Rwanda recently became one of the few countries in the world that has opened its doors to the abandoned American traveler.
As of Aug. 1, Rwanda is accepting visitors on commercial flights – as long as they have a certificate showing they tested negative for COVID-19 in a SARS-CoV 2 Real Time Polymerase Chain Reaction (RT-PCR) test that has been administered within the previous five days.
In addition to that, Rwanda recently received the global safety and hygiene stamp from the World Travel & Tourism Council (WTTC), certifying that it has successfully adopted the global standardized health and hygiene protocols of the WTTC for dealing with COVID19. The protocols have been formulated based on the experience of WTTC members as well as on guidelines established by the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
So the door is open in Rwanda and, according to the WTTC, it is possible to explore safely. Those are two reasons to consider going to Rwanda right now.
The main reason most people travel to Rwanda is to track the rare mountain gorillas. There are only about a thousand of them left in the world; and they are all in one place, the Virunga Massif.
“Massif” is a geological term for a part of the earth’s crust that has many faults and is subject to tectonic movements. The Virunga Massif is a 3,000-square mile area surrounding a chain of eight volcanoes.
Even without considering the gorillas, the Virunga Massif is one of the most enchanting places you could ever hope to see, with towering mountains that poke through low-hanging clouds, and crystal-clear lakes at their feet.
The fertile volcanic soil produces a rich growth of blindingly colorful vegetation throughout the region.
The Virunga Massif is divided by the national boundaries of Rwanda, Uganda, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Rwanda and Uganda have both developed excellent operations for visiting the gorillas. The Congo is under a U.S. Travel Advisory and is a less attractive option for tourism at the present time.
Encountering the mountain gorillas, those great beings who are among our closest biological relatives, and who are hovering on the razor’s edge of extinction, is an experience that will have a powerful impact on every person who has the experience.
The mountain gorillas share 98% of our DNA, which makes them one of our closest biological relatives, along with chimps and bonobos, which share 99%, and orangutans, which share 97%.
Gorilla trekking seems even more compelling in the time of COVID-19, after nature has given humanity a slug of tough love that has humbled us and caused many people to reassess their relationship with nature.
Also making a gorilla trek more compelling is the fact that the shutdown of global travel during the COVID pandemic has dealt a blow to conservation in Africa, which is funded to a large extent by tourism. Participating in tourism helps fund the protection of the gorillas from poachers.
Rwanda’s Moral Lesson
I went gorilla trekking in Rwanda under the guidance of Karin Jones, of the Africa specialist tour operator Anastasia’s Africa. Not surprisingly, it was one of the most extraordinary trips of my life.
I could rave on and on about the experience, but there’s another experience in Rwanda that I would like to draw attention to. It’s one I rarely hear mentioned that had a tremendous impact on me. I wish every person could experience it. It has a special significance today at a time of so much social turmoil around the world.
I’m talking about the Genocide Memorial Museum in Rwanda’s capital city of Kigali. It rivaled the gorilla encounter as one of the most high-impact travel experiences I’ve ever had.
Before I heard of gorilla trekking, my knowledge of Rwanda was limited to what I had heard of a horrendous massacre that took place there in 1994, in which more than a million Rwandans were barbarously slaughtered.
The phrase “a million violent deaths” is hard to imagine or even make sense of. The Genocide Memorial Museum makes it all too clear.
The museum’s exhibit walks you through the whole sequence of events. I can’t say it was pleasant. But it taught some grave lessons that would be good for everyone in the turbulent 21st Century.
It began with a native population that had been ruled by a colonial government that fomented racial divisions between the two main tribal groups, the Tutsi and the Hutu, as part of how they maintained control of the population.
Historically, the Hutu were farmers, the Tutsi were herders. The Tutsi were generally taller. Hutu were said to have broader noses. But over time the two groups had blended, intermarried, often traded roles. There was no clear way to identify an individual on the street as belonging to one group or another. The categories remained as socioeconomic groups and the government mandated that everyone carry national identity cards to tell what group they belonged to.
As Bill Nye, The Science Guy, has said. There are no racial boundary lines in nature. Race is a human construct.
The racial hierarchy created resentment from the Hutu majority, which built over time, and was seized upon for political leverage by the demagogues that jockeyed for power after Rwanda gained independence in 1962.
Hutu leaders relentlessly pushed hate propaganda against the Tutsi people on a propaganda radio station, calling them “cockroaches.”
The right wing government created a youth militia and channeled the frustrations of unemployed youth into training and preparation for killing Tutsi.
On April 6, 1994, the president’s plane was shot down and he and the president of Burundi were killed. That set off the bomb of the militia groups. The government cracked down savagely, set up road blocks to identify Tutsi and kill them.
Driven mostly by the youth militia, some of the Hutu went on a rampage with machetes, spears, nail-studded clubs, grenades and rifles that raged on until a million Rwandans were killed, mostly Tutsi, as well as Hutu who may have been in the wrong place or too friendly with the enemy.
One million dead. A society ripped apart at the heart.
The brutality unleashed, as portrayed so vividly in the museum, was shocking. I was practically numb after passing through the exhibit. When I reached the end, I moved discreetly into a quiet, darkened corner and let out an explosion of tears.
My small group of travel companions and I left the museum and walked silently to our van. It was the last event on our itinerary. As we drove toward the airport, barely a word was spoken for an hour.
The museum made very vivid to me an atrocity that I had heard of but had no understanding of. It was a cautionary experience for me. It helped me to have a lot more respect for how violence can get out of control.
These days when we are seeing so much division within our own country, I wish more Americans had had the experience of the Genocide Memorial Museum that I had.
It’s a reason for traveling to Rwanda that I don’t hear mentioned much. But I recommend it to everyone. I find it hard to imagine anyone seeing it and not being profoundly affected.
That alone would be reason enough to go.
*This article was edited and updated on September 4th, 2020.
David Cogswell is a freelance writer working remotely, from wherever he is at the moment. Born at the dead center of the United States during the last century, he has been incessantly moving and exploring for decades. His articles have appeared in the Chicago Tribune, the Los Angeles Times, Fortune, Fox News, Luxury Travel magazine, Travel Weekly, Travel Market Report, Travel Agent Magazine, TravelPulse.com, Quirkycruise.com and other publications. He is the author of four books and a contributor to several others. He was last seen somewhere in the Northeast U.S.