The first part of Robert H. Miller’s personal account of Rwanda appeared in Liberty on May 5. Here is the second and final part.
Part II: The Lone Cyclists
Our last day with Slow Cyclist began with a ride on a moto-taxi, something I’d been dreading. It was an innovative way to return us to the point on our route — a junction with an unmarked dirt road — from which we’d detoured for the gorilla trekking. For me it was a novel experience; I’d never been on a motorcycle before, considering them a needless risk. The Slow Cyclist support vehicle delivered our bicycles to the turn-off. Our destination was Gisenyi, 82 kilometers away, on the shores of Lake Kivu — and the border with the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).
I’d sooner walk naked through the South Side of Chicago with a toy gun than go anywhere near the Congo. Even worse, next door to Gisenyi, across the border, lay Goma, a hotbed of rebel activity and Ebola outbreaks — a combination that has caused many international relief and health agencies to leave. Yet it’s seen worse.
The horror of the refugee camps and the safety of the four million Hutus who’d remained in Rwanda inspired a number of refugees to consider returning.
Back in 1994, when the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) captured Kigali and Butare on the 4th of July, putting an end to the war and genocide, a million Hutus fled for Goma. The human wave was composed of Hutu Power extremists, remnants of the Rwandan army (FAR), and the Interahamwe — all in full retreat — herding ordinary Hutus whom they’d either coerced or convinced that the RPF would kill them. The génocidaires escaped fully armed, yet they were able to convince the international community that they were the victims, refugees from the Rwandan genocide. The génocidaires quickly established firm control of the nascent refugee camps that sprang up on the inhospitable lava fields of the Nyaragongo volcano on the outskirts of Goma.
By July 20 the FAR and Interahamwe in the camps, now — unwittingly or mistakenly — classified as refugees, were raiding emergency shipments of food relief meant for the real refugees: the Hutu civilians they’d forced out of Rwanda. That same day cholera broke out. More than 30,000 died in the three to four weeks before the epidemic was contained.
Nearly a third of Rwanda’s Hutu population had escaped into Congo (then Zaire), Tanzania, and Burundi and was camped close to Rwanda’s border, in contravention of UN guidelines. The horror of the refugee camps and the safety of the four million Hutus who’d remained in Rwanda inspired a number of refugees to consider returning. The Hutu Power hierarchy denounced them as RPF accomplices; some had their Achilles’ tendons cut so they couldn’t walk, and some were even killed by the militias. As Philip Gourevitch, in his book We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families concludes, “After all, if all the innocent refugees left, only the guilty would remain, and Hutu Power’s monopoly on international pity might be shaken.”
More ominously, occasional black luxury SUVs, sinister with tinted windows and DRC license plates passed by — rich and powerful corrupt Congolese, according to our guides.
Raids by Hutu militants into Rwanda and retaliatory counter-raids by the RPF, by then become the Rwandan army, continued at least until 2012. In the interim, Kagame forced the closing of the camps, repatriated most of the real refugees, and eliminated many of the Hutu extremists. Today, President Kagame has extended an olive branch and invitation to the remaining expatriate Hutus to return to Rwanda. He avers that only the organizers of the genocide will be tried.
Yet the troubles persist. The March 9, 2019 Economist reports that the previous collaborative relationship between Presidents Museveni of Uganda and Kagame of Rwanda has soured. Rwanda has taken retaliatory action against Uganda for supporting Hutu rebel forces in eastern Congo that are intent on overthrowing President Kagame.
* * *
We enjoyed a beautiful and varied bike ride to Paradis Kivu Lodge overlooking Lake Kivu. Along the way throngs of colorfully dressed women carrying impossible loads of tomatoes, potatoes, cassava, bananas, and other goods on their heads — some with small children tucked into shawls slung across their backs — headed for markets in Rubavu and Gisenyi, where many Goma residents often came to shop. More ominously, occasional black luxury SUVs, sinister with tinted windows and DRC license plates passed by — rich and powerful corrupt Congolese, according to our guides.
Adding to the brooding specter of Goma, the hyperactive Nyaragongo volcano sits just 20 kilometers north of the city. It erupted in 2002, destroying two-thirds of Goma. Its superfluid lava can reach speeds of up to 60 miles per hour, so it’s a miracle only 45 died. There was enough warning that 400,000 residents were evacuated to Gisenyi in Rwanda. The last eruption occurred in 2016.
The Congo-Nile Trail is one of the world’s premier mountain bike trails, with long stretches of single- and double-track that are, at times, confusing to follow.
That evening while we were supping on beef, chicken, and fish brochettes at lakeside, the overcast skies glowed pink in one distant spot due north. It was the reflection of Nyaragongo’s molten crater on the cloud ceiling: Mordor on the equator — a sight I’ll never forget.
November 24 broke under heavy rain coming in from the Congo. Today we’d bidden farewell to our Slow Cyclist team and come under the guidance of Rwandan Adventures, an almost totally Rwandan enterprise. When the rain stopped, Roger, our Rwandan Adventures guide, showed up at Paradis Kivu Lodge to lead us to their headquarters in Rubavu and the lodging they’d arranged for us.
