Sep 1

 

yolande_blog Yolande Cole

The moto‘s engine cuts out on the gravelly slope we are traveling from Kibuye, and in the sudden silence all that’s left are the velvety green fields of banana plants, the startling blue of Lake Kivu and the dusty, windy path we are coasting down.

After a summer in Kigali, I’m so used to the constant soundtrack of the motorcycle hum that I’m taken aback by this moment of muted travel. I lift up my scratched visor, realizing that I’ve also spent the last few weeks observing a city through the dusty film of a clunky green helmet.

After leaving Rwanda, I’m spending a lot of time thinking about the things that I will miss about living in Kigali. Zipping around this modern East African city on a motorcycle is one of them.

As our main mode of transportation, most of us Rwanda Initiative interns became accustomed to the daily drone of these two-wheeled taxi engines. To get around town, we would flag down a passing green or blue-vested driver, agree on a price and climb on, sporting the styling green helmet that passengers are required to wear. We’d then zoom towards our destination, humming around immacutely-paved roundabouts, passing florescent-vested traffic cops, and buzzing by the zebra-marked crosswalks in the downtown.

Thanks to strictly enforced traffic regulations and the excellent quality of the major roads, the transportation system of Kigali is very well-developed. While some moto rides made me hold on a little tighter, I felt a lot safer traveling around this city than in some of the other East African cities I passed through on my way to Rwanda.

Kigali roundabout

In Kampala, my motorcycle taxi rides involved terrifying dips into person-sized craters, constant weaving through oncoming and exhaust-spitting traffic, and drivers with a penchant to drive really, really fast.

So in Kigali, the newly paved roads, helmets, law-abiding moto drivers and pedestrian-yielding traffic came as a pretty nice surprise. It’s just one aspect of this city that is strikingly modern and developed.

The impressive quality of the roads also makes bus travel outside the city pretty simple, apart from all those hilly highways. As soon as I crossed the border into Rwanda, I immediately noticed both the absence of pothole-ridden highways and the more moderate speed at which the bus was traveling.

On a bus headed from Kampala up to northern Uganda a few weeks ago, my friend and I sat sandwiched next to a local woman as we waited for the bus to depart. We were feeling nervous about the ride after hearing dubious reports of bus journeys in the region. Our seat companion soon assured us that not to worry, the buses were driven “recklessly, but steady.”

After providing us with these comforting words, she proceeded to load a week’s worth of shopping into our already crowded bus bench. Items she bought or considered purchasing from lurking vendors included two loaves of bread, a soccer ball and a stack of cotton underwear. By the end of the journey, she had bananas, meat sticks and a bushel of large bulbous mushrooms protruding from her handbag. It was more amusing than unsafe – we got to our destination just fine. But the reputation of some bus drivers was enough to make us nervous.

In Rwanda, about the worst reputation the drivers seem to have is of cranking the music to unreasonable and somewhat deafening volumes. For the most part, things don’t seem to run that much differently from back in Canada. Except all the bus passengers are speaking Kinyarwanda, the driver sometimes stops for a wheel of cheese at the local fromaggier, and the radio’s blasting the Rwandan call-in show of the hour.

There’s also a whole lot less personal space. But this isn’t such a bad thing. Bus journeys almost always spark interesting conversations between us and our seat neighbours, who are welcoming and curious to know why a group of Canadians are living in Kigali.

Coasting down the hill towards an orphanage we are visiting south of Kibuye, looking at the seemingly endless hills jut like teeth into the lake, it strikes me that the journeys have been one of the best parts of my internship in Rwanda. Whether it’s starting up conversations with friendly strangers on long distance buses, or accidental adventures on our daily motorcycle commutes around the city, I will miss these moments of travel through the very suitably-pseudonymed “Pays de Milles Collines”.

And after crossing the border to neighbouring roads, I’m definitely gripping on a little tighter.


Aug 15

 

yolande_blog Yolande Cole

The five hundred dollars, the hour-long scramble through stinging nettle, sinking brush and sharp branches, and the 4 a.m. wake up call were all completely worth it for the moment when we sat two metres away from Guhonda, the silverback of the Sabyinyo gorilla tribe.

The animal sat silently, staring directly into our camera lenses as our guide called out in gorilla language to the burly animal. In between the shutter clicks and elbows clambering for the best photo op spot, the sense of awe at being so close to the creature was palpable.

It’s this kind of moment that prompts 14,000 visitors a year to fork out hundreds of dollars to visit this lush green national park made famous in part by Dian Fossey’s Gorillas in the Mist.

Guhonda

But while most tourists experience this brief encounter with their genetic cousins, many do not stick around the country to see what else the Land of a Thousand Hills has to offer.

This is what is driving the Rwanda government and several tour agencies to launch community-based tourism projects in the Volcanoes National Park region, and across the country, to entice visitors to spend more time and money in Rwanda. For example, the park employs former poachers as porters to carry backpacks for hikers. In exchange for employment, the porters are educated in conservation practices and encouraged to help protect the park from potential poachers.

