Wednesday, November 17, 2010

The Real Rwanda - Beyond Kigali

Leaving the capital, Kigali, by road, the overwhelming feeling is of surprise and wonder. Rwanda is completely African and yet not, at the same time. The little landlocked country, sandwiched between Uganda, and the Democratic Republic of Congo, Tanzania and Burundi, has an excellent tarred road network linking towns and there is cellphone reception all over.

As you travel south from Kigali to the intellectual capital Butare, with a fine university and even finer market that bustles with second-hand clothes, fresh bananas and household utensils. The architecture hints that missionaries have been here too.

Venture to Lake Kivu on the border with DRC. A few dozen boats lie just offshore, parked in perfectly neat rows, and the fishermen on board are rhythmically beating the water with whip-like fishing rods, as if chasing sand from a carpet. The cheerful fishermen are merrily catching tilapia, a staple food for people living around the lake.

The ancient Nyungwe rainforest is one of the oldest in Africa and is today the largest single tract of montane forest remaining in East and Central Africa, covering nearly 1000 km2. It’s a true rainforest because it receives over 2 000 mm of rain per year and boasts magnificent biodiversity.

There are 75 mammal species just in Nyungwe, which include 13 species of primate and a population of 500 chimpanzees; 275 bird species; 120 species of butterfly and over 100 species of orchid. This forest canopy comprises 200 tree species, most often cloaked in soft cloud.

With most of Rwanda lying at between 1 500 m and 2 500 m above sea level, much too high for malaria, Akagera is quite different. A place of low-lying undulating plains and woodland, dotted with lakes, it’s a stark contrast to Nyungwe and the Virungas with very different offerings too, a variety of unusual antelope which include Defassa waterbuck, topi, Roan antelope, Bohor reedbuck, oribi and sitatunga.

This unusual and blossoming country has not forgotten its tempest past. The atrocities of the 1994 genocide are remembered in the numerous memorials dotted across the country, which honour the million Tutsis who died in the 100-day genocide. Mass graves have been opened and bodies displayed in stark racks in cool cement rooms. The sentiment is similar to the holocaust memorials in Germany; the intention is also the same.

Rwandans are completely united in looking forward and forging a positive future, ensuring history never repeats itself. For over a decade now, Rwanda has been perfectly peaceful as genocide perpetrators languish in jails.

Rwanda has a new lease on life, a new president, a new flag and only Rwandans; no tribal differences are ever noted. The country is the epitome of peaceful coexistence, and increasing foreign investment bears testimony to this stability. International hotel chains have built in Kigali and along Lake Kivu so tourism is growing accordingly.

Rwandans are doing a remarkable job in turning tragedy into prosperity. Everyone wears a smile, a positive attitude and a work ethic that’s hard to match in Africa. Rwanda is a modern tale of a Phoenix from the ashes on a continent that often has little positive news.

Words by Keri Harvey

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