Now this is proper Africa
Saturday 7
th October 2011

Back to the index >


After an hour of being airborne Julie was gradually recovering from her chronic attack of acute terror. Her status was now downgraded to utter dismay. Not wanting to wake up our aisle seat passenger, who had passed out the moment we took off, we were both by now also desperate for the toilet. Whilst he was smartly dressed in a cream linen suit he also smelt a bit odd. We thought it best to let him sleep.

We didn't have long to wait before the cabin crew woke him up to serve our first meal of the flight. We seized the opportunity and relieved ourselves in a very spacious toilet.

Back in our seats our resurrected companion then started drinking as much miniature whiskies as he could get his hands on and began telling us his life story. His was a sad tale of woe, his business had gone bust, his Kenyan wife had kicked him out, penniless and homeless he ended up sleeping in a bus shelter last week. Close to suicidal he decided to max out his credit card and runaway to Kenya. Thankfully he fell back asleep, giving us some peace. We had a very long and uncomfortable flight ahead of us.

The hours came and went. Julie and I just couldn't settle. The economy seats were really tightly packed. Neither of us got any sleep nor could we concentrate long enough to watch a film. We could only follow our slow progress on the monitor. Even when names like Khartoum, Addis Ababa and Mogadishu appeared I was too tired to get excited about it.

It was with some relief that somewhere over Sudan the cabin lights were turned on and breakfast was served.

After a disappointing supper I was looking forward to something better for breakfast. As I opened up the cellophane wrapper on my croissant and opened up my nostrils to sniff my coffee Lazarus to my right woke up again and then immediately sneezed. I felt a wetness on my right check and my croissant glistened with his spray. I could have strangled him!

"It's OK, don't worry about it" I politely said when he apologised for dousing me with his lurgies. But if I catch a cold and can’t go to visit the gorillas I will hunt him down!

The sun was now rising over Kenya as we came closer to the end of the first leg of our journey. When we descended into Jomo Kenyatta airport Nairobi the excitement finally burnt off my exhaustion. Our first glimpse of Africa through our airplane window was an iconic Acacia tree. I had a huge grin on my face. Julie was too busy trying not to vomit to notice the wonderful flat top trees.

I couldn't believe I was here. As a child inspired by postage stamps from Rhodesia and Tarzan on the TV I had always wanted to come to Africa. My father promised to take me there one day and a few years later he took my brother and I to Tangier, Morocco. Whilst it was technically Africa I’ve always thought of it as not proper Africa. Now this was proper Africa.

At 6:20am local time (or 4:20am GMT) we landed safely and made our way up to the long narrow strip of departure gates and shops.

We wished our linen suited friend all the best as he left for the domestic terminal to catch his connecting flight to Mombasa. I hope he got his life back on track.

We ourselves had a connecting flight, the one that would take us to Kigali, Rwanda. We didn't have too long to wait. Just enough time to sit down for a cup of Kenyan "Homestay" tea and share a croissant. We also remembered to take our daily malarone anti-malarial tablet.

Julie was dreading this leg of the journey most of all. It wasn't just that internal flights within Africa have statistically the worst safety record but it was because we were heading to Bujumbura in Burundi.

Her nerves were stretched to beyond breaking point yet she still followed me out onto to the tarmac. Despite being frightened out of her wits and muttering "I don't think I can do this" she courageously continued to put one foot in front of the next. In the middle of all this desperation a waggy tailed sniffer dog made Julie smile. The poor old brown and white spaniel was too tired to get up the first step onto a plane so its handler had to lift it up and carry it for a while to continue its work.

The immaculate condition of the Kenya Airways plane also lifted her spirits, if only slightly. It wasn't a rusty old propeller plane, it was a shiny new one, it even had proper jet engines and everything. It was still going to Burundi though and the thought of being unnecessarily diverted to a country where the UK Foreign Office advise against all but essential travel was distressing Julie. I was secretly thrilled at the prospect of landing in Bujumbura.

Sat in our seats we were further impressed by the plane's modern facilities. The monitor was controlled by a touch screen and there was an USB connection point to charge small items like mobile phones.