We’d hired Rwandan Adventures to book our lodging and provide a trail guide and translator. From the Gisenyi-Rubavu area, our route would follow the Congo-Nile Trail along the length of Lake Kivu down to Nyungwe National Park, after which we’d be on our own. The Congo-Nile Trail is one of the world’s premier mountain bike trails, with long stretches of single- and double-track that are, at times, confusing to follow. With lodging options few and far between, and varying considerably in price and quality, Rwandan Adventures’ services were indispensable. The trail is very rural and takes about five days to traverse.
The route follows the precipitous divide that separates the Nile and Congo Rivers — in some ways the very center of Africa — hence the name. Steep, lakeside jungle and terraced land with banana trees, coffee plots, truck gardens, and small fishing communities line the route. Countless islets and peninsulas with dwellings and small-holdings give the shore a look-twice jigsaw puzzle appearance.
The lake itself was devoid of motorized traffic, except for the occasional African Queen-style utility steamer. We saw only dugouts and elegant, clinker-built paddle boats with upturned ends and long net poles for fishing. Lake Kivu is one of those not-so-rare lakes with dissolved gas at its bottom, about 1,000 feet down. It contains an estimated 256 cubic kilometers of carbon dioxide (CO2) and 65 cubic kilometers of methane. Much of the CO2 enters the lake from the volcanic rock beneath it. Bacteria in the lake then convert some of the CO2 into methane. If a seismic or other event were to upturn the lake layers, the methane could poison lakeside inhabitants or even ignite and explode. To mitigate the danger, the Rwandan government is piping the gas up and using it for power generation.
The Congo-Nile Trail started off with a bang — literally. Backcountry bridges in Rwanda are built from logs, with the logs constituting the road surface and placed parallel to the direction of travel. Sometimes the log surfaces are planed with an adze, sometimes rounded. Just before lunch, after logging in a difficult and challenging 25 kilometers — with lots of uphill bike-pushing — we encountered one of these bridges. My skill abandoned me: my front wheel plunged between the logs, stopped only when the handlebars hit the adjoining logs. My face hit the road hard. I dented my helmet and glasses; rasped my forehead and nose; scraped a large area of skin on the inside of my thigh. My right shoulder pounded the ground so hard, three months later I still have yet to fully recover. Subsequent X-rays back in the US indicated no fractures. Roger and Tina ran up, helped me to my feet, and pulled the bike out of its slot. The bike was fine — only a broken rear-view mirror. My shoulder hurt like hell, but it was OK when extended in a riding position. Anyway, there was only one option out here: ride on. For the remainder of the ride I popped Ibuprofen like they were M&Ms (with the occasional painkiller to allow for sleep).
If a seismic or other event were to upturn the lake layers, the methane could poison lakeside inhabitants or even ignite and explode.
It was a Sunday. The road thronged with women in strikingly colorful dresses with matching turban headdresses; men in white shirts, ties, and slacks, and kids in their Sunday finery, all headed for churches. For such a rural area the mass of worshipers was astounding — all walking. Passing by the churches, we heard entire congregations with voices in perfect unison pealing out of chests bursting with vigor, raising high the rafters with glorious a capella singing reminiscent of the old Missa Luba — sacred music sung in Congolese style. I wanted to forget my discomfort, and that helped.
Contrary to the perception (especially on the sidewalks of New York) that in crowded places people mind their own business and avoid eye or physical contact, in Rwanda everyone greets everyone, makes contact, talks, shakes hands, smiles — and we were included. Women don’t mind being looked at, stared at; they usually smile back.
Everyone in Rwanda, no matter how poor, seems to have a cellphone. Roger had called ahead for our lunch, a break I desperately needed. We stopped at a small mud-walled building in a tiny, nondescript hamlet. This was Mama Nelly’s, our sign-free lunch stop. There was no door, but laid out on a rough bench in the narrow foyer was a typical Rwandan meal: rice, beans, spinach, chips (French fries), fried plantains, stewed potatoes, and fried fingerling fish — heads and all — with Akabanga: Rwandan chili oil. All we could eat.
We soon realized that while the trail along Lake Kivu traverses commanding heights, lodging favored lakeside settings. The Kivu Rushel Lodge, a fancy tent establishment, was located three kilometers off-route down a hellish four-wheel drive “road” that sorely shook my shoulders. The welcoming attendant greeted us, helped carry our panniers to our “tent,” and showed us where to stow our bikes. He then asked where we were from. USA, I answered.
His eyes sparkled and he asked, “What do you think of Donald Trump?”
I caught his half-mischievous drift and responded, “I’ll trade you Trump for Kagame.”
He thought about it for a minute and, with a now fully mischievous glint in his eye said “No”. We all laughed.
My skill abandoned me: my front wheel plunged between the logs. My face hit the road hard.
