Big in Africa: Spotlight on Rwanda

This month, Big in Japan is on vacation in Africa, and will be bringing you travel news and happenings from around this often misunderstood continent.

Although Africa is usually viewed in the West as a singular entity, the continent is incredibly varied. From the Saharan desert and the Sahel to equatorial rainforests and acacia-lined plains, Africa offers up an impressive amount of biodiversity.

While most first-timers on the continent choose to safari in classic destinations such as Kenya and South Africa, there is one tiny country that is turning heads in ecotourism circles. Bordering Tanzania, Uganda, Burundi and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Rwanda is emerging as one of the continent’s top attractions.

Whether you trek along the Congolese border in search of rare mountain gorillas, or unwind with a passion fruit cocktail on the sandy shores of Lake Kivu, Rwanda is a remarkable tourist destination that deserves its share of the spotlight.

Mention Rwanda to just about anyone with the smallest measure of geopolitical conscious, and they’ll no doubt recall images of the horrific genocide that brutalized this tiny country in 1994. In the span of just 100 days, an estimated one million Tutsis and moderate Hutus were systematically butchered by the Interhamwe militas.

While the scars still run deep, Rwanda has done a remarkable job of healing its wounds and turning towards the future. The government has eliminated the very mention of tribes, and rallied the country under the common Rwandan identity. And, in order to help stimulate its developing economy, the country is protecting its most vital natural resource – the mountain gorilla.

A string of volcanoes run along the Congolese border, forming the backbone of the world famous Parq National des Volcans, the national park where Dian Fossey wrote Gorillas in the Mist. Here, seven groups of mountain gorillas inhabit the montane forests along the slopes of the volcanoes.

Since 1999, tourists have been once again allowed to track these rare primates, and a face-to-face encounter with a silverback in the wild is easily one of the highlights of any trip to Africa. If you want to learn how to obtain a highly coveted tracking permit, check out tomorrow’s column of Big in Africa.

Parq National des Volcans is also home to the endangered golden monkey, while Nyuwenge Forest in the southeast contains chimpanzees and enormous troops of colobus monkeys. Of course, Rwanda isn’t just monkey business – Gisenyi on the shores of Lake Kivu is a relaxed and low-key resort town, while increasingly cosmopolitan Kigali is one of the most beautiful capitals in East Africa.

Rwanda is also home to a number of genocide memorials, which offer perspective on the past rather than accusations. The Kigali Memorial Centre in the Kigali suburb of Kisozi is a poignant and heart-wrenching testimonial that catalogs the tremendous human sacrifice paid by Rwandans.

Perhaps Apollon Katahizi said it best: “When they said ‘never again’ after the holocaust, was it meant for some peope and not for others.”

If you find yourself in East Africa, be sure to spend your tourist dollars in Rwanda – the country needs it.