3 mins

Wild Rwanda: in the garden of good and evil

Wanderlust visited Rwanda 10 years after the genocide ended, and was struck by its rapid transition from brutality to beauty


"Are there many animals here, Eric?" I asked my guide after our first hour's safari yielded only a distant sighting of an impala's derrière. "Plenty," he said, "we have many elephants, but they are hiding."

"What about giraffes - they can't be hiding?"

"Well... they seem to have disappeared today," Eric shrugged.

"And lions?"

"Very few these days," he said before launching a spirited counter-attack. "We don't have the Masai Mara's wildlife, but our landscape is very beautiful."

And he was right. From our position high in the Mutumba Hills we were overlooking a silvery necklace of lakes crossing the golden savannah far into neighbouring Tanzania. It was here that Eric spotted several burgundy-coloured roan, one of Akagera National Park's 11 species of antelope. And then the floodgates opened: topi, warthog, Burchell's zebra, baboon, bushbuck, vervet monkey - all followed in quick succession. Later, along Lake Hago's shoreline, we willed submersed hippos to sit up a bit so we could see more than just their nostrils.

A terrible history

It's a minor miracle Akagera has any wildlife left. In the aftermath of the Rwandan genocide, two-thirds of the park was given over to accommodating the mass of refugees. Yet, just ten years on, Akagera has reopened for safaris and is being promoted as part of the Rwandan government's drive to relaunch tourism.

That may sound like mission impossible, but Rwanda has undergone a remarkable recovery since the genocide of 1994. Last year's democratic elections produced a government represented by both Tutsis and Hutus, the rebel militias have been demobilised, and most refugees repatriated. Now, as Rwanda attempts to rebuild its shattered economy, tourism has been identified as a key strategy to alleviate poverty.

It certainly wasn't war-torn chaos that confronted me on arrival in the capital, Kigali - just a lively African city getting on with everyday life. It's not the most charismatic place; the sun's heat is pitiless and Congolese pop music - sometimes energising, often sleep-depriving - blares out regardless of the hour.

The city has its moments - I had a fascinating time at the colourful Nyabugogo market, where everything from gourds to goat's innards are traded - but one day in Kigali is long enough. After hippo-nostril-spotting in Akagera, I headed south to Nyungwe Forest National Park with my driver, Innocent.

Rwanda is tiny

It's about a ninth of the size of the UK - so few journeys are too arduous, yet they are always absorbing. Endless streams of human traffic flow along the verges of every road like colonies of industrious ants.

We passed bicycles absurdly overloaded with green bananas being forced uphill like stubborn mules and ridden downhill like wayward stallions; barefoot children marching to school in spotless blue uniforms; women bearing heavy water-containers on their heads with poise no ladies' finishing school could ever teach; and wishbone-horned Ankole cattle being nudged along by their herders.

Less expected, though, were the processions of shaven-headed men in bright pink pyjamas. These génocidaires are Hutu prisoners either sentenced or awaiting trial for their crimes. A decade on, more than 100,000 alleged génocidaires crowd Rwanda's jails. Now the government is urging them to confess and seek reconciliation with their victims' families. Gacacas, grass-roots community courts advertised everywhere on harrowing billboards, are being set up to tackle the backlog.

Innocent and I eventually reached Nyungwe where a spread of fried chicken, ugali (doughy maize meal) and matoke (fried green bananas) was waiting for us - a vast improvement on the skewered goat's intestines we'd had for lunch.

A land of contrast

The next morning I awoke before dawn to a chorus of birdsong and joined Roger Gakwerere, a national park warden, for a six-hour hike. Nyungwe's primeval cloud forest is the largest tract remaining in east and central Africa, hosting over 25% of Africa's primate species. I'd hoped to track some of its 500 or so chimpanzees but Roger told me it wasn't a good season to locate them as the trees weren't fruiting.

Nonetheless, our trek was magical. Whoops, screeches, croaks and cracking branches halted Roger and I as we scanned the impenetrable greenness of epiphytes and straggly vines for the noisy culprits. From lookouts, we gazed over Nyungwe's broccoli-like canopy and admired prehistoric-looking tree ferns. Ironically, it was only after we'd left the park that we spotted rare Ruwenzori Colobus monkeys frolicking high in the trees of a neighbouring tea plantation.

Back in 1919, Rwanda was entrusted to the Belgians who initially supported the existing Tutsi dominance over the peasant Hutu majority. Then, choosing to undermine the Tutsis to strengthen their own power-base, the Belgians began fostering the Hutu's simmering resentment. The Belgians abandoned ship in 1962 when Rwanda became independent, but were culpable for Hutu militancy boiling over into ethnic violence. The seeds of 1994's genocide had been sown.

In Gikongoro, I experienced first-hand how that bubbling anger manifested itself. Innocent and I pulled up outside a modern two-storey building, Murambi Technical College. The Rwandan government isn't hiding the genocide away - it's been constructing monuments all over Rwanda, and Murambi is now the National Genocide Memorial.

Edward Byaruhanga, a slender, lugubrious man, himself a genocide survivor, showed me around. "Sixty thousand Tutsis were trapped here by the government, told to come for their safety," he explained as we walked around the empty classrooms. "They were surrounded by the Hutu militias; then, on 23 April, they were attacked."

