Never Say Never

I passed over the Rwanda – Uganda border on a wet and miserable morning. The whole experience was no less than a farce which went about as well as an Idi Amin appreciation festival in Kampala. I queued for about an hour to get my passport stamped by a border official who kindly stopped playing cards when he realised the queue was halfway into the rainforest. I then practically had my trousers ripped off while trying to negotiate a taxi and avoid the persistent money changers. When I made it into Uganda I almost immediately saw a flock of grey crowned cranes, Uganda’s national bird which appears on their flag. This brief moment ended up being the highlight of my time there, as after an unfortunate chain of events and less than 24 hours later, I found myself back in Kigali in Rwanda, a place I never thought I’d return to. 
For some reason I found it particularly difficult travelling this part of the world solo, the food, the language, the weather, the transport and the mentality of some people for some reason left me feeling drained, unless I’m just getting old, that’s something I’d never thought I’d say! With a few days to spare I thought I’d attend the opening match of the African Nations Championships held here in Rwanda. 

CHAN as it’s known, is a football tournament which only features players who ply their trade in their home nation’s national league, so you won’t find Yaya Toure banging them in for the Cote D’ivoire, but you will see central forward Koffi Boua who currently plays for Ivorian club team ASEC Mimosas. Yes you could taint the showcase by describing it as a tournament which only features second class players that aren’t good enough to play in Europe, but something like this lets the guys who never thought they would represent their country to fulfil their dreams. 

singing the national anthems

Rwanda, a nation still recovering from genocide probably never thought they would host a large international football tournament, but here they are. Paul Kagame the president of Rwanda was in attendance for the opening match vs The Ivory Coast, which I’d bought a ticket for, the problem was that the amount of tickets sold exceeded the capacity of the stadium, leaving myself and thousands of others stuck outside with tickets that might as well have been printed of bog roll. A great way to scam your fellow countrymen out of a few Francs! A bribe to the armed guard couldn’t even get me in, never thought I’d see the day. 

Not all was lost, with my ticket I managed to get in for the second game of the afternoon – Morocco vs Gabon.

The easiest way to navigate your way around Kigali is by catching a moto-taxi. There’s thousands of drivers all over the city, and unlike most other developing countries, it’s mandatory for the passenger to wear a crash helmet, which the driver supplies. Most one way trips don’t normally exceed £1 so it’s quite good value, the frustrating thing is that the driver will tell you he knows the way even if he really hasn’t got a clue, then spend a load of time driving around in circles, asking for directions or getting you to refer to your google maps. Once finally arriving at your destination they have the cheek to ask for more than the agreed price because they took the long road.


No helmut needed in the countryside


It was with great sadness that this African journey had come to a premature end. Rwanda is a beautiful country which does certainly feel more reserved and European than other parts of Africa, although I still feel when I talk to some of the people we are really world’s apart. An Irishman once told me “you never really appreciate a place properly until you’ve left” that old Irish proverb feels particularly true about mainland Tanzania and Rwanda. Looking back now at all its beauty, it taught me a thing or two about the people and the culture of a part of the world I was previously rather naive about, but taught me even more about myself. I’d quite happily never ride on the back of a moto taxi again but I must do it one last time to get to the airport, the driver typically got lost on the way and asked for double when we arrived, to which I obliged as this Mzungu may never come back to Africa again, but as another experience ends, I’ve learned that in this world, I’ll never say never again. 


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Gorillas That I Missed

Along the Congolese border with Rwanda is the spectacular Lake Kivu, one of a string of ‘inland seas’ that run through the Albertine Rift Floor. Though Kivu is a freshwater lake, it is one of three in the world that experience limnic eruptions, a rare type of natural disaster where dissolved CO2 and expanding amounts of methane, coupled with the nearby volcanic activity causes a massive explosion of CO2 from the water, ultimately asphyxiating everything around it.


Rwandans are removing gases from the lake to help power homes in the country, but at the same time it is not known when there will next be an explosion. A lake in Cameroon had a limnic eruption which resulted in 1800 deaths, Kivu is 2000 times larger so the effects would be catastrophic. Kivu is Rwanda’s prime domestic weekend getaway, imagine going on holiday to Skegness with the fear that the amusements might implode and let off some deadly toxins? 


I was going to get the boat from Kabuye to Gisenyi, two of the three Rwandan Kivu settlements, but by no surprise it was cancelled at the last minute so I was forced to drive the rough coastal route. Thankfully there was some beautiful rural scenery and some friendly locals. I found out that a lot of people in Africa don’t like being photographed because they believe that the snaps will be sold for profit and that the subject will receive nothing, I assured this couple that they will make 50% of all the proceeds I make from this photo, which is absolutely nothing.  


