In the heart of Africa, there’s a tiny country that is leading the way in terms of sustainability and ecotourism. In the lead up to COP26, many big countries have been touting their ecotourism credentials. Rwanda has been leading the way since before it was fashionable.
But you might know it only because of genocide.
Rwanda suffered one of the worst genocides in history, and that happened only in 1994.
When you travel there now, there’s an incredible positivity — but 20 years ago, 30% of the population were lost in a dreadful civil war between two people who are actually the same people. It’s harrowing to think of that.
Impressive environmental policies
But to see the progress the country has made is eye-opening.
I always remember Rwanda for the friendliness of the people. They are open, interested, curious, and want to help all the time.
Then you see some of the policies they’ve introduced and think, why doesn’t the rest of the world do this?
It’s been a long time since plastic bags were declared illegal in Rwanda. When you go through customs and they check your luggage, they take any plastic bags off you, because you simply aren’t allowed to take single-use plastic into the country.
And when you are there, you see how clean the country is. Rwanda is probably the cleanest country I’ve ever been to, and Kigali the cleanest capital city I’ve ever visited. It’s spotless.
It makes you think, why isn’t it like this all over the world? Why are people still throwing trash in the streets in so many places, and here’s this tiny country that just got it right?
But that’s not all.
Conservation in Rwanda has been brilliant.
This is a country that only 25 years ago went through genocide and civil war. There were so many people who left their homes and became refugees, and so much changed so quickly.
And in times of war, animals don’t get any say. In all the wars in the world, animals become food — and the land they are on is taken by people.
But Rwanda successfully reintroduced a lot of different species. You can now do a big five safari in Rwanda Akagera National Park. You can go there and see lions — lions that had disappeared for 25 years, but have now been reintroduced.
In fact, one great experience you can live there is to spend the day with a local researcher.
You can follow a conservationist in their work in Akagera, and get a sense of the day-to-day of managing that national park, protecting those animals. You can see how they found success, and learn what it takes to introduce those animals back to the wild.
But Rwanda’s most famous travel experience is not safari — it’s gorilla trekking.
This is one of only three countries in the world where you see mountain gorillas.
You can’t see mountain gorillas in the zoo. The world’s largest primates live only in the wild, in Rwanda, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
In Rwanda, you can land in Kigali, be in Volcanoes National Park within three hours, and go gorilla trekking the next day.
I’m not going to go into detail about gorilla trekking here, because if you’re interested in that, you can check this full article I dedicated exclusively to that.
But I think one of the challenges Rwanda faces in terms of tourism is that many people who go see the gorillas land in Kigali, spend two days, see the gorillas — and leave.
Yet there’s a lot more to see in the country.
Much more than gorillas
Akagera National Park, as I mentioned is a great safari destination — and like Volcanoes National Park, it’s only three hours from Kigali.
Then, if you love primates, you can see other species in Rwanda besides the gorillas. A good place to do that is a national park in the southwest of the country, called Nyungwe Forest.
There are only two lodges there, so there aren’t that many accommodation options yet, but the place is being developed.
And what’s great is that you are in the Congo Basin, so you can see many rare species of primates.
The most famous are the chimpanzees.
A typical thing to do is going to Nyungwe Forest and dedicating one day to trekking after chimpanzees. You get a special permit for that.
Then you spend your other day in Nyungwe walking through the forest, looking for different monkey species — like mangabeys — some of which are only found in this part of the world.
Another thing to do in Rwanda is seeing some of the genocide memorials. Although they’re harrowing, it’s a great insight into where the country has come from.
There’s the big national memorial in Kigali. It’s a difficult place to be, without doubt — walking above mass graves that contain hundreds of thousands of people. It’s tough to take in.
I also visited some of the smaller memorials. They are places where people haven’t changed anything since the genocide happened. One I remember visiting was a tiny school — just one brick school building. And it’s covered with the clothes and bones of people who were massacred. There’s a hole in the wall and you can see the atrocities through the marks on the walls. It’s truly difficult to take in, because it’s very real, very raw.
