Kigali – our first capital + border number 2

Our next destination was Kigali, the capital. Only around 110km away we knew it’d take us just over 2 hours so we didn’t rush to leave the hotel. We still passed on the breakfast in favour of our usual routine of eating our own on the road. Our vehicle got washed complimentary of the hotel as we packed up (quite common in Rwanda due to the red dirt roads). We were stoked as when it’s dirty you fast get filthy leaning on it to get things in and out. It just left us to tackle the red dust layer on the inside.

It was a slow journey with all the up and down hills. Our vehicle has no power so we go slowly uphill and overtaking slower vehicles requires a long clear view, but we enjoyed the cooler climate, it was such a nice change after being fried while driving every day in Tanzania. Perhaps because the road (being to the capital) was a steady stream of traffic for the first time we also didn’t have people shouting at us for money either.

It happened to be Sunday which meant that city traffic should be as good as it gets. We needed to cross right through it to get to the Genocide Memorial, but the route was simple and the roads were as quiet as we hoped. The only tricky bit was the first big crossroads we came to, with multiple lanes of traffic in each direction, were a free for all as the lights weren’t working. But being in the outer lane we just shadowed the car in the inner lane so only had to watch for traffic coming at us from the right.

There is a security check point to get into the memorial. We had to get out and get wanded down and then open the bonnet. They didn’t look inside (just as well since it was so filthy).

Opened in 2004 it is the permanent memorial of the 1994 genocide, and also the final resting for 250,000 victims interred there in mass graves, set next to memorial gardens. Its visitor centre contains exhibitions to educate people as to what happened and what led to the genocide.

Free to enter they rely on donations and the hire of (rather expensive) audio guides to support the memorial. Very few of the visitors we saw had declined the audio guides even though the exhibitions were perfectly clear without them. Very well designed to tell a powerful story while you take yourself round the different parts and exhibitions it is designed to go in a certain order. The order no longer matches the info leaflet they give you at the reception but the people there help to shepherd you round in the right order.

It is very well done and similar to other genocide memorials with an exhibit of victims skulls, belongings, the instruments used, photographs of victims, just more modern and with a stronger story telling. It is powerfully done but it is not as powerful as the likes of the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial, maybe because to visit there is to walk in the shoes of those who died and the sheer volume of people who were killed there. What is more shocking is how recent the Rwandan genocide, happening less than 30 years ago and in the lifetimes of many who still live with the impact. More video footage exists of the atrocities being carried out, and they’re not grainy or black and white.

It was as planned and as brutal as it gets. Not only was there a UN assistance mission for Rwanda (UNAMIR) in the country at the time but the UN received information about the plans and chose not to act. The force commander Roméo Dallaire estimated it would have only taken 5,000 (properly trained) UN troops to have stopped the genocide and saved the 800,000 lives lost.

Family members killed each other, friends, neighbours. How a country can heal from such a betrayal of trust is mind boggling but Rwanda has put much effort into peace and reconciliation. Without living there and really getting to know people it is hard to grasp how deep the damage to the country remains. Across country borders Rwanda and the DRC’s current tensions stem from the genocide as many perpetrators of the violence ultimately fled to DRC (then Zaire). They’ve had armed conflicts ever since, which have just intensified in recent years.

While we were in the exhibits we could hear big claps of thunder. We’d just about got round the outside part as the big drops started. It came on fast and heavy. We borrowed an umbrella and took shelter in the cafe.

There are no proper campsites near the city just a few hotels that are willing to let you park up and camp on their parking lot type thing. It had been our intention to head to one of those given it was just for one night but we knocked that idea on the head, camping in the rain, particularly heavy rain is not fun. It’s fine once you are in the tent (if you don’t take the wet and dirt in with you) but packing down a wet tent is also a wet miserable job. We decided if our options we to park up at a hotel we may as well be in one.

It also opened up our location options. We were now the side of the city we’d be leaving from and to stay on that side meant we wouldn’t have to drive back and forth across the city. We picked a reasonably priced hotel loosely on the way to head to and try. It seems that places are rarely full and every where we have tried so far not only has a room but a choice we can check out and decide from, the only challenge we had was turning out of the memorial, it was a very tight turn on a narrow road, but the advantage of slow traffic is you can briefly block the road and here people will actually stop.

The hotel was on a hill and in a quiet area. Our room was on the first floor with a tiny balcony that gave us something of a view. It looks modern and had a pool (which you would not swim in but made it look fancy with recliners around it on a nice deck) and a quiet but equally nice set open sided restaurant.

We needed supplies and had planned to take moto-taxis back in the central area to find a supermarket, but the hotel reception told us that with it being Sunday they were all closed, instead they suggested the fuel station just down the road had a decent shop and we could easily walk. We set off to it but with small shops and street sellers at the side of the road just beyond it we carried on and got fruit and snacks. At the bottom we discovered a small mini-mart, that sorted us out nicely. It was just a slow walk up back up the hill to the hotel carrying water.

We got coffee and then dinner at the hotel restaurant while thunder and lightening rumbled all around. It didn’t rain though. Still we were grateful for another hot shower and for crappy wifi.

The next morning we were pleased to have been smart with the location of where we stayed. We left at 7:30am and being Monday morning it was clearly already rush hour. Lucky it was only getting out and the first road that was busy as hell, then we turned out of the city when most were heading in. We soon found ourselves on a very quiet road to the border. We were surprised to find very few trucks on it like their usually is on border roads, though we were still expecting to find them all at the end.

The road was all the same highway so we stopped checking the navigation. Unexpectedly in the middle of nowhere we hit a big roundabout and untypical for a highway it had no road sign. As we got the map up we hit it so just swung right which turned out to be the dirt road where the shops where and everyone was gathered. We had several young guys quickly swarm around the vehicle. One of the reasons we always drive with the doors locked. They were only asking where we were going but no doubt the demands for money would follow and with attracting attention that fast we just calmly turned around and kept moving, by the time we got back to the roundabout we knew which branch we needed to take.

The rest of the journey was lovely quiet roads with tea plantations lining the valley floor. Happily most people were busy working that we passed and we got no shouted demands for money.

As we reached the Rwandan border post we were surprised to find it super quiet. The road also switched us back to the left as we entered.

We parked up and walked into the deserted building. The was only a couple of people behind the glass counters. Immigration only had an arrivals desk. There were no signs for departures and we wondered if there was another building we should be in, but asked. Turns out they did the departures too. We had one immigration officer each. They both had issues finding our stamps and gave them back to us for us to find. Marie got asked where we were going, not usually a question you get asked departing a country at a land border, thats usually a question the entry on the other side asks…

With ourselves stamped out we wandered down to the customs window. Emma asked and they also did departures. All we had to do was hand them the vehicle log book and our temporary importation permit (TIP) and they produced us an exit confirmation paper.

Super easy and fast. A guy had been loitering outside the hall had been asking us if we wanted to change money. Knowing there was actually a forex office and never changing money until we are literally about to depart we had ignore him until we were done. Turned out the office was round the corner so his job was ask people and take them there. We had a few Rwandan Francs left that we wanted to change while it was easy to do so. The rate wasn’t great but better to have cash we can use than hassle later for the sake of getting a dollar or 2 more.


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