Mention Rwanda and most people will think of civil war, mass genocide, and refugees. Mountain gorillas and stunning volcanic scenes are less likely to come to mind, but for the travellers who are heading back into Rwanda after ethnic violence has dissipated, these are the attractions that make Rwanda worthy of being the hosts to their next great holiday. Parc National des Volcans, in the northwest, is the place to go, despite the fact that some areas remain off-limits due to the war. The park’s volcano-studded landscape and gorilla-filled rainforest are prime highlights of a Rwandan trip. The attractive vistas around Kigali make this a perfect place from which to base your trip. Local expats are fond of Gisenyi, a gorgeous lake-side town. A few days here, enjoying the scenery and swimming in the water, will add immense variety to a Rwandan holiday.
Rwanda is catapulting itself into the 21st century. With it’s credible, sensible and non-corrupt government international investment is pouring in. Infrastructure is improving and all development measures are improving rapidly. Malaria rates, maternal and infant mortality are all dropping rapidly.
You will find a hugely friendly reception here, and one of the lowest levels of violent crime in Africa.
Rwanda Quick Facts
- Country local name: Rwanda
- Capital: Kigali
- Population: 8’441’000
- Government: Republic
- Religions: Christianity (Catholic, Protestant), Muslim
- Languages: Kinyarwanda, French, English, Kiswahili
- Nationality: Rwandese
- Calling Code: +250
A Brief History about Rwanda
It is not known when the territory of present day Rwanda was first inhabited, but it is thought that humans moved into the area following the last ice age either in the Neolithic period, around ten thousand years ago, or in the long humid period which followed, up to around 3,000 BC.
After signing treaties with chiefs in the Tanganyika region in 1884-1885, Germany claimed Tanganyika, Rwanda and Burundi as its own territory. Count von Götzen met the Tutsi Mwami (king) for the first time in 1894. However, with only 2,500 soldiers in East Africa, Germany did little to change societal structures in much of the region, especially in Rwanda. After the Mwami’s death in 1895, a period of unrest followed. Germans and missionaries then began to enter the country from Tanganyika in 1897-98. In 1916, during World War I, Belgian forces advanced from the Congo into Germany’s East African colonies. After Germany lost the War, Belgium accepted the League of Nations Mandate of 1923 to govern Ruanda-Urundi along with the Congo, while Great Britain accepted Tanganyika and other German colonies.
After World War II, Ruanda-Urundi became a United Nations (UN) “trust territory” administered by Belgium. The Belgian involvement in the region was far more direct than German involvement and extended its interests into education and agricultural supervision. The Roman Catholic Church and Belgian colonial authorities considered the Hutus and Tutsis different ethnic races based on their physical differences and patterns of migration. However, because of the existence of many wealthy Hutu who shared the financial (if not physical) stature of the Tutsi, the Belgians used an expedient method of classification based on the number of cattle a person owned. In November 1959, Tutsi forces beat up a Hutu politician, Dominique Mbonyumutwa, and rumors of his death set off a violent backlash against the Tutsi known as “the wind of destruction.” Thousands of Tutsis were killed and many thousands more, including the Mwami, fled to neighboring Uganda before Belgian commandos arrived to quell the violence. Several Belgians were subsequently accused by Tutsi leaders of abetting the Hutus in the violence.
In 1961, Rwandans voted, by referendum and with the support of the Belgian colonial government, to abolish the Tutsi monarchy and instead establish a republic. Dominique Mbonyumutwa, who had survived his previous attack, was named the first president of the transitional government. This attack was the pretext used to explain that Tutsis were dangerous and had to be killed.
In 1990 the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), a rebel group, composed mostly of the Tutsi refugees, invaded northern Rwanda from Uganda. The Rwandan Civil War, fought between the Hutu regime, with support from Francophone nations of Africa and France itself, and the RPF, with support from Uganda, vastly increased the ethnic tensions in the country and led to the rise of Hutu Power, an ideology that asserted that the Tutsi intended to enslave Hutus and thus must be resisted at all costs. On April 6th 1994 Rwandan President Habyarimana and the Burundian President were killed when Habyarimana’s plane was shot down near Kigali Airport. Hutu extremists, suspecting that the Rwandan president was finally about to implement the Arusha Peace Accords, are believed to have been behind the attack. The shooting of the plane served as the trigger for the Genocide. In the course of the next few months the Hutu majority in Rwanda organized and implemented the mass slaughter of the Tutsi minority.
