We departed from Kigali following a buffet lunch of chicken, rice and fruit, loaded into our two SUVs and headed for Volcanoes National Park and Ruhengeri for a gorilla-themed weekend.
The next morning, we awoke early for breakfast, where I met Jason, Adam and another reporter, Mary (she was doing a story on politics, not travel, but was still on our travel press trip). We ate quickly because we were being shuffled off on a bus tour of Kigali.
We could have slept in because we left late for the trip, and then when we arrived at Rwanda Development Board’s headquarters, we waited some more.
When we finally boarded the bus for our tour, we stopped back at our hotel to pick up a TV crew from Uganda who would be joining us on our city tour.
For an hour, we drove up and down the hills of Kigali.
It was like nothing I had ever seen before. People walked in the roads, balancing what seemed to be kilos and kilos on their heads, motorbikes and cars and motorbike taxis shared the streets with pedestrians. Shacks lined the streets next to huge homes and businesses.
Our tour took us through the new part of Kigali, beyond the dirt roads … to the homes being built by locals. Scaffolding was simply rickety wood piled high, workers crafted the homes in front of our eyes.
This was no fine tuned corporation pumping out homes. This was local people, building homes other local people would live in.
Then, it was on to the Kigali Memorial Centre, because it is so important people never forget what the people of Rwanda endured to become who they are today.
I’m not going to lie. I knew there was a genocide in Rwanda, but that was the extent of my knowledge.
The memorial we visited hit me like a ton of bricks. I felt very similar to the way I felt when I visited Auschwitz, except even more appalled. This genocide happened in my lifetime. While I lived in Maryland in 1994, worrying about what to wear to school, people my age in Rwanda were fighting for their lives. And not making it.
The exhibit was poignant. Displays featured crude photos, harsh reminders of the country’s past, and images that will not ever leave my brain. The memorial hits home when visitors walk into a room shrouded in darkness. The only things lit are the visible reminders of what happened to an entire population of people.
Skulls lined up.
Clothing, torn and tattered, found in some of Kigali’s mass graves.
I stood there, ready to weep.
But, it would be even worse upstairs — the hardest of the memorial for me was the room dedicated to the children who were victims of the senseless killings. In this room were photos of the children, along with personal information about each — what they liked, what they wanted to be when they grew up, their favorite sports, their favorite food … and then, heartbreakingly, their cause of death.
Hacked by a machete; bludgened with rocks; tortured to death; stabbed in the eyes; grenade thrown in the shower; burnt alive; Gikondo Chapel; shot dead; killed at Mlehoro Church; a 2-year-old smashed against a wall; a 9-month-old macheted in his mother’s arms.
That information hurt the most to learn.
There was also the mass graves outside. A beautiful garden home to more than 250,000 victims of the genocide. Unmarked concrete slabs overlooking the hills of Kigali.
Our group walked out of the center quietly and boarded the bus, back into the city which was now thriving and at peace. A far cry from 16 years earlier.
The next stop was Rhugeri for World Environment Day and Kwita Izina, the naming of the baby gorillas.
Disclosure: Lodging, meals and activities were courtesy of the Rwanda Development Board.
We only found Anna.
When I had received the names of the people on the trip, I was elated to see Anna was a part of it. Since I had joined Twitter a little more than one year ago (not even the same account I have now), I had followed Anna. She was a person I respected, admired and could not wait to meet in person.
Needless to say, when JD and I banged on her door at 9 p.m. our first night and woke her up, I knew immediately we would become friends.
The three of us ventured to the poolside restaurant downstairs and enjoyed dinner, talking briefly about our excitement over the itinerary we were given, and of course, talking social media and blogging.
My body ached by the time dinner was through, and I was craving a hot shower to wash off the 24 hours of traveling and the airport sleepover the previous night.
I walked into the shower in my room, a decrepit looking corner with a pair of dirty flip flops at the base of the shower.
There was a bug crawling on them.
It’s OK, D. You are in Africa. Maybe this is how it is …
I turned on the faucet.
Maybe if I turn the shower on, it will warm up.
I twisted the knob.
Water began squirting out of the pipe directly above the faucet. The shower head refused to work.
Oh my god. I am dirty. I need a shower. I want a shower. Please, please, please let me shower.
The shower gods had other plans.
After a minute or two of spitting water at me from the pipe, I called it a wash (not literally, of course, I was filthy), and crawled into my bed.
My mind crawled with thoughts about the upcoming five days of my life … the sites we were supposed to see … the places we were supposed to visit … and quickly, sleep came over me.
Disclosure: Rwanda Development Board provided lodging, most meals and activities.
I picked 14 K on the Brussels flight to Kigali on purpose. I wanted a window seat and to spread my legs out in front of me. I never get the chance to sit in the first seat in the economy class, but this time, the Plane Gods were on my side.
The trip to Rwanda from Brussels is a long one. It takes nearly as long to get from DC to London. But, damn, it is an amazing view. The flight takes you over Germany and its swirling fields of green, and Italy and the mountains still capped in snow, and then on to the vast blue of Mediterranean.
And, then there is Africa.