Rwanda

(Photos available here)

(Practical information for cyclists available here)

It’s been a while since our last update, sorry!

We are writing now from Dar es Salaam, where we are doing some house sitting and volunteering with ATD Fourth World, but more on that later, maybe even in another post – it certainly won’t do to start with the end.  One should start at the very beginning, as Julie Andrews would have it…

DSC01460So, those of you who read the last post would no doubt be shocked to hear that we were eager to get out of Uganda!  From Kabale, we biked south to the border and on to Kigali in one long day.

Still, the difference between the two countries was hard to see at first – the over-cultivated, banana and eucalyptus-lined hills of Southwest Uganda being replaced by the over-cultivated, banana and eucalyptus-lined hills of Northern Rwanda…

We had expected at least that the language would change, Rwanda having been colonized by Belgians and thus having picked up French as an official language along the way.  But actually there was no luck there even – in case you haven’t heard, President Kagame (who speaks little French himself, having lived most of his life in Uganda) has now declared Rwanda an English-speaking country, complete with membership in the British commonwealth.

Which is not to say that the signs of Belgian colonization were completely missing: Rwandan frites are almost definitely the best in Africa, and just try to use a toilet in Kigali without paying off Madame Pipi!

As for the language though, we had been somewhat prepared when we met a young Rwandan in Kabale who was completing her studies in Uganda in order to learn some English: the change in law obliging her to learn the language for her studies though neither she nor anyone in her family nor any of her teachers in Rwanda spoke a word of it.  But the fact that people addressed us on the street in English was still something of a shock – since when do East African laws translate quite so quickly into action?

Well, since Paul Kagame took power, we soon learned!DSC01464

Rules in Rwanda, whether that all the motorcycle taxis have to wear helmets and uniforms, that bikes are not allowed in Kigali, or that political life will function without ethnic labels, are enforced – though this goes nowhere to explaining why a president would change his country’s official language…

The frustration with French is easy to understand of course – between the legacy of Belgian colonialism and French support for the Hutu dictators and genocidaires who came after – but why suddenly change the language to English?

Again, this is part of the New Rwanda, and so is pure Kagame, at once a way of giving the finger to the French as a way of embracing the Americans and the Brits, who are more than happy of course to support a Tutsi dictator if he happens to share a border with the Democratic Republic of Congo…

But no, I feel a rant coming on…

I’m sorry, every update Anna and I decide to just stick to the chipper cheery travel writing only to find ourselves slipping off into rants.  It’s hard though not to rant sometimes in this part of the world, where people’s lives and sufferings are so entwined with the political machinations of nations and elites as far removed from their existence as possible.  Which is not to say ‘the people here are so poor!’ – actually, if anything, since we’ve been traveling in East Africa, we’ve been struck by the fact that most people here are not so poor – at least not so poor as I, who had never been to Africa before, had expected.  In many cases, people are not nearly as desperate as the urban poor in Europe and the United States.

And yet, they could be so much richer, there is so much wealth here!  Whether it’s gold or diamonds or copper or coltan, billions of dollars are taken from under Africa’s soils every year with a pittance falling to the people who live off that soil.

DSC01465What is there to say when you learn that the International Space Station was made with coltan most likely mined by slaves in eastern Congo?  Most likely through a mining company which funded a local militia which used the money to buy weapons and carry out ethnic cleansing?  All of it  reported in the west of course as ‘chaos’ and inexplicable ‘tribal violence’?

Chaos?  No, this is where jewelry comes from.

Which is to say nothing of the environmental cost: the United States spends billions of dollars of taxpayer money each year to clean up toxic mines in the Rocky Mountains – this cleanup will go on forever, and is a result of almost all mineral extraction – and yet no one seems to ask who is going to pay for the cleanup in Tanzania or in Congo.  If the United States government can’t get mining companies to pay to clean up their own mess, how will the Congolese, or the Tanzanians do it?

