July 4th is a very important day in the USA- I’m sure you know that. But as it turns out, we are not the only ones to claim this day for our celebration of independence. In Rwanda, July 4th has a similar name to the United States’ holiday. Here, July 4th is Liberation Day, marking the end of the 90-day hell that was the 1994 genocide against the Tutsis.
In observance of this holiday of both our home and temporary-home countries, I decided to take a long weekend with Stacey and Heather, vet students from Tufts who are here studying diseases and parasites in cattle. And, to be honest, we really just felt like we needed to get out of Nyagatare. There’s not much to do here besides work, and with my project progressing almost too smoothly and both Stacey’s and Heather’s on hold for a variety of logistical reasons, it was an ideal time to get out.
We set out for Rubavu (formerly Gisenyi) midmorning on the 4th [side note: Most towns in Rwanda were renamed in the early 2000s in the government’s efforts to erase regional loyalties that played a part in the 1994 genocide. I’m not sure how effective this was, considering everyone uses the towns’ old and new names interchangeably, but maybe in several years, the new names will begin to stick better.], after enjoying coffee and a light breakfast at Bourbon. The streets of Kigali were eerily empty of cars, motos, and people, and almost every shop still had bars across their doors.
The bus ride was quite scenic as it wound through the western side of northern Rwanda. We passed the town of Musanze (formerly Ruhengeri), a popular base from which tourists go gorilla trekking in Volcanoes National Park. We passed the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund headquarters, and I gave a personal moment of silent reflection in her honor.
In each town we passed through, masses of people were walking on the streets and convening at public locations-churches, soccer fields, and the like to listen to or watch the televised broadcast of the liberation day speeches. Eventually, the bus radio was switched to a channel that was broadcasting the event, and I got to hear snippets of the speeches of both Rwandan president Paul Kagame and Ugandan leader Yoweri Museveni.
Museveni’s speech was somewhat apologetic for the Ugandans’ (and the rest of the world’s) inaction during the genocide. However, Kagame’s speech did not dwell in the past. Instead, in his typical style, he stressed how far Rwanda has come as a country.
“But we have come far enough, these past twenty years, to permit ourselves a moment of sober satisfaction, as we recommit to the journey ahead.”
He also referred to other, more recent, revolutions in Africa.
“Whether they succeeded or not, they contributed to the consciousness that we in Africa are in charge of our own well-being. And that to say no, to fight back, to insist our voices be heard, is to reclaim dignity.”
He then closed with a warning that Rwanda should not be using the genocide as an excuse for any shortcomings.
“Nothing about the past is an excuse for failure, even where real wrongs were done. The countless young Rwandans and Africans I have met lack nothing. They can deliver the future we want, if we hold each other accountable for it.”
One interesting things to note about the speech is that it was given in English. Although English is (now) the national language of Rwanda, the majority of the country, especially those who are young adults or older, learned French in school. This means that many of the people watching or listening could not actually understand what he was saying without having it translated.
But enough about politics, and more about our journey!
When we arrived in Rubavu, we transferred to a shared taxi to get to our hotel, which was in the nearby town of Rubona. That is to say, Rubona is only 7 km from Rubavu, but our taxi took almost an hour to get there between the waiting and all of the stops. It was a very cramped and uncomfortable ride, but luckily it was still much shorter than any of my matatu rides in Uganda.
Once we arrived in Rubona, there was some confusion as to where to drop us off (our hotel was not on the taxi’s normal route), which ended with us being somewhat unceremoniously dumped on the side of the road. A “helpful” young man from the bus offered to walk us to the hotel, and upon our noncommittal response took it upon himself to walk us up the road. It was pretty obvious that he was hitting on us, and that he didn’t have much experience with attracting muzungu women (or he was just so desperate that he was ignoring all of our signs of disinterest). He also didn’t even offer to carry a single one of our bags, which might have at least won him a little bit of our favor. We were finally able to ditch him at the hotel lobby, where I refused to take his phone number. He lingered there for a few minutes while we were shown to our room, but left at some point when he realized we were not coming back. Although the walk was somewhat grueling, it was definitely worth it. La Bella Lodge turned out to be exactly the little chunk of paradise that we were looking for, from the breathtaking views to the delicious food at every meal.
We spent the whole weekend at the hotel, swimming in the lake, reading, and relaxing on the beach. There were a multitude of birds, lizards, and even some playful otters to amuse us, and it was very difficult to leave when the time came (“Maybe I’ll switch my project to “Birds of Lake Kivu. Or water sampling. Or hmm I saw a goat up on the hill I wonder what parasites he has!”).