Several tour companies in Rwanda are now operating on the model of responsible or community-based tourism, which encourages locals to use their traditional skills to build sustainable businesses. It’s seen as a way to give back to the residents who call these natural areas home, and to encourage environmental conservation on the part of the people who live around the national parks.

As part of this recent story for Rwanda Focus newspaper on the community tourism trend, I visited two cultural villages at the foot of the Virunga Mountains and learned about the friendly, welcoming and talented people involved in some of these projects.

Here are a few photos that I took during my visit.

Leonidas Barora

Charismatic Leonidas Barora was a gorilla poacher in Volcanoes National Park until two years ago. Now he teaches community members and visitors traditional dancing and archery at Iby’Iwacu Cultural Village, run by Eco-Tours.

Dancers

The cultural village, located at the foot of Mount Sabyinyo, employs local community members to provide dancing, drumming, traditional healing and other cultural demonstrations to visitors.
Drummers

Dancer, cultural village

The Kinigi Cultural Village, also located just below Mount Sabyinyo, has only been operating as a community tourism project for about a year. When we arrived, they hadn’t seen visitors in a few months, but the locals were very friendly. After welcoming us to their community with music and dance, some of them told us about growing up in the forest and what their lives are like in the village.

Kinigi Cultural Village

Through their share of government-allocated tourism revenues, the community has been able to make some basic repairs to their homes, buy animals and improve health, education and water facilities.

Now they are hoping that by sharing their traditional culture with visitors, their community will continue to grow.

Song, Kinigi Cultural Village


Jul 17

 

yolande_blog Yolande Cole

The sun was already scorching hot at 8:30 yesterday morning as I shuffled my way down the rivers of red dust that consist of my usual path to work.

I was heading down a particularly treacherous slope in my hilly neighbourhood, trying to avoid a dramatic wipe-out in front of the locals. Just ahead of me I saw a small figure in a bright green dress, treading carefully along the edge of the road. I followed in her footsteps, as she clearly knew the path least likely to lead to injury.

As we got to the bottom of the hill, I sped up my pace. The figure in front of me stopped as I passed. I expected a curious look or maybe a “muzungu” comment. Instead, the elderly woman greeted me with “bonjour” and a respectful nod of the head. I asked her “ça va?” and she continued to nod.

I passed by and headed on my route to work, about 10 minutes down the road. As I reached the office, I decided to take a photo of a soccer game being played in the field across the street, the ubiquitous red hills of Kigali silhouetted by the sun in the background.

As I turned to cross the road, I spotted the same green-clad woman, walking along at a determined pace behind me. She squinted up at me and said something in Kinyarwanda, pointing at the door of my workplace. I said: “Je travaille ici,” pointing between myself and the building. Her wrinkly face lit up in a huge smile and she extended her hands to me. I shook them, and wished her “bonne journée.” She clearly didn’t understand any more French than a basic greeting, and I’ve so far been hopeless at retaining any of the Kinyarwanda locals have tried to teach me, but we’d still managed to communicate.

The past couple of weeks in Rwanda have been filled with these moments of attempted conversation - some of them frustrating miscommunications, some of them clear moments of understanding beyond all language barriers.

In Kigali, you never know if someone will be an English, French, Swahili, Luganda, Lingala or Kinyarwanda speaker. My moto rides usually end with me mumbling a trilingual message of gratitude: “Merci. Thank you. Marakoze.”

Sometimes miscommunications occur despite multilingual efforts. The Canadian accent can be enough to cause utter conversation confusion. 

Last week a few of us got into a taxi cab in our neighbourhood, planning to meet friends at a pub near the Lalibela Ethiopian restaurant. After we told the driver “Lalibela,” he nodded enthusiastically and set off.

The rest of the journey involved the unsettling smell of gas fumes, an uncomfortable volume to the Christian music blaring from the speakers, and a cab driver who clearly had no idea where we were going.

After repeated efforts on our part to communicate in a combination of English, French and exaggerated hand gestures, he pulled over and found someone who spoke Swahili. The helper reiterated that we were heading to “Lalibela,” to which our driver exclaimed “Lalibela!” with sudden recognition.

Despite these frustrating moments of linguistic confusion, there are also the times that don’t require any translation…

Yesterday afternoon, I stood at the side of the road in an unfamiliar neighbourhood after an unsuccessful attempt to track down an interview.

Motos zoomed by one after another, and when I finally managed to flag one down, the driver gave me a blank look when I asked for a ride to “Cercle Sportif,” a building near my office. He then pointed to the seat for me to climb on. “Are you sure you know where it is?” I asked as he smiled at me with the same expression. A crowd began to gather as English and French-speaking Rwandans tried to provide directions.

Just as I gave up and got off the moto, the door of a white van belonging to a Kigali NGO slid open, and a row of smiling Rwandans waved me over. “Cercle Sportif? We’ll take you there,” they insisted, and I climbed in, next to a beaming woman named Beatrice.

Michel the driver dropped off the employees and took me to work. I tried telling him I could jump out and get a moto, but Michel insisted on delivering me to my destination. When we got there, he said: “Soyez tranquille.”

“Don’t worry. Whenever you get lost, there will always be someone to help you to where you are going. We Rwandans, we’re good people.”