Hundreds of thousands of Rwanda’s Tutsis and Hutu political moderates were killed on the orders of the Hutu dominated government under the Hutu Power ideology. Over the course of approximately 100 days, from the assassination of Juvénal Habyarimana on 6 April through mid-July, at least 500,000 people were killed. Estimates of the death toll have ranged between 500,000 and 1,000,000, or as much as 20% of the total population of the country.
Since then, things have been getting much more stable and nowadays Rwanda is one of the most stable and safe countries, both for people living in the country and travellers.
Geography of Rwanda
Rwanda is located at high altitude: the lowest point is the Ruzizi River at 950 metres above sea level. Rwanda is bordered by the Democratic Republic of Congo to the west, Uganda to the north, Tanzania to the east, and Burundi to the south. It lies a few degrees south of the equator and is landlocked. The country’s longest river is the Nyabarongo, which merges with the Ruvubu to form the Kagera, which in turn flows due north along the eastern border with Tanzania. The Nyabarongo-Kagera eventually drains into Lake Victoria. Rwanda also has many lakes, the largest being Lake Kivu. This lake occupies the floor of the Great Rift Valley along Rwanda’s western border, and with a maximum depth of 480 metres, it’s also one of the deepest in the world. Mountains dominate thhe central and western parts Rwanda and together they are part of a series of mountain chains which flank the Albertine branch of the Great Rift Valley. The highest peaks are found in the Virunga Mountains volcano chain with Mount Karisimbi, Rwanda’s highest point, at 4,507 metres. The centre of the country mainly consists of rolling hills, while the eastern border region consists of savanna, plains and swamps, including the beautiful Akagera National Park, with classical safari options.
Regions / Provinces
Rwanda is organised into 5 provinces.
- North Province
- East Province
- South Province
- West Province
- Kigali Province
- Kigali – The capital
- Huye (aka Butare) – The cultural capital of Rwanda, a sleepy but pleasant little town with a bustling market and impressive museum
- Musanze (aka Ruhengeri)
- Gitarama – second biggest city in Rwanda. If you need a place to stay the Catholic Cathedral – St Andrew’s runs an impeccable guesthouse – knocks the socks off any competition and the mini-suite is recommended!
Sights and Activities in Rwanda
Parc National des Volcans
The (Volcanoes National Park) is one of a few parks in the world where you can have a close encounter with mountain gorillas. The other parks are just across the border with Uganda (Bwindi Impenetrable Forest and Mgahinga Gorilla National Park) and the Democratic Republic of Congo (Virunga National Park). The Rwandan park is located in the northwest of the country and is easily accessible by (mini)buses from the capital Kigali. Several of the Virungas volcanoes are located in Rwanda and some, like the Bisoke, can be climbed. The most popular activity though is to go on a trek to see the mountain gorillas. Although the permit alone which used to cost US$750 has been increase to US$ 1’500 per person from May 2017, it is extremely popular and advanced bookings are advisable. It is a very rewarding trip on the other hand and most people consider this to be one of the highlights of a visit to Rwanda or even Africa! Dian Fossey made this place her home for a long time, before she was killed (presumably by poachers) and buried in the same park.
Nyungwe National Park
Is located in the southwest of the country just south of Lake Kivu and protects not only tropical rainforests but also swamps and grassland. The park is famous for its primates and about a quarter of all primates in the whole of Africa can be found here in this relatively small area, including the number one favorite, the chimpanzee. You can reach the park easiest from Cyangugu which is less than an hour away. If you want to get a feel for the forest, then a guided walk is the only way and doesn’t come cheap – US$50 each (including park fee). Depending on your budget, there are currently two places to stay. They are currently building an impressive looking visitor centre at the old campsite in the centre of the park. There are just a few options of staying inside the park.
