A Travellerspoint blog

July 2009


“When they said 'never again' after the holocaust, was it meant for some people an not for others?” [Apollon Katahizi]

In a way, it all comes down to a point of Belgian administration.

Bl**dy paperwork.

Sadly though, I must admit that my local knowledge is not as good as it should be. I had long laboured under the idea that the Hutus and Tutsi's were ancient tribes, possibly bearing a timeworn grudge. Though there is some grain of truth in that – they were 2 of 18 smaller groups, and date back to the 10th or 11th century at least – it never really mean't anything on the grand scheme of things. It was only later that the groups become formalised that things go messy. The Hutu and Tutsi divide which caused so much pain, grief, suffering and death in Rwanda – and Burundi as well – was basically an invention of colonial Belgian administration: when the Belgians brought in identity cards in 1931 for exact reasons that i am unsure of, they decided to split the population into different groups: Tutsi's (or those that owned more than 10 cows) and Hutu's. The seeds were sown. And In neighbouring Burundi - once part of the same Belgian colonial system and with a similar ethnic breakdown, over 200,000 Hutu's died in a 1972 genocide and civil war between Tutsi's and Hutu's in Burundi has been on and off for over 60years.

The Rwandan National Genocide Memorial in Kigali

I am too depressed to write too much about the Rwandan genocide or it's memorial here: Besides, there are plenty of other much better sources of information out there. But I feel that I have to comment a little on the National Genocide Memorial in Kigali. If you ignore the complete lack of signposting from anywhere in town and even nearby, it was very well done. In basic terms, in under 100 days (it was that quick) over 1million people were dead, and millions more displaced. The UN commander in Rwanda was denied a mandate to intervene and had no force to speak of and the French force that did arrive at one point are horribly implicated in many atrocities, at least as accomplices. And the propaganda machine was at its most horrifically efficient: what most observers note as the single most horrific aspect of the whole horrible episode was the fervor in which ordinary Rwandans – men women and children – seemed to happily hack up and kill other Rwandans, often former neighbors, friends or even family members.

Each of these simple – but large- concrete blocks covers a mass grave, the names of majority of whom will forever remain unknown

All i will do here is just mention a couple of 'small' snippets that particularly affected me. I think that one small paragraph and photo on a side wall was the single most devastating memory to me. It described a Christian priest who ordered the bulldozing of a church with 2000 people inside. He destroyed his own church and massacred his own congregation out of some perverse 'tribal' loyalty. In the children's gallery, large pictures of children were notated with how they died: two siblings of 2years and 6months ere killed when a grenade was thrown into their bathroom. And outside amongst the mass graves – this is not just a memorial site – there was a black wall, maybe 100metres long. A section was filled with small type of the names of dead Rwandans. The rest of it was eerily blank: so many of the bodies remain unidentified. Other people might be more moved by some of the heroic personal tales , or the room of skulls, or personal items and clothing found in mass graves. Everybody is different. But everybody agrees that it was a horrific episode of the very worst of human kind.

That evening I did pretty much nothing at all, except sadly sit with images and thoughts constantly playing on my mind, getting more and more depressed with how, well, everything, human nature can be sometimes.

A section of the names of Rwandans buried at the memorial wall

We must not forget. And we must not allow such atrocities to take place again. And that means anywhere in the world, and not just the areas which happen to be resource rich and thus the Western world actually cares about.

Posted by Gelli 02:21 Archived in Rwanda Tagged round_the_world Comments (0)

Rwandan beauty

Rwanda is beautiful. There is no doubt about it. And whilst so far i would say that Burundi has the upper hand, Rwanda is not far behind at all, something that might come a a surprise to all those whose only knowledge of Rwanda is solely its horrific civil war fought in the early 1990's, and particularly the genocide atrocities of 1994. Paul Kagale seems to have done a very good job in rebuilding, reuniting and modernising this small country that suffered so much, and the people seem to be very positive for the future: Rwanda certainly seems very well placed. Interestingly though, Burundians that i talked to were a lot more pessimistic about Rwanda's future (expecting another civil war, probably sooner rather than later) than there own, despite the fact that their own horrific civil war – which receive significantly less attention in the west - lasted longer and ended much more recently

Kigali as a city is also quite pretty and forward thinking: I've already mentioned small touches like the plastic bag ban and the motorcycle helmet law, and the city itself feels very un-African like (eg: much of the friendly chaos is missing) and more European in a way.

