But right before Tim and I arrived here in Uganda (where the border closed around us due to the pandemic), we had the opportunity to travel through a small country that could really teach the world something about getting back on your feet after tragedy strikes: Rwanda.
I used to teach my high school students about the Rwandan Genocide every year, showing them the movie Hotel Rwanda, which I've seen more times than I can count. So when Tim and I found ourselves planning our motorcycle route through Africa, we decided to visit Rwanda even though it was a bit out of our way. But I was very interested to see how this tiny country had overcome the unimaginable setback of the genocide.
The next day at the border we had perfect weather: intensely sunny (Rwanda is nearly on the equator), but the elevation in the mountains made the wind cool. This was heavenly motorcycle weather, as I love feeling fresh breezes rush through my jacket. To make things even better, when entering Rwanda I realized that they drive on the right side of the road, which is, from my American perspective, the correct side of the road! This is due to the Belgian and German colonial influence over Rwanda as opposed to the British, and for Tim and I, it was extremely exciting since we had been driving on the British side in every single country we've been to from South Africa and up.
So while we glided down an astonishingly well-paved Rwandan highway, I just couldn't stop smiling, as I had this feeling that I was really going to like Rwanda.
Once across the border, I very quickly realized that agriculture reigns king in Rwanda. The entire country is covered in twisty mountain roads that wind their way through lush peaks and valleys, with the steep hills having been terraced and tamed by the myriad of farmers who call this country home. And it was so green! There were tea fields nestled between the fanned-out leaves of banana trees, all hugged into the embrace of steaming and misting mountains of jungles rich with exotic bird calls and the hoots of monkeys.
In less than an hour of riding, I knew that we had made the right choice to come to Rwanda.
Pictures and video are not allowed inside the church, but I can describe for you the haunting sensation of stepping through the double doors and unexpectedly seeing piles of clothes everywhere. Fabrics torn apart, bloodied, heaped onto the floor and stacked on top of pews. Women's dresses of what had once been bright yellow florals, and tiny shirts for children, now pink with dried blood. The bodies have since been buried, but their clothes remain in the church.
I kept repeating that number in my head: at least 5,000 people were killed in that church. 800,000 were killed in Rwanda. These numbers can't possibly express the gravity of the weight that they actually bear. Now with the pandemic, I'm getting a new sense of how tragic those zeros are. 170,000 so far in the USA, nearly 800,000 globally... and to think that this same number of fatalities died in an area the size of Maryland. It's incomprehensible.
And best of all, there was no garbage on the streets. None. Had I entered Wakanda by accident? It was all so much that I called home that night to tell my mother about this clean and orderly civilization that I had come across in the heart of Africa, like I'd discovered the golden city of El Dorado hidden in the jungle.
Interestingly enough, because mostly men died in the genocide, a majority of women were left, and so Rwanda has the world's highest representation of women in parliament. Maybe all these women in government have something to do with why Rwanda is so awesome? Okay, I can't prove it, but it did cross my mind...
But the change I find to be most interesting of all is that Rwanda has a required policy of doing community service work for one Saturday out of the month, a practice called umuganda. Everyone must do it, including the president, and this has helped clean the cities and communities, as well as build medical centers, schools, and even hydroelectric plants.
From Kigali, we headed on to find a fabled road that we had heard about: the road through Nyungwe Forest. Nyungwe National Park is a tourist hotspot beloved for its mountains, waterfall hikes, suspension canopy tours, and perhaps most of all, its chimpanzee treks. And people had told us that the road through it is not to be missed. So we weaved our way out from Kigali and arrived at Rwanda's western reaches that edge into the Congo to check out this road, hoping the rumors were more than just hype.
Jungles are actually hard to comprehend all at once because they're just so thick, you only get bits and pieces at a time, like glimpses of big-eyed frogs, colorful parrot feathers, or drops of water hovering on the tips of fern leaves. But you never really get the full grandeur.
But this is where the road through Nyungwe shines, because this ancient African rainforest is so mountainous, and the road is so well built, you get unbelievable vistas of the deepest of green mountains layering over one another, with the misty tendrils of clouds curling around their peaks like it's a picture on the welcome sign to Jurassic park. Half-expecting to see a brontosaurus stick its head out of the distant foliage, I felt I just wanted to go swinging through the vines like Tarzan, running like a child, climbing through the branches, and jumping from limb to limb of these immense trees that can only be rivaled by the forests of Avatar.
So with a mixture of feeling both way-too-safe, and very unsafe, we rode our way through that incredible forest. And though we did not see any chimpanzees, we did see lots of other monkeys.
There was one more site on our list to see in Rwanda before our time there would come to an end, and that was Lake Kivu. Again, I wondered why people were raving so much about a lake when the whole region was speckled in lakes, and I didn't understand how Lake Kivu would be any different from the much larger Lake Victoria which we had just seen in Tanzania.
But it turns out that Lake Kivu is extremely picturesque because of its jagged shape, like an ink blotter test. That gives it a stunning mangled shoreline of green cliffs and hills, with islands dotting the lake as far as the blue horizon.
The next day, a confirmed case was discovered in Kinshasa, DRC, and the border to the Congo closed overnight. The German's gorilla tour was cancelled. The others got their flights out of Rwanda, and the three of us carried onto Uganda, but it wasn't long before all the land borders and airports closed. And Tim and I have been stuck in Uganda ever since.
And I think it boils down to three things: they have honored the memories of those they've lost without blaming each other, they have embraced a message of unifying and healing the country through community service, and they have taken their tragedy as an opportunity to build again. To build something better than they had before.
So even though I used to only think of Rwanda as a place of devastation, now that I have been there myself, I see it as a place of hope and inspiration. It's a lesson that I can always look back on and smile.
Our next blog post will be about how things went down here in Uganda, what we've seen so far, and what we plan to do next.