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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All The Young Dudes

WHEN the time comes to sit back and reflect on this Trans Africa adventure, the few days we spent either side of the Uganda-Rwanda border are likely to take prominence.

Any feeling of lethargy which may have crept in was washed away as the upper reaches of the list of my favourite moments on the trip were completely rewritten.

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Pictures Tell… – No more captions for these. Just us, the teachers, the children and Ale falling over a chair

Over the course of four days, we laughed, danced (well, sort of), sang, climbed, descended, slipped, fell, sank into mud, got soaked and went through a range of emotions from delight to horror, mixing the life-affirming and downright hilarious with the chilling, awe-inspiring and difficult to process.

To say nothing of trekking up some serious slopes to share these memorable experiences with the inhabitants of the upper reaches.

Yep, no room for lethargy.

IMG_0593The trek up into the mountains to spend an hour with gorillas, had long been tagged as a highlight – even if the prospect of walking up the slope with my current state of fitness (or lack of it) had a few alarm bells ringing – since booking it at the same time as the whole trip.

And, for very different reasons, the trip to the Genocide Memorial in the Rwandan capital Kigali was also chalked up on the must-do list before leaving home.

IMG_0598Neither disappointed, but we’ll get there in later posts – when you can discover just how my feet were taken out from under me by a passing gorilla.

But the events of Lake Bunyonyi came as a pleasant surprise for all of us who shared an enchanting, exhausting, inspiring and thought-provoking few hours among the children and community of the hillside overlooking the picturesque lake and the rather more luxurious lodges and resorts on the opposite bank.

IMG_0583Our destination, via a boat ride across the lake and a short, steep trek up the hill – thankfully just under half of the hour Joe had predicted it would take and, more remarkably, with me right up the front of the line all the way, albeit blowing hard by the end – was the school which has been created for the local children.

Many of those children, who were torn between paying attention to their lessons and watching us as we breathlessly arrived outside their classrooms, have lost one or both parents to HIV (a sign as we passed through Kampala spelled out the stark statistic that 375 people contract the virus each day in Uganda).

076The community, spearheaded by our host and guide Edison, has rallied together to build the school, support the orphaned youngsters and work on creating a destination for volunteers – hopefully some time in the near future – to live and work at the heart of village life.

As long as volunteers do not expect too many luxuries (well, any to be honest) and are pretty good at walking up and down the hill to collect anything they may need, as the villagers and children do constantly.

070Joe has been bringing his Oasis groups here over the last couple of years and had arranged for us to break new ground, becoming the first party to spend the night at the school – much to the excitement of Edison, who gave us a quick tour (it’s not a big place, so it was always going to be quick) and explanation of the project as the children finished their lessons.

Once they had cleared the classrooms, we moved in, setting up our beds for the night on the mud floors under the mosquito nets we had brought with us to leave behind so future groups can follow suit.

122We emerged back into the light to the sound of singing from the adjoining grassy area and gradually assembled outside the ring of children as they went through their repertoire of songs – each with its own dance moves, which they had pretty much down to perfection, and accompanied by a single drum which kept time throughout, whoever happened to be playing it.

Gradually, we joined (or were coerced into) the circle to join in the singing and dancing (well, clapping at the very least) and over the course of the next three hours, we fed off the infectious energy of the children through a series of seemingly more complicated and energetic dance routines and games, which at least gave us the chance to sit down and rest in between.

IMG_0591At least until your team won one of the series of games, which instantly sparked a bout of jumping up and down, singing “We are the winners” in celebration. Any reluctance to join in was met by a group of small children attempting to pull you to your feet (they may have struggled with me) and share in their joy.

All a very different approach to us, who mocked whichever one of us lost a game rather than celebrating who won. Thankfully, they did not take our lead – except when they waited for us to laugh first (as we did, hysterically) when Ale’s turn at the blindfold running race ended with her heading sideways into a chair.

Each of us developed our own little team of children, who steered us through the dance routines, held our hands, donned our sunglasses (which became pretty difficult to keep track of), played with our armfuls of bracelets (and nearly choked me by pulling at my necklace) and crowded round to check out the pictures they fought to get in.

IMG_0592A couple even became obsessed with watches – one young girl attempting to push the second hand round on mine – while one of the smallest, William, whiled away the afternoon undoing my shoelaces until the prospect of a hug from Karla proved more enticing as he came to the verge of tears after losing his blindfold race (still, unlike Reto, he did not claim a win over a small child who had actually finished first).