I touched my screen and paused the movie so that I could keep Julie company. It was a smooth descent and a straightforward landing but Julie was too far gone for it to matter.

The build-up of stress and anxiety over the last six months had finally overwhelmed her. Shaking and in tears she reached out for the paper sick bag and heaved painfully.

She only regained her composure when we came to a stop on the tarmac. Even then she had an uneasy feeling about being here. Burundi has had its fair share of trouble in the recent past.

The Hutu and Tutsi division that ripped Rwanda apart was also a factor in Burundi's civil war which only officially ended in 2005 but incidents still flare up. Julie wanted to get the hell out of there as quickly as possible even if the only way out was to be shot across the sky in a large steel bullet with wings.

However, our departure wasn’t imminent; she had to endure a tortuous 45 minutes on the tarmac waiting to pick up passengers. She treated everything she saw with suspicion. "What's he doing? Should they be standing there? Why are there UN vehicles on the runway?" She was a bag of nerves. "What the hell am I doing in bloody Burundi?!"

We settled down for the wait. I spent most of the stop-over watching the film listening with one ear piece whilst Julie busied herself playing a few games on her iPad.

I did step outside the plane briefly to take a few photos. The terminal building was a strange design, it appeared to me to represented a collection of large huts.

Eventually we heard the announcement "Jambo, the passengers are coming, the passengers are coming." It sounded like a military instruction to prepare ourselves for an invasion. Half a dozen or so business men boarded the flight and inside five minutes we were buckling up and racing down the runway.

As we were bumping and shaking our way along we saw an Air Burundi plane that looked like it had been lost in the jungle for the last 20 years. We both looked at the plane and then at each other. I could see the whites of Julie's eyes turning red.

"Almost there now" I said. It was all the words of encouragement I could find.

The short flight to Kigali was extremely bumpy. We had only reached 18000 feet which was barely above the clouds which we seemed be bouncing along like a pebble skimming water. Julie had her eyes closed for most of it. I was still engrossed in the film "Water for Elephants".

After only twenty minutes we dipped below the cloud and saw green hills for as far as the eyes could see. Rwanda is known as the Land of a Thousand Hills and it was plain to see why.

As we descended towards Kigali Julie turned up the volume on her iPod shuffle and held her head in her hands.

Whilst she was trying to escape into a Jamiriquai groove I had one ear piece inserted listening to the dramatic climax of the film. Then Julie disintegrated "He's just said we're going to die!" Jay Kay sung "we're too young to die".

The tension was building, my heart was racing. I couldn't stop watching the film nor could I ignore Julie. I was flitting between her and the screen. The elephant was about to kill the girl. "We're going too fast. This is it. Oh my God we're going to die." went Julie. In stepped the hero to save the girl from being crushed, we hit the tarmac, Julie vomited into the sick bag, the credits rolled and we had finally arrived at our destination. (… and breath......)

Safely on the ground Julie swung from abject terror to all consuming elation. "Oh, my God!! We've made it!" She couldn't believe it.

"Welcome to Rwanda" I said in my best pilot voice and Julie found her smile!

We got off the plane and walked across the tarmac towards the terminal. She was quite unsteady on her feet. The last twelve hours had taken a lot out of her.

With our landing cards filled we joined the back of a queue. "I'm sure we don't have to pay" I said. Then this guy in front of us quipped "If you want to get into the country you're going to have to pay."

Well, that was me put in my place. Not for long though as a member of staff came down the queue and picked Julie and I out and said "You don't need to pay for your visa". I couldn't help but have a smug smile across my face as we walked past the not-quite-know-it-all in front. "It's because we're British" I explained.

With our passports stamped we were reunited with our luggage then moved on to the exit where we were met by a big smile called Eric, our driver/guide from Primate Safaris. He handed over an information pack about Rwanda and our itinerary for the week ahead.

As we wheeled our suitcases across the car park we discussed what we wanted to do this afternoon. Eric suggested we should go directly to the Kigali Genocide Memorial and then to our hotel. Despite being very tired and a little bit smelly we agreed. We thought it was the best plan.

