To many, the mention of Rwanda often brings to mind images of a bloody scene from the genocide stories as narrated in movies such as ‘Hotel Rwanda’ or maybe a rundown country somewhere in the middle of nowhere.
However, a visit to Rwanda, unveils a haven hidden in the eastern part of Africa. Words cannot possibly do justice in expressing the beauty that the country holds one would have to visit to see!
In my opinion, if you are traveling to Rwanda for the first time [from Kenya], take a bus. It will give you a great view of the countryside all the way from Kenya’s capital- Nairobi, to the rift valley escarpments, plains, and large farms, through Uganda to Rwanda.
The journey from Nairobi can be excruciatingly long with about 22 hours on the road inclusive of the time spent at the customs offices at the Busia border, and the other one on the South Western part of Uganda via Mbarara road. Ooh! and theirs is a stopover in Kampala for the bus driver to rest.
Cleanliness is next to Godliness!
The first thing that you notice about Rwanda as you check in with customs is the environmental awareness that Rwanda is praised for. Every passenger’s luggage is thoroughly checked by an officer whose job is to ensure that no one enters the country with a polythene bag. If a polythene bag is found; the contents are emptied and the polythene bag is confiscated. For the first time travelers, this, takes them by surprise. For me, it was also intriguing to see some of the environmental laws at work.
The immigration process was rather slow, but then again, we- Kenyans- are known for being impatient. So, the pace might have been normal!
Rwanda’s landscape is out of this world. As our bus traversed the lush countryside, with clearly marked roads and road signs, my friend and I, as well as other passengers were glued to the windows taking it all in.
After about two hours, we arrived at the bus terminus located in Nyabugogo. The hustle and bustle is the same as in any other city.
Now, we are ‘home’ at least that is what my friend whispers to me as we cross the streets. But we are soon brought back reality as we are faced with two main challenges; language barrier and the issue of currency conversion.
It took us about twenty minutes to find someone who understands English or Kiswahili to help us get a taxi to our hotel (A majority of the semi-literate population of Rwanda speaks the local language, Kinyarwanda, or French). Unfortunately, even when we get one, we could not explain our destination fluently. After about fifty minutes of crisscrossing the Nyamirambo area of Rwanda, we arrived at our destination some minutes to 7 pm. (Note Rwanda is an hour behind Kenya).
At the hotel- San Jose Carmelo we were received warmly. On inquiring about local staple food, we learned that bananas (boiled or deep fried) are a common delicacy among Rwandans. People also enjoy other continental food – Westernization for sure; and of course being the Kenyans we are, we had to find out the names of the local beer(s) the popular ones being Mutzig and Skoll.
Rwanda’s sad but eye-opening history
In days to come we got to experience the finesse, and rich culture of Kigali. We enjoyed the majestic hills, beautiful weather, and we were always in awe of the city’s cleanliness.
The first place visitors should make a stop is at the Genocide Museum. The horrors of the genocide that left thousands dead and many others displaced are captured in videos and photographs. A collection of belongings for those that perished during the attacks are preserved at the site.
Other amazing places to visit are the presidential palace museum. This site is the former residence of the third President of Rwanda, Juvénal Habyarimana, who was assassinated as his plane was landing in Kigali.
A hike up Mt Kigali (it’s a hill but referred to as a mountain); will lead you to some well-hidden horse stables with a magnificent view of Kigali from atop the hill. We were lucky enough to find a blog that acted as a guide for places to visit, and that is how we even got to enjoy bowling at a place called Mamba and ‘nyamachoma’ at a place named ‘Car Wash’ which as you may have guessed is managed by a Kenyan – typical right? The ‘nyamachoma’ was so juicy. Over time, the place has become some sort of meeting place for Kenyans, and of course Rwandans, who also happen to love grilled meat.
In our adventure, we discovered a local joint by the name of ‘Aka Benz’. Here, we were served with fried pork. I must say the food was out of this world. It aroused our taste buds and left us wanting more of the cuts.
Just like Nairobi, Kigali ladies and men love their demin pants. Occasionally, they adorn dresses, skirts, and suits to the office, and other social gatherings. Then there is the elegant traditional regalia ‘Umushanana’ which I learned that ladies wear to work – one example being the ladies we met at the presidential palace museum- a government run institution.
The most exciting thing about being in a foreign city is finding people that understand your language, and we were lucky to find that in Kigali.
Our preferred mode of transport in Kigali was motorbikes popularly known as ‘bodaboda’. They are the most preferred because of how fast they can maneuver the traffic, and they are low cost compared to taxis. The little French I learned a while back helped us know how much we were being charged for rides and I attempted to negotiate our costs.
Safety is of high importance- every person riding on a ‘bodaboda’ has to wear a helmet. Apart from the motorbikes, visitors can opt to use taxis or buses. However to take buses which ply to major towns within Rwanda, one needs a prepaid card. There are also minibuses (known as matatus in Kenya) for the general public transport.
Rwanda is a right handed country meaning that cars have their steering wheels on the left side. Traffic rules are not a joke in this East African nation. People and cars obey traffic lights. Pedestrian sidewalks are on the right hand side, and people observe this to the letter. Typical of us, we took our ‘Kenyan behavior’ to Rwanda- walking on the forbidden side of the road. What we got was traffic police blowing a whistle to catch our attention and redirecting us to use the sidewalk.
Did I mention how we were taken aback by seeing the army roaming the streets at night? Well, we came to learn that the uniformed men are deployed to keep everything in order throughout the night. In our first experience, we thought there was some sort of military operation.
Then there is the night life. The people of Kigali love partying. The most intriguing thing is that they go out as from midnight onwards as opposed to us, Kenyans, who check into clubs from 5pm. They also love Lingala- which from my deduction is because of their proximity to the Democratic Republic of Congo- the mother mogul of Lingala. Rwandan Swahili sounds just like the one spoken by Congolese. Kenyan music is also very popular in Kigali; you can imagine my joy when I heard people sing along to Sauti Sol’s music – it did indeed feel like home.
Kigali is undeniably beautiful scenery that rests on a thousand hills. I recommend every individual with itchy feet to visit. When traveling to a new place, avoid the normal and tryout new things. Also, engage the locals. They can let you in on hidden treasures that might not be found on the search engines. But do not rule out online searches as well. We found some amazing places in Kigali via a local blog!
‘To travel is to take a journey into yourself’ - Happy Travels!
As narrated by Ritah Nyawira- a passionate traveler!