Rocking Rwanda

RwandaRocks

Rocking Rwanda

I was slightly bemused; disembarking at Kigali International Airport. Passengers had to waddle their way through a plethora of planes, on a circular parking bay about the size of the main tennis court of Wimbledon (or so it seemed to me). Ensueingly impressed on hearing later, during my stay, that a new airport, to handle bigger planes, more air traffic and an anticipated influx of tourists about to rock Rwanda, was in the making.

I had not had too pleasant a flight, often suffering of uncomfortable, oesophagus pressure accompanied by waves of peristaltic, upwardly mobile movements, when flying (possibly psychosomatic travel sickness for additional drama). I felt rather apologetically, embarrassed towards a handsome mature-aged gentleman I had continuously been disturbing, in his aisle seat, one seat away from my window one, that I eventually took off and plonked myself right at the back of the plane, needing to get up, every so now and then to relieve the pressure. It turned out, as we both soon discovered at the baggage carousel after disembarkation, that we were part of the same visiting media delegation.  My bemusement barometre was rising.

Welcome to our country” a tall well dressed, young gentleman quipped, in my ear. “You’re one of the participants to the delegation we were expecting, I’ve been told.  I was just informed by customs that you had arrived”. I was gobsmacked.  A custom official had informed our welcoming delegation of my (our) arrival?  The gentleman, surprisingly, turned out to be a member of parliament, who accompanied us for the entire duration of our stay.  I was in mild shock, at this magnanimity of a nation I was about to explore.  “You’d better remove your plastic wrap from your suitcase Simone”, our chief host and founder, of [1]AFRIDO, advised me, in his always as cool-as-a-cucumber-calming voice. “We do not allow plastic in our country. It is actually banned”. My shock barometre was now almost equal to my bemusement barometre. “Sam is waiting for you just at the exit” he continued further.

And yes, there she was. Samantha, a former adult student at the Alliance Française de [2]Mitchell’s Plain. I had built up a firm, friendship over the years and she was instrumental in advising me on the initial media invitation to Rwanda. I felt at home. Even more snugly so, when I saw our hunky driver. My front passenger seat next to him was “booked” for the entire stay.  Luckily it turned out that there was only one other female participant to our delegation (and no same-sex interest guy, as far as we knew) so the competition was fair.

Exiting the airport terminal was such a juxtaposition to my previous African country trip to Lagos, Nigeria.  As opposed to exceptionally humid hot air, Kigali felt like an air-conditioned office (well, with a median temperature). Treated to a late night supper and rounds of mutual introductions, we retired to our hotel in the plush suburb of Nyarutarama, where most diplomatic missions are based. I was assimilated back to [3]Pretoria. However, what was to be a recurring theme during our stay, followed. The theme of Horror.  Yes, to my horror I discovered that my and only my suitcase was missing. I saw myself walking naked for the next ten days.

Clothes of Genocide Victims: Murambi Genocide Centre

Retrospectively it gives me a feeling of how thousands of Rwandans must have felt in 1994, (sans the fear of course) fleeing the ensuing genocide with just the clothes on their back.

But then after deliberations by our hosts of “what could have gone wrong” it also gave me my first one on one trip with that hunky driver, to get to know him “up close and personal”, nogal on the first night. What a gentleman and a gentle man he turned out to be.   Although, after ten days of curvaceously hugging mountain tops at cliff hanging, break neck, driving speeds, albeit on the “wrong” side of the road, we all left with the consensus that he should actually have been Rwanda’s Formula 1 racing driver.  Michael Schumacher eat your heart out. He’d out manoeuvre you on any given day (and night) in the Land of a Thousand Hills, (which seemed more like millions to me).

