Tag Archives: Kwita Izina

Rwanda: Planet of the Apes

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ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY take part in Rwanda’s annual naming ceremony of young mountain gorillas and explore the wildlife reserves of this dime-sized country 

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Think Africa and herds of big game roaming the plains and grasslands of a vast continent come to mind. Wedged between mighty Kenya, Tanzania and DRC (Democratic Republic of Congo), one wonders what a dime-sized country like Rwanda can offer. Yet, it stands tall in wildlife circles as one of the few places in the world where you can see mountain gorillas in their natural habitat. Thanks to an invite to attend the gorilla-naming ceremony Kwita Izina, we found ourselves on a direct Rwand Air flight from Mumbai to Kigali.

It was an early morning touchdown, yet Jullesse, the cheery representative from Rwanda Development Board was there to greet us and whisk us away to our hotel. En route we got a crash course on the cultural significance of Rwanda’s biggest wildlife and conservation event. Virunga Massif, a dramatic volcano-ridden landscape of 160 sq km at the tri-junction of DRC, Uganda and Rwanda is the last refuge of the mountain gorilla.

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Strife, poaching and encroachment in the region had led to a rapid decline in their population to an all-time low of 242 in 1981. Conservation efforts spearheaded by American primatologist Dian Fossey (‘Gorillas in the Mist’ fame) and tirelessly monitoring of gorilla families up the steep slopes all year round led to a slow revival.

For centuries, newborn children in Rwanda have been named in a ceremony called Kwita Izina. Taking the idea forward, Rwanda Development Board adopted a unique conservation initiative to celebrate the birth of baby mountain gorillas born in the wild. Since 2005, the annual naming ceremony has involved local communities and a galaxy of statesmen and conservationists from around the world chosen as celebrity namers. With few days to go for the official ceremony, we had the perfect opportunity to explore the capital city.

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Our base was the swish Kigali Marriott Hotel, one of the first international hotel chains to open in Rwanda. Located in the diplomatic enclave of Kiyovu in the posh CBD (Central Business District), it overlooked the high-security presidential quarters. We walked past the Gorilla Statue near the Town Hall to Kandt House Museum, the first brick building in town. It was the home of German explorer and administrator Richard Kandt, Kigali’s founder and the country’s first Resident.

His statue stood in the front of the building, which earlier housed the Museum of Natural History. A small collection of snakes like the Black Mamba and Gabon viper in a small enclosure at the back, a baby crocodile in a pond and a gorilla in a glass case are the only remnants of the former museum, which currently showcases Rwanda’s cultural, geographic and colonial past.

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Back at the hotel at Iriba Bar & Terrace, we grabbed some local ‘Question Coffee’ sourced from a women’s co-operative and fried sambaza (local fish) and brochettes or skewered meat cubes with roasted ibirayi (Irish potatoes). After a relaxing Dead Sea mud therapy at the spa and evening happy hours at the Executive Lounge, we dined at Soko restaurant, with traditional woven agasake baskets lining the walls. The hotel had a Go Kigali outlet where we booked a local city tour the next day.

Led by our friendly guide Colombe, we headed to Mount Kigali for a panoramic view over town. The pine forests were serene except for a troupe of furtive blue-balled Vervet monkeys. We trawled local milk bars, mural walks, Gaddafi Mosque and the Muslim quarter of Nyamirambo, Kigali’s hip neighbourhood. At Kimironko market we marveled at the varieties of multi-hued beans and tasted Rwandan produce like tree tomato and passion fruit. Our tour ended at a local eatery Tamu Tamu where we tried the Rwandan staple ugali (cassava porridge), stewed cassava leaves, fried fish and goat curry.IMG_2518

The next morning we left early for Volcanoes National Park for our first brush with gorillas. Women dressed in colourful kitenge carried headloads of sweet potato, banana and cassava to reach local markets by dawn while men pedaled furiously balancing bundles of sugarcane or stacks of carrots and charcoal.