Paul Kagame grew up in Uganda. His family fled to Uganda — with a Hutu mob right on their tail — during one of the periodic pogroms against the Tutsi. Paul was four years old. He would later become a military man through and through. A top student in high school, he opposed the Idi Amin dictatorship, while his best friend Fred Rwigyema joined the Ugandan rebels under Yoweri Museveni to overthrow Amin. When Amin fled into exile, Kagame joined the Museveni faction in the Ugandan army. In 1981, when former dictator Milton Obote again seized power, Museveni returned to the bush to fight some more. At the time, his army consisted of 27 men, including Rwigyema and Kagame. But it would soon grow.
Museveni overthrew Obote in 1986 with the help of Uganda’s Rwandan refugees. By then, his army consisted of 20% Rwandans, with Rwigyema as commanding general and Kagame as director of military intelligence. He went on to receive formal training at the Command and General Staff College in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. The Rwandans had joined Museveni with the tacit understanding that once Museveni was in power, he’d help the Rwandans free Rwanda of the Hutu dictatorship.
Kagame is a caricature Tutsi: over six-feet tall, with a long face, and so skinny that his bodily features are completely hidden by his clothes, which are always spotless and well-pressed. He’s been described as an intensely private public man, but a man of action with an acute human and political intelligence. Married, with four children, he likes dinner parties, dancing, shooting pool, and tennis. One informant told me that Kagame is known to appear unannounced at public events such as soccer games and join in, without security or with minimal security. He likes to mingle with Rwandans as just another citizen. Though he lacks any sign of haughtiness, his mere presence is commanding. He is very intense and focused, seemingly lacking in any sense of humor. His men adored him and composed many chants and songs honoring him. Today, Rwandans don’t just respect him, they revere him.
* * *
The following morning we awoke to solitary male plainsong accompanied by much birdsong — an enchanting combination and unique wakeup call. We were slated for a 60-kilometer day all the way to Kibuye — an actual city — where the tarmac road joins the Congo-Nile Trail. But it didn’t start well and only got worse.
By now I was showing plenty of wear and tear; kids were referring to me as "mzee," old man.
The first three kilometers back to the main trail consisted of uphill loaded-bike pushing with a throbbing shoulder. Roger was indispensable. Then came 20 kilometers of very tough single trail, and then five kilometers of 20% uphill grade on a dirt road strewn with gravel marbles. There was no way we were going to make it to Kibuye by sundown. Roger called a rescue taxi, which was able to get to us — for the trail was no longer a four-wheel drive track — and drive us into Kibuye.
Over dinner at the Rwiza Village Hotel, A-frame chalets overlooking Lake Kivu, we watched the fishermen’s trimarans paddle out to fish as they sang paddling chanties to keep time.
The next day, another 3-kilometer uphill push into Kibuye proper followed by 27 kilometers of roller coaster tarmac with reasonable grades, on a road so perfect, it would shame many of our roads. By now I was showing plenty of wear and tear; kids were referring to me as mzee, old man, as often as muzungu.
The day ended in by now typical fashion: an eight-kilometer downhill detour on an infernal four-wheel drive track to a luxury hotel on an island on Lake Kivu accessed by a causeway that may or may not have been manmade. We were the only guests.
At the airport, we overheard a Ugandan entrepreneur talking on his phone to a colleague, saying that Rwanda was open for business and the opportunities were boundless.
Kivu Lodge is emblematic of Rwanda. Like many hotels in the country, it grows its own produce. Unconnected to the electricity grid, its generator runs at set hours or upon request by the guests. The lawns surrounding its helicopter pad were being mowed by a man squatting and clipping with hedge shears. I asked our host if the helicopter pad was for President Kagame. He smiled and declined to answer.
Rwanda is a third-world country with a first-world perspective. On our month-long, 700-kilometer ride we were never assaulted by any foul odors, hordes of flies, roadside dead animals, traffic accidents, or unsettling sights (other than frequent, local genocide memorials). President Kagame has concentrated the country’s development, Vision 2020, on infrastructure: potable water, sewage disposal, roads, 5G connectivity, electrification, the rule of law, an effective and honest police force and judiciary, health and education, agricultural production, and private sector development fostering a favorable business environment. The plan, developed in the late 1990s, has achieved phenomenal results. At one restaurant in Kigali we met a Taiwanese executive representing a consortium of companies exploring investment opportunities in the country. His enthusiasm was so infectious that both our dinners got cold while we discussed free market philosophy. Later on, at the airport, we overheard a Ugandan entrepreneur talking on his phone to a colleague, saying that Rwanda was open for business and the opportunities were boundless. On the last day of our ride, going into Kigali, one informant pointed to an industrial park up on a hill and said that Volkswagen would break ground there for a factory in 2019.
But Kagame’s greatest success has been his insistence on eradicating the Hutu-Tutsi distinction, while at the same time bringing back — sometimes forcibly — disaffected Hutu expatriates who feared repression; and then successfully integrating them into the national bosom. Article 54 of the new Rwandan constitution states that "political organizations are prohibited from basing themselves on race, ethnic group, tribe, clan, region, sex, religion or any other division which may give rise to discrimination.”
