‘Wherever you stop in this country,” said Alex Kagaba, “the ground will always produce people.” We’d parked on a dusty escarpment along the shore of Lake Kivu to take in the view. This time, I thought he might be wrong. A couple of breeze-block homesteads, tin roofs gleaming, stood out on a hillside swathed in deep green, but for once we weren’t passing through the settlements that lined our route, weren’t being waved at by neatly clad schoolchildren shouting “Mzungu!” (their go-to greeting for white visitors). Then, sure enough, an unheard signal: first one, then another, then half a dozen boys appeared, jogging down the asphalt.
Grinning, the first tried his luck: “Hello mzungu! Give me money!” before the second tried a different tack: “Give me a pen!” It seemed a reasonable request, and I turned to dig one out of my bag, before Alex intervened.
“No! This is not the way children are taught to behave in Rwanda.” A rapid lecture ensued, carried out in the local Bantu language, Kinyarwanda. “I’m asking them why you should give them anything when they haven’t worked for it,” said Alex, as the boys listened respectfully, while looking increasingly sombre.
“Now, Ben. You have some pens?” I handed over a couple of Biros. Another rapid-fire exchange: who was top in their class at school? What was the name of the governor of the western province? The pens were distributed to the brightest and best, and a joke or two from Alex sent the boys on their way, smiles restored.
You don’t get something for nothing in Rwanda. Next year marks a sombre anniversary: it will be 25 years since the 1994 genocide that led to the death of up to a million Tutsi at the hands of the ruling Hutu majority. The awful culmination of the Rwandan Civil War, the roots of the massacre lay in the residue of a colonial-era divide-and-rule policy that emphasised previously non-existent ethnic divisions. A hundred days of violence, murder and rape lasted from April 7 to mid-July, with national ID cards that listed ethnic classifications making it easy for Tutsi to be rounded up and killed. In the aftermath, following the takeover of the capital Kigali by the Tutsi-backed Rwandan Patriotic Front, led by the current president Paul Kagame, two million Hutus were displaced, becoming refugees.
By any standard, that’s a lot to recover from. Yet almost a quarter of a century later, everything has changed. Rwanda — one of the smallest but most densely populated countries in Africa — seems full almost to bursting point, with more than 50 per cent of the population under the age of 20, born after the genocide.
President Kagame, criticised internationally when a change in the constitution allowed him to accept a third term in office in 2017, has nevertheless brought stability since he was first elected in 2003 and has pushed to rejuvenate his country. Rwanda is safe, it is clean (indeed it is almost entirely litter-free, thanks to a ban on plastic bags and the monthly Umuganda Day, whereby everyone does their bit to clean up) and international investment is encouraged. The road Alex and I were driving along was paid for via a $116-million (about Dh426 million) Chinese loan.
Alex is among the vast majority of Rwandans who see Kagame as a force for good. His stories, like those of everyone I meet, are punctuated with two phrases — “before the genocide” and “after the genocide” — that to a visitor might sound almost blithe, were they not so obviously loaded with meaning. Unsurprisingly, he lauds the new Rwanda, one that’s all about reconciliation, education, entrepreneurship, hard work... and now tourism.
So here we come, we tourists, lured, perhaps, by the pink Visit Rwanda flashes introduced to Arsenal’s football strip this season. Rwanda is investing heavily to entice visitors. There’s now the beginnings of a tourism circuit of the country — from Kigali to the savannah of Akagera National Park in the east, where lion and eastern black rhino have been reintroduced, to Nyungwe Forest in the south-west, up to Volcanoes National Park in the north, where those icons of Rwanda’s ecotourism, the mountain gorillas, hang out. Next year a new national park, Gishwati-Mukura, will protect a pocket of the rainforest between Nyungwe and Volcanoes, a reminder that before human encroachment rainforest ran the length of this country.
Luxury travel brands have been swift to see the potential. Last year Wilderness Safaris launched Bisate Lodge, a six-villa property set next to Volcanoes National Park; in 2019 it is due to open Magashi camp in northern Akagera. Singita, another high-end operator, has focused on the gorillas, with Kwitonda Lodge and Kataza House due to open next year. One&Only, too, has a new property in the pipeline called Gorilla’s Nest, and in October it opened its first luxury lodge in Rwanda, on the outskirts of Nyungwe Forest.
Nyungwe House dazzles from the moment you arrive, but not before. In fact from a distance you’d hardly know it was there. The lodge is bent in the middle in order to maximise the rainforest views rising to the south and east. Its red roof keeps a low profile, hemmed by a working tea plantation, with 22 rooms and suites set out in five clusters near the forest edge.
One&Only has upgraded an existing property, once known as Nyungwe Forest Lodge, to bring it in line with the standards delivered elsewhere in its portfolio. A spa has been added, the pool has a new bar area, and various stretches of decking give a more safari lodge-like sense of outdoor space.
The rooms are cosy and tranquil, each with a balcony, a spectacular four-poster bed and tasteful flashes of modern African art. The main property is as decorous and low-lit as you’d expect, with fireplaces adding a homely touch, and the odd surprise — a chandelier made of tea strainers, for example — catching the eye. Subtly flavoured meals are prepared by executive chef Treasure Makwanise, and the staff have that wonderful habit of remembering both your name and your drink preference. There’s also a nascent programme of activities in which guests can immerse themselves, tea tasting and spear throwing among them.