The mist covered volcanoes towered above the hilly landscape. Five of the eight volcanoes – Muhabura, Gahinga, Sabyinyo, Bisoke and Karisimbi – were in Rwanda. Had we known that fifteen minutes later we would be assigned to Karisimbi, the tallest of them at 4500m, we wouldn’t have been smiling!

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Soon, we disembarked at the busy park headquarters at Kinigi near Musanze. Only twelve gorilla trekking routes were open to tourists and each trekking group had eight members. We got the tough Isimbi trail led by the petite young guide Jolie. Briefing us on gorilla behaviour and language, she explained the various grunts, calls and gestures, warning us to approach them submissively.

“Crouch low and repeat ‘Mae-mmhh’, which means ‘we come in peace.’ We practiced obediently like kindergarten children. Gaiters (leg guards), rain jackets and gloves were offered on hire, but we smugly looked at our Decathlon-acquired shoes and rain jackets and politely declined.

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Driving an hour past bustling markets, small villages and waving kids we reached the edge of a forest where porters in blue uniforms awaited us with walking sticks carved with gorilla figures. The wise among us took porters for their backpacks and camera equipment. Little did we know what awaited us on the Umusumba Trekking Trail.

The hike got progressively tougher as we started to climb – a slippery path of bamboo leaves, a tangle of vines to ensnare you, bamboo stumps waiting to trip you, squelchy pathways, dense undergrowth and steep inclines lined with stinging nettle. Ah, that’s why the gloves, we winced and cursed! After plodding for nearly two hours, we reached our trackers and made a final insane climb.

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Lolling on a bed of nettles in a clearing was the Isimbi family. Watching over the ten juveniles and eight females was mighty Muturengere, a 200 kg 1.9m tall Silverback – adult males get a distinct silvery band on the back on maturity. The furry little gorillas played around with wild fruits, before ambling towards us in curiosity.

We bleated our pacifist calls repeatedly until Muturengere grunted his approval. An hour elapsed in the blink of an eye. All of a sudden, Muturengere got up, walked past us meters away, raised his head and disappeared into the bush. The mist rolled in and we descended the lower slopes of Karisimbi where we spotted a Golden Monkey.

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Rwanda is a small hilly country and it is easy to move around. We drove south on our primate tour to Nyungwe National Park to track Colobus monkeys. They get their names not after the explorer but from the Greek word kolobos, meaning handicapped as they do not have a thumb. Thanks to its long cloak of black hair with white shoulder streaks, it is also called Judge Monkey!

On the hike to the Kamiranzovu waterfall we spotted a dark coated L’Hoest Monkey or mountain monkey furtively scurry on all fours through the dense undergrowth. From Uwinka Overlook we took the Igishigishigi Trail, named after the giant tree fern, to the Canopy Walkway, the first in East Africa. Built in three sections with the longest one stretching 90m and 57m above the forest floor, it’s narrow and shaky but gives unmatched views.

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We didn’t have time for the longer Chimpanzee hike and returned to Kinigi in time for Kwita Izina 2018, where 23 gorillas born in the past year were being named. The massive gathering at the base of Volcanoes National Park wore a festive air with locals and volunteers waving Rwandan flags, dancing and cheering on.

Against a stunning backdrop of the volcanoes was a giant gorilla frame made of bamboo with an infant riding on its back. Headlining the event was South African pop duo Mafikizolo, who were also part of the celebrity namers that included sportsmen, ambassadors, businessmen and environmentalists.

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Life came full circle as the unnamed newborns from the Isimbi family we spotted earlier got beautiful names in the Kinyarwanda dialect – Umuseke (dawn) and Izahabu (gold), named by female Arsenal star Alexandra Virina Scott. Fellow Arsenal legend and Cameroonian footballer Laureno Bisan Etamé-Mayer named his li’l gorilla from the Kwitonda family Ikipe (team).

Pop icon Akon couldn’t make it but his business partner and Malian philanthropist Samba Bathily named his newborn gorilla from the Igisha family Ineza (mercy), which he believed was needed for Africa and the world. Senegalese NBA star Amadou Gallo Fall had launched junior NBA in Kigali and his focus was on using the power of sport and values of the game. He named his baby gorilla from Musilikare family Kwiyongera (to increase).