It was all utterly joyous and one of those experiences with the African people which will live in the memory, but it was also dotted with reminders of exactly why we were there – and why so many of these children need the help of places like this.

LakeBunyonyi2Taking a breather from the non-stop action, one of the teachers steered the children through a series of poems they had been learning.

Starting with the charming, if vital, message of Milk (which proclaimed a crucial friendship with cows), the poems soon took on a darker edge, particularly one about AIDS.

“AIDS, you took away our parents, AIDS, you made us orphans…”

LkBnyMMIt was truly heartbreaking and as the children continued through their poetic repertoire – moving on to one about praying for a friend who was at the hospital with his sick mother – a quick look around the group showed a few faces struggling to process what they were hearing (as confirmed by our chat around the campfire on the same spot as darkness fell).

Whether it is 20-odd years as a journalist or my natural disposition, a certain (hopefully healthy in most cases) cynicism tends to run through my veins. When faced with televised LakeBunyonyicharitable extravaganzas, the sight of a celebrity emoting to camera about the plight of starving children usually has me reaching for the remote control rather than the telephone to donate.

But if this trip has done anything, it has diluted that cynicism – how can it not when people who have so little are so willing to share whatever they have got, even if it is only time or a place to sleep?

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Down The Hill – The view of Lake Bunyonyi from the school

Edison exemplified that – once the children had gone home, still full of energy while we were all flagging – with a sublime meal of chicken, crayfish, rice, potatoes and vegetables cooked at his house and then heading down the hill to fetch us beers to drink around the fire before we headed to bed exhausted but happy.

He was at it again in the morning, sending us on our way with tea and chapatis to fuel a final climb to the top of the hill, along the ridge for some spectacular views of the lake and the 29 islands which dot it and back down to catch the boat back across the lake and back to Nala for the short trip to Rwanda.

And that’s a whole other story…

  • For more details of the Lake Bunyonyi Community project, check out their Facebook page (Lake Bunyonyi Community) and their website at www.lakebunyonyi.org
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Up The Hill And Down The Slope

THERE is a building, now a hotel, as you swing around the corner to start journeying along the banks of the picturesque Lake Bunyonyi which used to belong to the Dean of Kampala University.

Right up to the point it caught the eye of Idi Amin.

One of the big bad bogeymen on the news during my childhood, the then Ugandan president (dictator, despot, butcher who oversaw the deaths of around 300,000 of his people during the 1970s… take your pick what you call him) set his sights on the property.

The Dean was never seen again.

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Making A Splash – Paisley takes a leap of faith into Lake Bunyonyi. Reto shaking the ladder not shown

Just one of the many stories about Amin’s years in charge and one which is hard to tally with the welcome and comforts we have received since arriving in Uganda.

Certainly it is a far cry from the idyllic, almost Alpine, scene as the lake sweeps off to my left under the watchful eye of the surrounding hills and our temporary base, just around the lake from Amin’s much-coveted spot.

As well as soaking up the surroundings, we are steeling ourselves for the first of two uphill treks which dominate our thoughts – particularly those of us nursing the odd injury (my knee has chosen the last 48 hours to start playing up) and distinct lack of fitness – and the days ahead.

The first is relatively short and sharp up the hillside over the lake to spend the afternoon and night at a school set up by the local village for children who have lost one or both parents to AIDS.

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Regular Event – One of our fairly frequent crossings of the equator

The second, after the relatively short trip over the Rwandan border, has been looming large for much of the trip for those who booked it before the off – the trek through the mountains to spend an hour with gorillas.

A former colleague recounted tales of people returning in tears after their experience with the gorillas, which put it top of my to-do list, despite his tales of how tough the trek to see them can be.

It is the last part which has taken precedence in my thoughts over the last week.

As the next few days promise to be one of the most physically demanding of the trip, the last week (the 32nd of the trip) has been one of the toughest in other ways.

Not that we (well, me anyway) have done that much, with a fair amount of sitting around the campsite – particularly the bars – and some long days on the bus dominating the last few days, with the odd equator crossing and daily downpour to break up the ennui.

