Beyond the Bike 2015/16 - Bamboo with a View.
Stage 2: Rwanda and a journey to the Heart of Darkness
There is so much so say about Rwanda despite it being the smallest African country we will visit. I have already talked about the genocide memorial and this atrocity is what many people still associate with Rwanda. Rwanda is beautiful country and it is amazing how far it has come in the 20 years since the genocide, but it is a country with many latent issues which, simmering beneath the surface, are easy to ignore.
It is physically beautiful, fertile, over 85% of Rwandan children go to school, it is very clean - littering is illegal and the last Saturday of each month everyone has to clean up their street! We must be careful not to put our westen values at the forefront. However, if you dig a little bit deeper one has to start asking if (or even when) things may start to unravel again. 80% of the population live on less than $2 per day, and 65% on less than $1; freedom of speech is non-existent; many disabled people are exiled (there are stories of a ‘prison’ on Lake Kivu); on the surface there is no difference between Tutsi and Hutu anymore but many people think that there are still underlying tensions: Things have reverted and most government and high paid jobs are now taken by Tutsis again and many Tutsis still feel that revenge would be just, this is despite the brilliant work of reconciliation done by the Gacaca court. There are other issues too; allegedly Rwanda is supporting the rebels over the border in DRC and there are some very dubious dealings going on concerning minerals and weapons. (Rwanda has very little in the way of raw mineral itself but is one of the biggest exporters). It is absolutely true that President Kagame has worked wonders and there is a lot to be said for a ‘benign dictatorship’. However, in 2017 he will stand for a third term, which is constitutionally illegal, and there is no opposition. What will happen when the election comes about is yet to be seen but hopefully the current climate in Burundi is not a hint of things to come for Rwanda. The question must be also asked what happens when Kagame dies as there is no heir apparent…
Anyway, back to our travels:
We were lucky enough to stay with some very interesting people.
We had two nights with Joy Beth, a lovely American airbnb host, who works for Bridge2Rwanda which runs a gap year programme for school leavers to help them get to university (mainly in the US), they will then return to their homelands to put into use their skills and education. This year there are 42 students, around 50% from Rwanda and the rest from Burundi, South Sudan and DRC. We visited the students to speak about Beyond the Bike, they are such an impressive group and they really do all deserve to go far.
We then stayed with the fantastic Laure and Neil. Laure is the head if DfID and you can read more about our conversations with them in Stuart’s blog on aid. Neil drove us up to Musanze to visit Team Rwanda (the national cycling team), the three of us set off to do the mountain bike course with Nathan (the national champion), I lasted about 100m before flying over the handlebars. Neil and Nathan continued but poor Stu had to help me back. Stu and I stayed in the team compound and really enjoyed talking to the coach Sterling many others at dinner. As mentioned previously with Khalid it must only be a matter of time before some of the cyclists make it in the tough world of professional cycling. Very interesting for me was to hear about Jeanne D’Arc the top female cyclist who was on a scholarship programme training in Switzerland (so sadly we did not get to meet her), she is doing amazingly well and competing against the best other females in the world and getting better and better - watch out for her (link to this girl can?). The next morning my knee was very painful and so I had the perfect excuse NOT join ‘the boys’ for a training ride. Stu went off with them for about an hour but was soon dropped when they started going DOWNhill - they are crazy - but he had a great experience, or so he said! They really are a very impressive set up. I spent much of the next morning talking to Rafiki, now the team mechanic, but an ex-rider himself (he finished in the top 30 of the Cape Epic three times). He talked about how the young boys were so much fitter than him: ‘fitter in their legs, their hearts but also their heads’. Things have moved on so quickly in the sport and the more experience they get (and the more funding) the more progress they will make. Rafiki very kindly drove us to the bus station, when we were stopped by the police (a totally normal check) Rafiki managed to persuade them that my bandaged up knee was an emergency and so they let us go on quickly.
Stuart riding out with Team Rwanda and the land of 1000 hills!
