Welcome back to Rwanda

Sunday Times
Published: 8th November 2009

On my first day in Kigali, I had lunch on the veranda of the Banana hotel, eating perfect grilled fresh fish from Lake Kivu.

The horrors of the 1994 genocide weave into every part of life here in Rwanda, and before long, the glamorous owner, Françoise, confided that, on her return to Kigali from Brussels after the massacres, it was "like a horror movie", silent and completely empty except for the crows and the shamefaced dogs that had gorged on the bodies.

She had accompanied a friend returning to his house, and as he opened each room, a different huge dog snarled at them. Everyone in the house had been killed, everyone eaten. "It was like a dog hotel," she said, sipping a Pernod.

Another friend had asked Françoise to go and check out what remained of her home. "All I found was one little wooden comb - that's all, nothing else. But when I gave it to my friend, she wept with joy and clasped it to her." Rwandans are fond of saying "That was then, and this is now", but then is very much a part of now.

The genocide destroyed the country's institutions and infrastructure, but now there's building everywhere: new restaurants, new hotels, all just beginning. All tourists are encouraged to go to the genocide museum, and it is inspiring rather than depressing. It reminds us that humanity is capable of surviving anything.

Emotionally, it's a big-dipper journey. Yet by the end of eight days in this beautiful little country of verdant hills, volcanoes, rivers and lakes, right in the middle of central Africa, I felt more energised and relaxed than if I'd lolled on a Maldives beach. I spent a day visiting an impoverished nursery school, a farmer who'd had 14 children and the Nyamata church where the clothes of the 10,080 people massacred there are piled up on pews.

I met a man and woman who lived next door to each other, peacefully enough, it seemed. One was a gaunt Hutu who had killed, the other a Tutsi, in a Tintin T-shirt, whose family had been wiped out.

Like so many of those involved in the genocide, he'd been let out of jail after nine years on condition that he went back and asked forgiveness, face to face, from those whose family members he had killed.

On the six-hour road trip to Nyungwe forest, to see the chimpanzees, I saw emerald tea plantations, lush hills and valleys, and brightly dressed women sprouting babies on their backs. One woman in batik African dress balanced a single papaya on her head, another a rolled-up multi coloured umbrella, another a handbag, a fourth the giant blade of a saw.

Sprinklings of prisoners in pale pink worked in the fields, while storks stood by, censorious supervisors. A tiny child carried firewood that stuck out at least 4ft on either side.

Everything was clean and green, as if prepared for a Merchant Ivory film. After three hours of early-morning trekking, we found the chimpanzees at the top of 160ft ficus trees, but they immediately turned their backs, then swung off further into the rainforest.

From the forest of evasive chimps, we travelled up to Kibuye, on Lake Kivu, another epic bumpy car journey, this time along a dirt road. Children played on home-made stilts, another on a makeshift seesaw, as we drove through the softly wooded hills, catching glimpses of the immense grey stillness of Lake Kivu.

We spent a night by the water at Kibuye, then took a boat to the faded colonial town of Gisenyi, before late in the day reaching the cool mountains where the few remaining mountain gorillas live. I stayed in the Sabyinyo Silverback Lodge, with roaring fires, and next day visited the gorillas. They're the reason many tourists come to Rwanda - and no wonder.

While the chimps were shy, the gorillas were almost forward. We watched a mother and baby in their garden of Eden among the bamboo shoots, tumbling from branches, rolling head over heels, all from just a few feet away. A mischievous one-year-old baby beat his little chest, but no sound came out.

The next day, I woke in the morning, ready to trek about three hours through the rainforest to see Dian Fossey's grave, and I experienced the pang I used to feel when I was away from my family when my children were small.

Then I realised to my surprise that it was the gorilla family I was missing. Over lunch at the Sabyinyo lodge, I met a woman who'd been back five times, at £300 per visit, in the past yearI returned to Gisenyi, ate in a romantic tent for two at the new Shokola restaurant, where flaming torches and broilers illuminate a huge courtyard, lunched at the Hôtel des Mille Collines (of Hotel Rwanda fame) and visited the thatched Republika restaurant, with its Afrolitan styling.

When I first arrived, I'd been irritated by the slow service - people seemed to forget what you were asking even as you asked it - but now I didn't mind. I minded having to return home. 

Need to Know

Sally Emerson was a guest of Rainbow Tours (020 7226 1004 rainbowtours.co.uk), which has a six-night tour of Rwanda from £3,295pp, visiting Nyungwe forest, Lake Kivu and Kigali, with a night at the Sabyinyo Silverback Lodge. The price includes flights on Brussels Air from Heathrow (or any one of seven UK regional airports) to Kigali via Brussels, private travel in a 4WD with a driver/guide, and by boat on Lake Kivu from Kibuye to Gisenyi, and a gorilla-trekking permit.

Other operators include Audley (01993 838000, audleytravel.com), Somak Holidays (020 8423 3000, somak.com) and Tribes Travel (01728 685971, www.tribes.co.uk ). For more information about the country, visit rwandatourism.com.

Before you go, read the journalist Philip Gourevitch's book We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed with Our Families - Stories from Rwanda (Picador £8.99). Skip Gil Courtemanche's salacious fictionalised version of the genocide, A Sunday at the Pool in Kigali (Canongate £7.99), unless you want very bad dreams.