Reconcilling Rwanda

Hello from Michael. I am guest blogging while Debbie wraps her head around our Serengeti safari. Sorting the pictures alone could take her a week! Here’s the story of the next leg of our African travel after leaving Zanzibar.


We said goodbye to the exotic (and very wet) island of Zanzibar and boarded a 125’ catamaran for the three hour crossing to Dar es Salaam on the Tanzanian mainland. The journey was filled with rain, rough seas and seasick passengers. Fortunately, our years of sailing helped us get to a Zen-like state and we arrived a little bedraggled but with breakfast intact. Our two days in "Dar" were spent at our hotel because of heavy rain, so we were happy to get back in the air with a flight to Nairobi on Kenyan Airways to Kigali, the capital of Rwanda.

 Kigala and the surrounding hills of Rwanda were colorful and clean.

Kigala and the surrounding hills of Rwanda were colorful and clean.

Back in January we decided 2017 was the year to visit Africa so Debbie could fulfill her life-long dream of going on Safari. We knew we wanted to visit South Africa (Cape Town for sure) because both of our sons and several friends had said it was the most beautiful place they’d ever been. The other country on our “must visit list” was Rwanda. We wanted to visit an all-girls secondary school outside of Kigali that two of Debbie’s friends from her years on Seattle Children’s Hospital Guild Board, Soozi Sinegal McGill and Shal Foster founded in 2009.

We began our journey on March 6th, Debbie’s 61st birthday, with 6 weeks in South Africa. We did indeed, fall in love with Cape Town and spend almost a month there. We also visited Johannesburg and Durban (two not so lovable cities) and ended with a wonderful week-long safari near Richard’s Bay. From there we spent a week in Stone Town on the island of Zanzibar. Further plans would include this visit to Rwanda as well as stops in Kenya and Ethiopia.

From the moment we arrived at the Kigali airport, we could tell there was something very different about this tiny, land-locked country in East Africa about the size of Maryland but with twice the number of people.

 The center of town. The motorcycle on the right is a taxi - there were hundreds of them!

The center of town. The motorcycle on the right is a taxi - there were hundreds of them!

It seemed green, clean and, thankfully safe. Who knew there were so many shades of green? Even from the airplane we could see rolling hills in every possible shade of green. It was lush and beautiful on the ground as well. And it was clean! It is the only country we have ever visited where it is illegal to bring plastic bags into the country and signs at the airport made it clear that your suitcases could be searched. And, if you had duty free or other shopping in plastic bags, there were multiple stations where you exchanged them for paper. And once we got outside the airport we sensed order and tidiness all around - from the lack of litter to the carefully planted flower beds along the roads. We learned that the 4th Saturday of every month is called Umuganda Day and everyone, including the President, is obligated to come out and clean public spaces. How’s that for walking the talk?

 Once a month the citizens of Rwanda are obligated to clean their public spaces.

Once a month the citizens of Rwanda are obligated to clean their public spaces.

After spending time in Johannesburg, Durban, Stone Town, Dar es Salaam and Nairobi, the city of Kigali also felt safe wherever we ventured, even at night. Of course we were approached by the usual individuals selling souvenirs and taxi rides - but we never felt we were going to be mugged!

Our Airbnb host in Kigali arranged for a driver to meet us at the airport which meant that we wouldn’t have to worry about finding our 138th Airbnb. That was especially good in this case because the directions from our host were: “My house is the 4th on your right side when entering KN 48 St. with the bamboo fence and brown gate (opposite the house with a blue gate). Try putting that into Uber.

 Our very little home-away-from-home. It was small but comfortable and in great location.

Our very little home-away-from-home. It was small but comfortable and in great location.

Our hosts, Lan (Vietnamese) and her husband Jeff (Belgian) were super welcoming. They have a lovely home where they live with their two young daughters and a groundskeeper on a large plot overlooking the city. There weren’t many Airbnb’s to choose from in Kigali, and this was the best we could find. It appeared to be a converted garden shed with no more than 250 square feet of living space with the small kitchen, exposed shower and WC located outside! But it was sparkling clean and comfortable - and certainly something different! Here is a link. It turns out, we loved the place, maybe because of our especially gracious hosts. The only real challenge in the end, were the trips across the garden to the loo in the rain.

 The view from the loo! Looking back at our front door from inside the separate WC.

The view from the loo! Looking back at our front door from inside the separate WC.

On our first two days in Kigali, our Canadian friend Daniel Kerzner arranged for his friend Gadi to show us around the city . We quickly became attached to this young man - an accomplished photographer and recent college graduate who helped us understand the 1994 Rwandan Genocide by sharing his personal story of losing his parents at the age of three and being raised in an orphanage. He took us to visit the Kigali Genocide Memorial, and also to the Nyamata Memorial at a catholic church where 5,000 Tutsis were slaughtered in a single day.