To add a veneer of objectivity to the classifications, the Belgians resorted to measuring nose widths with calipers.
Not that the Hutu-Tutsi thing is any of those specified above. The two groups shared the same national — not tribal — identity since before colonization, spoke the same language, shared the same faiths, lived intermingled throughout the country, intermarried, and in general look so much alike that the Belgian colonial administration issued identity cards so they could tell them apart. To add a veneer of objectivity to the classifications, they resorted to measuring nose widths with calipers: a long, narrow nose indicated a Tutsi; a wide, pug nose . . . a Hutu. The Belgians were partial to the Tutsi, for their supposed aquiline features and traditional positions of power. Before the issuance of ID cards, people were able to switch identities by acquiring wealth or becoming poor, making a unilateral declaration (subject to acceptance by their neighbors), or any number of other expediencies. Traditionally, clan affiliations overrode the Hutu-Tutsi divide; by the time of the genocide, economic class and entrenched political power were the greatest defining factors between the two.
In one of the strangest ironies ever (one that illustrates the flexibility of Rwandan identities), Jerry Robert Kajuga, national president and leader of the genocidal Interahamwe, came from a Tutsi family. While Jerry was still young, his father obtained Hutu identity papers for the family. During the genocide, while the Interahamwe were out decapitating Tutsis, Kajuga hid his brother (who presumably was still a Tutsi) in a hotel to prevent the family from being targeted as Tutsis.
The origins of the distinction are lost in the mists of prehistory, but the inference goes something like this: the aboriginal inhabitants of the densely forested Rwandan mountains were the Twa, or forest pygmies. Later Bantu agriculturalists moved in from the south and west, followed by — or coming at the same time as — cattle herders from the north and east. The herders were generally tall and lanky; the farmers, of normal girth and stature. With time they became one people, but the more warlike herders organized the land into a kingdom and came to rule over the farmers. Oddly enough, the Tutsi herders favored Twa (only 1% of the population) officers in their armies. By the time of German colonization, the Rwandan king ruled over not only today’s Rwanda, but also parts of Uganda and Congo. As the population densed up, conflicts for land between the farmers and herders intensified, creating the frictions that led to the troubles. These reached a boiling point when, first, the ruling Tutsis imposed onerous taxes on the farmers; second, the German and Belgian colonial governments promoted and favored Tutsis in administration; and finally, status was frozen by the imposition of identity cards.
* * *
Another Sisyphean push eight kilometers back up out of Kivu Lodge to rejoin pavement, followed by 52 pleasant kilometers that landed us at a $40-a-night motel in Kibogura. It was not our ideal choice — it was our only choice. Still, there was cold beer and the mattress was firm.
Until 1999, Nyungwe was home to a subspecies of smallish elephant, the mountain elephant. Poachers killed the last one.
On the day after, the 25 kilometers — all uphill (on tarmac) — to Gisakura and the entrance to Nyungwe National Park, went by fast and sweaty. We arrived at the $200-a-day Top View Hotel pushing our bikes up an extreme incline. It was over the top — individual bungalows with living rooms and porches overlooking the mountains of the park. Roger, our guide, left us here. We no longer needed him: all the way back to Kigali we’d be on main highways, with little chance of getting lost. That afternoon we were scheduled to do a canopy walk in the park and, the following day, chimpanzee tracking. Roger ensured that our permits and fees for both activities, the ranger escorts, four-wheel drive vehicle, and driver for the chimp tracking were organized, and rode off into the mists bearing a generous tip.
On the ride into the park, we spotted many Oyster and Blue monkeys — and one royal Colobus. Until 1999, Nyungwe was home to a subspecies of smallish elephant, the mountain elephant. Poachers killed the last one. Its strange-looking skull sits in the doorway of the visitor center. The 90-meter sky walk allowed us to rise out of the rainforest track and emerge over the canopy for a birds’ eye view down into the treetops and across to the distant mountains, thick with impenetrable green. It was good to be off the bikes.
Unlike many third-world or tropical countries where punctuality is not a value, Rwandans are promptly punctual — in appointments, opening times, and event schedules. Our 3 AM wakeup call (accurate to the second on satellite time) for the chimp excursion was barely effective. We dragged our reluctant bodies to the hotel lobby. There, a group of agitated Chinese mainlanders were loudly assaulting the concierge, who meekly tried to correct whatever wrongs the Chinese had perceived. They’d been our only companions at dinner — loud, uncouth, and with an assortment of Chinese comestibles they’d brought with them. It never occurred to us that they’d go chimp tracking. Some were past any prime they might have ever have had; others were comfortably overweight. Luckily, we weren’t sharing a ride with them. Outside, an old rattle-trap Toyota four-door pickup awaited us. Shadrack, our guide and ranger, and the driver told us we were about to enjoy the unique experience of “African massage”: a two-hour ride in a shock-deficient truck on rutted and rocky four-wheel drive roads that would bring us to a distant corner of the park where a troop of chimps lived.
