What keeps us going? the French adventurer-writer, Sylvain Tesson, asked during his six-month solo winter stay on Lake Baikal that led to his exquisite book, Dans les forêts de Sibérie/Consolations of the Forest: Alone in a Cabin in the Middle Taiga. “It’s thanks to the beauty of the world and the profound feeling that we haven’t seen everything yet, there’s still so much to see, that the harvest is not over. This is very consoling,” he writes.
Consolation is an understatement for those of us who live to travel and travel to live. How marvellous to discover this gem of a country called Rwanda! Dubbed as “Switzerland of Africa,” it is strikingly green and clean, hilly and picturesque. Tiny, landlocked, a dwarf compared to her neighbours – Uganda to the North, Tanzania to the East, Burundi to the South, and DR Congo to the West – Rwanda is an uncommon destination that some might have a hard time locating on a world map, except for the 1994 tragedy that put this tiny country at the centre of world news. Over two and a half decades have since passed and Rwanda went through a miraculous rebirth process including national reconciliation, healing, education, and rebuilding that has been hailed as a model of post-conflict development worldwide.
I arrive in deserted Kigali on a Sunday morning during full lockdown and check in a government-designated hotel (excellent Corina Guest House, run by Andrew) for 24h quarantine while waiting for my test results. Rwanda’s stringent Covid regime is not for the faint-hearted! A pre-departure as well as arrival PCR tests are required. All cross-district public transport has been banned, and each trip necessitates an online movement clearance application that includes hotel confirmation as well as a negative Covid test. To protect their treasures, all national parks also require a negative Covid PCR test within 72 hours. Masking becomes a civic duty that Rwandans take seriously. And zero partying after 7pm under strictly enforced curfew. Talk about prevention! Result? Lower Covid mortality rate than even Hong Kong. What a feat for a tiny, resource-poor African country that put other countries to shame!
Covid arithmetic – moving around the country, visiting a maximum amount of parks while minimizing expensive tests, but without feeling hurried – dictats my itinerary. I immediately head to the Volcanoes National Park while my test result is still valid. Gorilla trek or not, that’s the question? I bite the bullet, with a USD1500 hole in the bank account, for an-hour long once-in-a-lifetime encounter with the peaceful and handsome Amahoro family. To recuperate from too-frequent invasive nose swabs, I spend a blissful week in Gisenyi and Kibuye on Lake Kivu before using my pandemic-atrophied muscles in the magnificent Nyungwe Forest National Park where the chimps live. I stop by tranquil former capital, Huye/Butare, and make a detour to Nyanza to visit the former kings’s palace before returning to Kigali, post-lockdown. If this sounds straightforward, it isn’t, but with a bit of tenacity, it could be done!
Everywhere you turn in Musanze, gateway to the Volcanoes National Park, you are surrounded by the impressive Virunga massif with five dormant volcanoes on the Rwandan side and an active sixth in neighbouring Congo. With ultra-rich volcanic soil, you find the tastiest Irish (potatoes) and abundant harvest of everything in this region. It is sorghum season and the countryside resembles a Cezanne painting. Locals push their heavy bikes piled with home-brewed banana beer and loads of Irish to the nearest market. The approach to the gorilla trek at the base of Mt. Bisoke is a scenic drive, passing morning tea-pickers and young farm boys in the shadow of Mt. Sabyinyo [old men’s teeth!], Muhabura, and Karisimba, the highest peak in Rwanda (4507m).
Nothing prepares you for a close encounter with a gorilla! The much coveted permits, normally snatched up months in advance, are now not only at my disposal; I am treated to the unthinkable luxury of an exclusive tour to a gorilla family (worth USD10,000, I am told!). Unlike more affordable treks in Uganda or DR Congo, gorilla sightings within the sprawling Volcanoes National Park are “guaranteed,” to ensure that you remember more than just fresh gorilla poop, but no one could tell how long the hike would be: a short trek if you are lucky, or the whole day if the families are high up in the volcano foraging for out-of-season food. I am ready to hike the entire Virunga massif if need be…!
At 9 in the morning, we start negotiating the jungle along the trail to Mt. Bisoke. My guide, Placide, is in constant communication with the gorilla trackers (what an enviable profession!) through their walkie talkies. “Hello, sweeties, are you there? Over, over!”
