Wanderlust

Literary journeys for the discerning traveler

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Renaissance in Rwanda

By Marcia DeSanctis | 5/7/15

There are 275 different varieties of birds in Rwanda’s Nyungwe National Park and as the sky reverberates with shrieks, it seems they all wake up in unison. It is 6:00 in the morning, and I have embarked with a small group from the ranger station deep into the Cyamudongo forest that is home to a large family of chimpanzees, in hopes of sighting one of my relatives, with whom I share 98 per cent of my DNA. The going is rough. I had balked when handed a walking stick at the start of the trek, but now I clutch it in a death grip. Caesar, our guide, literally slashes the branches as we climb, all eight of us crouched in a pretzel-posture, up steep expanses of rock and roots. Mercifully, I am told there are no snakes.

Caesar’s walkie-talkie crackles with sporadic news from the trackers, whose job is to follow the chimps daily from nest to nest along the soaring canopy of jungle. After an hour, he lights up. “They have heard the call, so the animals are on the move for food!” he whispers. Soon several chimps spring across our path, following the leader who dangles a slaughtered creature–some kind of cat. There is a deafening eruption of primate applause because for these mostly fruit-eating mammals, fresh meat is cause for celebration. For me, the sight of them breakfasting en famille in their remote corner of the jungle induces a shift in perspective, the transformative kind. It is a distilled version, in fact, of the admiration and awe induced by a visit to Rwanda.

Twenty-one years after the genocide, Rwanda has a singular allure in Africa due to its safety, cleanliness, and ongoing economic successes as well as its staggering beauty. While it’s true that few natural resources like oil, diamonds, or uranium lie beneath the country’s innumerable hills, it is equally true that because of this, extractions never defiled the magnificent landscape. With its wildlife, lakes, mountains, and perfect climate, Rwanda is a comprehensive one-stop African adventure, all in an East African country the size of Massachusetts. “We built a stable and cohesive society out of our recent history, so people are interested in Rwanda. That’s one thing,” says author Eugene Rutagarama, one of the leaders of the environmental movement in post-genocide Rwanda and the former director of Nyungwe National Park. “But what is also unique is that you can see mountain primates, and all kinds of amazing nature and wildlife. You can see rain forest, you can see savanna. And all of it in four days. The roads are good. The hotels are very good. What more do you want?”

If this is surprising, consider the task of former Tutsi rebel leader Paul Kagame, who took office after the genocide and remains president today. When he came to power in 1994, each and every one of the country’s institutions—infrastructure, economy, civil society, and certainly the tourist industry—had suffered a totality of destruction almost unmatched in modern times. The country’s progress, particularly in education, health care, and poverty reduction under Kagame’s often-controversial rule has been exponential and its strategy of high-end ecotourism has been a key pillar of its rebirth.

In 1994 the country was desperate for revenue of any kind and without natural resources to sell on the world market, tourism was the most viable option. By 1999 conservationists and international consultants began to pressure the government to use the nation’s treasures—primates and virgin forest—as a key to both reconstruction and poverty alleviation. The reasoning was this: If the government pledged to conserve its resources, then tourists would pay dearly to see them in their pristine state. But in order to be truly responsible, they needed to decrease the potential for environmental degradation. The solution? Keep the backpackers out. “If too many people came in, it would ultimately destroy what we have,” says former Minister of Tourism Rica Rwigamba. “So we decided that the only way to keep green while still attracting tourists was to go high end.” Hence the steep $750 ticket price to see the gorillas in Virunga.

The state decided to involve communities adjacent to national lands, who historically have contributed to the negative environmental impact by poaching or entering the parks illegally for water or firewood. So they were offered 5 percent of all money from tourism as an incentive to protect their surroundings. “Conservation, tourism, and poverty alleviation are 100 percent linked in Rwanda,” says Rwigamba. “We say to the communities, if you don’t help preserve the parks, we don’t get the tourists, and then you won’t get the 5 percent.”

Both factors explain why my hotel, The Nyungwe Forest Lodge, is plunked smack in the middle of a working tea plantation. And also why it is decidedly luxurious. The interior, designed by the South African firm M2K, is a wash of soothing grays and chocolate browns. A chandelier fashioned from tea strainers dangles above the seating area, and a fire BURNS in the chimney that is constructed from local slate. As I sip a cup of black tea harvested just outside the door, the sky unleashes warm rainfall over endless acres of deepest green.

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You can tell a lot about a country by the welcome you get at the airport, but here it starts before landing with an announcement: “The government of Rwanda asks that you not bring plastic bags or containers into the country, as they will be confiscated.” President Kagame’s authoritarian streak runs all the way down to non-recyclable trash, but the result is a country so clean you’re not likely to ever to find an errant candy wrapper anywhere. It is my fourth trip to Rwanda and I am perfectly comfortable traveling around solo on buses or otherwise. This time, I’ve re-hired Pierre, an excellent driver who worked with me on a prior story, to ferry me across Rwanda’s mostly modern highways, through its mesmerizing landscape of lush forests, farms, and coffee plantations. Trust me, I’m no danger junkie, and Rwanda has shown me again and again to be one of the safest and most easily navigated countries I’ve visited.