The central point of Kigali, Plcae de l'Unité Nationale

Though I had spent a day here before my unexpected side trip to Burundi, I had cunningly arrived just before the 'Peace and National Unity Day' holiday, meaning everything was shut. I hadn't realised this beforehand (and the only guidebook I managed to glance at has it the following day anyway) and it was only wandering around the almost spooky deserted ghost town that Kigali, happily refreshed and ready for the world on that Saturday morning that I made this discovery. Thus it was that I hadn't been able to do either of the 2 things that I actually wanted to do it Kigali before i left. So i was glad to come back and try again. Even though i knew it would be horrific.

Sometimes you just have to do things that you really know you will not enjoy.

Central Kigali, perched on on one the many hills in the city, and showing some of the redevelopment and construction that is ongoing, as seen from the Genocide memorial

Posted by Gelli 01:57 Archived in Rwanda Tagged round_the_world Comments (0)

Kamenya inzira arutwa na kamenya indaro*


Burundi is absolutely stunning. In a way, i kind of wish that I had never come. That way at least, I would not have known what i was missing. As it was I was having to make do with barely 48hours and the promise to myself that I had to come back soon for a longer visit.

Oh, and i've also somehow picked up a book of Burundian proverbs, mostly from the Remesha women, so I intend to sprinkle a few in here as padding. You have been warned. Umugani ugana akariho (Proverb are used to tell the truth)

After the party I had petty much expected to spend the rest of my time in Bujumbura dealing with tiresome officials and trying not to pay any more in bribes than was absolutely necessary. But in a stunning break with tradition, my visa problem was solved in less than 20minutes. It would have been 2minutes if my French had been better. On arrival at the border at Kayanza Hut, I had been told that they didn't have any receipts left so couldn't give me a visa (or more accurately, accept payment). I had said that i didn't mind not getting a receipt, but the official had looked at me aghast and said that in the fight against corruption, he couldn't take my money without issuing a receipt. But he would stamp me in and I could pay and get a visa at the immigration office in Buj. At the time, part of me though 'wow, this is great' and part of me – probably the part used to dealing with Soviet style bureaucracy – thought 'oh sh1t'. But I was all fixed and sorted, and even had my bus ticket back to Kigali by 10am. And was then slightly at a loss as to what to do with myself.

Wanka kugarura impene ikiri hafi yamara kurenga imirambi ukabira nkayo (If you do not stop a goat at the proper time, you will bleat like it when it has gone beyond the mountain)

in terms of sights in Bujumbura, you are pretty much restricted to the main roundabout in town. But then again, you don't come to Bujumbura for the city sights

So i wandered around Buj. Whilst not containing any major landmarks or tourist attractions, Buj was not a bad city. It was quite small, stiflingly hot, and somewhat dusty, but with a glorious mountain backdrop and the lake just down the road, and although there were more beggars than i'd seen in a while, the general population seemed very relaxed and friendly: everybody i spoke to from the head of the Tourist Bureau** (who wished i could stay a week, and drove me to the immigration office as a personal favour) and the head of Immigration, to the hotel staff, waiters and assorted strangers in restaurants was extremely friendly. It seemed to simultaneously remind me of lots of places: a couple of French towns, parts of north Africa and Namibia, Lao and Vietnam. It was most odd, but definitely not unpleasant.

The Independence Monument in Bujumbura in Place de l'independance. or alternatively, WooHoo! - The Belgians have gone

Uburo bwinshi ntibugira umusururu. (Much wheat does not make good mush)

The two real places of tourist interest in Burundi (the rock where Stanley and Livingston met – disputed with Tanzania – and the source of the Nile, for which both Uganda and Rwanda also have valid claims) are both outside of town and i decided not to waste time and money trying to visit them. Instead I just wandered and took in as much of the atmosphere as I could. I wandered down to the Lake side, heading for a restaurant that turned out to be closed, but gave me the unexpected bonus of watching 2hippos play in the water barely 20metres away: I doubt there are many other Capital cities that have wild hippos in the city centre. Apart from that, i just relaxed in some of the small cafes in town and took amusement at some of the remaining Belgian influences in the shops: The food, the bakery/coffee culture and the availability in local supermarkets of Leffe and Hoegarden beers, for example, at prices cheaper than would be found in the UK whilst a box of Weetabix cost over 9gbp.