I plod along, knee-deep in stinging nettles, until Placide stops, barely half an hour in. Catching my breath and wiping the sweat off my brows, I turn my head and here he is! A magnificent, GIGANTIC male adult blackback gorilla, Berwa, 2m from me! The park regulation is to never get within 10m from one; he feels like a first bonus! He stays there, solo, for a long while, before casting a tender look my way that almost brings me to tears…
Then the trackers show us the way to a sort of clearing. And ta-da, the whole handsome family is there, enjoying a mid-morning snack!
After a happy meal, they lounge in the shade where they play catch, going round and round… An adult blackback stares at me with intensely curious, almost interrogative eyes, as if to say, Oh, I haven’t seen you for a long while? Where have you been all this time?! Placide thinks he is seeing himself through my lens! Then, he starts beating his chest, a sign of sexual attraction…! I return his affectionate gaze with a few baritone Ummm-ummm, a vocalization that our guide has taught us to reassure him that we are friends. He shoots me a million-dollar “je t’aime de tout mon coeur” look! What an encounter!
But the highlight is yet to come. As the hour-long audience is up and I begin to retrace our steps – still processing the utter awe and incredible joy – I find myself FACE TO FACE with the family chief that I have only glimpsed from the back till then! I am literally standing on the dominant silverback’s way! Given this is his territory, I grab Placide’s hand and beat an immediate retreat to my right, yielding to his fast approach. The last ten minutes of tête-à-tête with Gahinga are indescribable. Ah, nature’s infinite power and mysterious connectedness! Gorilla protection has come a long way since the days of Dian Fossey, an American primatologist and conservationist murdered by poachers back in 1985. There are only a thousand remaining mountain gorillas in the world spread throughout the Virunga volcanoes, half of which in Rwanda. How privileged to have seen 23 out of the beautiful 32-member family of Amahoro – meaning peace – that was habituated after the genocide.
The amazing gorilla encounter leaves me in a state of awe for days. For the rest of the week I do not do much except stuffing myself with generous Rwandan buffet to catch up on lost weight from hard travels in Ethiopia and soaking up the tranquil vibes of Musanze. There’s a beautiful Inshuti Arts center, founded by sculptor, Kalungi Godfrey, and run by a young local visual artist, Hodari Olivier who created a Rwandan street children’s art project. I take an enjoyable motor taxi ride through bucolic countryside to visit Red Rocks social enterprise, established by visionary Gregory Bakunzi about a decade ago to promote ecotourism and community empowerment. I stay at his Amahoro Guest House in the pleasant company of Norbert, most generous manager whose life’s struggles from being an AIDS orphan to a house cleaner before his current position is an inspiring textbook African story.
From Musanze, it’s a short hour ride to the beautiful twin lakes, Burera and Ruhondo, where I fancy putting my bags down and settling in nicely in the sublime Virunga Lodge until real life beckons me again and all I would have to do is just use the convenient helicopter pad!
In Gisenyi, I take a sunset boat ride on Lake Kivu, busy snapping a few quick shots sans mask and life jacket when marine police pursues us before we even reach the border of DR Congo. Oh, maybe the lake is closed, I thought!
Do you know how to swim? the police asks.
Not to Congo, but yes… I reply.
Do you have insurance? then he inquires.
Oui, oui, I mumble without being sure whether he means boat or life insurance!
Are we in trouble? I ask our guide.
No, if you were, they would just contact your Embassy! he reassures me. He does not know that our government has actually advised us not to go ANYWHERE, certainly not Rwanda with its volatile situation with neighbouring DRC and political tensions with Uganda, armed incursions from rebel groups, land border closure without notice, poor dirt roads, careless driving, frequent police checkpoints, and irresistible wild beasts!
Captain Dieudonne steers us towards Congo anyway, in the very same body of water where some Tutsis fled and survived the genocide in 1994. Then, past a methane gas extraction station and beautiful lakefront hotels, we land in a local village in Rubona Hill for no more than 58 seconds before locals demand entry fees to the closed hot springs that our guide rightfully refuses to pay. Upon return, I enjoy sambaza, a local version of fish and chips, courtesy of Marie-Rose, the charming owner of Hotel Musanto.
