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Rwanda Today

Surprisingly, Rwandans regard Westerners in general and Americans in particular in a positive light. The few Western residents, most of whom work for NGO's, government aid organizations, or the missions, are hailed as rich, benevolent people who have come to help.  And, of course, in Rwanda they actually are rich: there are 541 Rwandan francs to the dollar. In a country where most people earn less than a dollar a day, a $20 tip can, embarrassingly, cause someone to kiss your hand.

By mid-morning on our first day, we're in Butare, south of the capital, visiting the ethnographic collection at the National Museum. We are treated to a stirring traditional dance performance by a costumed troupe on the lawn. In the late afternoon we reach Nyungwe National Park, an ancient rain forest of evergreens and bamboo in southeast Rwanda inhabited by 300 bird and 13 primate species. We stay at the Gisakura guesthouse, a rustic cottage on the grounds of the Gisakura Tea Estate.

I am a passionate drinker of tea and have long wanted to trace it to one of its sources in China or India; I never realized it was grown in Africa. Although Rwanda is better known for its coffee, the altitude and rich volcanic soil lend themselves to the cultivation of tea. At the Gisakura Estate, the manager shows us how bright green leaves are gathered from the vast fields of thick, low-lying bushes, and how workers then select, dry, and ferment them inside the factory until the leaves blacken and shrivel into their familiar form, ready for export to major labels all over the world.

The Parc National des Volcans, where the mountain gorillas make their home, is north of the Nyungwe forest beyond Lake Kivu, a 1,000-square-mile volcanic lake whose western shore lies within the Congo. Kivu is one of the loveliest lakes in Africa, but tourism there was suspended for many years because of unrest in the region and has only recently resumed, with the opening of the beachfront Kivu Sun Hotel. The pleasure boats have not yet returned, so Cox & Kings has arranged for our group to cross the lake on a military patrol boat.

In travel one is always seeking transcendent experiences: moments in which the disorientation of the new place places one out of time and place. As the boat ferries us across, the wind rushes in our faces, the surface of the water shimmers like glass, volcanic peaks rise out of the mist, and we forget where we are going or where we came from. When we dock, we take pictures of the soldiers with their arms around Cynthia, to e-mail to Jim, her anxious husband.

"Let them pass—they're coming down," the park guide whispers when, after several hours of arduous trekking through the dense jungle, we find the gorillas suddenly galumphing toward us. They seem monstrously large as I clutch Cynthia's hand and we flatten ourselves against the trees. Our guide calls out with a high-pitched rumble—and a gorilla roars in return. "It's okay," the guide says. "He's telling us it's a fine day for a visit."

Even the nicest property in Uganda—the Sheraton Kampala, in whose pool Idi Amin once swam laps—turned out to be a dusty, disorganized construction site (an experience consistent with memories of a previous reporting trip to Ethiopia that had required a long stay at the decrepit Hilton Addis Ababa). So I've been assuming Kigali's government-owned, newly built InterContinental will be a good hotel "for Rwanda"—in which the qualification rewrites the epithet.

Although no one at home I later described it to quite believed me, the Inter­Continental proves to be one of the most intensely pleasant spots I have ever stayed. Cynthia and I explore how to while away each day, determining which hour affords the best light on the terrace or the café overlooking the garden and swimming pool. Moreover, the pleasure is married to the sense of moral satisfaction that comes from directly participating in a fledgling economy. That the government believed it could create such a hotel, and made the huge financial investment to do so, seems both symbol and evidence of the country's recovery.

Rosette Chantal Rugamba, Rwanda's good-natured director of tourism, laughs when she recalls the massive undertaking of constructing the place, which had to be completed by April 2004, in time to receive visitors for the 10th anniversary. A South African management team trained locals—"many of whom didn't even have silverware at home"—in rented rooms for five months. The night before the opening, Rosette and other board members were frantically making beds.

Like other Rwandans, the hotel staffers (who speak good French and English) demur when asked about their ethnic identity, murmuring the party line—"We are all Rwandan now." Although the Tutsis among them then tell the story of how they survived the genocide—and how they emerged from hiding to discover that they were the only ones in their communities who had. But that's all in the past now, they conclude softly, waving away questions with the word forgive. Cynthia and I exchange glances, unable to imagine what lies beneath that word. While some of the leaders of the genocide are being tried in war crimes tribunals in Tanzania, the majority of the participants are free, often living side by side with their victims' families. For Americans—whose culture celebrates justice, even vengeance—the notion of forgiveness as a national imperative is bafflingly strange. How can that possibly work? we wonder. What kind of forgiveness are they talking about?


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