Returning to the airport, to search for the missing suitcase, proved fruitless. My South African conclusion was that it was as “Gone with the [4]SuidOoster Wind”. Rwandans theorised otherwise.  “Someone probably just took it by mistake and we’re sure we’d trace and find it by tomorrow. I advise you to get a good night sleep.” Says Mr Cool as a Cucumber while I try to remain as cool as a cucumber. “Sure” I thought, “You have no idea of the ensuing drama tomorrow if your patriotic theorising was surely going to be proven wrong”Mais viola, just as we returned to the hotel after the fruitless airport search, I received a call from the calming voice. “A group of Rwandan refugees, who had arrived at the same time and had mingled with all of us at the exit, had been traced just as our initial assumptions had suggested. They had taken your suitcase by mistake.  You should have it safely at your hotel by early morning” I subsequently learnt that Mr Cool as A Cucumber had called Mr Member of Parliament who called a Mr Senator of parliament, whom I subsequently met, who had traced the refugees to their accommodation. My gobsmacked barometre was now off the reading but…….I was clothed.

I can’t remember whether I awoke to pelting rain the morning after the night before our arrival. Although Rwanda also has four seasons viz. summer, summer, summer and summer, it does have a dry season.  We had arrived in the wet season, but the not too wet season, (?) where it does rain a bit everyday (though not throughout so one sees lots of sun) as opposed to the dry season when it apparently rains every second day.(?) Thank goodness though it remains summer.  Always nice and warm.  But, a major surprise was in store for us on our first morning.  (And it wasn’t the breakfast.  Jamie Oliver has, unfortunately, not yet been invented in Rwanda, besides the African tea, with ginger, and the avocado juice).  It had been eluded that we would be visiting Parliament, which incidentally still bears the scars of mortar attacks hurled, during the Genocide of 1994.

I was pleasantly impressed when it actually turned out to be the opening of the East African Community by H E the President of Burundi who is its current Chair. My premature disappointment at the absence of President Paul Kagame was soon rewarded when we had the honour to attend the official 17th Commemoration, of the Genocide, held annually on the 7th April, two days later at the National Stadium seated just a few metres behind His Excellency and the other VIP guests. I loved that the country was practically clothed in purple for this mourning period as it’s my favourite colour and the city colour of Pretoria, named  after the Jacaranda trees which blooms annually in October. Of course I lamented the fact that I did not get to parade “dancing on a bar counter” in my specially packed, purple, velvet, mini, tasselled dress, as all clubs, bars (public) and even the casino was closed firm shut as a sign of respect. None of us were prepared for this event (at the stadium). No outsider is.

The day before we had visited the Kigali Genocide Memorial Centre. A “sanitised” version of the horror behind glass encased displays.   The stadium gave us a salt-in-the-wound version. Broken hearts howled, sobbed, and wailed throughout as survivors relived the horror. Cowboys may not cry, but real men do, and I was dying inside. Moreover, nothing in this world can prepare one for the absolute vivid encapsulation of the atrocities as such, as a visit, in the subsequent days, to the Murambi Genocide Memorial Site or what I call Rwanda’s  “Auschwitz”.  Much has been written and said on and about the Genocide.  The horror of a woman raped 15 times then killing her via the stake method (inserting a stake from her vagina until it protrudes from her neck).  The horror of entrapping thousands of men, women, children and babies, then misleading them into the belief of a safe sanctuary, then subsequently, in the still of the morning night at three am, machetteying, clubbing, shooting and stoning them to death. It seems incredulous.  To this day this grim slaughter house, a technical school under construction then, has been left unfinished, metaphorically, to me, as a skeleton representing the vapours of death.  I suppose it says it all, Or does it………

Lime Preserved Bodies

Lime Preserved Bodies

But, Rwanda is not all doom and gloom. Rwanda is, definitely, an African Phoenix rising.  I am impressed by all the development.  The prosperity of the country was exceptionally stark at the border cities of Gisenyi, Rwanda and Goma , [5]DRC. Long long ago, it was one city, before colonialists split the spoils of war, drawing artificial African country borders splitting families and communities apart.  Goma of course devasted on the 17 January 2001 by the volcanic eruption of Mount Nyiragongo.  Residents initially flocking to Gisenyi, blissfully spared ,although just separated by about 200 metres of no man’s land.  (Think it’s now high time in the age of emancipation to rephrase that to no person’s land).