Akari mu nda y'umugabo gasohorwa n'akari mu uda y'umubindi (If you hide words in your stomach, don't drink from the beer mug). Oddly, a lot of the proverbs mention beer, but i've omitted the rest out here

Not a great photo, but it gives an idea of some of the mountains looming up behind Bujubura, as taken from my hotel room

None of that may sound particularly exciting. And in fairness, it really isn't. But what Buj lacks, the rest of the country makes up for it. Although I have only seen a very small portion of this country, what I have seen – beaches and bits of tropical paradise along the coast of Lake Tanganyika, and the absolutely glorious mountain vistas along with the brilliantly coloured local dress and Kanga's of the villagers from the road from Rwandan border – instantly move Burundi near the top of the most beautiful countries that i have ever been to. In fact, with it's setting and the rest of the country, if Buj had been a colonial or architecturally masterful city, it would have gone straight to the very top. And by all accounts, the bits of countryside that I have seen pale in comparison to other parts of this small mountainous country and the lakeside coat further south.

I can't wait to come back here.

Imbwa irinze itoboka ubuhnza ntiba yamenye inzugi nke. (A bald dog has broken many doors)

  • Which is a good travelers proverb and, of course, means 'It is good to know where you are going and better to know where you will stay'. You can read whatever you want into the fact that I rarely have the foggiest idea about either one.
  • * Yup, there are probably significantly less than 50 tourists currently in the country, and virtually all of them are just slightly adventurous backpackers on short 3day transit visas on their way between Rwanda and Tanzania. And yet Burundi has a fully functioning and very useful tourist office, albeit without much in the way of leaflets to take away.

Posted by Gelli 07:51 Archived in Burundi Tagged round_the_world Comments (2)

The Belgian

sunny 33 °C

One of the great things I love about travel is the odd coincidences, chance meetings and occasional strokes of sheer dumb luck that liter the path. The sort that you can never rely on, but you kind of know will periodically happen and memorably enliven events for a few days, even if they are not always ideally timed or enlivening in ways you would hope for. Which is pretty much how i came to be sitting on the terrace of a very swanky lakeside (Lake Tanganyika) villa on the outskirts of Bujumbura – the capital of Burundi – looking across at DR Congo in the distance, whilst watching the sun go down and the full moon rising over the mountains. The fact that i was being offered obscene amounts of superb - and free - food and booze (of which, sadly, i partook in very little. Bl**dy Hamish), meeting several luminaries and being greeting incredulously and joyfully by a handful of former colleagues and acquaintances whom i had not seen in donkeys years, couldn't help but enhance the experience.

I hadn't really intended to come to Burundi, or certainly not at this point. Whilst i have heard many good things about the country and have long been curious to visit, i figured that sadly I just would not have time to have a proper look (before my next violation at Nairobi hospital) on this trip, and it didn't make any sense to just go for a couple of days as i wouldn't get the chance to see anything. And then I met the Belgian.

Many years ago (yes, ok, in a previous life: these ramblings are rapidly descending into a historical tale of my misspent youth, which is not a good thing) whilst working on a small project, I met a Belgian guy. Pretty much, it was the sort of project that any normal student can relate to – We were doing something we probably shouldn't have been, somewhere that we almost certainly should not have been, for reasons that have since been lost to time and at those hours of the day that normal folk would get paid an 'unsociable hours' bonus for. It was crazy, unpredictable, frustrating, occasionally a little hairy but always a heck of allot of fun. The Belgian introduced himself to me as Jean, but I have actively heard him introduce himself as Wim, Phillipe, Marc, Tom and at least half dozen other names, including, once, memorably, as Marie-Anne. What his real name is, i doubt i will ever know. I generally call him simply, 'the Belgian'.