With our suitcases stowed in the back we got inside our transport for the next week, a huge beast of a vehicle. It was a Toyota but certainly not some namby pamby school run 4x4. This could cope with some serious terrain, not that it was needed here in Kigali. All the roads we were using were well tarmac and paved.

We drove through the city towards Gisozi in the Gasabo district of the city. I was finding everything incredibly fascinating. All that I could see was filling me with such wonder, the hills, the houses, the billboards, the bright colours, the people. "Wow! so this is Rwanda!!"

Eric said he moved here from Burundi in 1999 and that the hills we were driving through were then just bush. Today every available space was filled with ramshackle houses. He said that not only is the city expanding but they are also regenerating the slum areas knocking down the old tin shacks and building proper solid homes.

He even took us on a slight detour through a new housing development where not only were they building spacious modern accommodation but also a school and a church to serve the community.

"I hope to buy a house like this one day" he said.

You could tell he was full of admiration for his country (even though he was born in Burundi - his family were displaced Rwandans) and how it had responded positively since the genocide.

The city was certainly in the middle of a prosperous boom. Looking across to the commercial centre on Nyarugenge Hill we could even see a skyscraper!

Along the way we passed a Tennis Club and a Golf Club. Eric said that sport is becoming more popular especially in Kigali where a middle class enjoys more leisure time. Football is still the most popular sport in Rwanda and the English Premier league is the most watched.

"Most people support either Arsenal or Chelsea as they have some African players or Manchester United as they always win!" explained Eric; "Some are so passionate about their support that fights often happen between rival fans!"

It wasn't long before we arrived at the Genocide Memorial. Eric hadn't talked much about the atrocities that took place in Rwanda in 1994. Neither did we ask any questions about it.

He talked plenty about the progress since and how as a nation they are working together to make sure it never happens again.

"Rwanda was the first country to offer its troops to go to Darfur" said Eric proudly "that's because we know the tragedy of genocide."

From the car park we walked up the hill towards the large white building of the Kigali Memorial Centre. Eric brought us to the reception where we paid $10 for an audio guide each. We donned our headphones and set off firstly around the memorial gardens outside.

The Kigali city council worked with a UK based organisation called Aegist Trust to set up not only a permanent exhibition and education centre but also a focus for remembrance by providing a dignified burial ground for victims of the genocide.

It opened in 2004, on the 10th Anniversary of the genocide. Over 250,000 from all over Kigali and the surrounding area have been buried here and more are exhumed and brought here every year.

Our self-guided tour brought us to the mass graves where beneath large concrete slabs lay the bodies of the slaughtered. It was a stark and sombre garden.

After a moment of silent reflection we moved on.

The audio guide lead us around the memorial building through various themed gardens that represented various aspects of healing and togetherness. The circle was completed when we walked a level below the mass graves we saw earlier.

Here we found the Wall of Names, an installation where names of the massacred were engraved along a long dark wall. Only a few panels were completed however. Apparently they're still raising funds to buy a new engraving machine.

Browsing the hundreds that were listed brought us closer, more emotionally connected to those who were slain. Giving the names made it more real somehow. Jean Claude Niyibizi, Francoise Mukeshimana, Marcel Ntahandi, Mathilde Mukarushema, all familiar French names coupled together with their Rwandan family name, all murdered because of their Tutsi race or their sympathies.

We returned back to the reception desk where paid a further $20 for a photo permit so I could take my camera inside. If it helped towards getting the Wall of Names completed then I didn't mind paying.

Steps took us down into the exhibition where at its heart was a ghostly sculpture of a dozen figures. Grouped together in threes they stood on a platform above the words "ubuzima" meaning life, followed by "amacakubiri" division then "jenoside" and finally "ingarunka" - consequences. We followed the exhibition anti-clockwise around this central space. It began with covering Rwandan history.

It was very informative, both visually with images and text in English, French and Kinyarwandan displayed on the curving walls and aurally with our guide in our ears explaining what we were looking at.

