I met my African queen and her name is Elizabeth. Seriously, I don’t think I have seen a cuter little girl since my little sister entered the world. I met Elizabeth at my last dinner in Uganda with Dickens, a good friend that I made on this trip, and his family at their home. Dickens recently planted a church in one of the neediest areas of Kampala. They began meeting as a small group under a tree and it has grown to the point where the people requested that he start a church.
Everyone has heard the stories of problems in Africa. Sometimes I think it is all we think of when we hear about this continent. One of the questions that makes me internally roll my eyes is, “Africa, isn’t it dangerous over there?”
What we fail to consider is that Africa is a continent, not a country. It is very large, more than three times the size of the USA, and very diverse. There are politically unstable areas and peaceful areas, as there are in most parts of the world. There are certain themes, however, that emerge when one analyzes troubled areas and situations around this vast continent. The riots that just broke out in Kampala highlight one of the primary issues that continues to cause problems in Africa.
After this experience I think I’m one step closer to being a true African. I took an eleven hour bus trip from Kigali to Kampala, all while riding on the floor. To be more specific, I was sitting on the engine cover, slowly cooking along the way.
I’ve never had trouble finding a seat on a bus here in East Africa but today when I showed up for the last buses to Kampala they were all full. Then a confident man strolled up asking if I was heading to Kampala and then motioning for me to follow him. Along the way he said something about Kampala Coach being the best bus and having air conditioning. For a few seconds I almost believed this sales pitch aimed at naive muzungus. I think what he meant by air conditioning was that the windows opened.
Can you imagine losing every member of your extended family in a matter of weeks? To be the only survivor among the people you loved the most? This is exactly what the young man in this picture experienced and I sat there listening to him sing about it. Through the help of a translator I learned that the lyrics went something like this;
When I remember my past
My heart is filled with praise
Because God did the impossible for me
I remember the people who died all around me
But after they tried to kill me several times I survived
And that is impossible
Informed by a mere paragraph in Lonely Planet and a quick glimpse at their website, I set out to find the Solace Ministries Guesthouse in Kigali, Rwanda. The vague map in my travel guide pointed in the right direction without actually pinpointing the location. Passing through multiple neighborhoods, making several phone calls, and asking anyone he could find, my moto-taxi gradually narrowed down the spot until we had found the place.
Introducing myself to Denise, the manager of the guesthouse, I mentioned that I sometimes photograph and write about vital causes that I find in East Africa. She then took me to the office of the founder and director of the ministry, John Gakwandi. Listening to what must have sounded like a bizarre story of how I found my way to his organization, John welcomed me and introduced me to their work.
Kigali has a fresh feeling to it. There is a chill breeze that carries minimal smog. Colors are vibrant and unhidden by pollution. Built on rolling hills, Kigali seems to naturally connect urban with rural. It is as though the cityscape is nestled into the countryside. The rise and fall of the local terrain means that in many parts of the city you get a fantastic view of the surrounding area.At first you almost forget that Rwanda is in East Africa. The place is too clean and the roads too smooth. Unlike the surrounding region, Rwanda actively guards against pollution. The moto-taxi drivers, as boda bodas are called here, all wear helmets and carry an extra one that their rider is required to wear. I had to check and then double-check to confirm that cars actually drive on the right side of the road here. The people are beautiful and have a distinctive look from what I have seen throughout the rest of East Africa.
Perhaps it is just the areas of Kigali that I have been passing through but the people seem quite modern and disinterested in the presence of foreigners. The dress here is Westernized like normal but more current than elsewhere. Increasing prices, new high rise buildings, and signs of rapid development all suggest that Rwanda’s, or at least Kigali’s, budding economy may be moving toward affluence in the years to come. I can see why people are referring to Rwanda as the prime example of African progress.
Two things that we can hope and pray for in Rwanda are first, that the development that has benefitted the lives of those who are better off in Kigali will reach the poor around the country and improve their situations as well. Secondly, that Rwanda will overcome the tribal conflicts that have plagued its past so that all of the progress of the last 15 years will not be lost again to the problems of the past. Kigali may well be East Africa’s finest city and from the signs of things this place is going to keep on getting better.
Here I am at the Hotel des Mille Collines, sipping a cup of tea and pondering the tragic events that unfolded here only 15 years ago. Amidst chirping birds, laughing people, quality food and the luxurious atmosphere of this place, it is hard to imagine that hundreds of Rwandans once hid here to escape the genocide of 1994 that claimed more than one million lives in one hundred days.
As depicted in the movie Hotel Rwanda, Paul Rusesabagina became the provisional hotel manager of the Mille Collines at when those above him evacuated the country at the onset of the crisis. Opening the hotel doors to refugees fleeing for their lives, Paul managed to hold off the militias seeking to kill them by paying them with the money and alcohol that he had left at his disposal. Paul saved lives through his heroic efforts and finally he and his family were evacuated in time to spare their own lives as well.
