Killing In The Name Of

“And when it rains here it rains so hard
But never hard enough to wash away the sorrow”
Billy Bragg – The Home Front

BARRING our two-day shortcut through Zambia, the three nights we spent in Rwanda places it a the bottom of the list of countries visited on our journey around Africa.

But it punched above its weight, supplying enough memories to jettison it towards the top of the favourite country charts.

Never mind providing plenty of food for thought.

For such a small country, it has plenty to recommend it. The Land of a Thousand Hills is stunningly beautiful and those hills just happen to shelter the remarkable mountain gorillas.

But mention Rwanda to anyone above a certain age and with any interest in world affairs, just one word springs to mind.

Genocide.

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Neat and Ordered – The centre of Kigali

The bloody events of 100 days during 1994 claimed the lives of roughly one million people as tensions between the Hutu and Tutsi groups came to an explosive, brutal head with the rest of the world turning its back on a little African nation.

Neighbours turned on neighbours, friends on friends as members of the Interahamwe – a specially-trained militia – reacted to the plane carrying their president (a Hutu) and his counterpart from neighbouring Burundi being shot down by putting into action a well-planned scheme to eradicate the rival Tutsis.

Tutsis – and more moderate Hutus – were butchered in their homes, at roadblocks, in the street and even in churches where they had sought refuge from the bloodshed, only to be betrayed by priests, while the United Nations forces in the capital Kigali were unable to intervene, hamstrung by red tape and indifference.

When they did react to the murder of 10 Belgian peacekeepers, it was to reduce in numbers and help evacuate supporters of the regime which had set the slaughter in motion, using manpower which would have been sufficient to stop the killing.

Eventually, the opposition RPF were able to wrest control of Kigali and drive the perpetrators out of the country with one of their generals, Paul Kagame, eventually taking control of a country in need of a miracle.

And, 21 years on, that is pretty much what they have got.

Kagame remains in charge and is not without his critics, both internally and externally.

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Hotel des Mille Collines – Inspiration for the film Hotel Rwanda, which told the tale of one man’s heroics during the genocide

Some label him a dictator and his regime has come under fire from many sides, especially concerning its approach to relations with its neighbours – notably Democratic Republic of Congo, where many of the genocide purveyors fled, planting the seeds for some of the conflict which still racks that baffling nation – and plenty of barriers to any freedom of the press or opposition.

But there is no doubting the progress Rwanda has made over the past two decades.

Kigali is as clean, progressive and safe a city as we have encountered throughout Africa.

Yes, there are still men with armed guns outside houses in affluent areas, stationed outside banks and even riding shotgun on lorries, but walking its hilly city streets – which come with the added bonus of smooth pavements and traffic signals people actually observe – felt as safe as anywhere we have been.

It is also a pretty city, spread over a series of those thousand hills, full of green spaces and, judging by the number of high-end building projects taking place, it continues to blossom.

GEM Tech Gala Dinner
Paul Kagame

Not that is immune from a shambolic charm which makes it distinctly African – the bowling alley where a group of us decamped for the afternoon mixing (dated) electronic gadgetry with a guy behind each lane leaning down to collect the pins after each roll, stopping occasionally to retrieve a stray ball or pin from the middle of the lane and halting several deliveries mid-stride as an arm appeared in the line of fire.

But even soon enough after such a tragedy that wanted posters (offering rewards of up to US$5m) still hang at the border and one senior figure from those days was arrested in London just days after we left Rwanda, the healing of wounds and forward progress has been staggering.

Not that they have swept it under the table. Far from it.

The Kigali Genocide Memorial Centre stands on the side of one of those hills, alongside a mass grave containing the remains of roughly 259,000 victims.

It provides a chilling reminder of the events of those 100 days, taking you through the history of the tribal conflicts behind the genocide and how it was planned as a form of final solution.

Kigali Genocide Memorial CentreThrough video recollections of survivors and the bereaved, matter of fact retelling of events and some truly chilling images, it is a far from easy wander through a shocking chapter in history (and a shameful one in that of the UN), allied with studies of other genocides from the past centuries – the Holocaust and the events in the former Yugoslavia and Cambodia alongside lesser-known horrors in Armenia and Namibia – for a lesson in man’s inhumanity to man and what we should be watching for to prevent repeats.

But, as with Auschwitz, it was coming face to face with pictures of the victims which hit the hardest, concentrating all those horrific facts and tales into a form we can actually take in.

At Auschwitz, it was a long corridor lined with black and white images of bewildered faces awaiting their fate, most with a name and date of birth. Each with a date of death.

