dominance of the continent began, and each developed their own national language, a situation that is rare in Africa, but perhaps not too surprising given the small size of the countries. Rwandans speak Kinyarwanda while Burundians speak Kirundi. French is the official international language, though English is increasingly used in commerce and diplomacy. For a brief period in the late 19th to early 20th centuries, both countries were occupied by Germany, together with Tanzania, but subsequent to World War I, both were “administered” by Belgium until the early 01960’s, a situation which would contribute to the later suffering in both lands.
Both countries are among the most densely populated countries in Africa, Rwanda with about 320 persons/square kilometer, and Burundi with 230 p/sq-km. To put that into perspective, Australia has about 2.6 p/sq-km, the U.S.A., including Alaska, 32 p/sq-km, Tanzania, 39 p/sq-km, and Bangladesh, 1077 p/sq-km. The great majority of residents in both lands live rural lives focused around self-supporting agriculture. The combination of an agrarian society with a high population density has lead to a significant modification of the environment. With the exception of a handful of national parks, both countries have been completely deforested, and essentially all of the land given over to food production. This is strikingly evident when viewing the mountains of the region, which are uniformly covered with gardens, usually right up to their summits. However, unlike many other parts of the world the hills are not terraced and the gardens often lay on incredibly steep slopes. There does not appear to be extensive erosion caused by this practice as of yet, though it must be occurring. Because of all of these factors I suspected that I would have to curtail camping while in the region and stay indoors, and that indeed turned out to be the case.
Also shared by both countries is a destabilizing divide into two cultural groups, the Tutsis and the Hutus, and considerable useless bloodshed that resulted. Not true ethnic groups, these are more like caste divisions, which have existed through historical times. The Tutsis, the smaller group of about 15% of the population were historically cattle-owning nobility, while the Hutus, the remainder of the population, were crop-raising peasants. The lifestyles of the groups changed a little during modern times, but the distinctions did not, despite the fact that to an outsider there is no superficial difference. It is this continued artificial divide that lead to so much suffering and death in the last half of the 20th century.
Rwanda only became well known to the rest of the world following the culmination of over 30 years of conflict and killing, beginning with independence, and ending with the horrific genocide of Tutsis, and moderate, often educated Hutus. Close to a million people were brutally slaughtered during 3 months in 01994, many being hacked to pieces by young men wielding machetes. A slogan pushed towards such young men by the despotic rulers at the time was, “To be born a Tutsi is a crime, for which the only punishment is death.” The genocide had obviously been carefully planned and thought out, and, in typical fashion, the rest of the world ignored 30 years of warning signs and did not react until the crisis was over following the ouster of the Hutu regime by Tutsi rebels.
It is hard to form an opinion as to the real causes of such events during such a short visit. However, based on what I saw and read, four factors seem to have been primary causes: decades of disastrous policies by the Belgian occupying administration, which intentionally reinforced the class distinctions between Hutus and Tutsis in order to strengthen their colonial rule; land shortage issues due to population pressures; a pervasive lack of a quality educational system, and a low literacy rate (as low as 50%); and an undeniably sinister moral nature of the Hutu rulers who somehow managed to gain control of the country in 01994. Now, 12 years have passed and I wanted to see that the people of Rwanda were just as bright, kind, and friendly as everyone else I’ve met throughout the world. I’m glad to say that my suspicions were correct and that I really enjoyed my visit to the country and meeting all of the people there. In fact, though there are signs and monuments to 01994 around the land it’s hard to imagine that such events ever took place there. However, it is a little eerie to think that the middle-aged man who smiles and greets me as I pass by while harvesting his bananas with a machete, may once have used that same implement to commit mass-murder.
With a small area, a surprisingly good-quality road network reaching most places of interest, and plenty of time available before returning to Tanzania to catch the weekly sailing of the M.V. Liemba, I had plenty of time to make a rather slow tour through both countries. In the end, however, the available time turned out to be just barely enough.
The first day in Rwanda began right at the Tanzanian border at a place called Rusumo Falls, where there was a basic guest house with a pretty good restaurant serving local food. From there, according to a sign it was 156 km to Kigali, the capital. With some tough terrain ahead I expected a long day, so I started as early as I could manage, after a minimal breakfast. I should have eaten more, as the few villages along the first half of the route had even fewer shops or restaurants, and those that were there were all closed. As usual, I really wasn’t sure what day of the week it was and so I assumed nothing was open because it was a Sunday. That was incorrect, it was only Saturday, and I was getting worried that I’d have a very hard time getting fed. Fortunately, after a while I came across a fellow with a big load of pineapples strapped onto his bike and so I bought one from him, which was just enough to tide me over. Later I learned that the on one Saturday each month everything is closed all morning so that all the local people can participate in a public clean-up day. Everything was still closed when I reached the only town of any size along the way, Kibungo, but I saw a restaurant where people were seated at a big table. That was a private party, but the staff graciously agreed to serve me a plate as well, which was a huge help. Perhaps a little surprisingly I found that Rwanda had the best food, or at least the best cooked food, of anywhere I’ve been in Africa so far. Quite possibly the only positive legacy of the Belgian occupation.
