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Rwanda: A celebration of life

Rwanda's tourism industry is blossoming as the country continues to heal from conflict.

Ubumwe, the silverback from the Amahoro group of gorillas in the Volcanoes National Park, peers out from behind a fern. Picture: Thomas Holder/EWN.

Rwanda, like many places in Central Africa, has a reputation for conflict, drought, famine and many would go so far as to say a precarious future. While this may be true for some of its neighbours, I was pleasantly surprised on a recent visit to see that this may not be the case for Rwanda.

The hustle and bustle of Kigali is much like that of Johannesburg. Traffic fills busy streets as wary pedestrians try to navigate their way between cars, mutatu (taxis) and boda-boda (motorbike taxis). There are spaza-like shops nestled between supermarkets and curio stores scattered among buildings.

There are no dogs, which I found a little odd. Instead, their resident animals are birds of prey, which circle above our heads on thermals in 30-degree weather (it's their dry season).

While being driven to our destination, I couldn't help but lean out of the open window, and watch as we sped past people walking along the roadside. Most people walk or use bicycles to get around. They aren't the latest bike models either, instead they're relics from a bygone era, somewhat Victorian looking.

WATCH: Game driving through Akagera's National Park

Locals call Rwanda 'the land of a thousand hills'. As the cool wind began to dry my eyes, one hill rolled into the next. In the fields parallel to the road, red, blue and white colored figures ploughed the land by hand. Their clothing stood out as we zoomed down the windy road. The figures till the soil, creating furrows for water day in and day out.

Subsistence farming is huge in Kigali, but some of the land is used to grow cash crops like coffee and pyrethrum (a flower used to make a natural pesticide) which will be exported to foreign markets. The farmers, mostly women, churn the dry, reddish-brown soil. Despite it being dry season, it is remarkably lush, and crops and trees are green. There are small aqueducts that run between the furrows, still damp from fresh irrigation. I am no farmer, but from my seat on the bus, it seemed to be a well-managed system.

As we climbed the top of the hill, we were met by blue skies and patchwork quilt fields. Just tree tops and clouds - like something out of a ballad. The sun stretched out in shades of orange across the sky with a hot glowing ember as its centre.

Along the main road, there are little villages dotted every so often, the housing mapped with the transit route. This is an artery, and it carries activity, transport and currency along its passage. Brightly painted houses sponsored by brand names stand out from the rest; occupants staring back at the faces looking out at them. Occasionally they smiled and waved, excited to see someone new passing through their little town.

During the trip we were fortunate to stay in a variety of hotels, from the four-star Lemigo with its Kigali views, enormous rooms and showers, to some slightly lower rated like the Palme Hotel in Musanze Village.

Each day I ate my fill of local cuisine: beef or chicken stews, matoke or plantain (a kind of banana), tilapia (a river-based fish), salads, fruit salads, eggs and sausage, washing it down with a soda. These all come in returnable glass bottles (the water is undrinkable unless you sterilise it). The only plastic items permitted in the country are the water bottles. That's right, there are no plastic bags or containers in the whole country, and the streets are spotless.

Maurice, our trip manager from the Rwanda Development Board, explained that should you see someone littering, they are probably not Rwandan, or "have something wrong with them". Needless to say, I never saw anyone littering. It was a wonderfully awkward situation when my South African colleague was wandering around trying to figure out what to do with her cigarette butt.

The next day, we were up at the crack of dawn, and began a long and bumpy ride to the base of an old volcano. There are three of its kind in Kisigi Village. This is where we would find the gorillas from the Amahoro group, which means peace in Kinyarwanda. All the gorillas have names symbolic of Rwanda's transition from its genocidal past. We began our three-hour hike up the now-dormant volcano and into its crater. The forest is populated with buffalo and elephant, and so our ranger Anthony is armed with an antiquated but effective AK-47. Notorious for never dying, these firearms can be found in most parts of the world and are loved especially by third-world armies for their combat effectiveness in the toughest conditions, often covered with sand or submerged in water.

GALLERY: Travels through Rwanda

As each day breaks, local rangers track the group from where they left them only a few hours ago, returning to where the gorillas nested for the night. They stay nearby the group all day, ensuring their safety from any hunters or poachers that may still be actively targeting this now sacred species. The job requires dedication and some of these rangers have been doing it for more than 20 years.

"Do you love it?" I asked Francis, our lead ranger. "Of course!" he replied. "Why do you think I am still here?"

These rangers have dedicated much of their lives to protecting these largest of the world's primates. Under threat from poachers, it took years of negotiation, education and compromise from the country's former hunters and new authorities to get where they are now. Currently, revenues from tourism far outweigh that of the former trades, and benefits are reaped by all as dividends are shared among communities in projects that develop local infrastructure. In short, it is no longer lucrative to poach.

Interestingly enough, there are no bad feelings towards poachers from these rangers. Rangers are in favour of educating those they capture, who they appreciate are often just hunting for survival. Integrating these hunters into society through education and training gives them a way out. For those who refuse the process, there is an option to do prison time instead, but those that we spoke to said that they were happy in their new ways.

KWITA IZINA - THE GORILLAS ARE BORN

During our stay we attended the Kwita Izina, Rwanda's annual gorilla-naming ceremony. As new gorillas are born in their respective groups, they are named just like newborn humans. Chosen international and local VIPs, from international business people, local celebrities, NGO workers and donors pick a name, often symbolic, for each baby.

Names include Ishimwe and Umuhuza which mean 'happiness' and 'someone who unites others' respectively. These names often reflect the country's transition from a violent history into a brighter future.

WATCH: Meet Rwanda's new gorillas face-to-face

No trip to Kigali is complete without a visit to the Genocide Memorial. This is an excursion of reflection, both of the event itself, and personally. Looking at the images on the wall, particularly the original photographs of those lost, hanging side by side, is not a feeling I can adequately describe. You can sit and listen to the testimonies of survivors, and read up on the history of the genocide in the making, the genocide itself, and that which followed. Some of the skulls on display have visible markings, a chip, dent or a missing piece of bone, where the victim was hacked with a machete or beaten to death with a club. Outside, more than 250,000 bodies are buried on the grounds in mass graves, recovered from further afield, and given a final resting place.

Last but not least, I was lucky enough to hop on a boda-boda, which is by far the most efficient mode of transport and much cheaper than a cab, and a lot more exciting. The drivers are skilled and are often seen carrying more than one passenger on the back of their 150cc 'crotch-rockets' and often an assortment of luggage, and in some cases livestock. We probably paid about 1,000 Francs for five kilometres, which took about 10 minutes in light traffic. It is arguably the best way to see the city and be as close as possible

to the sights and sounds while you move.

For me, Rwanda was sublime. Each person I met was friendly and hospitable, eager to make my stay somehow better. The countryside is spectacularly beautiful - from hills to savannas to lakes and mountains. Fill your stomach with various dishes of meat, fish, vegetables and nuts and sip on some of your favourite beer as you watch a sunset that is nothing short of heavenly.

Ultimately, if you haven't yet been to Rwanda, perhaps now's the time.

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