“Me doy la vuelta y te vas.”
– Rapido, Brusco, Violento, Juan Magán, BnK
Rwanda brings to mind a dark, murky, and unpleasant past: memories of the genocide, still fresh in the national consciousness, usually surface whenever this country comes up. But my solo visit to Rwanda earlier this summer surprised me in the most pleasant of ways. Here I found the resilience of the human spirit; the power and beauty of forgiveness; and the indestructible will to emerge from the past rejuvenated and ready to build a promising future, as a phoenix rising from the ashes.
Rwanda seemed to me like the Singapore of East Africa. I was surprised by the general state of orderliness I saw everywhere — both in the cities and in the countryside — and the law-abiding nature of its people. In Rwanda, children are trained not to litter anywhere they please, which is why this has got to be one of the cleanest countries I’ve ever visited. Even the world’s most impressive megalopolis like London and Paris seem like a dump in comparison to clean Kigali. Their Franc is strong and steady — a sign of its healthy, rebuilding economy — and the cost of living, I found, was generally slightly pricier than its neighbors like Kenya or Uganda. But in Kigali, one does get all the luxuries of expat life — Korean restaurants, hip cafés, and bookstores abound. Which was why, after a few days of gallivanting around Kigali, I had to seek new excitements elsewhere.
I treated Rwanda like a testing ground of sorts. My brother had applied for the East African Tourist Visa for me, and though I had no concrete plans to travel to Rwanda, it was good to have that right to enter anyway. At night in my bed in the village back in Kenya, I would flip through the pages of my Lonely Planet East Africa guidebook with my torchlight, and tried to imagine what it would be like to roam the streets of Kigali, and to visit the volcanoes in the Virungas. I initially felt I lacked the courage to place to explore Rwanda on my own, but a desire to escape from some undesirable company led me to the path I was meant to choose — I decided that I would see Rwanda solo, come what may.
Holiday week came around, and I took a ten-hour bus from downtown Kampala to the Nyabugogo bus station in Kigali. The border-crossing at Katuna was fairly straightforward. Although luggages are usually checked by customs for any plastic bags — which, I guiltily admit, I did carry in my own — the lady officer, visibly discouraged by the straps and zips of my backpack, merely waved it away. I gladly reclaimed my luggage. I later discovered that this was apparently a crime punishable by a hefty fine.
As soon as we entered Rwanda, the air felt more pure and pristine, spiced with a tinge of eucalyptus in the air. Reminiscences of Australia wafted through my mind. Rwanda is not called “Le pays de mille collines” (“The land of a thousand hills”) for nothing. The road from Katuna onwards was winding and punctuated by exciting ascents and gradual descents, but surprisingly infrastructurally sound. The Chinese definitely constructed excellent civil engineering wonders across the Rwandan countryside, which made this one of the most pleasant bus rides I’ve ever been on in my entire life.
Half of the ride to Kigali, I had half of my head virtually outside the window — my eyes never tired of feasting on the calming views of terraced farmland and evergreen tea plantations. Scenes of village life flash by — farmers cycling uphill with sacks of potato at the back; children playing soccer on a field overlooking the valley below; women in colorful kitenge (traditional cloth), as pictured above, carrying toddlers on their backs and various farm produce on their heads. The communal nature of village life makes it difficult to discern one face from the crowd. But when I was on the Icyabarihira Island in the middle of Lake Ruhondo, my hijab and Asian complexion immediately betrayed my foreignness, which made a simple stroll down the village’s main road never a lonely affair.
I have gained from Rwanda a greater appreciation of the tranquil countryside, which was a welcome and much-needed escape from the hustle and bustle of Kisii and Kampala. I was also grateful for the opportunity to roam Rwanda solo, and be assured of my safety — I probably feel more concerned crossing Jesus Green here in Cambridge after midnight than I do riding the back of a moto taxi into the depths of Kimoni village in Ruhengeri in the middle of the night. Safe, clean, friendly — this makes this unique country every solo female traveler’s dream.
Rwanda, you can certainly be sure of my return, inchaAllah.