For this East African nation, the horrible events of 1994 will likely never be far enough away. But if the Hutus and Tutsis can coexist, then why not luxury hotels and memorial centers, still-intact genocide sites and wildlife-rich national parks?

By Melanie Thernstrom
February 11, 2011

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).

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?

The magnitude of the forgiveness required is all too vividly represented at the first public showing of the HBO film Sometimes in April. A gigantic screen has been erected at Amahoro Stadium, a large, open-air structure, one of the few places where Tutsis were able to find refuge during the genocide. More than 25,000 people arrive for the screening, including many bused in from remote villages and the 5,000 extras and other Rwandans employed in the making of the movie. The film's sound track is being broadcast with live simultaneous translation into Kinyarwanda, the national language. Everyone wonders what will happen when the movie actually begins and survivors—many of whom have probably never attended a film before—see the trauma recreated in full color.

I sit next to Sam Martin, the gutsy HBO executive who oversaw the endeavor. On my other side is a teenager named Jean-Claude who turns out to be a Hutu orphan. From his right eye to his chin runs a line that looks like a trail of tears but must have come—I suddenly realize—from a machete wound. His story, told in broken English, is difficult to follow. His father was a customs officer in Butare who (like many of the region's Hutus) did not support the genocide. Jean-Claude managed to escape to a refugee camp in Burundi, but there one of the Interahamwe—the Hutu paramilitary group that carried out the slaughter—attacked him with a machete, until another intervened, asking, "Why are we killing a Hutu child?"

"I have no one to take care of me," Jean-Claude says.

I look at the boy huddled beside me on the bleachers in the huge African dusk, his silvery scar still visible in the last light.

"Why are you here?" I ask.

"To see what happened to my parents."

We see. The film has the excruciating pace of a nightmare. The audience cries out as the screams of the characters fill the stadium. Jean-Claude's shoulders shake, and he makes small noises like a kitten. Afterward, the crowd surges out in stunned silence. I hold Jean-Claude's hand. I feel as if the ghosts of the movie have bequeathed him to me and I must never let him go.

The next day, Cynthia and I decide to pay Jean-Claude's fees at the École Secondaire de Kicukiro, a government boarding school in Kigali, at which he has been accepted but which he does not have the money to attend (though the fee is only $180 a year, including room and board). A few days later, he writes us an e-mail from an Internet café:

I had not luck to live with my parents or see very well their innocent face. They killed without any mistake, they were innocent... a long time ago I was alone no one who look for me so I have you and I need you. NOW, I have you, you are my parents if isn't a mistake, you are my mother till you want.



The last saturday I'm in Kigali, I ask Jean-Claude how he'd like to spend the day. Would he like to visit Zawadi Arts & Crafts, the shop run by John Kayihura's wife, Chantal, which sells work by local artisans; lunch alfresco at the cosmopolitan Republika Café; see ingenious Twa people make pots and then watch them perform a tribal dance while the clay dries?What Jean-Claude wants, he tells me, is to visit the Kigali Genocide Memorial Centre.

The new memorial center is an astonishing testament. Built with minimal funds on a hill overlooking the capital, it includes a museum, a genocide research center, and a memorial garden containing 11 mass graves, where more than 250,000 victims who died in Kigali are buried. Franco Kanimba, who directs the museum, recalls how survivors suffered from flashbacks during the museum's opening, on the genocide's 10th anniversary: shrieking, running, hiding under furniture. "We had to wait until they fell asleep from exhaustion," he says. "When we woke them and told them to go home, old women would say, 'This is my home—this is where my family is buried. You want me to leave my family again?' "

The guides at the museum are all genocide orphans themselves, we are told, as if this makes them better at their jobs. Yet I wonder what it is like for our two Tutsi guides to rehearse the details of their trauma for strangers every day. Our first guide, Harriet, seems bored and disaffected as she shows us the unfinished Wall of Names, the symbolic sculptures, and the rose garden in which each rose will be dedicated to a victim. As she talks, she rips a leaf off a tree and shreds it, staining her fingertips green. Then, without explanation, she walks off, and another guide picks up our tour.

The new guide takes us inside, through exhibitions about the Belgian colonization and into rooms that illustrate the killings with videotaped testimony about torture and photos of children with their heads split open. Scant acknowledgment is made of the thousands of moderate Hutus, like Jean-Claude's parents, who were slaughtered along with the Tutsis. When I take the guide aside and tell her, with a gesture toward Jean-Claude, that I want to move quickly through the torture sections, she seems irritated. "He's not a child," she says pointedly.

Jean-Claude has become so still, silent, and expressionless that I have the illusion that he's disappearing, as in a movie scene I once saw in which a blind woman realizes her lover has died because the invisible aura of color by which she recognizes him has vanished. He sleepwalks past the lighted display boxes, one containing neat piles of femurs; another, variously sized skulls with machete cuts; and a third, empty clothing. Gingham dresses and yellow work shirts float, fragile and unreal as dolls' clothes, with small tears and brown stains that would seem innocuous in another context.

We come to a room with 14 windows, each displaying an enlarged photograph of a dead child, beneath which is a plaque with a short biography. There is Fabrice Cyemezo (Age: 15 months. Favorite food: Rice with milk. Favorite animal: Cat. Enjoyed: Making gestures. Favorite word: Auntie. Killed at: Muhororo Church.). And there is Francine Murengezi Ingabire (Age: 12. Favorite sport: Swimming. Favorite food: Eggs and chips. Favorite drinks: Milk and Fanta. Best friend: Her elder sister Claudette. Cause of death: Hacked by machete.). Jean-Claude quietly studies each one, for a long time. Then we walk outside, passing an abstract sculpture of a child with the inscription i did not make myself an orphan.

