It was a glorious, blue sky day the morning we crossed the border to Rwanda, barely a cloud, warm sunshine melting away the tiredness of another early start. On first glimpse there were tea plantations for miles, nestled closely in tight valleys, with waterways and avenues carving up the available space into neat lines and squares.
The hillsides covered up as far as possible with all kinds of farming, these hills are unbelievably steep, coloured like patchwork.
The first thing I noticed was the flag, a bright sunshine against blue, it made sense to feel I was experiencing a similar day.
Further into Rwanda we drew, I leaned out the window, trying to wave and smile – expecting the same as the Ugandan children. But there were no shouts of “How are you”. No waves. Few smiles.
The first stop was Kigali, the capital, for a stop at the Genocide museum.
I’ve read about world atrocities, I’ve been to Tuol Sleng (S-21). I’ve been to Auschwitz, but somehow this was different.
Long grey concrete blocks contained interned remains, one nearly hidden from view, but sadly still open, still ready for further finds. I was wilting under the hot sun, a mix of both salty tears and sweat.
As we walked in there were locals everywhere. Looking at us with interest, their faces more than solemn. They moved through the museum slowly, I followed them in, but couldn’t stay near them, I couldn’t bare to experience their grief so close.
Beyond the challenges with International intervention (or in other words, the complete and utter lack of it) the main genocide was 100 days of slaughter, killed 1 million people.
1 million is such a throwaway statement. It’s neat, a round number, easily thrown into sentences, into Wikipedia articles and books, it’s something that must be further uncovered to understand the scale of the atrocities that took place.
I wandered through, reading of Belgian and French and German colonialists within the region. What the name Hutu or Tutsi was, how the colonialists changed it. This fed into fear and hate, driven by propaganda, driven by fear of displacement, doubt. I can’t bring myself to write it all out, the new 10 commandments for people to follow. Breeding hate. Divisions drawn between neighbours, colleagues, friends, families. Names were secretly drawn up, militias trained. A plane was shot down, and what came next was unbridled bloodshed.
I walked from room to room, trying to absorb what happened. Tried to make sense of it. Looking for my own answers. Through the stained glass windows. Walking through light and dark.
The hardest part was the videos of survivors, huge scars on their heads, limbs missing, comments from children survivors. Their heads showing machete scars, stories of watching their parents attacked, sisters thrown into septic tanks, mothers raped, the cries of their family members, friends, neighbours – all they could hear as they tried to hide. Until the cries and shout for help stopped.
Rooms of sad remains, clothing, some tiny. Photos of lives lost, pictures of weddings, parties, happier times. Bones. Skulls, and the skulls were mostly cracked. There were holes.
There was a room dedicated to children. 5 year olds, 2 year olds, 8 year olds, their photos the backdrop, and short bios on each – their favourite food, their favourite activity, and then how they died. By machete, shot, by sheltering in a church that was attacked, where church leaders attacked their own congregation.
I couldn’t take any more and broke down.
As we left Kigali, there was a slight afternoon haze to the air, as we went up and down various hills, through twists and turns, with the bright sun starting to sink turning the sky orangey pink, with the layers of hills slowly being hidden, but their peaks still standing out, just their layers of maize and potatoes and corn and tea slowly disappearing from view.
Rwanda is known as “The land of 1000 hills”, that doesn’t even match the glorious landscape, of layer upon layer upon layer of hills. I’d try and count, was that 5 or 6 or 7 even 8 layers of hills in the distance?
It’s beautiful. Like no landscape I’d seen.
As we started in the valley where we were staying, huge volcanoes appeared in the distance, looming great, giant cones with nearly vertical sides. Clouds close into each summit, and I looked on with nervousness & wonder, as one of those was my trek the next day.
With an early start, missing the sunrise, the atrocity of just 20 years ago fairly fresh in my mind, we travelled from the initial meeting point to where the hike up through the hills starts, before the forests, the steep volcanoes looming.
