When I was a child, my elder brother got me to believe that Rwanda, Burundi and Uganda were Punjabi swear words. Years later, when I became aware of these three countries lodged in the heart of Africa, the stories and articles spoke overwhelmingly of expulsions, genocides and violence. Travellers viewed them as tinder-boxes best given a wide berth. Today, things are dramatically different, and thanks to Paul Kagame's excellent leadership that has united the people and revitalised the economy, Rwanda is now a compelling destination, with travellers queuing for visas and trekking permits. They come to explore the beautiful landscapes of The Land of a Thousand Hills, to meet the warm, friendly people.
I found the Rwandans and their lives fascinating. The people ranged from tall and lean to broad and hefty to the very short and slight. Having been through what they have, it is no surprise they've seen the light. Rwandans consider the affiliation to tribes gauche. "We are neither Tutsi, nor Hutu or Twa Pygmy, just Rwandans." They are toasting the success enjoyed by their young country, and with all the foreign investment that is pouring in and the infrastructure build-up, the future looks good. The two-and-a-half-hour drive from Kigali, the capital to the Virunga Volcanoes in the north, is nothing short of a catwalk. We saw the most colourfully turned-out men, women and children, swathed in multiple patterns of cotton fabrics. The markets were laden with sugarcane, bananas and onions. Being at an African safari destination and seeing road-signs in French and hearing English with a French accent was a first; Rwanda had been a Belgian colony before independence.
After mornings spent parting Vernonia thickets and trundling through bamboo forests looking for families of Mountain Gorillas, I enjoyed strolling down-hill in the evenings, past the scenic farms. Even as the day faded, groups of children waved and called out, "Good morning, teacher!" using the little bit of English they knew. Each time a few words were exchanged in Kenyarwanda between my guide, Innocent, and the locals, they welcomed us into their cosy gatherings. We shared banana and sorghum beer at a dingy tavern and joined the choir-practice at a bamboo and mud shack. Amused at my amusement at their feisty cards game, a circle of men began slapping down their cards in exaggerated motions, which made us all laugh out loud, sharing a lovely moment that transcended the language barrier.