In September 2019 a team from MiiR landed in Kigali, Rwanda with preconceived notions of what they only knew to be a country torn apart by genocide. What they discovered there was not at all what they anticipated. A small but mighty country in the heart of Africa, Rwanda revealed a staggering beauty of landscape and wildlife and a people of incredible fortitude with a passion for collective progress. Join us as Rebecca Papé — Co-Founder and Copywriter, who experienced this trip alongside our Director of Impact, Chief Strategy and Marketing Officer, and Content Producer — shares her reflections in a blog. All supporting imagery below was taken by Rebecca firsthand during her time in Rwanda.
Rwanda is known as the land of a thousand hills. In our week there, it’s possible we traversed over every one of them, though I never minded. Trekking from border to border, we reveled in the wildness of Akagera National Park in the east and marveled at the pristine shores of Lake Kivu in the west. To know the terrain is to fall in love with it; the same is true for the country itself.
Full of contrast, Rwanda is a country like none other I’ve visited. Small, yet a force to be reckoned with. Gentle, yet bold in its leadership and ideas (from strong female representation in government to the nationwide banning of plastic bags). Beautiful, yet marked by a dark past.
Many (dare I say most) of us associate Rwanda only with its 1994 genocide. We hazily recall the details: the labeling of citizens into two distinct camps, resulting in close to a million tragic deaths in the span of three months. Neighbors killing neighbors, and even family killing family with tools meant for the field, turned to weapons. An event we could not fathom experiencing, much less surviving.
Today, Rwanda isn’t surviving. It’s thriving.
Rwanda is a beautifully welcoming place
Still ringing in my ears is the unexpected phrase we heard constantly: you are most welcome here. With the Kula team graciously serving as our tour guides, American-born Kula Founder Sarah told us she feels more at home in Rwanda than anywhere else in the world; its welcoming nature must play a part in her sense of belonging. I felt it too. I felt accepted for who I am by the people here. I felt desire to be known and understood, even as a foreigner.
On a tour of Kigali, streets buzzed with motos (motorcycle taxis) in every direction. We were pointedly routed by the capital city’s new state-of-the-art convention center, lit in the nation’s colors of blue, yellow and green (and where Ne-Yo was soon to perform). Anticipating our love for coffee, the Kula team took us to Question Coffee, a specialty coffee shop serving the finest Rwandan coffee, many of the bean selections produced by women. (Kula also buys green coffee from the farmers it supports and roasts, packages and sells it in the United States. This gives them a reliable income stream from which to operate the nonprofit.)
Threaded throughout the week’s conversations we were told of Vision 2050, a futuristic blueprint for the country that is challenging Rwandans to collectively think big, break mind barriers and accelerate change in pursuit of the brightest possible future for their country. It quickly became clear that Rwandans take pride in their developing infrastructure, economy and thought leadership, and wish to share these (amongst other) advancements with the world.
Rwanda’s next generation is filled with hope
From their singing and praying to shared laughter, a soundtrack I hope to never forget is of Rwanda’s youth. Because MiiR’s grant to Kula is directly benefiting young women at one of their women’s centers, we were able to meet these individuals face to face and hear their stories. We learned of their hardships and overcomings, of their departure from the ways of their parents’ generation, of the businesses they dream of building to achieve financial security and independence and more importantly, personal fulfillment. At Liddy Women’s Center a young woman named Olive (my daughter’s middle name) tells us, “For our grandmothers and mothers, their role was to simply take care of the children. Now, we as women are able to express ourselves and develop our talents.”
Rwanda has a strength of fortitude
Just as slavery is woven into the fabric of America’s history, so is Rwanda’s genocide woven into theirs. It’s impossible to embrace all of a country without acknowledging its past. To overlook it is not only ignorant but dangerous — it dismisses the learnings and those who suffered. Few if any words formed as we toured Nyamata Church, a genocide memorial site where, in April of 1994, thousands seeking refuge were violently killed by their own people. Human remains are on display and it’s the uniformity of the skulls that does me in. The sameness of it all — no one skull identifiable from the next. To recognize that our species is capable of such intentional destruction is to recognize that no nation is immune to such tragedy. We can’t let this happen to any citizen of humanity ever again.
The brotherly and sisterly love we saw exchanged between fellow Rwandans, and even extending out to us, is hard to describe. We met women who spoke of their neighbor’s children as though they were their own. Having never before met, we visited the home of Helen and Kamari in their village (graduates of the Kula program), where their family had prepared an absolute feast for us. Our videographer, Brian, lost his wallet in a taxi in Kigali and GOT IT BACK, thanks to a series of compassionate people who wanted to see it returned to its rightful owner. These events don’t just happen anywhere. They can only occur where there exists a culture of openness and empathy, and this culture earned its greatness, having been built over spans of time, emerging from a hopeless place to reach great distances, from the first hill to the thousandth.
Rwanda is a place to start
If you have ever considered visiting Africa, do it. Start with Rwanda. You will be welcomed with open arms, challenged to shift your preconceived notions and given a beautiful environment in which to do so.
Below is a roundup of my favorite places to stay, experience, and dine in and around Kigali, Rwanda.
Stay — Kigali
All the amenities of home: Onomo Hotel
Splurge: Retreat Hotel
Stay — Akagera National Park
For the rustic “glampers:" Karenge Bush Camp
Camping, but not really: Ruzizi Tented Lodge
Stay — Lake Kivu
Emeraude Kivu Resort
Experience — Kigali
Nyamata Genocide Memorial
Experience — Akagera National Park
Sunset cruise on Lake Ihema
Experience — Nyungwe National Forest
Chimpanzee trekking and canopy tour
Dining — Kigali
Fusion Restaurant at The Retreat Hotel
Rooftop Rendezvous Bar & Grill at Ubumwe Grand Hotel