It also did not take me long to confirm my belief that everyone would be friendly and welcoming. With little motorized traffic many people walk or bike along the main roads, and everyone seemed generally pleased to see me and overall in good spirits. There was, however, a continued reluctance of the people to be photographed, which was a shame as many were quite photogenic. One other slightly annoying behavior was the propensity of young male cyclists to follow along close behind me. Of course, I don’t mind that as a rule, but I usually appreciate it if those following take a turn up front. However, no matter how hard I tried, I could not get anyone to lead with any sort of reasonable pace at all. They would only ride fast if I was in front, and if I moved over and slowed drastically they would pass, but continue on at a very slow pace. If I stopped completely, they would stop too, or even turn around and go back the other way, only to follow again later on. I suppose that was the only way they could continually watch me. After a while it became rather annoying, much as if a lost puppy had attached itself to me and wouldn’t go away.
The rest of the way to Kigali was pretty uneventful, except that the 156-km distance stated was only to the very edge of the city, and the city center was another 14 km further. That extra distance nearly did me in, and I was very exhausted when I finally reached the city, now well into the darkness of evening. That situation made it hard to locate a place to stay, and the first one I came across was one of the only “five-star” places in town. Every now and then I don’t mind paying extra for a place like that, but I found this one to be severely affected by the diplomat effect, as with all of the U.N. and NGO folks in town in recent years, the tariff at that place was much higher than comparable hotels in surrounding countries, and the rooms were not especially nice. Perhaps fortunately, they only had space for one night and the next day I moved to a place that was only 100 meters away, nicer, and 2/3 the price, though still much more than I should have spent.
Kigali was not what I expected at all. There was not much of the “third world” craziness found in other capital cities, with little traffic at all, none of which was noisy motorbikes, animal carts, or junky old overloaded trucks. It was corresponding easy and peaceful to walk around the city, which, in the center, contains many mid-rise glassy buildings, a few pleasant-enough parks, and modern-looking residential areas. Further out, older-style neighborhoods, with smaller houses connected by dirt roads and footpaths, roll over the surrounding hillsides. There was not much to do in town, which was fine with me as I just wanted to rest, as most of the shops and offices were closed since now it really was a Sunday. One of the only places open was a mini-mart at a petrol station, which sold a lot of imported, and correspondingly expensive, items. Never one to look at the price of food while on Tour, I went a little berserk and loaded up with ice cream, chocolates and other snacks, the likes of which I hadn’t seen in weeks, all to the tune of over $US 50.00. Ooops.
The next day was a short 94 km, though with a fair bit of climbing, to the northern town of Ruhengeri. The only notable event on the way was me getting attacked by a swarm of bees. Not an especially large swarm, perhaps a dozen, or so, buzzing creatures, but they seemed to be incensed by the aroma emanating from my helmet. That seemed odd, as it’s not an odor I would normally compare to jasmine or honeysuckle. The only thought that crossed my mind, as I eventually swatted most of them away, was that the so-called “killer bees” encroaching into the southwestern U.S. are often referred to as “Africanized” honey bees. In the end I was stung in four places, but, fortunately, these bees were not very potent stingers, and only one of them made a moderately successful attack. That one was on a finger of my right hand, and so, for a couple of days, with my left hand still swollen from my sprained wrist I had two swollen, puffy hands. At least I was symmetrical.
Ruhengeri was more like what I expected a Rwandan town to be like, a bit frumpy, dusty, and in need of several coats of paint, with crowds milling about and the return of the noisy motorbike taxis. With time to spare, I took another day off there which I still felt I needed. The town is located at the base of a chain of tall volcanoes, one of which, in neighboring Congo, erupted just several years ago. In the forests on their slopes live some of the last remaining mountain gorillas. It was possible to do a day trek up there to see them, which is what brings most visitors to the area in the first place. I would have enjoyed that, but it was rather expensive and I really wanted to sleep late that day, so I skipped that one. Too bad.
Next, I planned to turn south, through the center of the country, and exit into Burundi that way. However, I misread my map and missed the turn south, not realizing it until I had reached the top of the east African continental divide, which separates waters flowing north through the Nile watershed, and those heading west through the Congo watershed. After turning around and going back to the small town where the turn-off actually was, I learned that the road south was one of the few unsurfaced roads in the country, and currently in pretty bad shape. That information lead to a change of plans, and I turned around again, crossed the divided for a second time, and rode on for a fairly short way to the lakeside town of Gisenyi.