He is the kind of person that disappears for weeks or months at a time, and then randomly appears in the sort of place that you just don't expect: a random bar in Arjeplog – and believe me, in that part of the world, they are all pretty random – being a personal favourite of mine, though baring the occasional email we have had no direct contact in years. He is a few years older than me and had a Rwandan wife, hence his relevance to this irrelevant piece of garbage. Thus it was that when it occurred to me that perhaps i might be going to Rwanda in the next couple of days, i sent off an email on the off chance he could give me some pointers there. Seventeen minutes later, my phone rang.

A couple of days later when i got to Kigali, I had rung him up and we had met for a quick coffee in town. He apologized that he would be extremely busy for the next day and so could not show me around or offer me the dinner that he had long promised (amongst much else, he is a gourmet chef) in return for a small favour I had once done, but if i had no other plans he was heading to Burundi a couple of days later to a party and was sure he could get me an invite. Besides, he said, there will be a few other people there who i knew who would doubtless be delighted to see me as well. I pondered briefly, but really, what could i do? When the Belgian invites you to a party, you don't say no. It's just not done.

It's really not.

And that is ignoring the fact that Bujumbura – even now, despite the horrific civil war that has been fought until relatively recently - has long had a reputation for being both one of the gastronomic and party capitals of Africa.

Thus as i sat gazing out of the tinted car window at the moon glistening on the lake, on my way back to my central Bujumbura hotel at some time vaguely around 4am (the hotel closed its doors at 23:00, i had said earlier when i excused myself to leave. 'No problem', came the reply, we can deal with that. And is there still a curfew on movement at night in Bujumbura, and don't we have to go through some checkpoints, I had also naively asked? 'No problem', came the reply, we can deal with that. So I had stayed a while. And there was, indeed, no problem anywhere), I reflected on what a great evening it had been. On just how brilliant the food had been, what a great party it was (i was amongst the first to leave, so the party very definitely still 'was'), how superb the hospitality had been - especially considering i was an entirely unknown, disheveled looking, mostly non-French speaking random backpacker to the hosts – and what an interesting and enlightening evening it had been (so *THAT'S* how they solved it. I'll be damned!), most of all i reflected on just how lucky I had been that everything had fallen into place so perfectly and out of the blue. And I finally started to remember just why I love traveling.

Yes, I know that this whole entry doesn't say anything except how lucky I was, and is entirely self-serving. But come on: i've pretty much spent the last 3months sat on toilets, squatting over toilets, sitting in hospital waiting rooms or with tubes being shoved up my arse - and sometimes all of the above at once – (and i'm on my way back to restart that same joy) , so figure i'm due a small stroke of luck and bit of joy, and thus had to share it with you. If you don't agree with me, tough!

Posted by Gelli 08:28 Archived in Burundi Tagged round_the_world Comments (6)

It was like being in a foreign country

It was like I was in another country. Ok, so i was in another country, but in this part of Africa, you kind of expect certain things which are pretty much constant regardless of where you actually are. Wandering around Kigali that first afternoon (admittedly after I had slogged up a huge hill in obscene heat in search of a hotel that wasn't there) was a huge revelation.

Such curiosities as well tended green verges, freshly painted road markings, an absence of car horns, traffic lights that people actually pay attention to (!!), buses with timetables which are actually adhered to and are not a complete pack of lies and, perhaps most astonishingly, helmets. Boda-Bodas (yes, the thing that i came flying off in Kampala) are a part of life in most towns and cities in Africa, and Kigali is no different. Except that, amazingly, every rider was wearing a helmet. Even more amazingly, they all carried extra helmets for passengers they pick up. Thus it was routine to see more people on a single motorcycle (two) wearing helmets than the total number of helmets that I had seen being worn in Kampala, a city with ten times the number motorcycles. True, i am sure that it is a legal requirement to wear a helmet in Rwanda, but in much of Africa such things mean absolutely nothing at all.

Take, for example, plastic bags. They are banned in Rwanda, and consequently any shopping is presented to you in brown paper bags or, if you have them, reusable shopping bags. The only polythene bags I have seen in the entire country are ones that I brought in with me. In Uganda, they are also banned. But every store - without exception - still uses them freely. The law is there and people are happy about it, but nobody would actually consider obeying it. That would just be silly.

Posted by Gelli 06:25 Archived in Rwanda Tagged round_the_world Comments (0)

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