Let me start with a confession: The only things that I knew about Rwanda as I boarded a plane from Germany to Kigali last summer was genocide and gorillas.
On this one, I am not alone because most average Europeans know this country by only these two things despite abundance of information online.
Now, there is at least one family, that I know, that can paint the true picture of Rwanda and tell the real story about the country to their friends and relatives back home in Europe — that is my family.
My parents and a sister were in the country in December to celebrate Christmas and New Year with me in Kigali where I will spend a year as a volunteer with a non-government organisation. They took time to capture the real picture of the country of ‘one thousand hills’ beyond the gorillas and genocide.
Our adventure begun with the airport shuttle. Like typical tourists, we arrived with an assortment of medicines to treat any tropical disease that might attack us; as well as enough sun cream to protect our skins from the scorching tropical sun. All this required two huge suitcases per person – that could not even fit in a taxi.
Luckily, our driver has a lot of friends, and our luggage is finally carried to the hotel in three different cars without any suitcase getting lost, as our paranoia had led us to believe.
The friendly, relaxed and helpful attitude we are met with at the airport was to be experienced throughout our country-wide trip.
“Abazungu, abazungu,” the children especially in the villages shout and run after us.
At the beginning of my time in Rwanda, I was scared by the presence of military personnel on the streets and my parents did not want to let me walk alone. But I quickly got used to them and can now smile at them well aware that they are there to ensure my security.
Right from day one, my parents, sister and I were impressed with what we saw in the city of Kigali. The many construction sites are evidence of a fast-growing and developing country with up-coming modern high-rise buildings.
The streets are even better than in some parts of my native Germany. It is at this point that I realise that after all, we do not need our hiking boots as had been anticipated. It turns out that the clean and paved streets render our hiking boots as unnecessary excess luggage.
Going shopping in the colourful markets where you can virtually find everything from fabric is one of my favourite activities. The crowded market at Kimironko also amazes my family.
The first adventure upcountry marked the biggest learning experience as we traversed the countryside where majority of Rwandans live. The contrast between Kigali and the rural areas is big as one gets in contact with the natural beauty of the ‘country of one thousand hills’ as Rwanda is famously known.
For my entourage, what felt like 1,000 hours of driving was made easier by the quickly changing scenery. I then understood that the description “country of one thousand hills” is indeed a huge understatement.
As we go up, down and round the hills, we see more people on the village roads than one can probably see in a big town in Germany or even Europe: There are women walking while carrying fruit on their heads and babies on their backs; children running along the street to fetch water or playing with old wheels; men in the fields or – in the evenings – playing Igisoro.
Then there are teenagers who ride taxi-bicycle- taxis for a living and girls in school uniform chatting on their way home or to school.
These things are common to the local Rwandan but, to us, everything is new.
Our road out of the city is sandwiched by banana tea plantations. We see brown rivers where families are washing their clothes; the typical brick-red roads of Africa and homes patched on top of rolling hills.
While we had already discovered the developed side of Rwanda in Kigali, it is the countryside (with no street lights etc) that portrays the European clichés of Africa.
We experience both foreign and local Rwandan food for which I am a fan. I can gladly say that all the medicine we brought to deal with stomach problems has remained stashed deep in the bottom of my suitcase. And away at the top of my handbag is the camera that keeps me clicking away to capture natural beauty at the heart of Africa.
After several days of traversing the countryside and crisscrossing hills, I now have to select the best photos out of more than 2,000 taken.
Our first days of the tour, saw us getting to know the southern part of the country. We passed through Butare and had the opportunity to see the national museum before connecting to Nyungwe forest.
In Nyungwe, tours often start very early in the morning, so one must endure the cold. I walk up quickly in the middle of the rainforest because for every step I make, I have to take care not to fall or be held back in the middle of a thick forest. I feel like Jane in the Disney movie Tarzan and Jane.
When I reached the chimpanzees, I immediately forgot all the hardships we went through to find the apes. Under a big tree full of monkeys, we spend a lot of time watching them eating and relaxing.
We also relaxed at Lake Kivu in Gisenyi. That was a good choice because we had to wake up early the following morning to embark on Gorilla trekking at the Volcanoes National Park.
This adventure is expensive, but our guide ably explains that the money plays a big role in protecting these beautiful animals and conserving their natural habitat.
It is at the Volcano National Park that I experience what to most foreigners who visit Rwanda, is a dream and a lifetime experience. It is my first encounter with mountain gorillas! As the animals go about their daily life just a few metres away from me, I realise that the adventure is after all worth the money.
Eastern Rwanda, at Akagera National Park, reveals to us a new side of the country. The hills, the savannah and the typical tropical wild animals such as giraffes, elephants, crocodiles, water buffalos, hippos, gazelles, antelopes and zebras marks the climax of my tour of the country.
Finally, my family leaves this country of many contrasts with something that cannot be bought using money. That is the experience with the people, the culture and nature.
My family leaves Africa carrying a huge smile to Europe having learnt that in the heart of Africa is the ‘country of one thousand hills.’
I can hear them tell their friends back home that there is more to Rwanda than genocide and gorillas.