But that makes the rest of Rwanda so illuminating, because you see this happened so recently — and yet look at the country now.
If you want to see more culture — more of the Rwanda before the genocide — the best place to go is called Butare.
Butare is between Kigali and Nyungwe, so it’s a good stop off. And once there, you will learn about the Nyanza kings, and about how the country was before it was colonized.
Rwanda has a remarkable story.
Back in 1885, European leaders met at the Berlin Conference and drew up lines across a map of Africa, agreeing on who would own what piece of land. They sorted that out between themselves, and Africa was carved up. Rwanda was marked as German territory.
Except that in 1885, there wasn’t a single European who’d ever set foot in Rwanda.
It was only 10 years later that the first European even made it there. This gives you an indication of how remote the country is — and it also starts the story that leads up to the genocide.
In this, the change is again remarkable, because Rwanda is now accessible. They’ve got international flights coming into Kigali. And they’ve also got a great tourism industry that’s based on very authentic experiences, great people — and a very compact country.
Because Rwanda is truly small.
It’s maybe four hours across north to south, and another four hours east to west. It’s also got the best roads out of anywhere I’ve been in Africa — in fact, some of the best roads I’ve ever seen in the world are in Rwanda.
This is part of the surprise when you go there.
So it’s easy to get around in Rwanda, and do big game safari, see gorillas and chimpanzees, discover the history, both good and bad — all in one neat packaging, in one week.
But the highlight of your Rwanda trip may not be any of those. Maybe it will be something you never expected.
A country that’s got it right
For me, the highlight was my attempt to travel along Lake Kivu.
I had seen that there was a walking route along the lake, and that it took five days to walk it. There wasn’t much literature out there, and I had a very bad map, but still I thought I’d try it — it looked nice going on the lake.
But as I didn’t have that much time, I didn’t want to walk, so I decided to do what locals do in Rwanda — use public transport.
First I was in what they call a taxi — but it’s really a mini bus. The mini bus went to the end of the road and there we were on the lake — but the road didn’t go any further.
Then I got on the back of a motorbike. That’s kind of what a taxi is in Rwanda — it’s sitting on the back of somebody else’s motorbike.
And the motorbike went along a track — as far as the track went. By this time, it was hitting me that this was a walking route — there was no road to get along Lake Kivu.
Then some villagers invited us to an eating-house. I had some food and a Coke — which seemed to be the staple drink in Rwanda — while chatting to the villagers.
At that point, somebody came on a bigger motorbike and said he could take me. So we ended up swerving all the way through the bush, completely off-road, crossing fields, crossing a forest, me on the back of that guy’s motorbike.
We had a few minor crashes — the wheels slid and we fell off, but slowly. And then there was a huge electrical storm, with monsoon-type rain.
We ended up being invited into a villager’s house to wait for the rain to go. We were chatting, and everything was so friendly, so relaxed. When it stopped raining, we set off again.
It ended up taking 12 hours for us to go along Lake Kivu. Next time I go, I will go by foot.
But what impressed me was that it always felt so safe and welcoming. Even though I was in the middle of nowhere, I never felt panicked. I always felt a warmth about being in a completely random place where people were helping us.
So when I think of Rwanda, I don’t immediately think of the gorillas, chimpanzees or the genocide.
The first thing that comes to mind when I think of Rwanda is that trip along Lake Kivu.
Because Rwanda is a country that’s got it right. The people are chilled, everybody’s friendly and everybody’s going about their own thing.
They’re not making a fuss, they’re just doing what they need to do in the middle of Africa. They’re doing what they probably would have done always, if it hadn’t been for European leaders deciding that land was theirs before anyone had even visited.
Rwandans are just doing their thing. And by doing that they’re also helping to conserve nature and landscapes — to conserve a vision and a version of the world that we should achieve in other countries too.
By Stephen Bailey. Edited by Beatrice Becker.