Akagera National Park
Is located in the central east of the country adjacent to the Tanzanian border and protects a wide range of areas, including lakes, swamps, grassland and mountainous areas. It is actually the best place in Rwanda to go on a safari and see a wide range of animals, including species of antelope, many birds but only few predators live here and spotting the big five here unfortunately is not possible.
Nyamata Genocide Memorial
Is a worthwhile complement to the Gisozi Memorial Centre in Kigali. Located in the town of Nyamata, 40 minutes south of Kigali on a newly paved road, the memorial is located in a church where over 5,000 people were killed during the 1994 genocide. Visitors take a short tour and see the evidence of the genocide that remains there today – victims’ clothing piled on benches, the roof pockmarked with bullet holes, and the open crypts behind the church that hold the remains of over 40,000 people from the area. An extremely moving look into one of the places where the genocide was carried out.
Ntarama Genocide Memorial
Just 20 minutes away from the Nyamata memorial, is also worth visiting. Like the Nyamata memorial, this site was a church before the genocide, and was nationalized to serve as a memorial after thousands of people were killed within its walls. The church itself is similar to Nyamata, with victims’ clothing and remains visible to offer proof of what happened there, but Ntarama also has a peaceful memorial garden and wall of names in the back of its compound. Ask the resident guide for a tour in English or French, and remember to give them a donation for the site afterwards; it gets almost no support from the government. To get there, take the highway from Kigali to Nyamata and follow the signs for the Ntarama memorial, before you reach Nyamata.
The whole western border of Rwanda is formed by beautiful Lake Kivu. The green hills plunge into the lake only to emerge again as hundreds of little islands and peninsulas. People say the lake is bilharzia free and it probably mostly is. Just to be sure avoid reedy areas where the snails and therefore parasites might be lurking. Few cases have been recorded. There are not many lakeshore lodges outside of the Giseni or Kibuye. But things are changing slowly as Rwanda opens up to tourism. Paradise lodge about 10 kilometres south of Giseni is a lovely place and not too pricey. The gardens are beautiful and stuffed full of colourful little birds!
Rwanda’s Events and Festivals
The Rwanda Mini Film Festival
Held annually in March the Rwanda Mini Film Festival allows amateur film makers from around Rwanda to showcase their talents. Entry is open to everyone, including students, professors, novices and established filmmakers, who are shown in several different categories. The festival takes place in many different venues across Kigali so interested travellers will have to keep an eye out for schedules closer to the time. The event is a great one to attend as the short films tend to highlight issues of people on the ground and provide great insight into the country.
Gorilla Naming Ceremony
An interesting festival worth attending, the Gorilla Naming Ceremony is held every June in Kiningi. This ceremony is influenced by a similar one for humans during which all members of the local Rwanda community recommend names for a newborn child. In this version, it is the park guides who do the suggesting and ultimately choose the names of all the newly born gorillas. The ceremony is characterized by great displays of music and traditional dance and travellers who attend the festival can even choose to sponsor a gorilla if they like.
Hillywood Film Festival
Another popular film festival, Hillywood is aimed at showcasing Rwanda’s budding film industry in the hope that it will one day rival a similar industry in Nigeria. Held every July, the festival highlights the talents of filmmakers from across the African continent. There are several activities including screenings, workshops and discussions on the films by their directors and actors. Anyone interested in learning more about local culture, or simply looking to catch a good film, should make a point of attending.
Centre X Centre Festival
Newly renamed, the Centre X Centre Festival is an annual celebration of Rwandan theater which takes place every August in Kigali. Every year the festival has a theme which is generally related to the ideas of Arts and Peace. The messages of most pieces stem from the effects of the Rwandan genocide and are quite powerful. It is the hope that the theater festival not only forms the ground for critical discussion but is also a process of healing.
