The Traveler Stories Series. Each month we feature a story written by another fellow traveler, who shares with us their own travel experiences. This month, meet Jessica, a beautiful soul who has a real passion for Rwanda. She shares with us her story of visiting and volunteering in Rwanda on several occasions.
It was one movie that set me on a course to travel Rwanda. I had hired out Hotel Rwanda as a 20 year old with an unexplained interest in all things Africa. It was this film that introduced me to the horrors of the Rwandan Genocide, an event that had taken place just over 10 years earlier in 1994. Nearly 100 million men, women and children were systematically and purposely slaughtered during a period of 100 days. It was ethnic cleansing. Genocide. I was horrified.
Fast forward to 2010, 5 years later, and I was stepping aboard a plane bound for Rwanda for the very first time.
I had discovered an organisation that hosted volunteering programs around the world, including Rwanda. It would be my first time travelling solo, and my first time travelling to a developing country. My first time to travel Rwanda. And I was going for a month. To live in a house with other volunteers from around the world and work in an orphanage.
Rwanda was not what I expected. It was so much more.
It’s affectionately known as the land of a thousand hills and this is no exaggeration. This tiny country, a third of the size of Tasmania (Australia) is home to 11 million people, and is covered in lush, green hills.
Winding roads, people walking everywhere, containers of water balanced on their heads, cane sugar balanced on the back of bikes, young men riding in the back of trucks, children waving and shouting ‘muzungu!’ as they see a white person go by. In the north of Rwanda, Volcanoes National Park, home to the famous Mountain Gorillas and previous home to Dian Fossey. Volcanoes jut out of the dense forest. One is still active and at nights, you can see the red glow.
Rwanda is dusty. Hazy. Just Beautiful.
I spent my first month in Rwanda living in a house with other volunteers, walking along dirt roads into town every day to catch the local bus to the orphanage. Now there’s an experience! If you are precious about personal space, then don’t take a Rwandan bus! They are mini buses packed full to the brink. I’ve practically been sat on. I’ve had women behind me touching my long blonde hair because it’s so vastly different to theirs. But I wouldn’t change these experiences for the world.
Buying local sweet, fried bread. The beautiful sounds of Rwandan singing drifting across the valleys. Trying to sink my teeth into cane sugar picked from the side of the road. Drinking African Tea. Having children race up to you and wrap themselves around your legs at any given moment. Riding on the back of motors, another form of public transport. They are small motorbikes and it’s legally required to wear a helmet. However, out in the province I was in, drivers often neglected to give one. And sometimes we packed two of us onto the back of those bikes.
I have been now to Rwanda a total of 4 times. Twice on my own. Twice with the NGO I’ve been working for since 2012. I wondered how do I pack all that Rwanda is and all that I’ve experienced into one post?
The country stole a piece of my heart. I feel at home when I am in Rwanda.
I thought I would share with you some of the must experience aspects of Rwanda. But can I first put your minds at ease. Many people have asked me if Rwanda is a dangerous place. “Isn’t it going through war? Isn’t it desolate?” they ask. Quite the opposite.
Rwanda may have had a horrific history, but it’s come a long way. It’s one of the fastest progressing third-world economies. It is the cleanest African country. It’s people…hospitable, generous, welcoming. I have felt safe every single time. It’s like with any travel to an unknown place. Use your common sense, understand the laws and the culture, and make efforts to stay safe.
Things to do when you travel Rwanda
There’s so much that Rwanda has to offer. Nyungwe National Park in the south is a rainforest that is home to a huge number of different monkeys. There’s coffee plantations. Tea plantations. Kigali city (go and eat pizza at Sol e Luna, over 200 to choose from!). The National Museum of Rwanda in Butare. But here are some of the things that Rwanda has to offer and in my opinion are a must visit:
Visit the Genocide Memorial
It’s haunting. It’s heartbreaking. But it gives you context into the culture, into the history. It also leaves you in awe of and inspired by a people who been so resilient and have chosen to forgive and have chosen life
Visit the Volcanoes National Park
The Volcanoes National Park is located in the north of Rwanda, bordering the Congo and Uganda. The trip from the capital city Kigali, up to Musanze is stunning as you climb higher and wind your way through the hills.
Once there, take your pick. Gorilla Trekking. Climb a volcano. See monkeys. There’s so much on offer in Volcanoes National Park and it truly is beautiful.
Experience the Views at Virunga Lodge
Virunga Lodge in Volcanoes National Park is a beautiful place to spend an afternoon watching the sun go down over the mountains and valleys – the views are second to none. Head up from Musanze for an afternoon drink and a peaceful view.
Head to Lake Kivu
Lake Kivu lies on the border of Rwanda and the Congo, and it is one of the African Great Lakes. Sunsets over this lake are stunning. Head to Gisenyi, and have dinner and drinks at the Serena Hotel, where you can enjoy the beautiful views of Lake Kivu and even take a dip in their pool if you wish.
Go on a Safari at the Akagera National Park
The Akagera National Park is in Eastern Rwanda and borders Tanzania. This is an excellent place to visit for a safari tour.
Volunteering in Rwanda
If you’re looking to volunteer in Rwanda, be wise and do your research into the organisation.
The original organisation that I volunteered for and the orphanage I was at, probably wasn’t the best choice in hindsight. The second organisation worked for was a charity called “HOPE: Global,” which sends teams of volunteers to Rwanda on two week trips to assist with programs and projects in country. This organisation has been working in Rwanda since 2006.
Just be sure whatever organisation you decide to go with, that it is really credible. Some things you should consider researching includes – How are they spending the donor dollar? What is the program on the ground like? Is it actually benefiting the community long term and empowering the locals, or is it making them reliant on NGOs? Are there safety precautions and emergency procedures in place for the team?
In my opinion, the best thing you can do is to go as a tourist, and experience the culture and all this country has to offer. Sow into the economy, come back and tell the story of Rwanda and what a wonderful place it is.
Rwanda will stay in your heart and become part of your soul because the country and people are incredibly beautiful. You won’t regret it.
Jessica is the beautiful Founder and Blogger at Love + Life Ventures, a blog that shares real life stories about love, life and adventures. Follow along on her journey through her Blog, Facebook, and Instagram.
If you have an interesting story to tell and would like to be featured in our series Traveler Stories, please get in touch!