Gisenyi ‘Beach’


Rural Football Ground


Near Gisenyi the Pfunda tea estate produces exellent tea thanks to the fertile volcanic soils of the nearby Virunga foothills, it’s just a shame that every cafe I enter doesn’t seem to know how to make a decent brew. 


You can go for a wander around the tea estate but don’t expect it to be peaceful, as the adults graft away the hoards of children run wild and there was far too much Muzungu hysteria here for my liking. There were a lot of ‘give me money’ cries, where do they get the idea that all white people have a bottomless supply of money? My is guess is that one day a rich do gooder walked through this village with a bag full of Francs like the pied piper, and has subsequently ruined the market for everyone else. 


Musanze is the closest town the Volcanos national park, famous for its mountain gorilla tracking. Billed a once in a lifetime enchanting experience and something I would love to do, sadly comes with an extortionate price-tag of $700 per person for a half day excursion, locals pay $50. I’ve got the money, but my morals simply won’t allow me to pay this amount of money to spend an hour with a gorilla, especially when there’s a meathead’s gym at the top of my street that leaves little to the imagination. 


Inside the Dian Fossey research centre


The closest I got


The lovely twin lakes Ruhondo and Burera are renowned birding sights so I finally got to put those bulky binoculars to use, I managed to spot a fire finch, yellow African wagtail and a flycatcher, not bad for a green twitcher. 



Back to the photography subject, some locals pose and allow you to capture them for a small upfront fee. If you are prepared to cough up, then this is what you get…


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One Man Banda

Happy to see the back of Tanzania, the first thing I noticed about Rwanda when completing the final furlong to Kigali, is that the people don’t seem as competent with their English as they do over the border. I was trying to find out how many hours the journey took, but no one understood what I was trying to ask. It’s then I remembered the age old trick of drawing pictures to get your point across, this time it didn’t work but the passengers found it hilarious as the white buffoon sat at the front of the bus scribbling pictures to the standard of a two year old. 

We all realise what happened in Rwanda in 1994, but few of us know what it was actually about and how it all started. Obviously it’s a complex subject, so here’s the quick idiot’s guide to the Rwandan genocide. 

Rwanda is divided into two main ethnic groups, the Hutu and the minority Tutsi. Since the beginning of time the two ethnic groups had some minor rivalries but always managed to get along in relative peace and harmony.

When the Belgians colonised Rwanda, they favoured the Tutsi for their supposed European appearance. They handed out ID cards that stated which group the given person belonged to and give the Tutsi control over Rwanda.    

The grave of Fred Gisa Rwigyema, co-founder of the RPF

Between 1959 and 1972 the Hutus rebelled and overthrew the government and the minority Tutsi were treated poorly as a result. By 1990 a rebel group of Tutsis was formed and invaded Northern Rwanda. A civil war followed along with four years worth of Hutu propaganda claiming that the Tutsi were to turn the Hutu into slaves. The straw that broke the Hutu’s back came when on 6th April 1994 a plane carrying the Hutu president was shot down. The propaganda intensified stating that Rwanda should no longer be divided, it should be a one man band. 


Over the course of the next 100 days 800,000 Tutsis and pro-peace Hutus were were murdered in state-sponsored violence, largely carried out by two Hutu paramilitary organisations but also by civilians who had once been their friends and neighbours. Woman and children were not spared, whole family’s were wiped out. 

The Hôtel des Mille Collines was used as a safe house during the genocide, as seen in the movie Hotel Rwanda.

So many people say that if it wasn’t for the Europeans then both groups would still be living together peacefully. The Belgians may have caused a greater divide, but I’m controversially saying, did they place the pangas in Rwandan people’s hands and order them to slaughter their fellow countryman? Make of it what you will. 

The mass grave at the genocide memorial site

Kigali, Rwanda’s capital city, is built in a hilly area and sprawls across four ridges and valleys. Kigali is a mixture of two Bantu words combined to make a word literally meaning ‘broad’ or ‘big’, so Kigali is just the big city. Plastic bags are banned in Rwanda to help the environment making Kigali quite clean by Afrcian standards. Here you’re more likely to see a smartly dressed businessman than a scruffy kid offering shoe shines on those knackered rubber flip flops. There are numerous colourful markets, where for once a Muzungu can walk around without the deafening cries of ‘come, look at my shop’. 



Kigali’s old quarter Nyamirambo is where the first buildings of the city were raised. Kigali’s coolest neighbourhood is said to be the cities equivalent to Soho in London, that’s funny as I don’t see anyone wearing a gimp suit or a dodgy Albanian pimp. 