Kigali Up! Rwandan Music Festival
September marks the arrival of the lively outdoor music festival in Kigali. The event aims to bring together local artists from several different genres including traditional folk music, R&B and Rwandan Pop. There are also many international stars who grace the stage every year. The aim is to cross genre divides to create a community of artists who collaborate to make the county’s music industry even stronger than it already is.
Festival Arts Azimuts (FAAZ)
Rounding off Rwanda’s festival calendar is the Festival Arts Azimuts in October. A feast of the arts, FAAZ brings together dancers, musicians, theater makers and visual artists from both Rwanda and abroad. There are also many renowned speakers who are invited to give talks to inspire the values of love, hope and faith in the festival goers.
Rwanda has a tropical climate with generally warm and humid weather but conditions are somewhat tempered because of the fact that much of the country lies on a higher elevation. There are two dry seasons, the cool and long one from June to September, and the warm and short period from December to February. From March to May is the long rainy season, with heavy rain possible for days on end. From October to early December is the short rainy season with showers at the end of the day but most of the time it is dry. Temperatures average between 22 °C and 30 °C during the day and between 15 °C and 20 °C at night. Note that some parts might be slightly warmer but it can cool off considerably in the mountains.
Rwanda, Getting There
Rwandair Express is the national airline of Rwanda and is based at Kigali International Airport (KGL) near the capital. International flights include those to and from Bujumbura, Entebbe, Johannesburg, Kilimanjaro and Nairobi. Several other airlines from neighbouring countries have flights as well, and from Europe the only direct connections are from Brussels with Brussels Airlines.
Roads in Rwanda are generally good and crossing is possible and easy from Tanzania and Uganda, though except some checking of your papers and insurance. Crossings to the DRC and Burundi are not advised. You can use border posts mentioned below (by bus).
There are several daily buses between Kigali and Kampala, the capital of Uganda, taking about 8 hours. There are also daily connections with a few companies to and from Bujumbura, the capital of Burundi. The main crossing point between Rwanda and Burundi is via Butare (Rwanda) and Kayanza (Burundi) and the road is very good. Check safety situations first though, as some areas of Burundi are not safe.
The main border crossing with Uganda is located between Kigali and Kabale, via Gatuna (Rwanda) and Katuna (Uganda). There is also a second crossing between Ruhengeri (Rwanda) and Kisoro (Uganda), via Cyanika. The road is in good shape on the Rwandan side but in poor condition on the Ugandan side. Frequent minibuses link either side of the border with Ruhengeri and Kisoro.
Crossing to the Democratic Republic of Congo is possible but only the one between Gisenyi and Goma is considered relatively safe at the moment. The one at the southern end of Lake Kiva, between Cyangugu and Bukavu is less safe, mainly on the DRC side.
To Tanzania, take a minibus from Kigali to the border town of Rusumo. Across the border there is onward transport to Ngara. From Ngara, buses go to Mwanza, taking 12 hours. The road to Mwanza is mostly good but has some rough sections.
When safety situation improve, there might be transport on Lake Kivu, linking towns and cities in Rwanda and the DRC but for now that is not the case.
Getting Around Rwanda
Rwandair Express flies between Kigali, Cyangugu and Gisenyi.
There are no train services in Rwanda.
Rental cars are limited in Rwanda, but a few local companies in Kigali offer cars. Both rental prices as well as fuel prices are high. Roads on the other hand, are in a fairly good condition, especially the main roads. Most secondary roads are unpaved and can be impassable in the rainy season and shortly after. Traffic drives on the right and you need an international driving permit.
There are frequent bus and minibus (called matatus) departures to and from most major cities and towns. Morning and early afternoon are the best times to travel, as services die out later during the day.
There might be services between several towns along the shores of Lake Kivu on the eastern border with the Democratic Republic of Congo, but travelling overland is better, faster and more reliable.
Rwanda is the most densely populated country in Africa, and you know it as soon as you cross the border! Cycling here is fun but challenging. Fun because it is super hilly. Only the main roads are tarred, and although it is hot it is bearable due to most of the country being over 1,000 metres. And it is challenging because of the constant attention you will get from the kids and the countless huge hills!
