Rwanda: Distant Ancestors, Darkness, and a New Hope

This post has been entered in the NY Times Most Pretentious Post Title competition for 2011.

Rwanda is a remarkable place. A landlocked country in the middle of East Africa, it’s known informally as the Land of a Thousand Hills. It’s mountainous, lush, and home to one of the last remaining populations of Mountain Gorillas left in the world. (Total remaining world population: 790.) It’s the primate part that brings a lot of tourists to Rwanda, and it’s why we decided to make a visit.

The other major thing you encounter in Rwanda, beyond the primates, are the remnants of Rwanda’s recent revolution and genocide. Thanks to Hotel Rwanda, many of us have heard of and learned more about the Rwandan genocide. But the facts remain staggering. In the span of 100 days, nearly a million people were killed on the basis of their race. And the rest of the world did nothing to stop it.

But the recent past of Rwanda is at odds with its present. Throughout Africa, Rwanda is now seen as a beacon of hope. The roads are perfectly paved. There is little or no corruption. The country is developing and improving itself at a breakneck pace. It is stable and safe. Much of this is thanks to the Rwandan people, but much of it is also thanks to Paul Kagame, revolutionary leader and the current president. The recent history of Rwanda and Paul Kagame’s rise to leadership is one of the more interesting things I’ve read in Africa.

Like many places, then, Rwanda is a land of contrasts. After a few months in Nairobi, it blew our minds to be able to walk safely at night, and to see policemen that were actually patrolling and were there to help you. On the flip side, it’s frightening to read about how quickly the genocide started, and how many normal folks participated. Driving into the mountains to view the gorillas, we were astonished to take roads so perfectly leveled and paved that I’d be impressed if I found them in the U.S. And we were correspondingly surprised that out of all the places we visited in Africa, Rwanda’s capital is the only one without an ATM that would accept foreign cards.

Rwanda is changing fast, and when you’re there, you can feel the sense of hope that’s growing there, both for Rwanda itself and the rest of East Africa. Additionally, there are also crazy super-awesome gorillas.

A pastoral scene, not dissimilar from one of my own family.

So what’s next? For Rwanda, we’ve put together a multi-step tour:

  • It starts with a Sundowner Report in Musanze, where Page and I talk about our experience in Kigali, Rwanda’s capital, and our expectations for seeing the gorillas the next day.
  • Then, there’s a photo and video gallery that starts with a few shots from Kigali and then takes you though the forest to meet a group of mountain gorillas.
  • Finally, we conclude with a second Sundowner Report, after seeing the gorillas, where we narrate the pretty-rad experience of a real-life Gorilla Encounter.