Gisenyi is only steps away from DR Congo, but I decide to give up the idea of trekking the active Nyirgongo volcano in Virunga National Park after a murderous attack on rangers in January. Instead, I check in the heavenly Spa Shallum in Kibuye, run by a gentle Ugandan student, Isack, who came to visit his masseuse aunt last March and has been stuck ever since after Rwanda closed its border with Uganda. A flight ticket to Kampala would be prohibitively expensive, so for now, he learns how to swim and spoils his guests with boundless generosity. Oh, Lake Kivu, surrounded by little pristine islands, amazing wildlife, picturesque traditional fishing boats, and enticing lodges! How much does it cost to rent a lake-front cottage here? 60,000RFr/USD60 apparently. What? I want to head back to Volcanoes NP and trade my gorilla permit for two years on Lake Kivu!
I linger too long on idyllic Lake Kivu while my Covid test expires and the movement clearance gets denied. The local hospital does not do PCR test, so it’s high time to move on. We’re on our way to the next hospital, I would tell the police. The scenic road along Lake Kivu is serpentine and there has been unseasonable torrential downpour.
For the next chimp trek adventure in Nyungwe Forest National Park, I set off at 7am to budget for enough time to reach Gisakura, 100km away, take another pricey nose swab, and reserve a permit at the park office before curfew. At 8am, the road is blocked by the first landslide where two trucks were stuck, followed by a second, more massive one 500m away. We have three options: take a long, 7-8h detour (100,000RFr/USD100 more, my driver eagerly proposes); change our itinerary, adding more days, km, and haggling; or stay put, not knowing whether we could pass that day. I vote for the minimalist solution and put on my headphones to listen to Fareed Zakaria’s apocalyptic Ten Lessons for a Post-Pandemic World, all the while eyeing the glacial progress of road clearance Rwandan style, enjoying freshly grilled tilapia from a local fisherfolk and chewing peanuts I buy from a child vendor all afternoon.
The road is finally cleared at 5:30pm as Zakaria lambasts his fellow Americans in his Conclusion. Trying to make up time, my driver speeds along in fifth gear when he should be in 3rd. Unbeknownst to me, my boat guide in Kibuye – now my driver – actually does not know how to manoeuvre a stick shift! He is in 3rd when he should be in 1st, in neutral when he should be in rear! The 1991 Toyota jeep rides like an antique, huffing and puffing, shrieking and jerking… before giving out altogether just as I cross into the Risizi district, trying to beat curfew. The already long day now seems interminable. Luckily, it turns out to be just a disconnected battery. We are, of course, stopped by the police and have neither a clearance nor a valid Covid paper, and my phone shows 6:58pm! Dr. James kindly waits for us at the District Hospital and it is well past curfew by the time we finished the test. My fantasy of being out when everybody else’s in turns out to be a surrealistic experience, stumbling along an eerily deserted, foggy forest highway with ghostly lone figures dashing home…
The steep, slippery slopes in the Nyungwe Forest National Park test my left knee that I thought has healed. What does one not do to catch a glimpse of one of those 500 endangered chimps! Setting the alarm at 5am and reaching the trail head by 7am, I start hiking, not having the slightest clue on which patch of this sprawling forest our little friends are. After a false start – the chimps move fast[er than us!], Damour, my guide, says – we take a no less treacherous trail for two interminable hours where voracious ants crawl up my pants faster than we can crush them! What a relief when the trackers finally spot a family of 18 (!) of different ages and sizes – plus plenty of colobus monkeys and uncountable birds – busy feeding on ficus fruits. The chimps sing/speak in high pitch, more like postmodern Philip Glass kind of transcendental tunes, compared to the solemn and discreet Beethoven’s Moonlight sonata of gorilla vocalizations. The cute fellows and the light are not cooperative. I take about a hundred shots of Curious George silhouettes hanging from ficus monkey bars until, lo and behold, a few take pity on me and climb down to get closer. Ah, what exquisite creatures!