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Loud Goodbyes – Taking a break from saying goodbye and attacking the alcohol stash on our last drive before losing a few members in Nairobi

Nothing in particular set it off (other than perhaps a bit of a come down after the big-ticket items in Zanzibar and the Serengeti on the back of Zimbabwe and Malawi, while marking time ahead of the gorillas and final push north), but for the first time, the sheer length of this trip has started to take its toll.

There have been no thoughts of cutting the trip short, but for the first time, the count has been on the days left (approximately 52) rather than days gone (225) and the little things which drive you nuts have been increasingly hard to ignore.

Maybe all this kicked off as we headed out of Tanzania – via a final few hours of charitable giving at the Snake Park bar – and to the Kenyan capital of Nairobi, where we waved farewell to four of our number.

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Massed Ranks – The final group shot before the goodbyes in Nairobi

Hisako and Helena joined in Accra and were always due to end their trips in Nairobi, but Linda and Jiro were among the bleary-eyed strangers who first came together at Gatwick Airport all those months ago.

Jiro decided some time ago it was time to call it quits in Nairobi and head back to Japan, having left his own individual stamp on the last seven months (topped by him managing to procure two night’s free accommodation in Botswana when all he actually wanted was a late-night drink), while Linda was scheduled to end her trip early to return to work in the Netherlands.

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Restaging History – Recreating the first group shot at Gatwick (with a few gaps)

Their departures sparked much reminiscing and the odd tear and it is hard to fathom Linda is already back in the real world of work (the nascent search for which looms large at the front of my mind and is possibly contributing to my mood), while we remain in our sheltered cocoon of life on the truck.

While we waved farewell to four of the truck family, we welcomed three more (plus Martyn, back from a few extra days of relaxation in Zanzibar) – Paisley and Saskia finally joining us officially after travelling on the other truck as far as Cape Town and being part of the extended Nala family with Vicky becoming the latest fresh meat passenger.

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Neighbours – The hippos who shared our campsite at Lake Naivasha

Their first port of call on the truck was the banks of Lake Naivasha, where we shared our campsite with grazing hippos – thankfully happy to stay on their side of the electric fence – and vervet monkeys, who were less willing to keep their distance and did their best to hoover up any scraps of food we had dumped in the bin.

Opting out of the bike ride through Hell’s Gate National Park, my less energetic excursion took us down the lake to Elsamere, the former home of Joy Adamson, conservationist, author of the book Born Free and an echo of a world long gone.

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Afternoon Tea – Being very British (regardless of nationality) at Elsamere

Born Free – the tale of Elsa the lioness, who was raised and finally released into the wild by Joy and her husband George, both of whom met violent ends – was one of those movies which always seemed to be on every Bank Holiday or wet Sunday growing up. Sort of The Great Escape with fur.

So it was fascinating to watch the dated film on her life and peruse the rather limited museum on the couple before retiring to the lawn overlooking the lake for a rather splendid high tea. All very colonial.

Our stay in Naivasha was also notable for the first of the almost daily, short-lived storms which have cropped up as we have bounced back and forwards across the equator in the last few days.

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Tent Decoration – One of the resident monkeys on Karla’s tent at Lake Naivasha

This downpour was notable for the fact it arrived with me still in the shower and forced to don a towel and dirty clothes to race back to throw my mosquito tent and its contents into the rather more waterproof surrounds of the tent which is my back-up when the rain comes down.

The next day’s rainfall sparked another retreat on arrival at our overnight halt in Turbo, this time to the safety of a room. More accurately, a cell which, even at just $5 a night (which Michael owed me anyway) was probably a little bit overpriced.

It at least made surfacing for an early start on the road to Kampala rather easier, the long day crossing the border and clocking up the miles broken up by the first sighting of a Ugandan speciality – roadside stalls and vendors fighting over the chance to sell us meat on a stick and chapatis.

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Taxation – Ale again fails to heed a warning and lets us near her camera

A new experience we have embraced to the full more than once and have already pencilled in a stop when we return down the same route post gorillas.

By contrast, our base in Kampala was up there among the most salubrious we have had – hot water in the showers (sometimes), a pool, wi-fi, a bar serving cold beer and decent food and oodles of televised football.

It was rather harder to tear ourselves away even earlier to beat the notorious Kampala rush hour traffic, but our reward was our current base on the banks of Lake Bunyonyi.

Things are looking up…

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