Another big plus: The government has spent $100 million on a countrywide fiberoptic cable system, so there is working Internet almost everywhere. This includes the Heaven Boutique Hotel and Restaurant in Kigali, where I’ve opted to crash the first two nights. My third night in Kigali, Heaven is full, so I bunk at Urban by City Blue, which is new and comfortable, with a rooftop open-air restaurant that floats elegantly over the city.

In the tony Kiyovu neighborhood, Heaven and its restaurant sit on the edge of one of Kigali’s countless hills. The dining room sprawls under a papyrus roof, trees drip ripe avocado over the terrace, and a scratchy Maurice Chevalier recording plays in the background. Heaven was conceived by Josh and Alissa Ruxin, two pioneering American social entrepreneurs, who nine years ago decided to relocate from Manhattan to Kigali. The couple’s story is chronicled in Josh’s memoir A Thousand Hills to Heaven. At dinner on the terrace, Alissa insists I try the sweet potato gnocchi. It is divine, as are the mojitos, packed with limes and mint from the backyard.

Kigali is fast becoming a foodie’s paradise. The following night, Eugene Rutagarama takes me to another hot spot, Republika, where we each tuck into liboke, a spicy chicken stew served best with South African chardonnay. It is a stylish joint, packed with the familiar mélange of Rwandans and expats. Kigali has plenty of watering holes where the air hums with that ubiquitous ambition. After hours, the outdoor bar at Sundowner is the place for cold Primus beer and Kenyan Bond 7 whiskey. The newish  Italian restaurant Trattoria in the Kimihurura neighborhood is a stylish temple of high-African design, with a stone pizza oven and a stunning view across Kigali. Nearby Papyrus is a Kigali after-hours institution, and is now lavishly revamped with a bakery and sprawling international menu including pastas and wood-fired pizza.

The Ruxins use Heaven as a practical training ground for much-needed service workers, which in many places, falls short, as do the “services” they are meant to provide, which can be halting at best throughout the country. “There’s a time issue here in Rwanda,” says Josh. “Five-star hotels and restaurants are opening and need employees experienced in meeting the demands of five-star tourists.” Case in point: During my stay at Heaven, two large groups of well-heeled visitors arrived to dine during a stopover in Kigali while on a private jet tour through Africa, which stops in Rwanda especially for the gorilla trek at Virunga National Park.

Convention centers and a $65 million Marriott, the first in Southern Africa, will soon open their doors and the cranes from massive construction projects cast shadows all over town. The dearth of qualified worker is also being addressed by 30-year-old Tampa native Elizabeth Dearborn Hughes, who, fresh out of Vanderbilt, started the Akilah Institute for Women in Kigali. Today it is a fully accredited college, 75 percent of which is financed by scholarships, which teaches IT, entrepreneurial, and hospitality skills to the next generation of Rwandan women. In its newest venture, Akilah will also design a customized tour, sometimes with an educational or cultural focus, in response to people’s fascination with the country’s dark history and ongoing ascendancy in education and healthcare reform. These trips may involve meeting government officials, visiting NGOs or other women’s cooperatives, or touring genocide memorials, and the fee goes directly to Akilah. “Rwanda has been such a success story in terms of economic development, that people are also coming here for the learning experience,” says Hughes. “That is another angle and a different side of tourism and another reason why people want to visit this country.”  

So with my small fee going to a good cause, I decided to enlist Akilah Adventures to create an itinerary for me. My first stop: Virunga National Park. Unlike most guests that morning, I’m not off to visit one of the 10 families of gorillas that roam the Rwandan slice of the forest. I crossed that experience off my list a year prior on a sparkling October day, when I met the Hirwa family, which includes a rare set of twins. Except for the moment when a swat from the 500-pound Silverback male spun me into a thicket of eucalyptus (I don’t know what misguided turn landed me in his path, but these animals are not aggressive and are thoroughly habituated to humans snapping away on cameras), it was one of the most sublimely perfect hours of my life.

This time, I'm going to climb Mount Bisoke, one of five dormant volcanoes in Virunga. Up here, signs pointing to the DRC border are reminders that Rwanda inhabits a dicey neighborhood. The day of my visit, I arrive at the same time as the gorilla trekkers. Pandemonium swirls around the office of Virunga’s Tourism Warden, Anaclet Budahera, who seems unfazed by the parade of people appearing at his doorway to pelt the boss with questions. “People come here to do something they have been dreaming about all their lives,” says Budahera, a conservation biologist by training. “Our aim and our biggest challenge is to make sure we meet everyone’s expectations.”

The volcano I am about to tackle straddles the DRC, and I am a tad edgy about a stray rebel in the brush. “The borders are very protected by the park rangers who carry out all security in the park,” says Anaclet emphatically, noting that the only danger might be a rare wild buffalo, which explains the armed soldiers accompanying us on the climb. “The government is determined to ensure that Volcanoes Park and every tourist is extremely safe.” As I slog over boulders and heaving root systems past Dian Fossey’s grave, there is no concern that anyone is playing around with my safety. The unsmiling soldiers are all business, HIKing with the rest of us without uttering a word.