Visions of terror

Behind the college we came to a row of brick huts. Inside them, a thousand or so bodies preserved in lime were laid out on tables. It was a terrible sight. The vision of ghostly faces of men, women and children, frozen in expressions of fear, are something I will never forget. Images of Munch's painting The Scream flooded my mind.

"The armies attacked with great force," Edward said. "Clubs, grenades, but mostly machetes." "Did anybody survive?" I asked, hoping for something positive. "Just three people," he replied, "left for dead among the corpses."

It's hard to reconcile such horrors with the sense of calm and angelic beauty that prevails in Rwanda today, especially when I first witnessed the entire sweep of the Virungas: a chain of 3-4,000m volcanoes emerging from Uganda to the east and disappearing far into the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). There are few more breathtaking sights in Africa.

Nyungwe Forest and Akagera were the hors d'oeuvres to Volcanoes National Park's wildlife main course. The volcanoes host Rwanda's great survivors, 200 or so mountain gorillas. Not only did they come through the genocide's carnage virtually unscathed, since 1989 their numbers have increased by 17%.

The successful protection of the gorillas is aided by revenue from trekking permits - up to $60,000 per month - which directly benefits the local community. "Recently we persuaded a group of poachers to give up hunting, and in return we set them up as bee-keepers," the park's chief warden told me.

My first trek was to Karisoke Research Centre on Mount Bisoke, where Dian Fossey (who immortalised Rwanda's gorillas in her book Gorillas in the Mist), was based for over 20 years. By the time we reached Karisoke I suspected my guide, Charles Nsabimana, was fed up with me. He'd admitted meeting Fossey as a youngster so I pestered him with questions.

"What was she like?" I asked, keen to learn more about her allegedly domineering personality.

"She did everything fast," was his unrevealing response. However, after enlightening Charles to the conspiracy theories bouncing around cyberspace with regard to her unsolved death in 1985, he did admit her demise was ""a little strange".

"If it was poachers," he added, thickening the plot, "why did they not steal from her house?"

Fossey's legacy

Although fascinating, I found Karisoke rather eerie and cold. There's little there these days after passing interahamwe (militias) razed it to the ground in 1994, though Fossey's grave can still be seen. The words 'No one loved gorillas more' are etched on her headstone below the Kinyarwandan word nyiramachabelli. "It means 'wife who was like a man'," Charles interpreted. Beside her, in a small paddock, crosses mark gorilla graves, including that of her beloved Digit.

My chance to see what so motivated her came the next day. Back on Bisoke, at around 2,700m, we followed boundaries through chocolate-brown fields bursting with Irish potatoes, petit pois, red sorghum and white daisies. Our presence didn't go unnoticed: hordes of children welcomed us at every tiny village – older ones cheerfully hollering "Muzungu!" (white men), frightened younger ones simply hollering.

"They're close - maybe ten, 15 minutes," whispered Françoise, the tracker, to our expectant party after a crackled conversation on his walkie-talkie.

In fact they were closer than he thought. Minutes later pandemonium ensued. I'd tracked gorillas before on the Ugandan flanks of the Virungas and expected a lung-expanding slog up muddy slopes, but here the gorillas came looking for us. Several young males careered out of the forest, racing through the middle of our group. "Back! Keep back!" pleaded Françoise, urging us to keep our distance as we stumbled inelegantly around the foliage, photographing the backs of each others' heads.

Sanity had just about returned before, 50m further along the forest track, we encountered Ubumwe. Spreadeagled in a dewy glade, this 180kg silverback is the alpha-male of the Amahoro (peace) group, one of Rwanda's four habituated families.

The excitement of seeing him was almost incalculable - like Christmas as a child and winning the Lotto all rolled into one. Not a sentiment Ubumwe reciprocated, however. Ignoring us totally, he gave up feasting on wild nettles and lobelia leaves, turned his back on us, rested his huge head on the damp flora and dozed off.

Call me greedy, but watching a silverback slumber as our precious hour (the maximum time allowed with gorillas) ebbed away felt somehow unfulfilling. How about a bit of chest-beating? Fortunately, Bushokoro arrived on the scene. Brimming with apeish testosterone, the juvenille gorilla appeared from nowhere and launched a futile attack on Ubumwe. Awakened from his torpor, the silverback was furious. In a flurry of forearms he wrestled the youngster, albeit playfully, to the ground. As Bushokoro sculked away, beaten but not defeated, we retreated in a state of euphoria.

Moving towards the future

Beyond the Virungas, we toured Rwanda's western border, tracing Lake Kivu's indented shoreline through lime-green rice paddies and tea plantations. After a night spent lakeside in Kibuye, I walked to a small parish church high on a promontory on the outskirts of town.

From outside I could see far across Kivu into the DRC while, inside, the sun's morning rays cast a red glow across rows of wooden pews. The church had a familiar tale to tell. A plaque outside marked the death of more than 11,000 parishioners, killed on one solitary day in 1994. Such has been the extent of Rwanda's recovery, it's almost possible to travel throughout this remarkable country oblivious to its past. But only by understanding how low Rwanda sank during the genocide could I fully appreciate the beautiful country it is now.

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