The driver told us we were about to enjoy the unique experience of “African massage”: a two-hour ride in a shock-deficient truck on rutted and rocky four-wheel drive roads.
At the park’s far, subsidiary entrance, Shadrack set out the ground rules, and we set off hiking, at 6 AM — with the Chinese and two UAE tourists in tow. Shadrack set a good pace. Within 15 minutes half the Chinese, cigarette stubs hanging out of their mouths, dropped behind and returned to the secondary park headquarters. A mile or so later Shadrack warned of a dense column of fire ants crossing the trail, saying that their sting was intense and their ability to climb up shoes and inside pants cuffs impressive. While the rest of us ran over the column, one Chinese walked. After doing a spirited two-step, with his comrades swatting at his calves, he, too, turned back. By the time we spotted our first chimp, only two mainlanders remained in the group.
Chimps congregate in large, dispersed groups, on the ground and up in the trees. They react to the presence of humans by putting a respectable distance between themselves and us, mostly by disappearing into the canopy. The big males can be aggressive and mostly stay on the ground. Their hoots and hollers are endearing. We had to keep moving in order to prolong the encounters (which the chimps disdained). After a few middle-distance sightings, the remaining Chinese left. Shadrack appointed a tracker to escort them back.
Tina asked Shadrack how he dealt with the arrogance of his mainland Chinese visitors. He smiled and said, “We have our ways,” referring to his passive, polite strategies that day. But he said that a few days previously, a man from China had jumped on his back and demanded to be carried the rest of the way. That was too much for Shadrack. He unloaded the man at a fire ant crossing.
A few days later on the ride we ran into our Slow Cyclist driver, Emi, escorting two Americans to the canopy walk. We told him about our chimp tracking experience and the Chinese. Emi, who always sees a half-full glass as three-quarters full, responded that there are good and bad people in all countries. True! But I advised him that a lasting casualty of the Cultural Revolution was manners. Courtesy and politeness were declared bourgeois values in conflict with proletarian egalitarianism. We were reaping what Mao had sown.
Back at the park entry after the tracking we were greeted by a display of traditional Intore dancing and drumming by a group of about 20 local residents. They pulled us in to participate. Tina, the Arabs, and the one youngish Chinese female interpreter joined in. Not much of a dancer, I took photos and kept rhythm with a foot. The rest of the Chinese couldn’t wait to get back to the hotel and proffered no tips. Our — and the locals’ — enthusiasm, on the other hand, was so contagious that the revelry continued for half an hour.
Gisakura, where the Top View is located, is at the western end of Nyungwe Park. Between Gisakura and Kitabi, at the far eastern border — and our next destination on the bikes — only the main park headquarters, about halfway through, has any services: a campground, toilets, permit issuance, and a snack bar. The 61-kilometer distance across the park was devoid of traffic, people, or downhill stretches — except at the very end.
On the outskirts of Kitabi we experienced a “lumber mill.” Multiple sets of individual scaffold frameworks — each about nine feet tall — built out of skinny branches and topped with gapped planks stood off the road about 50 feet away. Atop each one, a shirtless man held the upper end of a giant rip saw. Below, another man held the opposite end. On the scaffold, between the planks, a big log extended all the way across the top. The men were ripping logs to create dimensional lumber by hand, with an up-and-down sawing motion. The finished boards, not varying in depth or width by more than half an inch, were stacked right next to the road, in bundles separated by lath for drying — boards we might label 2x4s, 2x6s and 2x8s.
Our Kitabi lodging, at $30 the cheapest yet, was delightful. The KCCEM Guesthouse is an outlying university research center specializing in nature and biological studies. It consisted of small, semi-detached brick bungalows interspersed by lawns. A resident troop of baboons, attractive but for their ischial callosities — and indifferent to humans — roamed the grounds.
The section of road between Kitabi and Butare, our next destination, was the only part of Rwanda’s main arterial highways that hadn’t yet been paved. Giant Komatsu and Caterpillar excavators and graders, along with asphalt pavers, were hard at work. Fortunately, the 60 kilometers to Butare trended generally down. By noon, we’d arrived at the Bonnie Consile Convent, our evening’s lodging.
Butare, home to Rwanda’s National University and many other institutions of higher learning, is Rwanda’s intellectual center. Many thought that at independence it would become Rwanda’s capital, but Kigali’s central location and its role as the colonial administrative capital won out. At the beginning of the genocide, Butare was the only province with a Tutsi governor. During the first two weeks of the genocide Butare became a haven for fleeing Tutsis from other parts of the country. But on April 18, 1994 the government dismissed the governor, later arresting and shooting him. On the 19th he was replaced by a Hutu Power loyalist, and the killings immediately began: 220,000 people were massacred, most within three to four weeks.
Our — and the locals’ — enthusiasm, on the other hand, was so contagious that the revelry continued for half an hour.