The Kingdom of Rwanda had been in existence for centuries. From humble beginnings it expanded its control over the territories beyond the borders of the modern day map. According to the exhibition Rwanda was a collection of 18 different tribes and within them there was a class system, the Hutu farmers and the privileged Tutsi cattle breeders. The distinction between was never based on race as a farmer who accumulated wealth, cattle and some influence within the community could be considered a Tutsi.

Towards the end of the 19th century when the "scramble for Africa" was in full swing and the European colonialists were arrogantly assuming control over the entire continent, Rwanda was assigned to Germany as part of a joint Rwanda-Burundi kingdom. Then some thirty years later in 1916 Belgium, who already had acquired the Congo, took advantage of Germany's pre-occupation with the First World War and invaded Ruanda-Urundi.

What they both found in Rwanda was a society ruled by a king or mwami and governed by those known as Tutsi over those known as Hutu.

The exhibition points the blame at creating the divide squarely on the imperial colonists. The Germans noted physical differences between the Tutsis who were mostly tall and slim and the predominantly short stocky Hutus.

They theorised that the Hutus were related to the Central African Bantu tribes and the Tutsis were settlers from further North, possibly Ethiopia or Sudan.

The Belgians even introduced an identity card in 1932 where it denoted the holder's race as either Tutsi or Hutu or Twa (which was in fact a different pygmy race and original inhabitants of Rwanda). It then became a matter of ethnicity. Some argue that Hutus and Tutsis were always in fact different races with a history of discrimination and hostility between them and all that the Belgians did was exasperate the resentment.

What cannot be denied is what happened next.

In 1962, with a wave of independence sweeping through all of Africa, a Hutu led rebellion seized power and overthrew the Tutsi monarchy. Years of persecution and revenge followed and within thirty years the country had descended into all out civil war. Conflict always breeds extremism and the radicalisation of Hutus was even state sponsored in the form of a government trained militia known as the Interahamwe. By 1993 UN peacekeepers from many nations including Canada and Belgium had been deployed to Rwanda to monitor a cease fire agreement, their right to use force curtailed by their "observers" status.

On the 6th April 1994 the President's plane was shot down just outside Kigali killing both Rwandan and Burundi presidents. That's when hell arrived in Rwanda.

The reaction was swift and violent. Troops from the Presidential Guard assassinated the prime minister as well as barbarically murdering ten Belgian UN troops who were trying to protect her. They continued to eliminate all moderate politicians.

In towns across the country the Hutu extremists mobilised targeting the Tutsi population. House to house searches were carried out in Kigali from already prepared lists of Tutsi families. No one was spared. Women, children and the elderly were all killed. The aim was the elimination of the race.

Roadblocks were hastily set up, identity cards checked and violent executions carried out by the roadside often by a heavy club or the blade of a machete.

Fearing for their lives many Tutsis sought refuge in safe havens like schools and churches. Sadly, gathering together was no protection, it only served to facilitate massacres.

With the radio broadcasting hateful rhetoric, blatantly instructing all Hutus to "kill the cockroaches" even moderate Hutus felt compelled to betray their Tutsi neighbours. With a mind-set of kill or be killed the slaughter accelerated.

On the walls of the exhibition were some disturbing images with many eye-witness reports and testimonials. I remember seeing similarly shocking images on the BBC news. I even remember the interview with an UN spokesperson where she refused to say the word 'genocide' as the use of that word in any statements would have made them duty bound to intervene militarily. The exhibition touched on the disgraceful inaction of the United Nations.

It was also scathing of the controversial role France took during this period. Two months after the killings began they were the first country to unilaterally send troops to Rwanda. They created a safe zone in the south-west which brought stability to the area but it also allowed safe passage to the Congo for those responsible for the atrocities escaping justice as the genocide and civil war was coming to an end.

In mid-July the Rwandan Patriotic Front, led by Tutsi Paul Kagame declared the war was over. In a little over a hundred days an estimated 800,000 people had been brutally murdered.

We followed the curved walls around and came to an opening with large stained glass window, the second of two "Windows of Hope".

Commissioned from artist Artyn Halter, son of a holocaust survivor, the windows show steps leading out of the genocide turmoil up towards the light and into a brighter future.