Gisenyi is a resort town on the shores of Lac Kivu one of the northernmost, and smallest of Africa’s Great Lakes, strung out along the Rift Valley. There is a small local town up on the hillside which is basic and where there are a few places to stay, but in my usual way I didn’t find that until later. Along the pretty and quiet lakeshore at the bottom of the hill are several more expensive hotels and lodges, many of which hosted as many Rwandan tourists as outsiders. That made for a pleasant and relaxing place to visit, though once again it was a bit pricey. They stretched right around the lakeshore to the border with the Democratic Republic of the Congo at the town of Goma, and I was a little tempted to cross over for an hour or so just so I could add that country to my list. However, doing so for such a large country would be a little like stopping on one of the Aleutian Islands and saying that you’ve visited the U.S., so I didn’t bother.
I only planned to stay there for one night, however, as I was told that there was a daily boat that takes people to the southern end of the lake to the town of Cyangugu, where the main road started again. However no one could give me any accurate information on when the boat left, and after one missed departure, I ended up in Gisenyi for two days, which was ok, as it was a pleasant place, but ate up all of the extra time I had available to get back to Tanzania. Eventually, I discovered why nobody knew the boat’s schedule. It was not a passenger ferry, as I had assumed, but a boat belonging to a lakeside brewery several kilometers south of town. Finally, after waiting around for most of another day, I was at the dock at the right time, late in the evening, just as the evening cloudburst was dumping lots of water on everything. I had visions of having to sleep out on the deck in the cold rain, but, fortunately, the boat, strangely named the “Dakota” had a small compartment below deck at the bow, just in front of its cargo of perhaps 20,000 bottles of beer and soft drinks. There were a couple of beds down there, and while not the most luxurious way to travel, it got me to where I needed to be, though quite a bit late.
Burundi is similar to Rwanda in many ways, including size, topography, climate, history, and population. The people speak a different, though similar, language, however, and the recently history of violence was a bit different as well. Beginning around the same time as Rwanda’s troubles, Burundi’s conflict was not an organized mass-murder, but a sporadic and longer lasting civil war between several different Hutu and Tutsi factions, which forced many thousands to flee to neighboring countries and live as refugees. The conflict only ended with a peace treaty in 02003, though one group refused to sign, leaving the potential for fighting to flare up again. Consequently, I didn’t plan on an extensive visit there, which, for such a small country, would probably not have happened anyway.
I was told that the Dakota would arrive in Cyangugu at 6:00 AM, but it was actually 11:00 when I was back on the ground again. From there it was a fairly short way to the border, and 120 km in total, to Bujumbura, the Burundian capital. I had expected that to be a short, easy day, But after the very late start, the terrain, which appeared on the map to be a gradual descent, but which was actually heavy rolling, and the headwinds which picked up strongly in the afternoon, it was very tough. Add to that the complete lack of food along the way, with only a few soft drinks available, and when I finally reached the city, the last 20 km of riding being in the dark, I was completely worn out, and almost too tired to finally eat. In fact, that was the only day in the past year, or so, that I have felt so overworked (and underfed.)
Bujumbura was more like what I expected Kigali to be like, a bit more run down and chaotic. With few decent-looking places to stay I ended up in the Novotel, another “diplomat-effected” place. Needing another day off just to rest, however, it met my needs. Rest was a good plan, as there was not much of interest to see or do in the city. It does, however, have a nicer location, right on the norththernmost lakeshore of Lake Tanganyika, the next, and largest, of the Great Lakes.
After leaving the city, there was just a little over one day of riding south, right along the shore, back to Tanzania. The first 30 km were very potholed and not very scenic, but after that the road was quite nice, and passed by some nice coastal scenes and through some large palm oil plantations. As in Rwanda, the people were all friendly and happy to see me, including the large number of soldiers and police, standing along the roadside throughout the country. There was not much food available along the way once again, and when I reached the last town on the coast, Nyanza Lac, there wasn’t much there either.
So, I was quite ready to get back to Tanzania again, where the substantial town of Kigoma figured to have more to eat. It should have been an easy day of 110 km, but no, of course not. First the road inexplicably turned inland, and up a big climb, before turning south again, this time along yet another gravel road. The first section, in Burundi as far as the border, was actually rather good and I expected to arrive in Kigoma in the afternoon, but once in Tanzania again, it was a nightmare. Rocky, sandy, and rolling up and down in the mountains, it took forever. Just to the west across the mountains over which I was struggling, was Gombe Stream National Park, where Jane Goodall’s chimps live. Had I arrived a couple days earlier, as I had planned, I might have been able to go and see them, but as it was I arrived at sunset, on the evening before the Liemba was to sail, so once again any great ape sightings were out of the question. I did make it to Kigoma, just in time, however, which was good enough.
In all, the two countries were very interesting and I enjoyed going there, meeting the people, and especially having a few days on very good roads and a few extra days off to allow for the restoration of some functions of my left hand. It was, however, the most expensive section by far in Africa, and I’ll have to try and make up for that somehow. Probably not too likely.
The Tour of Gondwana
May 02005 - Oct 02007