Afterward we sit silently on a bench, looking down at the capital. Nothing in view now—not the neat rows of houses, not their green gardens illuminated by the noon sun—recalls the photographs in which fires burn on streets littered with the ruin and refuse of life and frightened dogs gnaw on severed limbs.

Our first guide, Harriet, strides over and begins talking to Jean-Claude in Kinyarwanda. She is a tall, striking young woman with the slim body and symmetrical features of a model, but there is something odd and empty about her expression. She rolls her eyes and asks Jean-Claude questions in an aggressive, suspicious tone. When she walks away, Innocent, our driver, translates: she said that many Hutu boys pretend to be genocide orphans to get money from foreigners, and she demanded that Jean-Claude give his parents' names in order to document their deaths.

When Harriet returns, she denies having said such things and reproaches Innocent in Kinyarwanda for betraying her to the muzungu. The other staff surround Jean-Claude, trying to comfort him. One of the male staff members orders Harriet to apologize.

She looks up and away, brushes her hair back, and then stares defiantly at Jean-Claude. He studies the ground, his face sullen and tear-stained. Then, suddenly, they hug, and when they separate, I see that both of their expressions have altered. During my time in the country, many Rwandans have told me that it is only their Christian faith in the Passion—in Jesus's forgiveness of his torturers and the redemption of that forgiveness—that allows them to heal from the genocide. But Franco Kanimba, of the center, explains it differently. "It's not forgiveness, it's résignation," he says, pronouncing resignation as a French word. "What can we do, but try to live together?"

Getting there Reaching Rwanda from the United States can require changing planes many times. But after a direct flight to Johannesburg on South African Airlines (800/722-9675;; nonstop from New York; Washington, D.C.; and Atlanta), you can take a few days to explore. (For information on Johannesburg, visit the South Africa Destination Guide.) tours Rwanda Tourism Board (250/576-514;; Cox & Kings (800/999-1758;


The Westcliff
En route to (or from) Rwanda, this is a great stop, built into a steep terraced hillside with cobblestoned streets connecting guesthouses.
PLUS more about The Westcliff.
doubles from $574
67 Jan Smuts Ave., Westcliff, Johannesburg 800/237-1236 OR 27-11/481-6000

InterContinental Kigali
doubles from $205
Rue de la Révolution, Kigali, Rwanda 250/597-100

Kivu Sun Hotel
doubles from $95
Gisenyi, Rwanda; 250/541-101


Republika Café
dinner for two $18
Kiyovu, off Ave. de Grands Lacs, Kigali; 250/504-051


Primate Safaris
Ave. de la Paix, Kigali 250/503-428

Kigali Genocide Memorial Centre
Rwanda's genocide museum and memorial.
gisozi, kigali 250/0830-7666

Zawadi Arts and Crafts
Nyarugenge St.
Kigali, Rwanda

Dancing Pots
A showroom for the Forest Peoples Pottery Project.
Next to the Iris Guest House in the Kyovu district.

Akagera Game Lodge
Stay in Akagera National Park, and take guided tours to see a wealth of wildlife: zebras, elephants, hippos, baboons, and giraffes.


Donations of money, books, clothing, used laptops, art supplies, and the like can be sent to the École Secondaire de Kicukiro, Attn: Headmaster Laurent R. Kamana, B.P. 6092, Kigali, Rwanda.

  • Mashaba Tours
  • Peter Mashaba, a local guide, offers custom tours of Johannesburg, it's museums, and Soweto township.
  • 27/082-959-5686 or
  • South African Airlines
  • Offers direct flights to Johannesburg from New York, Washington, D.C., and Atlanta.
  • 1-800-722-9675;

Although there's not much to take home from Rwanda, Johannesburg is a good place to shop for artisan-made clothing, art, and jewelry, which incorporates European and African design. Fred Eboka's boutique sells high-fashion clothing, while First World specializes in jewelry, including a bracelet with charms representing tiny gold bottle caps, a favorite local craft.

First World Jewellery of Africa
The Firs Shopping Centre
Craddock and Biermann Aves., Rosebank
Tel: 27 11 728 8443

Eboka Design Studio
The Firs Shopping Centre
Craddock and Biermann Aves., Rosebank
Tel: 27 11 447 7006

The achingly lovely retreat known as the Westcliff Hotel provides the perfect complement to Jo'burg's grittiness. Built into a steep, terraced hillside, the property feels like a pretend village best suited for a queen. Inside its walled world, narrow cobblestoned streets wind through gardens connecting clusters of terra-cotta houses. At night, sit on your private terrace, look down on the glowing pool and city lights far beneath, and listen to the faint roar of lions from the zoo at the botanical gardens. To feel like royalty, book the Presidential Penthouse Suite, which has a dining room that can seat 10. And while Johannesburg has lots of great restaurants, I didn't discover any quite as pleasing as those at the Westcliff. My only regret is that I spent too much time sightseeing and not enough time in my room and terrace, and in that pool.

More About The Westcliff

Kigali Genocide Memorial Centre

Primate Safaris


One of the best restaurants in the Rwandan capital—not to mention the top place for drinks at sundown—attracts a chic clientele with great music, friendly service, and dishes like the superbly salty, deep-fried sambaza (a sardine-like freshwater fish) from Lake Kivu.

Lake Kivu Serena Hotel

InterContinental Kigali

Four Seasons Hotel The Westcliff, Johannesburg

Previously The Westcliff

Palatial guest rooms in 9 villas on a hillside ridge overlooking the city.