You could easily get away with no tent and stove. If you had to choose one region to cycle in it would be the whole length of Lake Kivu. It is a relatively bad road but along the way is some beautiful scenery and the people are extremely friendly. And if you get too hot – dive in the lake!
Visa Formalities for Rwanda
A passport is required to enter Rwanda and a certificate of vaccination for yellow fever is normally required to return back to the country of origin. Nationals of most African countries can probably enter Rwanda without getting a visa beforehand.
Nationals of the following countries may also visit Rwanda without visa for a period up to 90 days: USA, Germany, United Kingdom, Sweden, Singapore, and Hong Kong.
If arriving by air, citizens of many European countries may get an 8 day single entry visa on arrival for US$30, which can be extended by the immigration office in Kigali, although this process is sometimes tedious.
Generally, Rwandan embassy and consulates can issue 3 month tourist visas for around the same price without much hassle. Contact your nearest embassy or consulate for more information.
If you are travelling overland, it is no longer possible to obtain a visa at the border. However, visa application can easily be made on-line. You will within a few days receive an entry visa acceptance by email. Bringing this acceptance letter, the visa will be issued at the border. The US$30 visa fee is paid at the border.
Travellers may also want to consider the East Africa Tourist Visa announced in Jan 2014 and first issued in Mar 2014 that allows travel between Kenya, Rwanda and Uganda with multiple entries in a 90-day period for US$100 and without “restrictions on country of origin”. Rwanda has made the smart move of setting up an on-line website to issue these, which means that many tourists may want to first land at Rwanda’s capital airport of Kigali rather than Entebbe or Nairobi since this visa must be issued by the country that you first plan to visit.
Rwanda’s national currency is the Rwandan franc. Coins come in denominations of 1, 2, 5, 10, 20, 50 and 100 francs. Banknotes come in denominations of 500, 1,000, 2,000 and 5,000 francs.
Most products and services are expensive by Central/East African standards, though the infrastructure (especially roads) is above average.
Travellers should know that international credit and debit cards are nearly worthless in Rwanda. But not quite. Your debit card will work in any ‘Ecobank’ ATM – there are definitely branches at the airport, in Kigali and Musanze (aka Ruhengeri). You can also get credit card cash advances at the Bank of Kigali.
Traveller’s checks are a hassle to exchange, and Rwanda is so safe that it’s simply easier to carry cash. The best exchange rates are available for US$100 bills printed after 2006 (the type with the large heads). Older bills and smaller denominations may be difficult to change in some locations, or receive a lesser rate.
Work in Rwanda
There are not many options for travellers to work in the country.
Study in Rwanda
Kigali has a very good university that might have some interesting studies.
Rwanda has recently changed from being Francophone to Anglophone. Good news for us but not so good for the majority of the population who now have to learn English!
Having said that – the most widely spoken language by far is Kinyarwanda (the mother language of 99% of the populace). In Kigali, nearly everyone you meet will speak passable English. Outside of Kigali, French is more widely understood by people in local governments or at tourist attractions. (That said, employees of the national parks will usually speak both).
A useful list of common Kinyarwanda phrases is available at this website.
If you would like to Teach English in Rwanda you will be accepted with open arms. All school subjects must now be taught in english – unfortunately many teachers in rural areas only speak very sketchy english – but are very eager to learn!
Eating in Rwanda
The local “Brochettes” (kebabs) are delicious and are available in most bars and restaurants. Small bars will primarily serve goat brochettes, and goat liver brochettes are often of higher quality to the locals. Zingalo is goat intestine, sometimes also served as a brochette.
If Rwanda has a staple food, it is ibitoke (sing. igitoke). Ibitoke are starchy, potato-like bananas, which are not sweet like plantains. While plantains are available in Rwanda, they are not seen as particularly Rwandan food. Igitoke/banana are served boiled in sauce, grilled, or even fried. You can also refer to them as matoke, which is usually easier for foreigners to pronounce. The sweet bananas in Rwanda are delicious but considerably smaller than the matoke bananas. If you want this type of banana, ask for small banana or sweet banana and you will usually get what you are looking for.