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Each namer had a personal angle. Dr Noeline Raondry Rakotoarisa, program chief at UNESCO, had been visiting Rwanda for the last 11 years and confessed each time she saw a new Rwanda because it was moving so fast! The geographic area of 686 biosphere reserves in 122 countries was home to over 256 million people, so her name for the Igisha family newborn was Imbaga (crowd). UN Special Envoy, President and CEO of the Asia Society and ex-Vice Chairman of the World Economic Forum Josette Sheeran named her baby gorilla from the Pablo family Umuryango (family).

English celebrity chef, food writer and eco campaigner Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, also VP of Flora & Fauna International UK had met the newborn of the Hirwa family just a week earlier and decided to name it Amatungo (plentiful livestock), the bedrock of Rwandan culture.

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Peter Riedel, President and COO of electronics group Rhode Schwarz International, on his first trip to Africa, named his newborn Umusaruro (harvest). The final namer Madame Graca Machel, former First Lady of South Africa and Mozambique, named her Kwitonda newborn Urugori (crown).

The ceremony gave way to a moving environment-themed performance by a dance troupe. As world leaders applauded and the world cheered on, it was amazing to see how a tiny country was leading the way as a beacon for conservation. The genius of Rwanda was that it had created an international event out of a domestic population census! We headed to Serena Hotels at Lake Kivu for a lavish lakeside gala dinner with a private performance by Mafikizolo humming songs of Africa.

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FACT FILE

Getting there
The national carrier Rwand Air flies direct from Mumbai to Kigali in 7 hrs four times a week (Mon, Wed, Fri, Sat). www.rwandair.com

Where to Stay
Kigali Marriott Hotel www.marriott.com
Serena Hotel Kigali & Lake Kivu www.serenahotels.com
One & Only Nyungwe House www.oneandonlyresorts.com
Gorillas Volcanoes Hotel, Ruhengeri

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Entry
Only 96 permits are issued per day with each permit costing $1500. Visa on arrival costs $30. An East African combined visa covering Rwanda, Uganda and Tanzania costs $100.

Must Do
Wildlife Tours Rwanda www.wildlifetours-rwanda.com
Gorilla trekking at Volcanoes National Park www.volcanoesnationalparkrwanda.com
Track Colobus, Golden and mountain monkeys at Nyungwe National Park
Spot the Big 5 at Akagera National Park
Kigali city tour with Go Kigali Tours, $60/person 9:30am-1pm, 2-6pm
Try the local ‘Question’ Coffee and Rwandan tea; eat local at Tamu Tamu
Shop for souvenirs like agasake (peace baskets)

For more info, www.visitrwanda.com

Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared on 13 January, 2019 in Deccan Herald newspaper.

 

Kigali: In the Land of a Thousand Hills

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With direct flights by RwandAir from Mumbai to Kigali, Rwanda’s vibrant capital has never seemed so attractive; ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY take a Go Kigali city tour to experience its local sights, markets and cuisine 

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We flew out on Rwand Air and discovered that it takes less time to get to the Rwandan capital Kigali from Mumbai than driving to Ratnagiri. With a direct connection four times a week, more travellers are discovering the wonders of this tiny yet remarkable country in East Africa.

Rwanda is one of the world’s last refuges of the mountain gorilla and the invitation to Kwita Izina 2018, a naming ceremony for baby gorillas born the previous year, was irresistible. We made the most of our time in Kigali before the official program. Jullesse, the Rwandan Development Board representative greeted us warmly at the airport and highlighted the city’s landmarks en route to our hotel.

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“That building decked up in colourful lights is the Kigali Convention Centre, often lit up in the colours of the visiting head of state.” When Indian PM Modi visited Rwanda in July this year, it wore the hues of the Indian tricolour. Modi also donated 200 cows to villagers at Rweru under President Paul Kagame’s Girinka program (literally ‘May you have a cow’ in the local Kinyarwanda dialect) where every poor family receives one cow for sustenance. In a country where cows are held in high regard, this gesture won lots of Rwandan hearts.