It’s a glorious expression of luxury on the cusp of the wilderness, and watching the sun rise over the forest while you devour lightly poached eggs is the sort of life-affirming experience that Rwanda excels at. Which is very lucky, because rising early is also a necessary part of tracking the local chimpanzees.
Nyungwe National Park contains some of the best-preserved montane rainforest in Central Africa, its 375 sq miles (970 sq km) of dark canopy occupying an extraordinary position as “the water tank of Rwanda”, with rain that falls here draining to the Nile in the east, and to the Congo in the west. Lurking amid the foliage are 13 primate species in all, among them Pan troglodytes, the common chimpanzee. Jean Claude Nyirimbazi takes me to find them: a half-hour trot along narrow paths lined with tall strangler figs and tiny orchids, with the dense forest stretched like florets of broccoli over the distant hills and the croak of a black-billed touraco occasionally rising over a buzz of insects. We spot a chameleon by the path, pass the spikes of blood lily, and then... a tracker appears from nowhere, beckoning us over.
The chimps are in the trees: lolling, jumping, grooming, yawning, baring their bottoms. One thuds to the forest floor, knuckling along the leaf litter. We’re as close as can be, me gawping and wondering whether to take a picture; him scratching his ear, bored. It’s impossible not to anthropomorphise: we share 99 per cent of our DNA, after all. Then a few minutes later a sudden alarm sees the whole troop of 20 or so animals suddenly descend. Within a minute they’ve vanished.
Time for me to leave, too. Alex and I head north, tracking the course of Lake Kivu from the chaotic border outpost with the Democratic Republic of Congo at Cyangugu, via the scruffy but charming lakeside villas of Cormoran Lodge at Kibuye and onwards towards Volcanoes National Park. Rwanda has been dubbed “the land of a thousand hills” and for once it’s a slogan guilty of understatement rather than hyperbole. The volcanic landscape undulates in green-clad waves, the road twisting around them. Tea plantations are marked out in terraces like contour lines drawn by a giant cartographer; and the tea pickers are always busy, busy, busy.
We stop for lunch at Virunga Lodge, perched high on a ridge, with the brooding Virunga Volcanoes and the Musanze valley to the west and Lakes Ruhondo and Bulera to the east. Here, finally, I see just how inhabited Rwanda is. The volcanoes are isolated pockets of forested sanctuary amid the spread of humanity below.
Every experience of meeting the gorillas will be different, of course, but they are also — I suspect — each alike in some ways. I rise before daylight at the Sabyinyo Silverback Lodge, one of the oldest properties in the area, and recently given the spit and polish treatment, adding creature comforts to what is at its core a very traditional, very welcoming sort of place. Then, as part of a group of six, it was off to meet our guide at the park entrance.
Edward Bahizi is very tall, and very good at gorilla impressions. He tells us that we’ve been assigned the Sabyinyo group, one of a dozen gorilla families that have been habituated to humans, and that we will have to walk for about 90 minutes to see them. It costs $1,500 (Dh5,500) to spend an hour with the gorillas, and only 96 permits are issued each day, which makes this a form of luxury travel in its own right, one that gives back directly to local communities while safeguarding the conservation efforts.
The Sabyinyo group is 19 strong, ranging in age from the oldest silverback, at 47, to one of the youngest gorillas, who is around two weeks old and clinging to its mother when we meet, in a tangled grove of nettles. Our strictly enforced hour is everything I imagined it would be: enchanting, dramatic, occasionally comic — with an added frisson when, out in a clearing, we are mock-charged by a silverback as we turn to leave. Maybe he wants us to hang around; if so, it’s a feeling I share.
All that effort made to preserve our animal cousins makes the events of 1994 seem still more dreadful. Each year 100 days of mourning start on April 7, when Rwandans pay their respects at genocide memorials scattered throughout the country.
At a former technical college at Murambi, 50,000 Tutsi were slaughtered over a three-day period. It’s a stark, awful place. After an unblinking historical overview, I am taken by Liliane Musabyemariya, the memorial manager, to a series of outhouses behind the college that were originally intended as dormitories. Now the dead rest here. The rooms contain hundreds of human skulls, arranged neatly on wooden shelves, bones are stacked in piles, and — just as harrowing — there are piles of the clothes worn by victims when they were thrown into communal graves. Most visitors are prepared to witness the contents of one of the buildings, Liliane tells me, but many, she says, cannot visit a second or third. Torn between a horrific sense that to continue would be morbid and to give up would be disrespectful, I confess that I can manage no more.
Best to look to the future. We get to the end of our tour, and I probably shouldn’t ask, but I do; it seems to matter, suddenly. “Are you Tutsi or Hutu?” Liliane pauses, looks me straight in the eye: “It’s not written on our identity cards any longer; there is no distinction. I am Rwandan.”
Fly RwandaAir Express from Dubai to Kigali via Mombasa, from about Dh1,800 return. For more information see visitrwanda.com.
The Daily Telegraph