 An unnerving sight - the cleaning of remains at the Nyamata Genocide Memorial.

An unnerving sight - the cleaning of remains at the Nyamata Genocide Memorial.

While we where there, we watched young volunteers, both Hutu and Tutsi cleaning the bones recovered from a mass grave on the site, preparing them for reburial in hundreds of new caskets at a commemoration ceremony in June. We were thankful we had someone to help us understand just how this country fell into the dark abyss that led to the deaths of almost 1 million men, women and children. On a lighter note, we also attended a rollicking gospel church service and a local 1st Division football match with Gadi.

 Our delightful new friend Gadi. We are having lunch at the infamous Hotel Des Mille Collines.

Our delightful new friend Gadi. We are having lunch at the infamous Hotel Des Mille Collines.

Although Rwanda did not go through a formal “Truth and Reconciliation” process like South Africa after apartheid, they did find a way to reconcile the differences between Hutus and Tutsis and begin the long healing process. On the surface, they have made incredible progress in just 20+ years but as visitors it is impossible to understand the true feelings of Rwandans today.

Hopefully, the wounds are indeed healing and differences are slipping into the past.They say much of the credit goes to their President Paul Kagame who has led the country since 2000. If you have not seen the movie Hotel Rwanda, and are interested in learning more about the Genocide, you should watch it. We saw it years ago but downloaded it while we were in Kigali and watched it with fresh eyes after having lunch at the hotel that is the center piece of the movie called the Hotel Des Mille Collines - now beautifully rebuilt. Some suggest that the movie makes the Hotel Manager out to be a bigger hero that he was, but regardless, it helped us better understand this modern tragedy, and the prevalent “Never Again” message.

 Soozi with President Kagame. He attended the schools first graduation ceremony in 2013.

Soozi with President Kagame. He attended the schools first graduation ceremony in 2013.

Before we left for Africa we met with Soozi and Shal back for coffee back in Seattle to learn more about the school they founded - and as it turned out, they would be in Rwanda leading a small group of supporters on a visit in early May. We arranged our travel schedule so we could meet them and join the tour of Gashora Girls Academy. It was one of the highlights of our wide range of experiences as Senior Nomads.

On the appointed day, we met the group for breakfast and then 30 of us caravanned in eight shiny black SUVs for the hour drive through countryside to the school. We made quite a sight on the road.When we arrived we were paired-up with two students who gave us a tour of the amazing campus, followed by a typical lunch in the cafeteria.

 Our student guides for the afternoon at Gashora Girls Academy. They were so poised.

Our student guides for the afternoon at Gashora Girls Academy. They were so poised.

After a few speeches we were invited to enjoy the weekly all school assembly that the girls organize themselves. Beyond the usual school news, there was dancing, drumming, poetry reading, a eye-popping fashion show, and a tearful goodbye to the graduating class. The next day, we returned to the school to tour the 15 acre school farm! That’s a story in itself.

Just in case I am getting ahead of myself, here is the Cliff Note’s version of what Shal and Soozie accomplished thousands and thousands of miles from their home in Seattle: After visiting Rwanda on a coffee-buying trip for Costco with her father, Soozi fell in love with the country and the people. She had to give back somehow. From scratch, she along with her best friend Shal and a few avid supporters dreamed big and created an all-girls school for grades 10, 11 and 12 that is focused on science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). The girls live on campus, wear uniforms and only pay what they can afford. The first class of 90 students graduated in 2013 and almost all are now attending university all over the world, including the most prestigious colleges in the US.  The school is now fully operational with 270 students. Words cannot describe how humbled we were to see what they’ve accomplished.

 Shal enjoying the afternoon assembly.

Shal enjoying the afternoon assembly.

A non-profit organization called The Rwandan Girls Initiative guides the school. Here is a LINK to the page on their website that is full of information and also has a series of five really excellent short videos called “Educating Girls Changes Everything” that tell the incredible story of Gashora. Watch at least the first and last one if you have time. We watched all five twice. As our week in Rwanda was coming to a close we promised ourselves to keep our eyes open for ways in which we can contribute to this inspiring example of making a difference.

 Bright costumes for bright girls. The range of talents shown by the students was amazing.

Bright costumes for bright girls. The range of talents shown by the students was amazing.

One of the most rewarding parts of our travel is the luxury of time to read books on our Kindles! And once we realized we can download books for free from The Seattle Public Library, the possibilities seem endless. We often search for books based in a country we are visiting and in the case of Rwanda we found a gem called“Baking Cakes in Kigali” It is a perfect story filled with wit and wisdom on life in Rwanda today.

Thanks for following along, and letting me guest blog!

Michael and Debbie
The Senior Nomads