Just prior to coming here I visited the Kigali Memorial Center. Nothing could have prepared me for what I saw there. I’ve read about the genocide before but to see the story unfold in such a detailed and graphical way is heartbreaking. I don’t see how one could pass through this memorial without weeping. The tragic loss of lives and the barbaric efforts of those who so brutally took them are unimaginable. Pictures of children who were later hacked to death, the stories of survivors who lost their entire extended families, and quotes from the perpetrators and the rest of the world that stood by, all need to sink in. We desperately need to realize the gravity of the plight of suffering people around the world. One of the things that pained me the most was learning that there were at least eight different massacres of Tutsis in the three years leading up to the genocide. Continuous appeals for help from people within Rwanda who saw the trouble at hand were ignored by the world until it was too late.
To keep this tragedy from causing despair there are heroic stories to consider as well. Besides Paul here at the Mille Collines, there were other Rwandans who risked their lives to save others. Frodouald Karuhije initially dug a trench on his property to hide himself. When he discovered though that it was his Tutsi neighbors who were in imminent danger, he decided to use the trench to hide them instead. “He put planks on top, then green banana leaves, and on top of the leaves he piled earth, and then planted sweet potatoes all along the top of the trench” (Thomas Ngirabakunzi). He saved the lives of 14 Tutsis while they were in his care for over a month. His sister cooked for them and his 12 year old daughter took food to the refugees by hiding it in a dustbin.
Damas Gisimba received around 400 orphans, refugees, and employees into his orphanage at Nyamirambo. Also rescuing the living who were thrown in mass graves, this Rwandan hero managed with help to evacuate the vast majority of these people to a safe place. In appreciation for his kindness a Rwandan said, “I can’t find the exact words to express how I feel about Gisimba’s actions. He protected more than 400 human lives. A love sacrifices itself in that way is beyond my comprehension… I don’t know if you’d call it an act of heroism or an act of love.”
In the face of such tragedy I am grieved, in the light of such heroism, I am inspired. It is time to awaken from apathy, to respond to the great needs in front of us that left to themselves will only grow worse. Ignorance is no longer an excuse. The world is flat and smaller than it has ever been, meaning that modern communications and the internet in particular, have made it possible to know what is happening around the world in real time. May we learn from Hotel Rwanda not to run from or ignore impending disaster, but step instead in front of its path and protect those who cannot protect themselves.
I have long desired to visit Rwanda. It wasn’t clear if this trip would afford the proper circumstances for a visit or if it would be too far out of the way. Kigali, the capital city of Rwanda, requires a ten hour bus ride from Kampala and since there isn’t much public transport back to Kenya through Tanzania around the South of Lake Victoria, you have to bus back to Kampala again before heading East into Kenya. When I decided to go gorilla trekking, however, I realized that I would be taking a bus most of the way to Kigali by reaching my stop in Southwest Uganda.
The next question was, what would I do there? Besides adding to my country count and experiencing a new place, would there be some redeeming value to the additional time and expenses that I would incur? While reading through my Lonely planet travel guide, I noticed with surprise that under their accommodations for Kigali they featured a guesthouse run by a Christian ministry. Solace Ministries, it said, used the funds raised by the guesthouse to purchase the ARVs, AIDS medication, for women who had been raped during the genocide. Realizing that this was exactly the kind of ministry that I have been looking for to support in East Africa, it was settled and I had to go.
There are rare moments in life where we have to remind ourselves to pause and take it all in. To realize that what is happening right now is unlikely to ever be repeated. When the extraordinary overpowers the ordinary and leaves us in awe. This is how I felt while trekking through the tropical rain forest of Bwindi Impenetrable National Park en route to visit a group of endangered mountain gorillas. The 13 mountain gorillas of the Bitukura family are among the 710 or so left in the world, all of which reside in either Bwindi or the Virunga Volcanoe range in the region bordering Uganda, Rwanda, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Referred to by Lonely Planet as “One of life’s great experiences”, seeing a family of mountain gorillas close range in their own domain is truly awe-inspiring.
One thing I have learned about traveling here and this is perhaps the most important tip I could give to one interested in traveling at least this part of Africa, is that the old cliché is never truer than it is here that “it’s not what you know but who you know.” People are very helpful here about offering advice but the conflicting information you’ll receive here is truly remarkable.
For instance, the other day I was talking to a tour operator who told me to take a particular bus. While on my way there I met another Ugandan friend who called his friend who works on these buses, only to find out that they don’t even travel to where I needed to go. So this new friend of a friend helped me to get to the right bus and through this round about process of “who you know” I managed to make it to my destination. The lesson from this is that Africa is a relational society and if you are going to make it here, you’ll need to be relational. Talk to and make friends with everybody you meet and in addition to the more enriching experience that results, they will help you find your way. This just might be one of the reasons I feel so at home in this place.