We soon reached the swanky Kigali Marriott Hotel, which opened two years ago, one of the first international chains with a presence in Rwanda. Inside the massive executive suite, a personalized note, macaroons and a dry fruit platter awaited us. The view from the balcony was stupendous.

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A ‘no photography’ sign on the glass door was bewildering. The steward quickly explained that the hotel faced the high-security presidential quarters! On the other side were a line of embassies, leaving us chuffed to be staying in the posh diplomatic enclave of Kiyovu in the CBD (Central Business District).

Sauntering downstairs to Soko restaurant (literally ‘market’), we admired the entire wall decorated with traditional woven agasake baskets. Besides a massive spread we were intrigued to find faratas and chickpeas in their dedicated African breakfast corner! Rwanda has many Indian settlers who influenced the local cuisine. We tried the local staple kaunga (steamed corn stew) and matoke (green banana and beef stew).

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It was surprising to learn that Kigali was founded only as recently as 1907 by German explorer and administrator Richard Kandt. His house, now a museum, was just a short walk away. Strolling past the local moto taxi stand (bike taxis like Goa) and the gorilla statue opposite Kigali City Hall, we reached what was the first European-style house in the city.

In the colonial ‘Scramble for Africa’ in late 19th century, Germany established a presence in Rwanda by forming an alliance with King Yuhi V Musinga in 1897. Kandt arrived in 1899 while exploring Lake Kivu in search of the source of the river Nile. In 1907 Germany separated the administration of Rwanda-Burundi and Kandt was appointed the country’s first resident. He moved the administrative headquarters from the King’s Palace in Nyanza to a more central location. Reaching this large hilly tract, he called it Kigali, literally ‘expansive’. The name rang true as we looked at the city stretching around a chain of hills!

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Kandt built the first brick house in town at Nyarugenge, which had great weather and afforded good views. It became a Museum of Natural History but all the exhibits had been moved out except the lone baby crocodile in a pool and a collection of snakes in a small enclosure at the back.

The building presently serves as the Kandt House Museum outlining Rwanda’s colonial history and culture. It was Kandt who first allowed the entry of Indian and Swahili traders into the country in 1908. During this period, Kigali had a population of 2000 with 420 foreigners, mostly Arabs and Indians, besides 9 Germans!

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During World War I, Belgium took control of Rwanda-Burundi in 1916 and it wasn’t until 1962 that Kigali became the capital upon Rwandan independence. In April 1994, President Habyarimana’s plane was shot down near Kigali Airport, triggering the Rwandan genocide, where nearly a million people, mostly Tutsi and moderate Hutus were brutally murdered in premeditated attacks by the interim government.

The Kigali Genocide Memorial is a moving reminder of Rwanda’s tragic past, where locals often come to be reunited with their loved ones. Rwanda celebrates the 25th anniversary of the genocide in 2019 and April 7 is observed by the United Nations as the Day of Remembrance of the victims.

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We stopped by at Kigali’s iconic hotel, Hôtel des Mille Collines, named after the Belgian appellation for Rwanda during colonial rule – ‘Pays des Mille Collines’ (Land of a Thousand Hills). It became famous after 1,268 people took refuge here during the 1994 Rwandan Genocide. The story of the hotel and its manager Paul Rusesabagina (played by Don Cheadle) was immortalized in the film Hotel Rwanda.

It was unbelievable that the country had emerged from the Dark Ages in the late-90s into what is its Golden Age of development. It is a gritty story of healing, forgiveness and coming to terms with their past to build a better future. Today, Rwanda is one of the cleanest countries in Africa and Kigali is so clean, you could literally eat off the wide pavement-lined avenues!

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The last Saturday of every month is dedicated to community service work called Umuganda when the whole society comes together to clean or rebuild. Rwanda is also the safest country in Africa for women and the ease of doing business has been streamlined by merging all nodal agencies into RDB (Rwanda Development Board). You can open a business within 24 hours of landing here!