Rising double storey houses on the one side, tin shacks on the other, Rwanda shares its borders with several countries including Burundi and Uganda.  We had travelled to the North-West during our first weekend, on additional excursions including visiting a militia, refugee repatriation centre, stopping off for a late lunch, in Musanze, Ruhengeri, at the foothills of the mountains of “Gorrilas in the Mist”, and visiting current [6]RDP housing programmes, by which time I was, I think, sufficiently adept at practicing my new found skills in Kinyarwanda, the mother tongue lingua franca. “Mwaramutsi Umukobga” I greeted a gorgeous little girl with striking hazel eyes. Mwaramutsi mzungu” she replied with a broad smile. I nearly cracked myself thinking that [7]Verwoerd must have been turning in his grave, thrice, on hearing her addressing me as a “white” person.

And thus it came to pass that we over-nighted at Gisenyi  

Gisenyi, oh Gisenyi.

I will write an Ode to Gisenyi.

Of its lake and lush green valley

Oh Gisenyi, my Gisenyi

Idyllic Gisenyi

If this is not Africa’s Shangri-La, or at least the number one pretender to the crown, then I don’t know.  To encapsulate its description.  If I don’t find a husband soon to spend my honeymoon in this magical city on the shores of Lake Kivu, (I mean I could always divorce him afterwards) I’m going to club a ToyBoy, force him in my suitcase and lug him all the way from South Africa to a romantic beach side escapade for the most romantic time of our lives.  I am still in utter disbelief that I actually soared one of the Great Lakes, albeit a minor one, on a boat, spent a few hours on one of its islands, albeit an island reserved for the rehabilitation of young male delinquents aged 18-35. I still do, perhaps subjectively, think that the powers that be should source an inland venue and hand the island’s development over to [8]Sol Kerzner.  Nudge nudge wink wink . Just too idyllic for words. I affectionately call it Rwanda’s “Exile Island”- see me “Survivor”-ing the latrines.

Operation Navigation Latrines

The visit to Gisenyi  complemented my voyeurism into Rwandan culture.  Backtrack to our second night, when we dined with the Mayor of Kigali. (All politicians should be like him. Warm and down to earth).  To my amazement, it was at a Dubai-ish architecture style hotel with a rooftop restaurant.   Though an irritating ambience with piped music through the speakers and blaring music from the pool deck down below. To my further amazement they served “Indian” food, but on scrutinising the menu, knew that any restaurant that serves Lahori fish must be Pakistani.  I suppose I should not have been surprised at this observation as I think that it’s been confirmed that [9]Pakis now even live at the South Pole!  I “summoned” the most delectable dish on the menu……….the executive chef. All the way from Lahore.  A city I had visited in 2007 with my then Pakistani partner. I was enthralled, well we both were, hook, line and sinker.  (What was that hunky Rwandan driver’s name again?). But I suppose this is [10]gupshup with which to engage my Sex and The [11]Mother City, and Sex and the [12]Capital City Girls? However, here’s the thing. It’s very practical when one’s has a packed day programme and the dish can run away with the spoon metaphorically to the tune of Smokey’s:  “I’ll meet you at midnight, under the moonlight”.   Yes, Rwanda surely has some amazing cultural delights to savour, even imported ones.

Fast forwarding to a visit to the South-West in Nyabisindu, (?) we were treated to a visit roaming the hallowed replica huts of the King’s Palace.  Of course HRH [13]The Princess Swan was in her element, as she lazed on the King’s bed and tried, its seems, pole dancing at the entrance to the Royal Hut?  Interestingly the current monarch, King Kigeli V lives in Washington DC. He of course became the ruling monarch when King Mutara III died of “mysterious circumstances” in 1959. He (Kigeli) reigned until 1961.  Still unmarried, as according to custom he is not allowed to marry when living outside his country.  Probably time for His Majesty to return and find a wife to produce heirs?  Incidentally, Queen  Rosalie  Gicanda, wife of King Mutara III was murdered during the 1994 genocide. Apparently she was about 80 years old. Former Intelligence Chief Idelphonse Nizeyimana was arrested in Kampala, Uganda, on October 6, 2009, suspected of ordering the killing of Queen Gicanda.