The Green Mosque has been a symbol of Nyamirambo since Muslim traders came to a Rwanda in the 1930s. With its weird architecture, the Mosque was another safe house during the genocide. The district escaped some of the worst atrocities due to the Muslim community who opened their doors to protect the Tutsis. Their acts of righteousness resulted in a high conversion rate and since then Kigali’s Muslim population has doubled. So you see, the Muslims who are often discriminated against for various reasons ignored the propaganda and were refused to make a one man banda, in Rwanda. 


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Polé Polé Way

From the Usumbara mountains the quickest way to reach Rwanda is by taking an expensive one way flight from Kilimanjaro. Of course there is a cheap way to do it, this is also the Polé Polé (slowly slowly) way. 

Lushoto to Arusha is a seven hour bus ride. Arusha is Tanzania’s second largest city and where most of the Northern Safaris are organised from. For apparently being a tourist town I was expecting to get constantly hounded by people selling Serengeti tours. The majority of the hassle actually came from one street where everyone wanted to sell me a mattress, apart from that I surprisingly found Arusha quite a friendly and relaxed place, even the blind busker in the street didn’t object to being photographed. 

Mattress Street


The Arushan Badly Drawn Boy

To avoid driving through the Serengeti and Ngorongoro national parks and paying the full entrance fees, I had to go the long way around. Babati is three hours South of Arusha and was an ok place to break up the journey. I paid a local fisherman to take me out into Lake Babati in his dugout canoe to see the hippos that live in the lake. Charles, my canoe driver didn’t want to get too close to the beasts as the heifers can be very aggressive, territorial animals when they have a calf. Charles spoke good English and told me how his ambition was to become a lawyer but he never had the funds to send himself to university so had no choice but to become a fisherman/hippo locator. Feeling rather touched by his story, I let him keep the 30p change. 




Next stop was Singida, another 4 hours West. There’s a few lakes here but I opted to just go for a wander around the villages and climbed up one of the town’s weird rock formations. It was in Singida I broke my record for the cheapest room in Tanzania – £2 for a complete shit hole with bucket showers right next to the bus station, where the music blares from the nearby bar till early hours of the morning. Luckily I had ear plugs, but after spending the night here, I wish I had of bought that mattress in Arusha.



Africans use the phrase Polé Polé meaning slowly slowly in Swahili for many things, as nothing ever seems to be hurried or scheduled. Mwanza, the final stop in Tanzania was meant to be a seven hour drive North but took around nine after the bus broke down 70km away from the city. Myself and four other passengers managed to hitchhike the rest of the way with a Soof Afrikaan gold tycoon who kept complaining about the road “yu paye thu Chinese tu burld yu a roud dis is wat yu git!” Mwanza is the third largest city in Tanzania and also at the centre of an area known as ‘the sorcery belt’. Witchcraft still happens around here and in recent memory some woman have been beaten to death by a mob of people after they were believed to be witches. Albino people are particularly vulnerable in the Mwanza area as they are hunted down and hacked to pieces by witchdoctors for their body parts. The bones from the removed limbs are then grinded into a fine powder and used as a powerful potion to heal even the most deadly curses, this was recently documented on an episode of Ross Kemp’s Extreme World. Kemp travels around East Africa meeting wizards and sorcerers, but none of them seem to have a spell great enough to prevent Ross looking like Zippy from Rainbow. I didn’t leave the cheap hotel in Mwanza after a taxi driver pointed over to me a shouted “Albino”!

The final leg of this gruelling journey started at 5am at Mwanza bus station where I departed the Nyehunge express, after half an hour a ferry hauls the bus across lake Victoria and I got to see the sunrise over Mwanza, this is where the fun ended. 

The next 8 hours were spent being thrown around the back of the bus with my new friends as the Ferrari crashed along on possibly the worst road in all of Tanzania until in reached the former refugee camp of Benaco. Here it’s a quick shared taxi to the border where I walked about 1km through no man’s land and stopped to admire Rusomo falls, a huge volume of water that surges from the Akagera river beneath the bridge between the two border posts. It’s here that German troops reported seeing the dead bodies of Rwandan genocide victims being thrown over the falls at a rate of two or three per minute. 



So I finally made it to Rwanda, the slowly slowly way, after five days, 40 hours worth of driving time and four nights spent in cheap local hotels next to dusty bus stations. I may have some acute symptoms of deep vein thrombosis to remind me of this journey, but on the bright side I’ve saved myself some money and got to see a more rural side of Tanzania. Welcome in Rwanda! 


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