We were now in the heart of historic Rwanda. Butare’s cobbled streets were made no softer by the shocks on our bikes. The National Ethnographic Museum, a few blocks away, conserved many precolonial artifacts and offered insights into traditional Rwandan culture — without getting too controversial: no colonial history or Hutu-Tutsi history. Oddly, it showcased Rwanda’s presidents but not its kings. That night was Tina’s birthday. We overcelebrated and slept in the following morning . . . without consequences. An easy 47 kilometers brought us to Nyanza, the seat of Rwanda’s kings. We checked in at a bustling hotel full of business people, families, and school groups, and then headed out to the Royal Palace Museum complex.
Before it became Rwanda the country was known as the Nyiginya Kingdom. Oral tradition traces Nyiginya kings back to the 14th century, but it isn’t until the 15th century, with the accession of Bwimba, Ruganzu I, of the first dynasty, that the dynasties, chronologies, and historical narratives become more reliable. Sixteen kings later, Rwabugiri, Kigeri IV, succeeded to the throne in 1867 (some sources say 1853).
Rwabugiri was the first king in Rwanda's history to come into contact with Europeans. He established an army equipped with guns he obtained from Germans and prohibited most foreigners, especially Arabs, from entering his kingdom.
The kingdom’s armies were composed of special warriors who’d taken an oath of celibacy while in service. Homosexual liaisons among the troops were not uncommon and if not widely accepted, at least widely tolerated. In contrast to Ugandan homophobia today — the legal consequences for being caught in flagrante delicto with a member of the same sex are stiff — being gay (or polygamous, for that matter) in Rwanda is no crime. Sex is considered a private matter — a view consistent with the conservative deportment and liberal attitude characteristic of the country.
By the end of Rwabugiri’s rule, Rwanda was a unified state with a centralized military structure divided into provinces, districts, hills, and neighborhoods administered by a hierarchy of chiefs, predominantly Tutsi at the higher levels, but with a substantial degree of participation by Hutus. But as population density increased, a Tutsi elite besotted with its unique Inyambo cattle faced a shortage of pastureland. Rwabugiri imposed more taxes and more corvee labor — both already onerous — on the mostly Hutu farmers. Additionally, Rwabugiri’s wars of conquest exacted a terrible price on the farming communities wherever his armies billeted. By the time of his death in 1895, the Hutu-Tutsi polarization had become entrenched.
In contrast to Ugandan homophobia today, being gay (or polygamous, for that matter) in Rwanda is no crime.
Rutarindwa, Mibambwe IV, Rwabugiri’s son, succeeded to the throne but was assassinated by his stepmother, who in 1896 put her own son, Musinga, on the throne as Yuhi V. Three months later the first German colonial officer arrived. The German administration was mostly content to let the kingdom’s hierarchy continue ruling. After World War I, the League of Nations turned Rwanda over to the Belgians. In 1931 Musinga was deposed by the Belgian administration for his resistance to conversion to Catholicism. He was succeeded by Rudahigwa, Mutara III, who converted in 1943 and dedicated the country to Christ.
After a visit to Europe, Rudahigwa decided to move out of his thatched-roof royal residence and build himself more European digs, buy a Volkswagen, and learn to drive. But he was so tall that he had to remove the driver’s seat and become a literal back-seat driver. In the late 1950s, Rudahigwa, wanting to keep up with the times, began construction on a real palace, which by the time of his death in 1959 — in Bujumbura, Burundi under mysterious circumstances — was still not completed.
Rudahigwa was followed by his brother, Ndahindurwa, Kigeri V, who only lasted until 1961, when Rwanda declared independence and abolished the monarchy. Ndahindurwa moved to Washington DC and died in 2016 at the age of 83.
* * *
The royal compound, atop the highest point in Nyanza, is a poignant evocation of an aspect of Rwandan culture and history that for most is not even a memory. The thatched-roof royal dwelling, with its satellite structures and subquarters for queen mother, high priest, and other officials (including a beer and a milk minister) is a careful and perfect reconstruction open to the public only with a tour guide. The best part is the remnants of the surviving Inyambo royal cattle herd and their quintessential Tutsi herder armed with a fly whisk for their comfort. Their horns are huge (forget Texas Longhorns), exquisitely and slightly oddly shaped. All are a rich brown hue with doe eyes. In Rwanda one of the sweetest compliments a man can give a woman is, “You’ve got Inyambo eyes.” They are tame — we didn’t tire of petting them — and pampered: one previous king forced a Hutu vassal to spread honey on their pasture.
Next door is the 1930s royal residence — in meticulous upkeep. One employee was busy on her haunches cleaning the brick grout joints of its semi-enclosed patio. Across the valley, the 1959 palace dominated the view. Not yet open to the public, it is slated to become an art museum.
We left Nyanza for Gitarama, only 47 paved kilometers away, late in the morning. Our destination was Jangwe Lodge, an off-the-beaten-path (by seven kilometers) guest house located just before one reaches the city and run by Georges Kamanayo-Gengoux, a Rwandan-Belgian documentary film maker and his Belgian wife.
Much later Bill Clinton admitted that his lack of response to the Rwandan genocide had been a “personal failure.”