Anyway, that ain’t half the rant I feel in me, but it will do for now.  Rwanda, where the Kagame dictatorship is so tangible, brought so much of this to the surface for us, and I can’t quite talk about the country without it.  We felt such a tension in the air there – whether from the text messages that are sent to all cell phones to announce the timing of political rallies, or the monuments to the genocide which line the countryside, or the grenades which went off in Kigali after we had left, or the prisoners, alleged genocidaires, still being carted around the country each day in their orange and pink jumpsuits to complete public works – the reconciliation Kagame is so often applauded for having brought about…

In Kigali we couchsurfed with a young Belgian teacher who helped us get a good grip on the country.  We spent a few days there, hoping to do a loop through the west, but that strange tension just got to us somewhere along the way, and after Anna’s test for bilharzia came back negative (yay!), we decided to just get on towards Tanzania – hadn’t we heard it was mostly flat?  And weren’t we supposed to be heading south anyway?  And wasn’t there a ‘rainy season’ supposed to start soon?DSC01472

We took two days biking to the border, which was a pleasure since Rwandans proved to be such friendly, welcoming people – the country was different from Uganda for us in that way as well.  For the first time since Kenya, we had adults actually discourage children from staring at us and laughing at us – shooing them away and scolding them.

But Rwanda is a densely populated country as well, and we learned along the way that we are just not fans of biking in densely populated countries.  By the end we were almost desperate to get some privacy, to spend at least five minutes along the road without being surrounded by people…

DSC01547And so we biked on to Tanzania, the road, of course, well-paved, one of the best we have ridden on so far, recently refurbished by the Chinese government, extending from the Congolese border at Goma to the Tanzanian border and on through the gold mines of Kahama and the diamond mines of Shinyanga  to the Indian Ocean port of Dar es Salaam…

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2 Responses to Rwanda

  1. Lahaye says:

    Je ne sais vraiment pas quoi penser de le façon de présenter les choses ! Peut-être n’avez-vous qu’une idée reçue de la réalité, une vue tellement superficielle, quasiment inexistante, et oui, à vous lire, on peut parler d’une certaine petite mentalité….P.L.

  2. Bonjour P.L.,
    Merci de votre réaction qui nous permet de relire les textes que nous avions écrit à l’époque. En relisant ce que j’expliquais sur le Rwanda, je suis parfaitement d’accord avec vous que je n’étais pas très diplomatique et que vu de loin, cela peut paraître même tout à fait superficiel comme “analyse” (cela reste un blog de voyage avant tout!). Sans pour autant renier le fond, il me semble en effet qu’aujourd’hui je changerais la forme et que ma colère est moindre aujourd’hui. Il ne faut pas oublier non plus que début 2010, nous venions de commencer notre voyage et que la région n’est pas la plus simple (la Tanzanie par exemple était beaucoup moins difficile moralement). Le Rwanda nous avait particulièrement touchés et nous y étions vraiment mal à l’aise (sentiment partagé par ailleurs par pas mal de personnes qui connaissent très bien le Rwanda). Par ailleurs, nous avons aussi depuis fait tout un travail de déculpabilisation (vu que je viens d’une génération qui juge le passé avec des standards d’aujourd’hui) et c’est un travail qui nous a pris de nombreux mois. Voyager comme Blanc aujourd’hui en Afrique est quelque chose de très compliqué et je reconnais que je suis partie avec pas mal de préjugés sur la colonisation passée et présente. Enfin, la phrase qui semble avoir retenue votre attention était surtout une critique de la Belgique actuelle (mais c’est mal dit, je le reconnais). Etant bilingue, j’ai toujours eu du mal à accepter les querelles linguistiques en Belgique et oui, je pense que nous avons une mentalité tribaliste qui nous empêche de faire beaucoup de belles choses. Voilà, j’espère que cette petite contextualisation sera utile d’une manière ou d’une autre. Bien à vous, Annabelle.

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