The exhibition continued, covering the consequences of genocide, the psychological trauma suffered by the survivors, the number of women dealing with HIV, the thousands of children orphaned.

It covered the setting up of traditional Gacaca courts to issue justice at a local level and the establishment of the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda to trial the most serious crimes against humanity.

It continued to describe how Rwanda is still healing, continually working hard towards reconciliation. One of the most important steps is the elimination of using Hutu or Tutsi as a classification. They are all Rwandans now.

Now fully informed about the genocide we entered an even more poignant and emotional phase of the exhibition. The first room from the inner circle was filled with the haunting images of the victims. The walls were covered with photos but you would need a thousand more rooms to display everyone such was the scale of the killings.

I walked up to them, their faces looking back at me, reminding me that they were no different to me. They were just normal people going about their normal lives when they got caught up in this barbaric nightmare from which their only escape was death. I looked closely at one family portrait, the father proudly holding a young baby as the mother beams. I broke down in tears.

It was followed in the next room by a rather chilling display of skulls and bones with some clearly showing signs of trauma to the head. A wave of nausea followed.

We moved swiftly on.

The third and final room had a large screen projecting disturbing images filmed at sites of mass killings and testimonials from survivors .

There was also hung up in this room tattered soiled clothes and other torn cloth. I don't know if it was mud or blood and if the cuts were made by a blade but it was a very powerful display. The Superman duvet cover brought the innocence of a child into the reality of the genocide.

We sat down in silence. Our thoughts lost, trying to make sense of the insanity that gripped this country. The most upsetting display however was yet to come.

We walked upstairs to the Children's Memorial where sepia images of happy smiling children hung on ochre walls. In the sequence of rooms there must have been over a dozen. Below each photograph was their name, age, some of their favourite things and how they died.

Francine aged 12 loved egg and chips and swimming. She was hacked to death by a machete. Ariane aged 4 enjoyed singing, dancing, cake and milk. She was stabbed in the eyes and head. Fidele 4, shot in the head, Irene 6, blown up by a grenade.

Reading these shocking epitaphs was heart-breaking. Those repulsive acts were just too unbearable to imagine.

We had spent over an hour at the Kigali Genocide Memorial. It had been quite an intense introduction to the country but one that I feel is crucial for every visitor to experience to get a better understanding of Rwanda.

We met Eric back at the reception desk and returned with him to our jeep in the car park.

Our hotel was only a short distance away. Our itinerary from Audley had us staying at the Lemigo Hotel. We were a little surprised when we turned in to the Laico Umubano Hotel.

"Has he taken us to the wrong one?" worried Julie. "Should we be here?" I quickly looked at the itinerary Eric had given us from Primate Safaris and it had Umubano as our hotel.

So we checked in, arranged our pick up time for tomorrow with Eric and got into our room. "Don't unpack in case this is the wrong hotel." suggested Julie.

I didn't hear what she said at first. I was too busy in the bathroom filling up the basin with water and pulling out the plug to watch if the vortex spun in a clockwise direction! This was our first time south of the equator and I had to find out if it was true. I was so excited when it did spin in the opposite direction to home. I did feel a bit guilty watching litres of water disappear down the plug hole when there's a drought in parts of Kenya and Ethiopia but hey, it was an important scientific experiment.

Julie repeated her concerns so we agreed to phone Eric about the hotel. We couldn't get my phone to work for some reason.

It then dawned with me that we were originally scheduled to stay at the Laico Umubano but with it being Libyan owned and with all assets being frozen because of the Libyan civil war the situation was unclear; so to avoid any disruption Audley had amended our accommodation.

Julie felt a bit better that we weren't at some random other hotel and after reading a positive review in the Bradt travel guide she was a little happier to stay.

To be honest it did have its faults. The room wasn't wonderful. With Grandma's old furniture, threadbare carpet and no air-conditioning it was in desperate need of refurbishment.

The mosquito protection screen along our patio doors onto the balcony was a little "heath robinson" made from a rickety timber frame and some fine wire mesh which we had to drag to one side to step out. Although on the plus side the in-room wireless internet access was working well; despite having a cranky old box TV it did have satellite channels; when switched on the rotary fan didn't sound like a twin-prop aeroplane and we didn't see one mosquito in the room.

