Breakfast the next morning was surprisingly delightful in the al fresco dining area of the hotel. The staff were beautifully polite and attentive and, after our long previous day of travel, it was a lovely start to the day sitting in the warm morning sun.

Our guide Abraham met us in reception around 8.30am. The plan was to take us to the Kimironko markets and the Kigali Genocide Memorial before our road trip across Rwanda to Bwindi in Uganda. However, after circling the city four or five times trying to find our way through the road blocks, Abraham came to realise that half of the city had been cut off due to the wedding of the President’s daughter. The markets were closed as it was a public holiday but the memorial was open. An hour and a half after leaving our hotel, we finally made it to the memorial but the journey wasn’t wasted time. Abraham was extremely knowledgeable and shared stories about Rwanda, its culture and its political situation. 

We had already done some reading on the genocide of 1994 before we arrived at the Genocide Memorial but there was so much more to learn there. With video, audio guides, visual displays and the memorial gardens where more than 250,000 victims were laid to rest, it truly is an exceptional tribute to those who lost their lives in the slaughter.

Entry to the Genocide Memorial is free but there is a small charge for using the audio guides. If you don’t like audio guides like Karl and Sam, I suggest leaving a donation instead to contribute towards the upkeep of the memorial.

Personally, I found the audio guide excellent and was able to share a lot of information with the boys as we made our way around the display. Before you make your own way around the display however, there is a video that everyone is requested to watch.

a raw, emotive experience

Even now it brings tears to my eyes thinking about that video. Be prepared to cry. It is raw, harsh and gut-wrenching listening to the survivors tell the story of the genocide and their personal pain and grief. It was extremely difficult to sit through but it has to be done. The story of the genocide needs to be told and we must listen so we can empathise with the victims and survivors and learn so it never happens again.

What was so apparent from the video was the genuine forgiveness and desire to move on together with a commitment from all parties to never let the atrocities occur again. Despite the slaughter of around one million Tutsis and moderate Hutus, the survivors did not show any hate – just pain, sadness and a desire to reconcile.

We spent a long time wandering through the visual display, reading the summaries and listening to the audio. It would have taken us nearly an hour in the main hall as we followed the story. We were shocked by how many nations, including the United Nations, were complicit in the genocide, either standing by while the Tutsis and moderate Hutus were massacred or actually aiding the genocide with the provision of weapons and training of the perpetrators. 

At the end of the video, we were offered a rose to place on the memorial at we left the first building to walk across to the main exhibition. I needed my sunnies at this point as the sadness was all-consuming.

The memorial honours the victims and survivors with dignity and raw openness. Names of the victims, skulls and personal belongings are on display, some bloodied from the massacre.

At the end of the display, we moved on to a memorial exhibition for victims of other genocides throughout the world, including the holocaust. It is here that it becomes evident that the memorial aims not just to honour the Rwandan victims but to address the horror of genocide on a world scale. Each genocide story is shared with authentic photos and personal quotes that do not fail to move you with the realisation of just how evil humanity can be.

serene, peaceful gardens

Outside the exhibition building are the memorial gardens which are serene and peaceful. I made the mistake of stepping up on a concrete area not realising it was part of the memorial – perhaps take care to be more observant than I was as I was really gutted to be reprimanded as if I had deliberately dishonoured the victims. It wasn’t intentional – I was just lacking awareness as the whole experience was more than a little overwhelming.

We were very glad we visited the memorial and felt we understood a lot more about the Rwandan people as a result. Abraham explained the work the government had done to make Kigali a world class city with the President being internationally applauded for his vision and record on economic growth over his three terms in power. Other reports do question the statistics on the true level of poverty in Rwanda  which was sadly evident as we drove across the country but initiatives such as the work opportunities provided for all survivors of the genocide were impressive. In particular, the female orphan survivors are paid to sweep the streets every morning as they would otherwise have no employment. It was amazing to see that the streets are genuinely immaculate.

After making our way out of Kigali, we drove through rural Rwanda to Cyanika to cross the border into Uganda. It was approximately a three hour journey but it was a fascinating learning experience so the time flew by. 