The former capital, Huye/Butare, is a pleasant city populated by the best and brightest scholarship students at the prestigious University of Rwanda. The first-class ethnographic museum is a gem and the King’s Palace museum in Nyanza exquisite. I have a glimpse of how the last king lived in harmony with beautiful traditions including the company of royally entertained inyambo holy cows – sung and danced to apparently! – before the Belgians destituted him and the unfathomable tragedy of genocide finished off his family.
My last week in Kigali is icing on a cake. Home away from home, Mamba Club keeps the venerable Canadian tradition of “all-day breakfast.” Avocado toasts and ginger tea at 3pm, prepared by much-loved Desire, never feels as homey. I could hardly find any reason to wake up except to take a refreshing dip in the pool, watching local film crew make youtube exercise videos to take full advantage of lockdown business. A Sunday at the Pool in Kigali meant something radically different, far more sinister, twenty-seven years ago in the novel written by Montreal writer Gil Courtemanche: the unfolding of a national genocide. Through the undulating hills of Kigali, I take a motor taxi to visit the memorials of Nyamata, Ntarama, and the capital city. Never in my life have I been in proximity with as many human remains buried in these sites (of a staggering quarter of a million), reminding me of the killing fields in Cambodia in which part of my extended family perished. How does one live – and love – again after such incalculable trauma? Is healing even possible? It is consoling to find the answer in the testimony of one of the survivors, Perpetue Mudede, who “finds happiness sitting beside her sadness.”
It’s hard to imagine what happened and the titanic grief, so little visible in such a gorgeous, gentle country with rolling green hills, bucolic tea and coffee plantations, cute endangered species, ancient forests and timeless lakes, rich traditions, and, above all, some of the most generous people I have ever met…
To me, Rwanda represents so many things. Miraculous rebirth of a nation, healing, love and forgiveness, the power of leadership and community cohesion, and an astounding development success story. Seasoned Rwandan journalist, Andrew Mwenda, knows what he means when he writes, “Rwanda may be the best place for a poor person to live.” While an average worker might earn less than USD100/month and there are still malnourished children and impoverished families like elsewhere, here almost all children go to school and 98% of Rwandans have access to universal health care!
Above all, I’m most impressed by the loving and generous spirit of this nation. Everyone – on whichever side – knows of an intimate genocide story. What happened – and the subsequent massive collective healing journey – belongs not only to Rwandans but to us all. As Mandela said, “If you want to make peace with your enemy, you have to work with your enemy. Then he becomes your partner.” The uniquely inspiring Rwandan peace journey teaches each of us to love better. I vote for giving Rwanda the next Nobel Peace Prize and divide up the million dollar to all Rwandans. Priceless eight symbolic cents of peace dividend a head!
Today, the sun rises on our land
Watered before with the blood
of our brothers
We hold hands together,
– Unnamed Rwandan poet, Kwibuka/Remember.
This story is part of a photography book, Timeless: A Year of Minimalist Travels Across Africa During the Pandemic. Through ten photo essays, this book brings to viewers vast tracts of geographical and socio-political landscapes: age-old medinas, Berber and Carthage ruins, and the desert dunes of the Great Sahara in Tunisia; the disappearing tribes of Omo Valley and fervent faith in Ethiopia; the endangered gorillas of the Virunga Massif and peace education in Rwanda; community living in Malawi; picture-perfect pastel-colored Ilha Mozambique; a post-colonial journey along the Senegal River and traditional life in Casamance; the old towns in The Gambia; the last great oases and “deadliest train ride” in Mauritania; the dying art of puppetry in Mali; and the irresistible temptations in No-Stress Cape Verde.
As Teju Cole writes in the Foreword for the 10th edition of Bamako Encounters, African Biennale of Photography in 2015, “Time, in multiplicate, is the African habitus.” The series explores rapidly changing African temporality based on ancestral, religious, colonial, social, digital, Anthropocene, and transnational time. It is at once a documentary photography journey – on history, memory, place, identity, modernity, and displacement – and a meditation on minimalist and “timeless” living.
5. On Board My Love: Mozambique
7. The Old Towns of The Gambia
8. The Last Great Oases in Mauritania
9. The Dying Art of Puppetry in Mali
10. Cape Verde: Islands of Temptations
All Content © 2023 by Jennifer Chan