Beyond beauty and 1,000 hills, Rwanda's biggest attraction is culture

Mt. Muhavura on Rwanda/Uganda/DR Congo borders just across Lake Ruhondo with a chicken cat walking. Photo by Anne-Cathrin Darcis

A visit to Rwanda is always punctuated by a strange question, “I hear there are very beautiful women there”. The same applies to Ethiopia. What has fascinated me is that the question is asked by women too!

The truth is beauty in every country is normally distributed. Every country has its share of the ugly and beautiful women. Beauty is hard to define, beyond what we see in miss universe contests.

What can’t be contested is that slowly, we have accepted that beautiful women are tall and slender, as defined further by movies and soap operas. That contrasts sharply with our traditional concept, where a beautiful woman was “ full”. I suspect if you asked men anonymously they would still go for a “full” woman.

What I can say with confidence is that Rwandese women are beautiful at heart. As for physical beauty, please find out yourself, possibly by visiting there. And for the responsible Kenyan men there are good news; I was told by a fellow dowry negotiator that in Rwanda, dowry is just one cow. Do your maths.

Enough on beauty. Though I have no doubt most readers would have cheered me on.

Rwanda is not Kigali, just as Nairobi is not Kenya. It therefore makes sense to venture beyond the city of Kigali into the country side and see the country in its true colours.

We drove south from Kigali before making a big turn up the hill towards northwest. The hill was full of joggers, I am told twice a month, Rwandese go jogging. The view of the rising sun over Kigali was breathtaking. The valleys are deep, misty and beautiful. If you think Murang’a is hilly, please think again.

The hills are covered with eucalyptus trees which we have rejected in Kenya. On the roadside, men and women walked to church while others went to the market, SDA church is strong in this region of Rwanda. Like in some parts of Kenya, they carried luggage on their heads from water to bags and bananas.

We stopped by one market full of people selling all sorts of foods. One that caught my attention was cassava leaves pounded into a paste for stew. A small electric machine did the cutting. Yams, sugarcane, sweet potatoes, fruits, and other crops were on sale. We bought passion fruits.

Further on at a maximum speed of 60km per hour, we came across more villages, more hills and valleys. Bricks seem more preferred building materials than blocks with several brick kilns at work. The rural part of Rwanda mirrors Kenya’s except the bright colours. Rwandese seem to love bright colours including vitenge. Occasionally, we came across women wearing the traditional dresses. In this part of Rwanda, the bicycle is yet to be dethroned by the motor bike as principle means of transport.

Soon we could see the five cone shaped mountains on the border of Rwanda, DR Congo and Uganda, all hiding under the mist. They are Bisoke, Karisimbi, Gahinga, Sabyinyo and Muhavura.

Off the highway to Uganda border, we drove though the real villages with farmers planting potatoes, very different from Kenya, they dig a hole for each potato, we dig fallows.

Banana and plantain beautified the place more. There is even a banana for making beer which is 14 per cent alchohol. One surprise was maize left drying in sheds in the open. Are there no thieves there?

Enough of small towns and beautiful people.

We were finally on the shore of Lake Ruhondo, not sure where such a lake came from so high up the mountains. A twin lake, Lake Burera is next. A motor boat takes about 20 minutes ride to a hotel resort on an island. Why do we drive around lake Naivasha, why not take a boat across? The mountains and the islands reflected in the lake was pure beauty.

The scenery from the resort was breathtaking. The five peaks were no longer hidden by the clouds. It was as if God made the rest of the world but created this region using his own hands.

Lunch and a sip of Virunga, their Tusker and we took the boat back to the other side. The way beer is named in Rwanda after regions or attractions is creative. Virunga is home of gorillas. We had parked our car next to power station that has been operating since 1953, build by Belgians. Water seems to flow from Lake Burera through power station to Lake Ruhondo.

The trip left no doubt that Rwanda is determined to become a leading high end tourist destination with some hotel rooms going for $1,000 (Sh100,000) a night. Rwanda seems determined to become the Lexus of tourism, not Vitz. I was informed that the owners of land on the islands will be compensated and land taken up for tourism development.

But Rwanda’s biggest attraction might not be the gorillas, the thousands hills or the lakes but the hospitality, the culture. And security. It’s a country you feel secure whatever the time of the day or night. It is a big paradox that you feel more secure in Uganda and Rwanda than in Kenya. Yet, the two countries have gone through political upheavals unlike us. Could that explain why they appreciate peace more than us? The only upheaval that could have given us a sense of purpose, Mau Mau has slowly receded into the mists of history.

We drove back at night in rain and mist. Visiting rural Rwanda was a great feeling, more like visiting the homestead of a girl you will marry. With such insights, I can now read the history of this small country of 12 million people but the size of central Kenya. I can now understand better her past, present and the future.

-The writer is an associate professor at the University of Nairobi.