Drinking in Rwanda
In most shops you will find milk, water, juices and soft drinks. Beer is common like Turbo King, Primus, Mützig and Amstel. Primus and Mützig are available in small and large sizes, whereas Amstel is available only in 330ml bottles.
There are also local banana beer preparations called Urgwagwa, normally brewed at home and available only in plastic containers but now also sold in bottles at some shops and bars.
Sleeping in Rwanda
Accommodation is usually fairly basic and significantly more expensive than neighbouring Uganda and Tanzania. Basic accommodation will cost between 20 to 50 US$.
A few nice hotels can be found in Kigali, the most famous of which is the “Hotel des Milles Collines”, as featured in the movie Hotel Rwanda. Movie buffs hoping to stay in the film set will be disappointed though, as the film was produced in South Africa. The Hotel is now open after extensive renovation. Most hotels in Kigali are in the 80 US$ and above range, although there are a few bargains to be had if you look around.
Some towns and parks have nice typical African lodge style accommodation which might add to the charm of your time spend in Rwanda.
Health in Rwanda
You have to have a cholera stamp (prove of the fact that you don’t have that disease) when entering Rwanda overland. And you are legally required to have a yellow fever vaccination.
It’s a good thing to get your vaccinations in order before travelling to Rwanda. The general vaccination against Diphtheria, Tetanus and Polio (DTP) is recommended. Also both hepatitis A as well as typhoid would be recommended.
If you are staying longer than 3 months or have a particular risk (travelling by bike, handling of animals, visits to caves) you might consider a rabies vaccination. Vaccination against Tuberculosis as well as hepatitis B are also sometimes recommended for stays longer than 3 months. When staying longer than 6 months, vaccination against meningitis might be recommended, depending on your contact with other people. When having a lot of contact with locals and when staying longer than 6 weeks between December and June, this is also recommended.
Like most African countries south of the Sahara, Malaria is prevalent in the country. Don’t underestimate this tropical disease and take precautions. Buy repellent (preferably with 50% DEET), and sleep under a net.
Finally, other possible health issues include diarrhea and other general travellers’ diseases like motion sickness. Watch what you eat and drink and in case you get it, drink plenty of fluids (to prevent dehydration) and bring ORS. Also note that Southern Africa and thus Rwanda as well has a high percentage of people with AIDS.
Safety in Rwanda
Tourists are usually welcomed warmly in Rwanda, and the country is largely considered safe for visitors. The possible exceptions are certain places along the Congolese and Burundian borders. Rwandan troops rumoured to be involved in the civil war that still plagues the northeast of Democratic Republic of the Congo, mainly due to the presence of Interhamwe who fled after the 1994 genocide. Gisenyi and Kibuye are considered safe, but the border situation can change at any time: check Foreign Office information and local sources for further advice.
Gorilla trekking near to the DRC border is generally considered safe, due to the large and continuous Rwandan army presence.
While travelling in matutus (taxis) in the countryside, don’t be surprised if the matutu drives through several police/military check-points. This is done to check IDs, car registration and insurance, so it would be wise to bring at least a photocopy of passport with you everywhere you go in Rwanda.
Communications in Rwanda
You can find internet cafes in Kigali and some smaller cities and towns. Wifi is on the rise in some places as well, although connections outside Kigali are rather erratic at times.
You can use your own cell phone in Rwanda, but avoid data roaming as it usually means extremely high costs for using the internet. Keep phone calls to a minimum or instead buy a local SIM card which means considerably lower prices for calling and using the internet.
Office national des postes is the company responsible for postal service in Rwanda. Post offices are generally open from 8:00am to noon and 2:00 to 4:00pm, though regional variations apply. The one in Kigali generally keeps longer hours. Check with your accommodation for other options to send letters and postcards, as shops or hotels might sell stamps as well and can help you to post things. Services are fairly reliable though slow and for sending parcels it might be a good idea to check options with companies like DHL, TNT, UPS or FedEx.
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