As we neared Gitarama we expected to see a sign for the lodge at one of two right-hand branching dirt roads, but at both likely prospects there was no indication of a lodge anywhere down the side roads. However, the usual troupe of moto- and bicycle taxis hawked fares at the intersections. At the last turnoff before Gitarama we stopped and looked lost. Everyone offered us rides, but without the ability to communicate — “Jangwe” didn’t ring any bells — we felt truly lost. But one taxi biker whose English was structurally sound but nearly unintelligible, said he lived next door to Jangwe. Emmanuel offered to guide us the seven kilometers for 300 Rf, about 25 cents.
Again — tiresomely — Jangwe was “in the middle of nowhere,” off the grid and at the end of a spur track linked to a dirt road that braided and split unpredictably. Georges and his wife welcomed us warmly. The handsome, open brick compound with manicured lawns and an Olympic-size pool was completely isolated. I asked why the absence of signs. Georges shrugged his shoulders and said they didn’t want any “drop-ins,” that guests came by invitation only (they only wanted interesting people, not boring ones). Jangwes only had five guest rooms; today there were no other guests.
Over cold Virunga beers we discussed Georges’ projects. He’d met Bill Clinton and wanted to interview him further about America’s reluctant response during the genocide, but was given the cold shoulder when he followed up on Clinton’s initial invitation. A Belgian VTM channel colleague later asked Clinton why the US was missing in action during the genocide. The former president responded that “Rwanda wasn’t on my radar and CNN wasn’t there” — this in the context of American intelligence having advance knowledge of the genocide plans. Much later Clinton admitted that his lack of response had been a “personal failure.”
But the hale 70-year-old Georges had a more ambitious project in the works: a documentary of the RPF’s advance and liberation of Rwanda during the genocide. He’s already gotten a commitment from Paul Kagame to be interviewed.
Not only did the 600 RPF men, facing daunting odds and multiple assaults, hold their positions, they created a safe zone around the parliament grounds for refugees, and even rescued many more.
The RPF, numbering about 18,000 men at the time of the genocide, faced a well-armed Rwandan army twice its size, backed by militias and a great mass of civilians mobilized for “self-defense” — over 45,000 combatants. The “stopping the genocide” invasion (as it’s been dubbed) is an amazing enough story, but the real cliffhanger was the siege of parliament during the 100-day RPF offensive. The Rwandan Civil War, which had been simmering since 1990, was supposedly “settled” with the signing of the Arusha Peace Accords in August 1993. The Accords called for a power sharing structure between the extremist Hutu government and the moderate Hutu and Tutsi RPF. As a confidence-building measure — and to protect RPF politicians — a 600-man RPF contingent was to be based in the capital until the Accords’ implementation, along with a 2,500 UN “peacekeeping” mission.
But as soon as President Habyarimana’s plane went down and the genocide began on April 6, 1994, Kagame ordered the Kigali contingent to muster at the defensive positions they’d established at parliament atop the highest hill in Kigali. At 8:30 pm that night, FAR forces stormed the parliament. But by then the RPF was ready and soon drove off the attackers, holding their positions until relieved three months later. On April 8, the main RPF forces began their pincer advances into central Rwanda from bases in Uganda and northern Rwanda.
Not only did the 600 RPF men, facing daunting odds and multiple assaults, hold their positions, they created a safe zone around the parliament grounds for refugees, and even rescued many more — all the while allowing access for both RPF and moderate Hutu parliamentarians to continue their jobs.
Passing by the parliament, Olivier pointed out the shell holes on the side of the building, left there as a stark memorial.
A few blocks away, the UN peacekeepers billeted at the Amahoro sports stadium complex had been instructed not to interfere in the killing, but to engage only if attacked. Thousands of Tutsis and fearful Hutus, figuring they’d be protected by the UN, had sought refuge there. When the Rwandan Army forces and Interahamwe began forcibly extracting refugees from the stadium occupied by the unresponsive UN forces, the 600-man RPF battalion began, on April 7, a series of counterattacks to protect the Amahoro refugees. They conducted even more daring raids, in the dead of night, to more distant hideouts, saving many more people. By the fall of Kigali on July 4, nearly the entire battalion had survived.
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Our last day’s ride into Kigali, a mostly flat and downhill coast of 62 kilometers, ended in a long, uphill, traffic-avoiding struggle into the capital under a heavy rain. We were accompanied by Olivier, our Slow Cyclist guide, now under contract to Rwandan Adventures, to ensure successful navigation through Kigali and arrival at our hotel without getting lost. Passing by the parliament, Olivier pointed out the shell holes on the side of the building, left there as a stark memorial to the war against genocide.
After showering and introducing Tina — now that she was an “old Africa hand” — to gin-and-tonics, that favorite colonial tipple, we headed out to a nearby restaurant. Oddly, there was no traffic. At the corner, armed soldiers had stopped all vehicles at the intersections in both directions. And then, coming from the direction of the Hotel des Mille Collines — site of the real Hotel Rwanda, where many had sought refuge during the genocide — a phalanx of black SUVs with red and blue flashing lights turned the corner and headed our way. As they turned into the presidential residence’s driveway, I realized that Paul Kagame was coming home after a day’s work. I focused my eyes and tried to spot him through the tinted windows.
