African Overland Tour: Rwanda


Welcome to our exclusive (no one else seems to be doing it, so we're calling it a 'sclusey) detailed review of Absolute Africa's Big Six African Overland Tour. To check out previous (or, if you're reading this in the future, FUTURE) entries, keep on clickin' down at the bottom of the post until you're heart is so full of African information you're forced to pull the trigger on a tour. If you really love the posts (I assume this is you, Dad!), be sure to tell your friends to like us on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Google Plus, and LinkedIn (only one of those is fake) for more awesome entertainment. We may be in Africa now, where you don't want to travel because you're scared of rhinos or Ma'asai warriors, but I'm sure there'll be a country you're interested in coming up real soon. Anyway, on with the show. 

Rwanda was a truly surprising place. Beautiful scenery, welcoming friendly faces, clean landscapes and modern infrastructure are not what you expect to find in a place that was torn apart by genocide less than twenty five years ago, but that is exactly what we found as soon as we crossed the border. The easiest metaphor is the border crossing itself. While past crossings had been filthy, crowded affairs (exactly what you picture when you think of an African border) with lines of trucks and people surrounded by clouds of dust and litter, the spot where Rwanda and Uganda meet is a clean office with a bank to change money, comfortable chairs, and a relatively (TIA, still) quick passport procedure. At first I believed it to be an aberration, but as soon as we crossed in, the roads became well maintained and clean, and what had previously been dusty shelters selling phone cards and bottled sodas became, well, nicer buildings selling phone cards and bottled sodas.

Another surprising thing about Rwanda we encountered immediately was our leader Derek coming onto the truck and telling us that Rwanda had enacted a ban on plastic bags (Are you listening, America?) and that any plastic bags seen at the border would be an issue. This small step made a huge difference in the cleanliness of the public areas, and was a finger pointing in the direction of modernity in this small nation. 

Our first stop was in Ruhengheri, a sprawling campground which offered many activities, the most popular of which was joining some local kids at the University next door for a game of full-court basketball. The mere sight of a fenced-in basketball court was a surprise, especially since we hadn't seen anything like this in Uganda or Kenya. Not to say they're not there, but just being right next to our campground in a fairly small town meant that there seemed to be a little bit more structure in the allocation of national funds. 

Another popular activity was a tour given by the locals who ran our campground (Red Rocks) showing us how they made banana beer. Technically, it seemed more like banana wine, but we won't be sticklers. From cloaking us in the local garb (which seemed more for the photo opportunities than anything else) to mashing the bananas into juice; from grinding the sorghum flour direct from the plant to steeping in the same clay pots they'd been using it for decades, they kept us involved in every step of the process and certainly seemed happy to have us there, although the constant imbibing of the banana brew may have had something to do with their attitudes. After a tremendous buffet dinner, there was one activity left.

The campground had invited a speaker to share with us his experience in the Rwandan genocide, and from everything that I've heard, the previous iterations of this activity were heartbreaking and spellbinding. Unfortunately, the translator who usually assists was not available, and his replacement was not as helpful in getting across the emotions and impressions of someone who lived through such a horrifying experience. The next day we would learn more, but the "storytelling" activity turned out to be a real disappointment.

We made the beatiful drive from Ruhengheri to the capital city of Kigali, traveling through many of the winding curves and peaks that has led to Rwanda being dubbed "the land of a thousand hills". Usually time spent in the truck is looking down at a phone, book, or laptop, but most of us kept our heads up and enjoyed the beautiful vistas.

The modern city of Kigali was another reminder of how different Rwanda is, from their stocked supermarkets to their helmeted motorcyclists. Although we only got to spend one night here, it is high on the list of destinations to return to. Our only stop was at the Rwanda Genocide Museum, which was a sobering afternoon after spending weeks enjoying our time in Kenya and Uganda. 

Rwanda has a tortured past. The murder perpetrated by the Hutus against the Tutsis is a black mark on the human existence, and I encourage you to research on  your own, as a paragraph written on what is essentially a humorous travel blog reviewing travel experiences for gap year kids and wanderlusters will not only be not enough, it will be downright offensive to the memories of the souls lost less than a quarter century ago. When eight hundred thousand people are struck down, many by their friends and neighbors; when an influx of five thousand soldiers from the United Nations (the same number sent to escort foreign nationals out of the country) could have stopped the injustice; when we say we will never forget and then it happens again and again, it is a sobering reminder of exactly what man can do.