What is unusual about Rwanda at this moment is the possibility to experience a last aspect of vanishing Africa. Up at the crater lake, there is only a great vapor that hangs over the water, and for me, a satisfying sense of desolation and discovery. On the way down, as hail turns to showers and the trail turns to mud, the guide stops suddenly, holds up his hand, and whispers, “Please keep your voices down.” There is nothing to do but freeze in amazement. We have bumped into a family of gorillas—and not one of those tracked daily for tourists. Two females and four of their young are hanging in the trees, chomping on bamboo not more than five feet from me.

Back at the Mountain Gorilla View Lodge, an attendant lights a stack of eucalyptus logs in the fireplace. I’m staying in a low-slung white bungalow with a view of all five volcanoes, surrounded by hagenia trees with their soft green foliage. I sink into the high thread count and the next morning, after strong Rwandan coffee and tiny, sweet bananas, Pierre and I embark for Nyungwe. We take the long way, head south past Gisenyi with its colonial mansions, plush hotels, and leafy promenade along Lake Kivu that leads to the Congolese border town of Goma, situated just under the smoldering volcano Mount Nyiragongo. It’s a bit of a drive, but I ask to detour for an al-fresco lunch at a beach hotel and hangout, Paradis Malahide. After crispy roast chicken, squash soup, a cold Primus beer, and a quick toe-dip into Kivu, one of Africa’s Great Lakes of the Albertine Rift and the continent’s sixth largest, we are off.

Several hours later, we arrive at the lodge. Beyond the chimpanzee population, Nyungwe’s protected forest has a drenchy, emerald-green grandeur. The park contains the largest and oldest swathe of afromontane (high altitude) forest in all of Africa, as well as the most distant source of the Nile and East Africa’s highest canopy walk, suspended 50 meters above the jungle. Nyungwe is ribboned with trails flitting with birds and butterflies, through paths dense with 140 species of orchids and 13 varieties of primates. After my chimpanzee trek, I mosey next door to the tea factory to sample the local brew. The next day, Ceasar hands me the walking stick I will certainly need again for a steep hike that descends into a valley, where a massive waterfall tumbles onto the rocks with explosive force. 

On the way back to Kigali, we stop at the genocide memorial in Murambi, once a vocational school and now the site of a mass grave. I am the only visitor and the guide leads me around, each classroom lined end to end with human remains preserved with lime. Time has erased the disbelief from the guide’s voice by now, and there is nothing I can say either, so we proceed in reverent silence. There is no door, no pane of glass even, to protect the bodies in their permanent repose, chalky white with the occasional glimpse of color from a shred of clothing. “We Rwandans are used to talking about it by now, so it doesn’t feel too difficult,” explains Eugene Rutagarama later. “The genocide is the deep story of our nation. It is behind us, but we endorse it. And yet if someone doesn’t want to see the memorials, we don’t blame them.”

The scars are deep and indelible, but the effect is a population that seems unwilling to let the tragedy of the past or their own victimhood define them. And yet I can’t escape the feeling that there’s nothing ever said or ever done in Rwanda that isn’t somehow connected to the genocide, if only to say, We’re back, and there’s no stopping us. Optimism prevails—there is no alternative. “People are hopeful. You can see it on their faces, anywhere you go. This is not for marketing,” says Rutagarama. “This is genuine.” Rutagarama embodies this forward-looking spirit: In 2013, he opened a waterside hotel, Emeraude Kivu Resort, which he now runs.

It’s fascinating to see Rwanda morphing from post-conflict ruins into high-end tourist destination. But the sensation I get in Akagera Park, Rwanda’s small game reserve about three hours east of Kigali, is entirely different from the electrifying buzz I feel in the capital. As my car stirs up dust while winding through the park, I spot giraffe, hippos, zebra, elephants, hundreds of impala and baboons, water buffalo, even—luck is with me—a rare leopard. What I don’t spot is a single other tourist, no Panzer division of range rovers, no guides with megaphones. On the shore of Lake Ihema is the brand new Ruzizi Tented Lodge, with simple but elegant tents connected by a boardwalk and a fire pit that extends out into the water.

I recall a lake crossing during a prior trip to Akagera, the almost-camouflaged crocodiles, the flared nostrils of hippos, and the man who rowed me right past all of them to a primordial little island, full of strange and beautiful birds. I recall my reverie as I was ferried under the hot sunshine: This is Hemingway country, the Africa of a hundred years ago. I wondered if it would last, and I resolved to return as often as I could, to see the world as it was and as it could be—authentic, unspoiled, protected. Hopeful.

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Marcia DeSanctis is the author of 100 Places in France Every Woman Should Go. Her work has appeared in numerous publications including Vogue, Marie Claire, Town & Country, O the Oprah Magazine, National Geographic Traveler, More, Tin House, and The New York Times. She is the recipient of three Lowell Thomas Awards, including one for Travel Journalist of the Year for her essays from Rwanda, France, Russia, and Haiti.

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