The road up to the hike point showed a life that was unbelievably poor. Children with somber faces, old, ripped clothes, not drawn into smiles and waves watching us drive past. Their balls were rags tied together with string, games played with two bottle caps. The road initially paved turned rocky, the hardest road I’ve seen, made up of volcanic rocks the size of my fist, and still the children watched.
It’s $800 dollars to trek to see the Gorillas, I watched for signs this was getting to the community. To families who live near. To see schools, and medical clinics, better housing. But there was nothing.
Excitement and nervousness and a slight chill to the air took over as we started the hike, through the volcano lowland, across the patchwork farms. Everything is done by hand here still; no machinery can make it up these hills. And still they rise and rise, I couldn’t do it myself, I struggled for the first bit, near vertical steps, up past children and families working the land. Potatoes & pyrethrum daisies, the dark, fertile soil showing the reason the gorillas original territory was destroyed.
The jungle was like nothing I’d seen. The rainforest of my dreams, lush and rich with ancient trees dripping lichen over a foot long. It was an unusual colour, both bright vibrant green and pale. Stinging nettle occasionally brushing my hands, providing a weird sensation, unbelievable burning and itchiness but for only 10 minutes.
I was unprepared for what the gorillas would be like. Our guide called to them as we came across them. They called back, accepting our presence.
The silverback, dark face, leathery nose, eyes that were a dark rich brown, looking straight at me. Staring at my soul. He was 35. Older than me. The family was quite small, but we were bare inches away. I looked at parts of myself that were different, my fingers long and thin to their short and fat hands. My aversion to loud chewing, yet they seemed to play a game of competitive crunching.
When they moved, the true size was incredible. They moved at speed, grunting as they pushed past us. Finding each other. 2 young black-backed males. A 2 ½ year old youngster, then a young mother joined, and with her, as teeny tiny 4 month old baby. I just about cried.
They are beautiful creatures. They look gentle, they look straight at you, they accept your presence. They sleep in front of you, on their back. They almost pose for photos.
I didn’t want to leave.
The hike down was faster, the trees drifting behind, breathing slightly easier. It wasn’t till we fully descended that we realized we’d climbed much higher in altitude than I’d expected.
It was exhilarating, a rush, and we stepped out of the forest onto a precipice, with a view of the valley, the other volcanoes next door, the steep terraced farmland below, the 1000 hills in the distance.
We stepped down, through the farmland, and back to the truck, that ferried us back to where we were staying, and still I couldn’t help but feel for the families close by, the children as we drove past, still few smiles. Our guide thanked us for coming to his country, there are other places you can trek Gorilla, and asked us to tell our friends.
That night we had a storyteller join us, also a gorilla trek guide, but also someone who wanted to share the story of the genocide and post, and how the country is recovering.
“The International war crime tribunal would have taken too long” he spoke, “in the last 20 years they have prosecuted just 73/74 people”. So the Rwandans went back to a form of tribal justice the “Gacaca court system”, handling those who performed war crimes within the community. With a focus on honesty, acceptance, an attempt at forgiveness, not all people could forgive.
Only 2500 were eventually jailed, others placed within the community to work. Initially with fresh emotional wounds it was difficult, these same people who committed the atrocities in the community, working. But gradually they have been accepted.
They’re all Rwandans now.
He also thanked us for coming to his country, for choosing to visit a place with such a sad recent history, and to tell our friends to visit.
We walked to the town close by in the morning, following church-goers in their Sunday best, again gorgeous bright fabrics, shirts and suits, few smiles, more stares. Children came up to us, walked with us.
One girl of about 8 or 9 ran up to me pointing “Tattage tattage”. It wasn’t until I saw her pointing at the birds on my shoulder I understood she meant tattoo – I show her all four of mine.
She kept walking for another few minutes with us, and tugged my arm, and sort of smiled – she pulled down her sweartshirt – it was dirty and ragged, on the same arm as mine, the same shoulder, to show her own tattoo. A heart with L O V E written in it. Hand created, like ones made of compasses and biro in school days of old.
A good friend mentioned to me a few days ago in a message “You’ll fall in love with Africa, and it will break your heart”. I can’t think of a better way to describe Rwanda but that.
I hope I return someday.