In­tu­ition or fear, Rwanda

In­tu­ition is a trav­eller’s clos­est ally.

Living Now - - Contents - by Phillipa Huynh

You can’t go there! Don’t you know what hap­pened? Who knows what will hap­pen to you there!?” I was com­pletely taken aback by my friend’s re­ac­tion af­ter I told her I was go­ing to Rwanda. She wasn’t the only one. Hav­ing no rea­son to doubt my in­tu­ition, I pushed the words to the back of my mind.

As I walked onto the tar­mac at Ki­gali air­port, her warn­ings rang in my ears. When three Aus­tralian mis­sion­ar­ies looked at us with hor­ror when I told them I hadn’t ar­ranged a taxi to our ho­tel, I started to ques­tion if I was the one out of my mind. For their own peace of mind, they in­vited me to share their taxi.

Safely in my ho­tel that night, I checked in with my­self. Was ev­ery­thing go­ing to be okay? Was the con­cern of my friend war­ranted? Was I be­ing flip­pant about vis­it­ing this coun­try?

Our first morn­ing in Ki­gali was ac­tu­ally hi­lar­i­ous. With my Ir­ish-white skin, and my Viet­namese-de­scent hus­band we stood out like a gi­raffe in a pack of ze­bras!

Rwanda is clearly not a tourist des­ti­na­tion. We lost count of how many mo­tor­cy­clists nearly had col­li­sions un­able to take their eyes off us. Amidst

We learned that the poach­ers who once killed go­ril­las are now em­ployed as guides – they find the go­ril­las so the tourists can visit them.

much con­fu­sion, we found the bus de­pot and bought tick­ets to Ruhen­geri, a small coun­try town two hours north-west of Ki­gali and right near the Vol­ca­noes Na­tional Park.

The bus ride was a high­light in it­self with happy peo­ple walk­ing along the roads, kids wav­ing to us as we went by, up-beat mu­sic pump­ing out of the bus stereo and gor­geous rolling hills in every di­rec­tion.

If they didn’t of­ten see tourists in Ki­gali, they sure don’t see them in Ruhen­geri! And with a lack of a de­cent map, it was en­ter­tain­ing ask­ing for direc­tions. The cheeky smiles on the lo­cals’ faces made us won­der if they were send­ing us on a wild goose chase.

That night, we watched the movie Ho­tel Rwanda, the true story of the hor­rific geno­cide of 1994. It was dev­as­tat­ing. Ter­ri­fy­ing. But most of all, it was sad, truly, ut­terly sad. How could this hap­pen in the world in the 1990s?! But the world was deaf to their cries and up to 1 mil­lion Tutsi peo­ple were slaugh­tered.

The next morn­ing we sud­denly woke to what sounded like a riot. Fresh with the vi­sions of a bloody mas­sacre with an echo of my friend’s warn­ing we were, quite frankly, ter­ri­fied. We hid be­hind the curtains in our room, bars across the win­dows think­ing the ab­so­lute worst. And then it stopped.

When our driver ar­rived to take us to see the go­ril­las the next morn­ing, I care­fully asked what the noise would have been. He laughed and replied, ‘ It was the po­lice do­ing their train­ing drills’. Re­lieved but ashamed at our as­sump­tions, we be­gan ask­ing him dozens of ques­tions about life in Rwanda. We asked about the geno­cide, about daily life, about at­ti­tudes to­wards the rest of the world ( given they were vir­tu­ally ig­nored through­out the geno­cide), about why we saw no beg­ging, about the state of pol­i­tics and cor­rup­tion.

That’s when we be­gan to piece to­gether a very dif­fer­ent story. We learned about the so­cial jus­tice sys­tem where a vil­lage chief is re­spected for be­ing wise, firm and fair, and how any­one who does wrong by the vil­lage will be ex­com­mu­ni­cated. This rarely hap­pens, but, be­cause the vil­lage is so im­por­tant to each per­son, it is a very strong de­ter­rent.

We dis­cov­ered it is not so­cially ac­cept­able to beg – peo­ple are ex­pected to earn an hon­est liv­ing. We dis­cov­ered plas­tic bags have been banned since 2008 that is why there is no lit­ter. We dis­cov­ered that the US$500 we paid to see the go­ril­las goes to real con­ser­va­tion and the lo­cal com­mu­nity.

We learned that the poach­ers who once killed go­ril­las are now em­ployed as guides – they find the go­ril­las so the tourists can visit them. We learned about the ac­tive cam­paign against cor­rup­tion to en­sure that the lessons of yes­ter­day would not need to be learned again to­mor­row.

We also learned that tourists never travel alone. We went on to see some go­ril­las up close. We saw the bor­der of the DRC (Demo­cratic Re­pub­lic of the Congo) and the beau­ti­ful Lake Kivu in Gisenyi. We spent nearly three hours at the geno­cide me­mo­rial mu­seum. We even spoke to the very tal­ented ac­tor, Ed­ward Nor­ton.

But the real high­light of Rwanda was the peo­ple who lov­ingly em­braced us and treated us like celebri­ties. We didn’t want to be treated any bet­ter or worse than any­one else, but it’s a part of their cul­ture to take care of out­siders/ strangers. Their cheeky na­ture and sim­ple liv­ing make them some of the hap­pi­est peo­ple we have ever been blessed to visit in the world.

I left Rwanda with a sense of awe and won­der­ment. The Rwan­dans have come a long way since the atroc­i­ties of the 90s and their spirit stands strong and united. Peo­ple are happy, kids smile and play. Their na­ture is warm and invit­ing.

The feel­ings of my friend were based on fear, not fact, and def­i­nitely not in­tu­ition. No, noth­ing hap­pened to me. That was Rwanda’s ugly past; not her charm­ing present. ■

Phillipa, a ki­ne­si­ol­o­gist work­ing in Park Or­chards and Thorn­bury, Vic­to­ria, teaches you how to make your life ‘ fit’ again. A big be­liever in pos­i­tive change, Phillipa teaches you to find fresh per­spec­tives.

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