We were all packed and ready for our next adventure to explore our beloved neighbouring country, Rwanda. Our spirit for adventure led us on a 3-day camping trip to the undervalued treasure – the Akagera National Park. We are a family of four with two toddlers and were living in Burundi at the time. We were enthusiastic about exploring Rwanda. A short one hour drive through rebel infested territory led us into the historically rich Rwanda, popularly known as the country of a 1000 hills but even more so for the genocide that occurred there in 1994. We were constantly reminded of this horrid event as we drove past endless genocide memorials. This is not the same Rwanda as we know it today.
Upon entry of the Park, we were summoned to fill out a questionnaire and have temperature tests, and to be completely honest, we should probably have seen the signs of what was to come. During our trip, our tent held up in a heavy morning storm, our youngest was defeated by the long drop, the boy’s made endless failed attempts at bonfires which sent smoke signals into space and our clothes were forever permeated with the acrid smell of smoke.
But, we savoured the tranquility, beauty and glorious views the Akagera National Park has to offer, even though we did not see as much wildlife as we had hoped. We did however learn that park maps are not only designed for finding exact points in the park but they are also wonderful for swatting tsetse flies. Eventually we had to admit defeat to the tsetse fly aerial attacks as they were unrelenting in their pursuit of a meal.
Upon exiting the park and regaining cellphone signal, we heard that the borders had been closed due to COVID! We hurried back trying to return to Burundi, but we were rejected at the Rwandan border. Feeling really desperate, we contacted everyone we knew, begged, cried and pleaded but to no avail. We were well and truly stuck and our 3-day camping trip turned into a forced exile in a foreign country.
The government took drastic measures to contain the virus, no travel was permitted between countries, provinces and districts, all shops and restaurants were closed down. The military presence was very unnerving and even the most rural towns were scary places to be in. Luckily we made friends with a South African family – the General Manager at the CIMERWA compound/factory close to the Burundian border. They opened their house and hearts to our family until it truly dawned on us that we will not be going anywhere, anytime soon.
We celebrated my birthday, as well as Mother’s Day there, turned every meal into an event and attempted to play tennis among various other activities. We received cricket bats as gifts, enjoyed movie and music nights, chased chickens around, climbed banana trees and danced in the tropical rain. We spent mornings taking turns in running (which was still allowed in Rwanda) while the other one had to toddler-sit. We turned shopping days into shopping-dates (because the nearest real shop was a 45 minute drive and everyone would be napping peacefully in the car).
After 4 weeks of being sitting ducks and living out of suitcases, packed for only 7 days, we decided to leave the nest (under the radar of the authorities) and found a beautiful little Airbnb on the shore of the peaceful waters of Lake Kivu. This golden cage soon became our semi-permanent home during the 4 months of our exile. We regained a bit of privacy and found some inner peace. We alternated hours of canoeing and running, for many hours in an inflatable Jacuzzi, also learning how to drive a house boat, catch fireflies and mastered the art of bread baking.
We eventually started to hunger for a taste of civilization, but could only leave our new province, Kibuye, with written permission from the district commander, which we finally obtained. We headed for the mother city, Kigali, in order to survive. By survival I mean food and diapers! We traded the comforts of our lake house for a few days of real Italian pizza, swimming in chlorinated water, cappuccinos and a haircut. We have learnt that curious circumstances bring people together and we were generously hosted by an old friend, owner of Pili-Pili in Kigali, who kindly let us stay for free.
Nevertheless, we also spent some wonderful days in between our endeavours at the Rhino Lodge on the edge of Akagera Park, in anticipation of the park’s much speculated re-opening. The friendly staff here will always be valued for their great babysitting skills and the lodge is famous for its Monet-like sunrises. We continued home-schooling our 5 year old during this time. At home he attends Ecole Francaise de Bujumbura (a French school in Burundi). We also had to find ways of keeping our 2 year old entertained.
Since going home was not an option, we decided to make the most of our time in Rwanda. When the time came, we burst through the park gates as soon as it reopened and dashed for our favourite camping spot. Little did we know what was coming? That night we were awakened at 2am by a screaming wet toddler that needed a diaper change and more tea. While listening to the beautiful sound of raindrops trickling down our tent – at least that is what we thought it was, mom made her great escape to the car in search of the list mentioned above. All of a sudden she figured something was very wrong. There was no wet grass or cloud cover above and no raindrops soaking her pyjamas. Instead our tent, like in a horror movie, was completely covered with a blanket of angry black ants! By now her feet were covered in ants as well. She jumped into the car, now dealing with mosquitos too, while the boys dealt with the man eaters that had crawled into the tent. She was trying to build up the courage to make a run for it again. Needless to say, none of us slept a wink that night.
Thus, after a few previous unsuccessful trips to Kigali, failed attempts at returning to Burundi, multiple phone calls, various meetings with VIPs, we were met with big no’s, we kept returning to our piece of paradise on Lake Kivu. We packed up 16 times, crossed and covered all of Rwanda’s 1000 hills and clocked 3600km in our efforts to find resolution to our dilemma.
Did I mention that this is one of the smallest countries in Africa? Until one lucky day 4 months later we finally received our “get out of jail” card. We will always remember Rwanda by the chants of fishermen, the smell of rotten guava’s, incredible thunderstorms and beautiful scenery. We also remember the cheerful children and thankful shop owners, dreaded stomach bugs and never again to be consumed, boxed wine. We have dwelled in the stillness of doing nothing, observed how a season changed, learned to ask for help and accepted generous offers from other kind folk when we were in a bind.
After spending 101 days in Rwanda, yes, there are a few days we want to forget, but mostly it was a positive experience we will never forget. So much of who we are, is where we have been. Our time in Rwanda did not pass without tears and frustration, but it was most definitely an adventure we look back on positively. We are left with a growing fascination with this unique country, its animals and its people. It enriched us, broadened our horizons and provided us with wonderful memories. Sometimes it was not about what you wanted, but what you needed. Thank you Rwanda, we’ll be back to visit in the future.