Stu and I then set off by bus to Gisenyi on the border of DRC - Conrad's 'Heart of Darkness'. Neil had recommended climbing the Nyrigongo Volcano in Virunga Park in DRC (Watch this award winning film for more info). We crossed the border to Goma pretty easily (without having to bribe anyone as we had been told we might have to) although we upset the Rwandan guard by trying to speak to him in French - the closer we got to the border the more French we were speaking but he was not amused when he saw our British passports: ‘ I am not a Frenchman, why are you speaking to me in French.’ But as soon as we got over the border we spoke only French. Goma is an interesting, somewhat bizarre place and pretty primitive: there are these strange wooden bikes; poverty is clear; it is dirty and three out four vehicles are UN or NGO land-cruisers. The next morning we drove up to the ranger lodge (under armed guard) and our driver told us all about the most recent eruption in 2002 and how the residents are reclaiming the land and building their new homes which was all very impressive. We had a rather delayed start but then our group of eight accompanied by three armed rangers started up the mountain, after noting the ‘welcome’ sign peppered with several bullet holes!
Bullet holes on the welcome sign and the strange 'bikes'
We were really lucky with our group, Stu and I were about 10 years older than the rest and consisted of two white Africans, one French (working in Bukavu), one American (working in Kenya) and two Anglo Americans from London who were loud and fun and totally unprepared in a very ‘Withnail and I esque’ way! The walk took about five hours and the first two were lovely, then the rain started and it was torrential. I don’t think I have ever been as wet! We were getting rather worried about the brothers who could have been on the cusp of hyperthermia if we had been out for much longer. Luckily we all made it to the top and were able to dry off and get changed in the little huts. Stu even managed to light a fire.Then we all crowded up on the crater rim for probably the most amazing natural sight I have ever seen…the photos do not do it justice, it was impressive when we arrived in the daylight and then quite simply mesmerising at night. Imagine looking into a fire to the power of 100.
The next morning we headed back down, said our goodbyes and then our driver and armed guard took us back to the border…the reason for the guard became clear when we heard from one of our fellow hikers that his friends were robbed at gunpoint on the same road about an hour after we had passed. Only when we got back to Rwanda did we tell our parents where we had been and it turned out that Stuart’s parents had been in Goma on their honeymoon and Tim had hiked up the same paths and camped at the same spot! Things were a little different then (before the 2002 massive eruption), see here for some photos from 1974: Nyrigongo1974.pdf
A quick mention of Maria and Erik whom we met in Goma who work for a sanitation company - Poo Peeple - they were working with the prison in Goma to try to aid the terrible situation there - 1700 men in a 170 capacity prison and no toilets (just 8 are being built!). Their product is a bag which when you poo in it the urea reacts to make fertiliser and the whole bag is biodegradable. They gave us some samples to trial! It is a great idea but the issue is that it is still too expensive at $3 for 28 bags (bearing in mind most people living off less than $2 per day).
We got the bus back to Kigali and arrived back at Laure and Neil’s in time to go out to watch the England v Wales Rugby match, not a good result and Stu was very wrongly lambasted by a Welshman. On leaving Kigali we were accompanied for the first 40km by Michael (another mechanic for Team Rwanda) and Joop a Dutchman who has set up Winnaz Crisps - the only crisps made in Rwanda from Rwanda potatoes and very good they are too. Then it was Stu and me alone again and another hard 60km before stopping at a guest house in Kibungo. The next day it was another tough 60km to the Tanzanian border at Rusumo. The cycling was very challenging, in part as my knee was still painful, but also as it was very hot and very hilly (c.1000m of ascent) and the biggest distances we had covered with all the panniers and food and water. I was completely exhausted each day. We spent our last night in Rwanda in a guest house run by Joseph who had lived in England for a few years and we had a very interesting chat with him about Rwanda. He is very optimistic and totally disagreed with all the negative things mentioned at the start of this blog. He has the deepest respect and adulation for Kagame and says that there is no reason why he cannot rule for a third term: ‘Roosevelt did a good job didn't he?’ he reflected over a Heineken and there is still plenty of time to find his successor, he also thought that there was very little poverty in his country and no underlying issues: 'After the genocide and due to Kagame we are now all Rwandan'…let’s hope Joseph is right as Rwanda is such an amazing country with wonderful people and it would be devastating for it to suffer again.