Having not eaten since we were flying over Sudan our first port of call was the hotel's Cafe Jardin restaurant for a late lunch.

It was lovely and peaceful out the back as we sat outside overlooking the grounds.

The lunch menu had a distinct French flavour to it (or perhaps I should say Belgian). Julie had a Cheese Baguette and I had the Croque Madame, which is a version of the cheese and ham toasty Croque Monsieur but without the ham for the sissy vegetarians. It always makes me feel very un-manly when I order it.

It arrived with a fried egg on top which was an interesting twist. However the best bit on the plate however were the pomme frittes. They certainly knew how to cook their french fries, proper delicious chunky home-made chips. It was all washed down with a bottle of refreshing Mutzig beer. At least the Belgians did some good during their time here!

After lunch we strolled around the grounds on the trail of a few Grey Crowned Cranes. They were a striking bird, the size of a peacock, perhaps a bit taller. Its dark grey and white feathers were brought to life with a flash of red on the throat and a fantastic golden headdress.

Around the swimming pool, past the tennis courts and along the perimeter we followed these large birds. I felt a bit like the sad and desperate Wile E. Coyote as it became a bit of a wild goose chase. They were keeping their distance, always just too far to have a good look at them.

They didn't fly away though which made us think they had their wings clipped so that they stayed at the hotel.

We gave up the chase and returned to the patio area where, (would you believe it!) there was a crane waiting for us strutting around without a care.

After our close encounter with Uganda's national bird, (Rwanda doesn’t have a national bird but Uganda have even placed it on their flag!) it was time for a late afternoon siesta. Within minutes of placing our heads on the pillow we passed out into a deep sleep.

It was three hours later when we were woken up by a thunderstorm rumbling over Kigali. I reassured Julie that it wasn't artillery! The hills received a thorough soaking which eased my conscience about wasting water earlier.

We didn't exactly spring out of bed, instead we got the iPad out and checked TripAdvisor for nearby restaurants. It came up with a Chinese called Flamingo.

It had good reviews and was only a mile and a half away down Boulevard de L'Umuganda. It would have been such a great adventure to head out into the city for the evening but we were far too tired for any excitement. Plus the chips alone at the Umubano's Cafe Jardin was enough to lure us back.

The rain was still falling when we went down for supper. We still sat outside on the patio, kept dry beneath a reed canopy.

We could have been anywhere but we weren't. We were in Rwanda. We looked at each other and smiled. We couldn't believe that we were actually here.

The resident band was singing a Kagagoogoo song with an African lilt. It reminded me of the lounge act on the film The Last King of Scotland singing Me and Bobby Magee.

The neon bug zappers were busy buzzing suicidal flies as they flung themselves onto the high voltage bars.

We blamed the music!

At least it kept the critters off the buffet. We had a look what was on offer but I'm not the biggest fan of the buffet as a concept. Festering food kept re-heated over the day is one issue I have.

The other are thoughtless knobs who scoop up the chicken and gravy and then with the same soiled spoon dig deep into the (only veggie option available) cheesy gnocchi bake causing irreversible cross contamination.

At Cafe Jardin we had a choice; we could still order from their menu. We were thankful because there weren't any of those stunning chips on the buffet!

Julie chose the Tilapia brochettes, a white fish very common in Africa and now even familiar in supermarkets back home. I tried to persuade her to go for the full Rwandan experience and order the goat brochettes instead but she was having none of it. She really enjoyed her skewered fish kebabs and I had a surprisingly good veggie burger. We both loved the perfect fries.

The food itself was delicious and very reasonable at 7800 Rwandan Francs. ($1 = 585RwFr) We spent more than that though as we shared a bottle of South African wine bringing the total cost up to 29800 RwFr. (£1 = 925 RwFr)

We didn't stay for dessert; we had a big bar of Tolberone waiting for us in our room.

  Next day >>>   

ęCopyright 2000 - 2022  Colin Owen