Often referred to as ‘Pays des Mille Collines’, literally, Country of a Thousand Hills, Rwanda is a far a cry from the common conception of the arid deserts of Africa. A small country compared with neighbouring Tanzania and Uganda, Rwanda nevertheless boasts a beautiful and varied landscape.
Green trees, rolling hills and rugged mountains stretch as far as the eye can see. Lakes and rivers provide welcome relief from the heat, and lend a luscious aspect to the land, inevitably causing the growth of a variety of shrubbery, trees and wild flowers covering the shores for miles around.
A landlocked country located in Central Africa, on the eastern border of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Rwanda is also bordered by Uganda, Tanzania and Burundi.
Rwanda’s capital is Kigali, which is located in the geographical centre of the country. It is a rapidly growing city and boasts significant development over recent years.
Rwanda’s high altitude ensures that, although the scorching heat one would expect from a country situated just south of the Equator is present in some areas, the weather is more clement than visitors generally anticipate. The luscious landscape is fed by two rainy seasons, the first beginning sometime in late February and extending until April, and the second spanning early October up to December. The mountainous areas are generally mild and are occasionally susceptible to frost and snow.
Rwanda’s plains and lower slopes mainly consist of agricultural land, with coffee, tea and bananas forming a large proportion of the nation’s permanent crop harvest. In the northern higher slopes, there are active volcanoes which are today visited by tourists on a regular basis. Rwanda is also home to a large number of mountain gorillas, and is well known for Dian Fossey’s remarkable work with these primates. Group visits to view the gorillas in their natural habitat can be organised in the capital.
The country’s road system has been greatly improved and extended, travel between major cities and neighbouring countries is far safer and easier. Over the next few years, several international projects are planned to improve the country’s transport system, including proposals for a new international airport, train line and roads.
Kinyarwanda is the chief spoken language in Rwanda. It is also spoken in the east of D.R. Congo and in the south of Uganda (Bufumbira area). Kinyarwanda is a tonal language of the Bantu language family (Guthrie D61). Kinyarwanda is closely related to Kirundi spoken in the neighboring country, Burundi and to Giha of western Tanzania.
English is also an official language, and many residents (particularly in urban areas) will speak English or French in addition to Kinyarwanda.
Due to the mass movement of people over the past fifty years, you will likely encounter several people who speak a handful of other languages spoken in the East African region (Kiswahili, Lingala, Luganda…). Most traders in Rwanda will speak enough Kiswahili to make a sale!
RESPECT & ETIQUETTE
Rwanda is a conservative society and as a result most people dress modestly – especially women. Wearing shorts or tight skirts and skimpy tops is likely to get you noticed more than normal. However, it is not considered offensive or impolite to wear such clothes, but we suggest that some consideration is made for this.
It is unusual for a couple to make public displays of affection, even though many men walk hand in hand with male friends. Also Rwandans will generally never eat or drink in public, apart from at restaurants. Rwandan women are rarely seen smoking in public or out in bars unaccompanied.
Rwandans are quite reserved people and loud public confrontations (shouting matches) or obvious shows of emotion (such as crying) are also frowned on. If you feel you are being overcharged by a trader, quietly persisting with the negotiation (or your complaint!) is likely to produce results much faster than an angry outburst!
Please understand that Rwanda is still recovering from the Genocide Against The Tutsi, in which 800,000 to a million people were killed. Many Rwandese lost relatives and friends. Despite this, most Rwandans today are trying to forget the ethnic divisions and would rather be referred to as Rwandese. Therefore, it is sometimes considered impolite to ask someone about their ethnic origin.
Political discourse in Rwanda is infrequent, unlike in many neighboring countries where people talk freely about the government and political issues. People in Rwanda may be uncomfortable if asked their views or even if seated at a table where politics are discussed.
The local “Brochettes” (kebabs of different meats and fish) are delicious and are available in most bars and restaurants. Many restaurants also serve grilled fish and chicken, and frites and frites-banane (fried plantain) are ubiquitous.
In urban areas a local buffet known as “Mélange” is sold at lunchtime. This consists of a buffet of mostly carbohydrates such as potatoes, bananas, beans, rice, cassava accompanied with some vegetables and a small amount of meat or fish with sauce.
Note that Rwandan buffets are not all you can eat! You may fill your plate only once, and with practice you’ll be able to stack your plate high like the locals do. Prices range from just over a USD$3 to USD$5 or even USD$20 depending on the grade of the eatery and the variety of food available. Most of the upper segment buffets ($5 and above) offer a salad buffet too. Note that many of the cheaper Mélange places are unmarked.
Kigali has a good range of restaurants – you can find Indian, Chinese, Italian, Greek, French and other cuisines.
Bralirwa in the north of the Rwanda produces most of the beer and soft drinks available in Rwanda along with Brasserie Des Mille Collines near Kigali. In most bars the choice is a little limited to 8 different sodas and 10 different beers, Primus, Mützig, Amstel, Heineken, Skol (different variants) and Bell. Primus and Mützig are available in small and large sizes and are very popular, whereas Amstel is available in one size. Note that Rwandans are known for their fondness for large beers and, when you order, it is common for a server to bring out 2 bottles at a time.
There are also local banana beer preparations called Urwagwa, normally brewed at home and available commercially from only a few companies or in unnappeziting plastic containers. You can also buy it as a souvenir in many shops.
Remember to drink plenty of water!
Rwandans are an incredibly hospitable people and welcome tourists warmly. Rwanda is considered as one of the safest countries in Africa. The possible exceptions are certain places along the Congolese and Burundian borders. However, please be careful with your belongings, especially if you are out late at night and perhaps dancing in a night club or bar. Like everywhere in the world, there are always some opportunistic people.
The gorilla trekking is near to the DRC border and is considered safe, due to the large and continuous Rwandan army presence. While travelling in matatus (taxis) in the countryside or in the city, don’t be surprised if the matatu drives through police checkpoints. This is done to check IDs, car registration and insurance, so it would be wise to bring at least a photocopy of your passport with you everywhere you go in Rwanda.