The King's Pole Dancer

Several genocidiares are still at large and I can only but reiterate the call by the Deputy Prosecutor-General of the National Public Prosecuting Authority of Rwanda, whom we had the pleasure to meet, that countries, especially in Africa, who knowingly harbour them should either have them tried in a court of law or extradite them to Rwanda for justice.  I think everyone should do themselves a favour and “extradite” themselves to Rwanda to see how justice is served. Notwithstanding the horrific acts perpetrated, this is a nation that can surely give the “West” and self proclaimed bastions of democracy such as “The Land of the Stars and Stripes” , who orders “shoot to kill” instead of “capture to afford a fair democratic trail”, a lesson in ensuring human dignity to all, forgiveness and eventual reconciliation . I (and all on the trip I think) still marvel at how a woman whose husband and children were viciously murdered, can actually live side by side, knowingly, with the perpetrator.

Will I ever return to Rwanda?  Even when bitten by a mosquito, convinced that I would be returned in a casket to South Africa having succumbed to Malaria? You can bet your bottom and last Rwandan Franc, [14]ZAR and Euro that I would. Especially if I spend one hour at a public hospital for a malaria test as opposed to seven hours in my country of birth for a follow up one.  Fortunately negative, and on researching I now see that Rwanda is on course to possibly be malaria free by 2012[15]. Yes, I’ll surely return several times. I’ve been hooked, lined and sinkered in more ways than one. First of course for that “honeymoon”, hopefully subsequently to get lost with the gorillas in the mist and most certainly to explore some cultural collaborations and who knows perhaps business ventures.

What a marvellous country. What a shining example for Africa. What a beacon of hope to the world.  Sure, it still has its problems and proclivities. Some of us were quite disturbed at the strong military presence on almost every street corner. We questioned the incarceration of a journalist for seventeen years who spoke “ill” of the genocide.  But, what an amazing trip. We met such an array of lovely people and I’d like to commend them all, from hotel staff to hunky drivers, from secretaries to cabinet ministers and even the err……immigrants.  Cementing a growing relationship with new-found media colleagues from Southern Africa was the overall objective of this trip. I would say this relationship is now cast in stone, (or Facebook).

Our final day saw an audience granted to us by the Minister of Foreign Affairs. What a regal lady. Practiced my best erudite French on her a bit.  On record as advocating that on application, and following the correct legal procedures, she could perhaps facilitate requested Rwandan citizenship.  [16]Yvonne Chaka Chaka has so; I may just take her up on her……… intimation……..?


[1] A media and communications company formed to engage and facilitate African born journalists to report on African matters from an African continental perspective
[2] A township outside of Cape Town constructed in the 70s during the Apartheid years to house the “coloured” population, according to the then government’s racial segregation policies.
[3] Capital of South Africa and the second most complement of diplomatic missions after Washington DC
[4] The SuidOoster (South Easter) is Cape Town’s infamous Cape Doctor reaching recorded speeds of up to 160 km/h  http://www.capetownmagazine.com/weather-cape-town/Cape-Towns-Cape-Doctor/160_22_17572
[5] Democratic Republic of Congo
[6] Reconstruction and Development – A South African term associated with rebuilding the country after Apartheid
[7] Verwoerd – considered the architect of Apartheid
[8] Sol Kerzner is a South African resort property developer who boasts developments in South Africa, Mauritius, Bahamas and Dubai (Atlantis Hotel) amongst others
[9] Note, this is meant affectionately due to my array of Pakistani friends both in “Pakkieland”, South Africa and other parts of the world
[10] Gupshup – Urdu(official language of Pakistan) for gossip.
[11] Cape Town
[12] Pretoria (South Africa’s Capital – Administrative)
[13] A title bestowed on me by South African admirers with reference to my relocation to Pretoria aka the Metro of Tshwane, first as the Pretty Swan emanating from the first four letters of Pret(oria) and Swan emanating from (T)s(h)wan(e) which evolved into The Princess Swan. NurSwan being a hybrid of Urdu/Hindi for Princess /Queen and English
[14] South African Rand
[15] WorldMalariaDay.org
[16] Yvonne Chaka Chaka is a South African born singer well known in Africa and the world, affectionately called the Princess of Africa.