In Kigali, those images are different. Anonymous, they are family portraits and shots from happier times spread in alcoves in a circular rooms filled with quotes and eyewitness accounts playing on a video screen.

And most of them are in colour, which somehow gives them an added power and impact. This was not 70 years ago, this was during my lifetime and when I was older than some of the people on this trip.

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Into The Valley – View across Kigali from the roof of the Hotel des Mille Collines

After the delights of Lake Bunyonyi and the gorillas, this was a sobering return to earth but one well worth making in a country which really warrants a longer stay than we were able to give – although those who sought another night at our hostel were not so vocal after the late-night sounds of the neighbouring karaoke bar.

It is certainly one for the list of places worth a second visit.

One final thought.

It is not considered au fait to ask if people are Hutu or Tutsi nowadays. They are, echoing the words of a class full of students faced with rebels still fighting three years after the genocide, neither. They are all Rwandans now.

And of that they should be proud.

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Hallelujah*

IT TOOK 137 days, 16 countries and pretty much to the halfway point of the trip, but we have found Christ.

Mind you, it was hard to miss him, looming as he did above both our windswept campsite and the southern Angolan city of Lubango in a miniature version of Brazil’s Christ the Redeemer.

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At Christ’s Feet – Early morning under the statue above Lubango

Sadly, a fatted calf limited my enjoyment of both it and pretty much all of the country as a second bout of cellulitis had my right leg swelling up, turning red and, in a fresh departure from the same affliction which hit my left leg in Togo and Benin, blistering and oozing on the back.

Which made sitting around with my leg resting on something in the truck into a sticky, messy business – at least until my pillow case (the cleanest thing in my kit after so long without laundry) was sacrificed to the greater good.

Barring a few sore looking reminders of bites which several members of the group have been sporting, there were few signs of what was to follow as we tied up the remaining loose ends in Matadi before finally crossing the border from Democratic Republic of Congo into, finally, Angola proper.

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Gathering Storm – Ale appears unconcerned by the weather building up over Lubango. And the fact we will have to cook in the rain

The legs were given a bit of a workout as we decided the best place for lunch was right at the bottom of the hill, meaning a lengthy uphill walk back to base – broken up by a bunch of local kids attempting to relieve me of my watch – to rustle up dinner, start packing up our belongings and, finally, seize the chance for a shower while it was still available.

There was more work for the legs as they scurried after Karla and Ale on a last-ditch – and increasingly fraught – attempt to restock the beer and Coke supplies ahead of notoriously expensive Angola before, grasping our freshly-stamped new visas, we rolled up the mountain, down the other side and out of town for a final bush camp short of the border.

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Pilgrimage – Our campsite in the shadow of Christ

And there was still no sign of what lay ahead as we rolled up to the border nice and early. So early, in fact, that the head honcho had yet to make it into work and we had to wait for his arrival to start the lengthy process of crossing out of the DRC (mud roads and shacks) and into Angola (sealed tarmac and freshly-painted buildings).

But as we sat and waited (and waited), something queasy began to stir.

At first, it was blamed on finishing off the slightly dodgy looking sausage sandwich Martyn had bought off a bloke outside the truck, but by the time lunch was served on the truck, one mouthful was enough to send me into retreat on the beach for a lie down.

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Doubling Up – The other truck rolled into camp just after us. Or think they did as I was crashed out on the beach all night

By the time we had stopped a couple of times on the road into Angola, the remains of the sausage sandwich, the mouthful of lunch, the breakfast banana pancakes and the morning’s intake of water had reappeared – thankfully not over the immigration officer whose appearance on the back of the truck in a fairly clueless attempt to check our passports interrupted my long afternoon sprawled along the seats.

And so, while the rest of the group and the other truck marked St Patrick’s Day at our bush camp, my evening was restricted to lying on the beach and ensuring nobody was stood under the window which was as far as my stomach allowed me to get on an emergency dash off the truck.

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Beware Landmines – Treading carefully on our last night in Angola

Thankfully, as with the previous bout in the other leg, the sickness lasted less than 24 hours before being replaced by the swollen, red calf, which is why our passage through the Angolan capital Luanda was marked by a search for a pharmacy and the evening found Steve wrapping a tourniquet round my arm and Helena (every truck should have its own nurse) inserting a line in my arm – once she had discovered the family trait of veins being impossible to find – for a three-day course of IV antibiotics.

