Rwanda: Land of a Thousand Hills

The small map of Kigali in our Lonely Planet guidebook is incomprehensible, a swirl of spiraling roads. Once we arrive in Rwanda, we understand why.

The tiny country of Rwanda seems to have been cut out of Africa based on the geographical distinction of hills. The road coming from Tanzania is relatively straight, then starts curving up and down immediately after the border. From the DR Congo, you see hills in the distance and know that is where Rwanda starts.

Rwanda is also set apart by other instantly noticeable things. The roads are paved and lined by neat gutters and landscaped gardening. There are no grass or leaf rooftops; all structures – even simple garden sheds – have tin or tile roofs. Plastic bags are banned, and you dare not throw any litter (even a banana peel) out the bus window. Cars stop for you at crosswalks. Taxi-motos are well maintained, carry only one passenger, and the driver hands you a spare helmet (and sometimes even a plastic sanitary hairnet) when you climb on. Buses depart on schedule and never hold more people than seats (in fact, often much less). Rwandan military patrol the streets at night, armed with machine guns and unsmiling faces.

We drive the meandering road towards Kigali. Our small bus (known as a coaster) is full of Congolese women who have also boarded in Tanzania and are making their way to Goma via Rwanda. Most of them have crossed the border with Laissez-passer documents valid for a few East African countries, whose reverse sides are covered with stamps.

As the bus crosses the country, the view over the hills of hundreds of Rwandans walking roadside conjures memories of images from the news we saw as children: the 1994 genocide which killed over 800 000 Rwandans in the space of just three months. We cannot help but think of how the roads would look if these people were running, bleeding, wielding machetes, or lying as bodies on the ground. It has now all been replaced with an image of normality. A country that was destroyed and built up again. How? We wait to see.