Back at Kigali Marriott we grabbed some ‘Question Coffee’ from a women’s co-operative at the Iriba Bar & Terrace and fried sambaza (local fish) sourced from Lake Kivu and brochettes (skewered meat cubes with roasted ibirayi or Irish potatoes). Interestingly, German soldiers and Belgian missionaries brought the potato to Rwanda in early 20th century and ibirayi is derived from uburayi meaning ‘that which comes from Europe’! After a relaxing Dead Sea mud therapy at the spa we whiled away the evening happy hours at the posh Executive Lounge.

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The hotel has special Indian, Asian and African theme nights, besides wine tastings and live jazz but we savoured some gnocchi and baked captain fish at their Italian restaurant Cucina. Our friend from an earlier trip to Zambia, Davidson Mugisha of Wildlife Tours Rwanda dropped by to show us a bit of Kigali’s legendary nightlife, as we barhopped from Riders at Kigali Heights to Fuchsia Lounge.

Kigali Marriott has an outlet of Go Kigali, which organizes local city tours and we set off on a half-day excursion the next day. The small boutique also stocks lovely handmade products sourced from all over Africa. Led by our friendly guide Colombe, we headed to Mount Kigali for a panoramic view over town. The pine forests were serene except for a troupe of furtive blue-balled Vervet monkeys.

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Our next stop was the Gaddafi Mosque, home to the Islamic Centre and a place of refuge during the genocide. Libyan leader Col Muammar Gaddafi was a popular figure here and roads, mosques and bakeries were named after him. Southwest of CBD, the suburb of Nyamirambo was the second part of the city to be settled. Belgian colonists established it in the 1920s for civil servants and Muslim Swahili traders.

Though most of the country follows Christianity, Nyamirambo is the Muslim Quarter. Masjid al-Fatah, better known as the Green Mosque, is the oldest mosque in town, dating back to the 1930s. With its busy nightlife and hip hangouts, Nyamirambo is hailed as the coolest neighbourhood in Kigali.

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We trawled local milk bars, cafes, mural walks and markets like Kimironko where Colombe taught us how to eat tree tomato and passion fruit like locals as we marveled at the rows of baskets heaped with rainbow-hued beans. We ended our tour with a traditional meal at Tamu Tamu – ugali (cassava porridge), stewed cassava leaves, goat curry, fish and aubergine curry, beef pilao, avocado and beans.

That evening we dropped by at Ikaze, a boutique for traditional Rwandan handicrafts and discovered little treasures to take home. We bought some more agasake peace baskets; symbolic of this tiny nation driven by the philosophy of ubumuntu or ‘greatness of heart’, teaching the world about the values of forgiveness, humanity and compassion.

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FACT FILE 

Getting there
The national carrier Rwand Air flies direct from Mumbai to Kigali in 7 hrs four times a week (Mon, Wed, Fri, Sat). www.rwandair.com

Where to Stay
Kigali Marriott Hotel www.marriott.com
Kigali Serena Hotel www.serenahotels.com
Hôtel des Milles Collines www.millecollines.rw/
Ubumwe Grande Hotel www.ubumwegrandehotel.com/

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Must Do
City tour with Go Kigali Tours, $60/person 9:30am-1pm, 2-6pm
Pay your respect at Kigali Genocide Memorial
Try the local ‘Question’ Coffee and Rwandan tea, besides local beers like Mutzig, Primus and Virunga
Feast on Rwandan cuisine at Tamu Tamu restaurant
Shop for agasake and souvenirs at Ikaze & Kimironko Market
Clubbing at Riders, Fuchsia, Coco Bean, Envy, K Club, Bougainvilla
Gorilla trekking with Wildlife Tours Rwanda www.wildlifetours-rwanda.com

For more info, www.visitrwanda.com

Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This is the unabridged version of the article that appeared on 3 Nov, 2018 in HT City, Hindustan Times newspaper.