That was the pattern for much of a series of long drive days through Angola as the miles rolled by with me flat on my back with my legs in the air as much as possible, although they did manage to carry me around a couple of supermarket stops as, amid much excitement, we stocked up on life’s little essentials (you know, crisps, chocolate, Coke, pies…) and found many of the prices were not as high as feared.

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Remnants of War – Some of the Angolan roadside furniture

And so, with my fatted calf resting on one of the eskies, we rolled into, through and out of the rather pleasant looking city of Lubango – which we had a chance to explore the next morning, only for most of us to spend much of the time in the supermarket – in search of Christ.

We found him (actually, he was not that hard to spot from several miles away), standing on top of the escarpment overlooking the town and set up camp (at the cost of feeding the security guards) at the base of the statue.

At least, that was the plan. Our arrival coincided with that of a storm which restricted our picture opportunities, delayed setting up the tents and, once the wind had finally dropped, prevented our planned meal (not that our group had planned much) and sent us scurrying into the truck stocks of tinned ravioli. Which was probably better than anything we would have rustled up.

Our final full day in Angola served up a few reminders of the civil war which ravaged the country for so long, starting with a tank abandoned on the side of the road (nicely sealed as evidence of the investment, mainly from China, flooding into the country).

And if we needed any more illustration of such a bloody recent past, it was the warning not to wander too far into the bush at our final bush camp due to the ever-present danger of landlines.

Which would make my healing leg look a little insignificant.

* That’s the Jeff Buckley version, the only one which is acceptable to play on the back of the truck.

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Our Not So Flexible Friends

THIS Trans-African adventure has always fallen neatly into two parts – the downward leg along the road less travelled through West Africa and the return north, traversing the far more traveller-friendly eastern side of the continent.

Sat in the rather pleasant town of Matadi on the banks of the mighty Congo River, we are just a couple of hours driving from the penultimate border crossing of the first leg – out of the Democratic Republic of Congo and into Angola.

Out of West Africa and into Southern Africa with the promised land of Namibia looming ever closer.

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Creature Comfort – Making the most of our beach bar at Pointe-Noire. Not drinking Um Bongo

Thoughts have been turning to what we are all planning to do, buy or eat in Namibia (they had better be well stocked in the meat department) for some time, but given our experiences with visas and borders over the previous four months, nobody is getting too excited – yet.

Once we cross into Namibia, not only will the facilities become far more widespread (there’s even rumours of hot showers), the options on how to spend our time (and money) grow and the ability to tuck into vast quantities of wild animals be dangled in front of us (threatening the weight loss some of us have managed heading south), but visas (should) become far more straightforward.

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Smooth Sailing – Progress was not always that quick

Yes, our passports need sending home to acquire one visa, but through the stretch from Namibia to Kenya, the availability of most visas at the borders means the time spent sat waiting outside embassies and consulates should be almost wiped out.

Our very presence in Matadi over the weekend is courtesy of an ongoing issue with our Angolan visas, which was complicated by our route through the enclave of Cabinda, sandwiched between the two Congos.

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Prime Spot – Linda takes avoiding the hardships of the three-second rule a bit far

It took less time to cross than it took to get in and out of, but the presence of Cabinda on our route – and heading straight through it is far more straightforward than the circuitous diversion on the notoriously difficult roads to Brazzaville and Kinshasa – has meant a series of delays.

Because we headed through Cabinda, we needed double entry visas for Angola.

Unable to get them before we headed off as they would have expired by the time we arrived, we headed to the Angolan Embassy in Accra (via a stop at a photo shop to get new passport pictures taken with the required white backgrounds).

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Filling Up – Taking the chance to fill the jerry cans as we passed through a village…

A lengthy spell sat outside – something we have got more than used to, sweltering in our neat(ish) embassy clothes on the truck, sleeping, reading, playing cards or whatever method of passing the time each person chooses – ended with us going in two by two to hand over the necessary forms and have our fingerprints taken.

The Angolans added another hurdle by asking for the cost of the visas to be deposited in cash at a specific bank, meaning a trip across town for Joe and his hired muscle for the day (Kris and me), who promptly fell asleep on the bank’s sofas as the guy at the front of the queue counted out a ridiculous amount of local currency.

But did all that get us our required visas? No. This is Africa, nothing is that simple.

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…and took the chance to meet the locals

The new computer system in the Accra embassy did not allow them to issue double entry visas, meaning our newly-issued single entry ones were only going to get us across the border into Cabinda, not into Angola itself.

Which is why, when you last left us, we were sat at the beach in Pointe-Noire in Congo, not that far north of the Cabinda border.

