How I fell in love with Rwanda at first sight…

The thought of travelling Africa for the first time, evoked in me mixed feelings. While I was excited about visiting a new country, the thoughts of its difficult past, of war and conflict, poverty, disease and other stories that I often read, kept me guessing what the travel had to offer. So, a week before I embarked on my Journey to Rwanda and Uganda, I kept reading as much as I can about these countries, their history, economic order and culture. While information helped, I won’t deny a sense of unease while boarding my plane from New Delhi.

Couched on the plane seat, I thought to myself maybe it’s thought of being in a new order that was discomforting than anything else. I closed my eyes in anticipation of next ten days.

In the morning as I stepped out of the plane in Addis Ababa, a whiff of nice cool breeze, clear blue sky and surrounding greenery of the mountains in a shot sucked out all my discomfort. Escaping the scorching summer sun of end March in Delhi was such a relief. I checked out on weather predictions for my destination -Kigali, Rwandan capital, it said max 26- min 16 for a week, with some showers. It’s going to be exciting I thought, a good summer break away from dust and traffic of Delhi. Thought of rain and chill was so assuaging to nerves.

Rwanda by plane

Another thing I guess that stuck familiarity and put me at ease, was the airport terminal. Globalization funnily enough as left no distinction of the airport infrastructures and shops around, you immediately feel you’re in a familiar surrounding! I had a good five hours between my connecting flight, and spent my time chit-chatting with shop owners trying to familiarize myself a little more about the country. The morning rush at the airport grew quieter by noon you could hear tapping of shoes of flight stewards walking by. Sitting in the chair and gazing through the glass planes, far off wavy mountains seemed like inviting you – happily, I thought, I was going to country of thousand mountains – Rwanda.

The airport in Kigali took me by surprise, a small one, still untouched by modern symmetrical glass & metal structures, cozy and informal. The driver who came for pick up greeted with a broad smile, when I waved my hands seeing my nameplate in his hand. “Welcome to Kigali”, he said. While driving down the clean and neatly laid mountainous roads towards the hotel, he said he was worried as he was late for pick up due to traffic. All the heads of African state were in Kigali for a three-day free trade summit, he said and the increased security took time to navigate through the roads.

I remembered reading stories of rapid economic progress of Rwanda post 1993 genocide. So, here I come, at a historic moment when Africa is charting a new course of economic progress by creating a single unified market! The timing of my visit, I thought, couldn’t have been better.

Fruit market

Everything I saw while driving to the hotel, narrated a story that was completely different from what I had imagined. Neat roads, clean pavements, organized houses, modern commercial buildings, shopping centers and greenery all around, I felt like I was in one of the most beautiful and prosperous mountain city. Wavy terrains offered a panoramic view of the surrounding mountains and being there makes you feel as if you are in its lap. Nature has poured its beauty in abundance into this small African country, and its people.

Just 100 meters before the car turned for the hotel a familiar Hindi sounding name- Khana Khazana drew my attention. Indian restaurant in Africa- what is the connect? I wondered. Tired I left it for exploration later. I was guided to a cozy hotel room by an ever-cheerful attendant, who signed off by saying enjoy your stay in Kigali. I said to myself, yes indeed.

That evening an acquaintance of mine came to see me and took me out for dinner. What would you prefer – Indian or local cuisine, he asked? Surely local came my instant reply. We drove to a nearby restaurant, Pili- Pili, Pili in local language which means chilly. Tired of long journey, the fish soup, with cold breeze on face and overseeing the lighted Kigali city and from top was an absolute delight and refreshing.

The stay in Kigali city was full of fun and learning. The tranquility of the city in the evening, walking on the streets at night, frequenting various restaurants, visiting local markets, enjoying banana chips and avocado are something I will not be forgetting soon. Rwanda, the hotel receptionist, proudly said was one of the safest city in Africa and one can roam around freely in the middle of night, no problem!  Indeed, no problem soaking in the tranquility of mountain city with cool breeze at night.

Rwanda by night

The countryside was even more enchanting and beautiful. Untouched by modern brick and mortar construction, the virginity of the green surrounding, flowing mountainous rivers and languid strolling of locals along the red mud roads, made me wonder how rich people were to be endowed with such freshness and beauty of the nature. I was told about jungle safari where you get to spend a day with a gorilla! Although it was a missed opportunity in this trip, I hope I’m lucky to experience that in my next trip. Someone packing your bags for there, surely should not give this a miss, hearing it was such a thrill!

Writing about Rwanda would be incomplete without narrating its strong connect with Indians and my experience after visiting the genocide memorial, located right in the heart of Kigali. An Indian restaurant drew my attention on the very first day of Kigali visit. In an exploration visit to local market, to my wonder I came across many shops with Indian traders. A significant chunk of trade and commerce in Rwanda is dominated by Indians. There is a thriving business community of Indians who have been there, living for generations. Bollywood movies, other than business communities, have a strong presence. Khans are ever popular and Salman Khan leads the way with his charm and following among the youth.

Courtyard_of_Genocide_Memorial_Church01
Image courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

The hotel receptionist suggested me that I should visit the Genocide memorial before leaving. During my college days we often heard about Rwandan genocide, something we thought was terrible. The scale of horror I don’t think I could have ever grasped without visiting the memorial. The memorial depicts story and politics of infighting among two tribes- Hutus and the Tutsis that took a million of Rwandan’s life in 10 days! Tranquility and peace prevails in the country today and Rwanda is a story of turn around and economic miracle in Africa. This they have achieved through sheer ingenuity, hard work and determination. The genocide memorial is a stark reminder of what a country and its people shouldn’t ever be doing- fighting amongst themselves.

It was last day of my visit and I came completely exhausted emotionally, out of the memorial. On my drive back to the hotel, partially overcast sky started drizzling. Thoughts of past and new order of hope crossed my mind as I drove across the city’s convention centre, president’s house, modern five-star hotels, fountains and parks. By the time I reached hotel the drizzle had stopped and the crimson sun across the mountain was kissing its goodbye for the day. The light and rain left a trail of beautiful rainbow on the northern sky. A rainbow possibly conveying- split we are beautiful colours and combined we are a majesty.  Rwanda is a perfect soup for the soul, looking out for hope.

— Text and Images by Biswarup Banerjee

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