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Rwanda Today

I arrived in Rwanda sick and weary, after a long spell in filthy hotels in northern Uganda, reporting on their terrible civil war. I no longer wished to go at all, in fact—I wanted to go home—a thought I made sure not to share with my best friend, who already regretted having agreed to come along.

"I'm pleased to be able to invite you to accompany me on a fabulous trip to Africa," I'd told Cynthia six months before, in my best tour-guide voice, straining for the enticing generality that cloaks sticky specifics.

"Gosh," Cynthia had said. "Where?A safari in Kenya?A vacation in the Seychelles?"

"Nooo…" I'd said. "But it's a lovely little country of great natural beauty—one of the last places you can see Dian Fossey's rare mountain gorillas...."

"Rwanda?" Cynthia's voice had echoed the alarm I heard every time I told an American of my plans. "You want me to go to Rwanda?"

More than a decade has passed since the Rwandan genocide, in which a militant faction of the majority ethnic group, the Hutus, eliminated 85 percent of the minority Tutsis, once favored by the Belgian colonialists. But the fairy-tale horror of its images endures: limbless corpses dissolving into bones, piled up in streets and fields and churches, and rivers thick with bodies. It was the fastest rate of genocide in recorded history—more than 800,000 people hacked to death by machetes in 100 days. Having pledged "Never again" after the Holocaust, the West failed to intervene in Rwanda—a decision President Clinton now refers to as one of the greatest mistakes of his presidency.

On a continent destroyed by cycles of ethnic violence, Rwanda seems in many ways a model of recovery and change. The genocide has left catastrophic problems—more than 250,000 rape victims, many of them infected with HIV; 95,000 children orphaned—and although ethnic tensions persist, efforts at rebuilding society seem strikingly successful. The old Belgian system of ethnic identity papers has been abolished, and many Tutsi employers hire Hutus—and vice versa. Walking around with $2,000 in cash (credit cards and travelers' checks are rarely accepted) in the capital, Kigali, at 2 a.m. feels safer than it would in Manhattan. Swords have been turned to plowshares: machetes are once again used as farming tools.

One measure of Rwanda's social progress is that it's no longer absurd to speak of the country as a tourist destination—of market stalls stocked with bright batik fabrics; of tracking giraffes, elephants, and baboons in Akagera National Park; of boating on Lake Kivu, from whose shores rise the volcanoes where the gorillas live. Yet scattered throughout the country are places that call for deeper reflection: 200 genocide sites, a number of which have become important spots of pilgrimage and memorial, such as churches whose floors are still littered with the skulls, bones, shoes, clothes, and prayer books of  Tutsis who took refuge there.

Having always traveled on our own, Cynthia, a writer and photographer, and I aren't sure we like the idea of a tour—even after an 11-day itinerary for our safari arrives from Cox & Kings. Yet instead of distancing us from the country, the tour actually allows us to enter it more deeply.

The tour is led by Nathaniel Waring, Cox & Kings' amusing and adventuresome president, who knows Africa intimately and has been to Rwanda many times. We are also accompanied by John Kayihura, Nathaniel's local guide (and himself owner of a tour company, Primate Safaris). John seems to know everyone in Rwanda, from the president, Paul Kagame, to villagers in remote corners of the country. Raised in a prominent Tutsi family, John grew up in exile in Uganda and Kenya (where three-quarters of a million Tutsis fled from increasing ethnic violence during the 1960's and 70's) and, like many other Tutsis, returned after 1994 to help rebuild the country. Our driver, Innocent Baguma, was a soldier in the Rwandan Patriotic Front, which defeated the Hutu extremists, ending the genocide. Innocent does not speak easily of his experiences—of watching his brother fall as he fought beside him, of trying to rescue strangers who died in his arms.

Cox & Kings understands how to take the hardship out of visiting exotic destinations­—how to ensure that there is always a well-stocked hamper in the comfortable expedition vehicle, for drinking mango juice and nibbling on chocolate-covered biscuits while gazing at the scenery. Rwanda is the size of Vermont, with something of its lush, lake-dotted look. In French it is known as pays des mille collines—the country of a thousand hills. Every inch of those soft slopes is cultivated with bananas, corn, coffee, and tea; nearly all of its 8.4 million inhabitants work and live at subsistence level. Rwanda is devoutly Christian (94 percent). It's always spring: the moderately high altitude results in temperatures in the seventies most of the year. A three-hour drive will connect Kigali with any part of the country.

"Muzungu, muzungu," people call out, smiling and waving at us as we drive southeast on our first morning. When we stop in villages, they accost us, reaching out to feel our hair. Muzungu translates (from Swahili) simply as "white person"—ordinarily not a wholly desirable appellation. We stop in villages where golden corn cobs have been strung up to dry on the rafters of neat little mud homes and buy baskets of African eggs (which are small, with orange yolks, and taste different from the so-called muzungu eggs served in hotels).

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