Well, there were other attractions on and around the beach as we soaked up the sun, headed into town to stock up ahead of heading into the DRC and notoriously expensive Angola (and more trips into Matadi will be needed for that very reason before we head off, hopefully, tomorrow), boosting the bar’s profits (once they had got the hang of actually serving us, taking our money and giving us the correct change, which seems particularly difficult in Africa), using the laundry service (all of which came back in one huge pile) and a few dips in the surf, which was not without its perils if you got trapped in the wrong spot as a set of waves crashed in. Not to be advised. It hurts.

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Only One – The spectacular sunsets in the Congo were worth watching. If they were actually sunsets

But Pointe-Noire also saw much chatter with the Angolan consulate – once they had reopened after a long weekend for International Woman’s Day – and finally we emerged with a letter explaining our situation to their counterparts in Matadi and all the information we needed to sanction our entry into Angola proper. Probably.

Getting into Cabinda was not a problem. Despite all we had been told from the odd ex-pat oil worker who frequented our beachfront hideout about the inhospitable nature of DRC and Angola, our experience has been completely to the contrary and, once we had got past the traditional African insistence of writing down all our passport information in a big ledger rather than accept the printed lists containing it all, it contained pretty much the most helpful border staff to date.

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Helping Out – The other truck gives a tow to another stuck lorry

We soon had more to compare them with as, within a few hours, we were across Cabinda and heading through the second border of the day into the big, bad DRC.

At least, that’s what you are led to believe.

Certainly, further north and inland, the country remains a bit of a mess as it struggles to emerge from years of mistreatment, mismanagement and internal conflict.

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Told You – And Ale was pretty good at capturing them

But along the stretch we have travelled, the welcome has once again been largely smiling and friendly – with the possible exception of the taxi driver who wanted more money than Reto and Martyn were willing to pay after he took them on a lengthy detour on a journey which should only have been a few hundred yards – and typified by the welcome in a small village where we stopped to fill up our water supplied from the village pump (a good workout for the back and shoulders, believe me).

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The Legend – The one and only Steve Newsway before we crossed the Congo River into Matadi

Admittedly the roads, for the large part, are not exactly up to scratch, but we made it through in one piece – both trucks heading through borders and visiting officials together until we cross into Angola and follow our own itineraries once more – and there was plenty of wonderful scenery to sit and gaze at as we travelled down the coast and then inland, largely along the Congo River itself before we swept across the bridge (no photographs) and into Matadi.

Our base here is in the grounds of a Catholic Mission, although our first day was spent sweltering outside the Angolan consulate (and in the bars, shops and restaurants around it) as they came up with an ever-expanding list of things which needed photocopying to go with each of our individual applications.

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Tales From The Riverbank – The town of Matadi sits on the far bank of the Congo River

But eventually, word came out that everything was in order, our visas would be ready for collection after the weekend and we were free to spend a couple of days exploring the delights of Matadi (as long as we don’t get too close to the bridge or the river, which they are very sensitive about, security-wise), which come with an interesting undercurrent.

And so we have all headed off, in small groups, up and down the stall-lined streets of Matadi, yet somehow some of us always seemed to run into each other sat outside the same bar.

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Explosive Stuff – One of the evening storms which livened up our stay in Matadi

Well, maybe bar isn’t the word. It’s a bit of empty concrete set back from the street outside a couple of small shops where a woman serves beer from a small outhouse or signals across the road for cold Cokes from a shop.

It had us smiling – even if she never did – and after the saga of the Angolan visas, that can’t be a bad thing.

NB This was always going to be the most arduous stretch of the journey and, despite several of us discussing how it had not been too bad a few nights ago, it does seem to have taken its toll in the last few days.

Infected bites have been a long-term problem which flared up across the group in the last few days, with a second bout of cellulitis in the group, while several people have been feeling a bit run down (the truck, when parked up, usually has two or three people stretched out over the seats), although a lot of that may be self-inflicted – be it through lack of sleep, over-indulgence or, my theory of sugar highs and crashes as we guzzle fizzy drinks in the sweltering heat (thankfully, slightly diminished today after last night’s spectacular storm).

But we have had more serious issues in the last couple of days with a second case of malaria on board (thankfully, not as bad as the first), hot on the heels of a suspected case which was cleared by a hospital test, while we are sadly losing one of the inhabitants of the other truck due to a trip-ending eye issue.

Personally, my toes have been the main cause for concern. Plasters adorn each foot, one wrapped round a blister and the other covering the gap left in my nail and end of the toe where the truck bin landed on it after we hit a pothole.

But bar that, all is pretty much OK.

Or is that tempting fate…

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