It was a fitting end to a phenomenal adventure, but one that was constantly overshadowed by a nagging question: how could an atrocity such as the Rwandan genocide have occurred in a country with such wonderful people? I am no Hannah Arendt (no banality of evil in Rwanda, just full-on evil); much less am I Rwandan. But here is my attempt to identify the factors that led to this holocaust.
1. History. The historical trajectory already mentioned played a prominent part: German and Belgian favoritism towards the Tutsis, culminating in the issuance of identity cards. The Belgians came to Rwanda with an a priori premise, based on their own experience with Walloons and Flemings, that this was a multiethnic country. What ambiguous differences existed were exacerbated by colonial policies.
2. Obedience. The Rwandan people were accustomed to following government orders, having always lived under authoritarian — though not particularly oppressive — regimes, both colonial and post-independence. This obedient tendency was taken advantage of by the Hutu Power clique when it took control and ordered everyone to kill the “snakes” and “cockroaches,” as they called the Tutsis.
There was no banality of evil in Rwanda, just full-on evil.
3. Propaganda. Rwandans — mostly illiterate — lived by radio. Both the government radio station, Radio Rwanda, and the immensely popular RTLM, privately owned by President Habyarimana and his wife (as a lively alternative to staid government radio), spewed hatred of Tutsis through talk, pop music, and harangues long before the genocide and, later, to incite the population to the killings.
4. Terror. Using threats and intimidation, the Interahamwe, army, and Hutu Power extremists forced the population to kill friends, neighbors, strangers, and family — both Tutsis and moderate Hutus. The killers themselves were always drunk, and they often made unwilling potential accomplices get drunk too. If they didn’t kill their assigned victims — identified by identity cards at roadblocks and by lists previously drawn up — they or their loved ones would be tortured and killed as accomplices of the RPF.
5. France. In a misguided attempt to salvage what was left of Francophone Africa, France provided military and diplomatic support to the Habyarimana regime before and during the genocide, and continued to provide aid and succor to its remnants in defeat. On the other hand, the Tutsi and moderate Hutu expats — numbering about 350,000 — who had lived in Uganda for so long, spoke English. If the RPF won the Rwandan Civil War, English would become Rwanda’s second official language. (In fact, French and English both now enjoy official status. Still, Rwanda joined the British Commonwealth of Nations in 2009, one of only two countries to have done so that were never British colonies. Queen Elizabeth II is due to visit in 2019.)
The killers themselves were always drunk, and they often made unwilling potential accomplices get drunk too.
As early as 1990, when the RPF began the Rwandan Civil War — provoked by a variety of reasons — France intervened on the side of the Hutu government. Not only did the French supply the Rwandan army with weapons throughout the ensuing four years, they provided asylum to Agathe Habyarimana just a few days after the beginning of the genocide. Agathe was the wife of the murdered president and considered not only the power behind the throne but also, after the death of her husband, the head of le clan de madame, a powerful clique of northern Hutu extremists who were instrumental in organizing and carrying out the genocide. The French also gave asylum to 30 other members of le clan. (Madame was finally arrested in France, by French authorities, on March 2, 2010, but in September 2011, a French court denied her extradition to Rwanda.)
After the RPF’s victory in Kigali on July 4, the French — ever helpful — established Opération Turquoise, a safe zone in southwest Rwanda for the fleeing génocidaires and their wards, delaying the RPF’s total victory and helping to set the stage for the post-genocide East African wars.
6. The United Nations. The UN’s 2,500-man peacekeeping mission was undermanned, underfunded, undersupplied, underequipped, and constrained by rules of engagement that allowed lethal force only if fired upon — no intervention to save lives. In his book Shake Hands with the Devil, Lt. Gen. Roméo Dallaire, commander of the mission, characterized the UN as, “an organization swamped and sinking under the dead weight of useless political sinecures, indifference and procrastination.”
Worse yet — in its role as mediator between the genocidal Hutu government and the RPF — the UN had to be neutral and treat both sides equally, inadvertently providing a fig leaf of respectability to the génocidaires.
The UN’s peacekeeping mission was undermanned, underfunded, undersupplied, underequipped, and constrained by rules of engagement that allowed no intervention to save lives.
But the worst abomination in the UN’s operation was its structure. By the unluckiest of coincidences, one of the rotating seats in the Security Council fell to Rwanda. Its Hutu Power sympathizer passed every communique Dallaire sent to the UN on to Theonéste Bagosora — the head of the Crisis Committee, Rwanda’s interim government during the genocide, who was sentenced to life imprisonment in 2008 by the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda for his key role in the genocide — impeding any effective action by Dallaire through continuous foot-dragging and objections.
Today, Rwanda agrees to send troops on UN peacekeeping missions only if they can intervene to save lives.