The scenery was spectacular with the rolling mountain ranges, tea plantations, gum trees and grevilleas (which came from Australia, mass planted as they are ideally suited to the conditions!) and the rural villages. The roads were surprisingly good although they were crazy with hundreds of locals on bikes, mopeds and on foot. It seemed like everyone was out from early morning to night, carrying huge volumes of produce, firewood, sticks, building materials, goods, baskets and buckets on their heads and on their overloaded bicycles! People were everywhere – Abraham kept having to blow his horn to get people to allow us space on the road to drive through.

I was amazed at the traditional dress of the women in Rwanda. While a few of the younger people were wearing modern clothes, the majority of the women were wearing brightly patterned dresses and headwear. They were stunning.

The basic nature of the village lifestyle was so evident as we made our way across Rwanda. Other than those working in village stores and trades, most people seemed to live off the land. We passed large, bustling markets and vibrant social gatherings that reinforced the importance of the local community but it did not look like an easy life. Life expectancy in Rwanda is only around 68 years although it is improving; in neighbouring Uganda, it is still closer to 60 years.

crossing the border

We were quite captivated by our journey across Rwanda, although it was definitely an eye-opener. We were soon at the border, heading into Uganda.

To be honest, border control was a little daunting. Abraham couldn’t join us as we navigated our way through customs so we had to be very alert to what we needed to do as it wasn’t simple. The Ebola scare was current so we had to be checked for high temperatures and walk our shoes through some type of disinfectant which didn’t please Sam as it wasn’t great for our fabric shoes. 

We then had to go through customs to get out of Rwanda, then customs to get into Uganda and then a police check. It was confusing and time-consuming and I admit, quite unsettling at one point. As we waited outside the customs offices for someone to deal with us, I actually turned my rings backwards subtly so that my diamonds weren’t on display but I needn’t have worried as everyone seemed to be so friendly. Men sitting on walls and leaning against cars, casually called out ‘hello’ as we wandered past, not asking for anything more than a smile in return. It was clear there were few tourists like us in the area!

stunning scenery

Once across the border we travelled down ‘the scenic route’ to our lodge in Bwindi. Abraham chose to drive the long way round as he thought we would appreciate the view and he was right! We passed Lake Mutanda on the way, a stunning freshwater lake in the foothills of the Virunga Mountain Range. It was so still and peaceful without a single person or vessel in sight. Simply divine!

As we drove down the dirt road towards our lodge, Abraham explained the different methods of building homes. Apparently, many people will often build their own homes, making bricks and leaving them to bake in the sun. Some bricks were quite uniformly made and others were extremely rough and clearly made of inferior materials.

We could see that houses are often very basically designed as a simple rectangular one room building with no glass in the windows and sometimes without a front door. It made me consider however how proud home owners might be if they had to make their houses with their own hands.

We went past an area like a quarry where people were smashing up rocks as a substitute for sand to make mortar for building houses. Sand apparently is very cheap in Uganda, just $10 USD a truckload but it costs $100 USD to get it delivered so this substitute is much more affordable – if incredibly labour intensive. Everything in Africa seemed so hard and labour intensive – it makes you realise just how easy our lives are.

If you have a little more money, some people in Uganda could pay someone else to build a house for them for around $1000 USD. And others who are much richer, such as government officials and business people, live in luxury accommodation on large plots of land. The majority of homes we saw were very poor but not everyone living in Uganda lives in poverty.

As we drew closer to our lodge, the local children came running out towards our car calling out ‘Mzungu’!

This is a term used for white tourists but it is not derogatory – these children were excited because we presented an opportunity for them to gain a little money by posing for photos. Abraham showed us the ropes and passed over a few coins to the children after letting us take some shots of their beaming faces.

Along the way, we also had a profoundly memorable experience as we passed a small mud brick house. A woman was outside selling small woven baskets for $10 USD each. Karl commented to Abraham that the price sounded a little expensive and Abraham replied that the $10 USD would send her children to school for two months. With that startling perspective, we made sure we bought many hand made products from the local ladies at the end of our gorilla trek.

When we arrived at our lodge, Nkuringo Bwindi Gorilla Lodge, we were stunned by the view. The air was crisp and cool as we stood on the deck of the lodge looking out across a panorama of rolling blue mountains. It was simply beauty beyond belief.

We had a lovely, relaxing evening at the lodge with great African food, drinks in a charming rustic bar built around a tree and a wonderful night sleeping in our spacious, comfortable rooms. We loved this glorious lodge so much for its spectacular location, beautiful character and the friendliness of the staff. It was the perfect place to spend the night before our much anticipated gorilla trek the next day!