June 2010

Highs and Lows in Rwanda

Gorilla trekking was the main event in the safari package from Anastasia’s Africa, but it was only the beginning of the tour. The details were elucidated in a package of documents bound together by hand and contained in a heavy folder. It might have been a medieval illuminated manuscript, except that the lettering was not calligraphy, but Microsoft Word. The package of documents was titled “An Exciting Adventure to Kenya & Rwanda with Karin Jones and David Sugden.”

It was a customized travel guide illustrated with photographs showing the properties where we would be staying and examples of the kinds of wildlife we might be encountering. It was a compendium of preparatory information about the destinations, passport and visa concerns, suggested clothing and equipment, health issues, cultural considerations, even a list of suggested reading. The material went into detail about Volcanoes National Park and described the individual gorilla families that live there, one of which we eventually encountered. It discussed climate and weather, currency and banking hours and went into some detail about the statistics and history of Rwanda. Karin Jones, the managing director of Anastasia’s Africa, who led the trip, explained, “The client wants to know that you are developing a trip that is exclusive for them, not just a page from a brochure with 30 departure dates.”

The second major pillar on which the itinerary rested was a safari on the high plains of Kenya, which many believe to be the best place to view the big game of Africa. But in between the two safaris was another chapter, a further exploration of Rwanda, the human side of the story. Like many Americans, my primary association with Rwanda was the news of the genocide of 1994, an unimaginable atrocity during which a million Rwandans were barbarically slaughtered. By the end of the trip, however, the name Rwanda would evoke much more for me, including my memories of the encounter with the mountain gorillas, but also an affection for the country itself. The landscape, with its green, fertile hills and misty mountains and volcanoes conveyed a serenity that left no room for doubt of a higher intelligence than man, call it nature or God, according to your predisposition. But the beauty of Rwanda only made that massive killing spree that much more impenetrable and tragic.

As we took the three-hour drive from the airport in Kigali to the Virunga Lodge, and the next day to the park for trekking, we saw thousands of people walking by the road, engaged in their activities. About the size of Mississippi, Rwanda is the most densely populated country in Africa. The women wore scarves around their heads and wrapped themselves in fabrics of blindingly bright yellows, reds, oranges, blues and purples. Men and women carried heavy loads balanced on their heads. As we reached more remote areas, children waved and shouted to us, or ran along the side of the car, their faces beaming with joy and fascination, exploding with delight when we would return their greetings. The people were as adorable as the landscape that gave them birth. But nothing explained the horror stories.

We stopped at the town of Gisenyi and visited the home of Rosamond Halsey Carr, the author of the memoir of Rwanda Land of a Thousand Hills. It was one of the books on Anastasia’s reading list and an excellent single volume for getting a feel for Rwanda. Originally from New Jersey, Carr lived in Rwanda from 1949 till her death in 2006 at age 95. In her later years she turned her farm into an orphanage in 1994 to care for children who lost their parents in the genocide. We visited the Imbabazi Orphanage, explored the grounds and had tea in her home with Jeff Ramsey, the executive director of the Imbabazi Foundation Operation, who now runs the orphanage.

We returned to Kigali on Saturday evening and stayed at the Kigali Serena Hotel, a five star hotel and a cozy place to spend the night. The next morning we took off early to get in a visit to the Genocide Memorial Museum in Kigali before heading on to the Kenya portion of our trip. Karin said she planned the museum visit at the end of our visit to Rwanda so we would see the museum after we had seen and experienced, and indeed fallen in love with the country. In hindsight, it seemed like the best way to do it. She was justified in her certainty that we would fall in love with Rwanda.

The Genocide Museum was a tough experience. The museum is constructed to tell the story of the genocide and to place it in a historical context. It described how a simple native population was divided by colonial masters who fomented racial hatred as a way of controlling the population. When the country became independent, it fell under the control of demagogues who churned racial hatred to ever higher pitches, channeling the energies of restless youth into a militia brainwashed with racism and trained in techniques of terror and murder. Catalyzed by the assassination of a hatemongering leader, the country exploded into a furious massacre that did not stop until nearly a million Rwandans were murdered with guns and machetes.

The narrative, pictures and videos in the museum present a graphic and gripping portrayal of one of the most grisly events in history. It was literally sickening to experience it. And yet it seemed important to try to understand what happened in honor of those who died and in hopes of trying to prevent such events from happening in the future.

After coming to the conclusion of the story, I was in a daze. I walked into the daylight in the outer lobby, and immediately had to turn back around and hide my face in the darkness of the exit hall until I had composed myself and was ready to appear in public. My traveling companions and I rode to the airport mostly in sober silence. It was a long time before we were able to loosen up and return to our previous celebratory mood.

-- David Cogswell

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