For the past nine years, Peninah Kamagaju has worked with Akagera National Park as a tour guide. This has exposed her to people from different walks of life, to different cultures but above all, she has gained in-depth knowledge of Rwanda’s tourism industry. This weekend, Rwanda hosted the 11th Edition of Kwita-Izina (gorilla naming ceremony).
The New Times’ Elizabeth Buhungiro talked to Kamagaju about her journey and about Rwanda’s tourism industry.
Tell us about yourself
I was born in Gahini, Kayonza Distrist in Eastern Province in 1982. As you can tell by my name, my family was very devoted to cattle-keeping. My name means “Milk Gaju.” Gaju is a cow with brown spots. I had six siblings but one of them died, along with my parents during the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi.
On the day of the massacre, we were hiding in Rukara Catholic Church and when the perpetrators came, they only killed old people, especially concentrating on the men. They spared some young women because they wanted to marry them and they didn’t do anything to the children. I was a child at the time. I am now married with two children.
How were you able to afford to pay school fees?
After the genocide, the government founded an organisation called FARG (Fund for Genocide Survivors). Through this organisation, they sought us out, provided us with financial support and put us through school.
Why did you choose to become a tour guide?
As I child, I had great admiration of tourists. I watched in awe as they walked around with their heavy bags. Of course, I always loved nature but tourists really sold me into the idea of becoming a tour guide. Therefore, when I reached upper secondary, I chose tourism and while there were two options; hotel management and tourism, I chose tourism. Everyone told me, “You should choose hotel management because it will be easier for you since you’re a girl.” I refused to listen to them. I knew what I wanted.
In your nine years as a tour guide, what are some of the most common stereotypes you have had to dispense about Rwanda?
It seems to me that when people think about Rwanda, they only think about gorillas and the Genocide. Yes, it’s true that we do have quite a number of gorillas and we have a dark past but we are not the angry, unsmiling killers some of them expect to meet. Additionally, there’s so much more to Rwanda than the gorillas, for instance, our rich and diverse culture.
This Saturday, Rwanda will hold the 11th Edition of Kwita-Izina. Of what significance is it to Rwanda’s tourism industry?
Kwita-Izina is undoubtedly one of the most brilliant ideas to have been conceived regarding tourism in Rwanda. Gorillas are the main tourist attraction in this country and therefore Kwita-Izina is a special ceremony for us as Rwandans because it has gone a long way in advertising them.
Every year, people from different parts of the world pour in to attend this ceremony and the benefits are quite numerous because it’s not just about the revenue but also about showing them Rwanda as it is now.
What does Akagera National Park have in store this week?
We are participating in Kwita-Izina. But apart from that, there are a few lions that we just brought back from South Africa and we’re currently observing their progress.
We had taken them to South Africa because previously, there were many lions in the park but they used to attack locals in the area and the locals would kill them.
It’s been a long process to get them back but we needed to do it since the number had gone down. At the same time, the park is holding trainings for rangers.
What your personal goals in regard to promoting tourism in Rwanda?
I’m part of an association for tour guides. At the moment there’s no community tourism in the eastern province.
Therefore, we are planning to set up a tourism village. Through the tourism village, we will showcase the Rwandan culture through various aspects such as dance, milking cows, and many others. Tourists will also be exposed to our way of life for instance how people preserve milk without the use of refrigerators, how we manufacture local beer, and how black smiths make different instruments.
How can the general public participate in promoting tourism in Rwanda?
The most important thing is conserving the environment. As you may know, in Rwanda we don’t have a lot of resources. Our environment is one of our biggest resources. Therefore, we need to take care of it in the best way possible.
Some people are ignorant of this fact and that’s why sometimes you see people throwing harmful products through bus windows. We have to educate people, especially the young ones, to love and conserve the environment. If they continue to destroy it, how will Rwanda survive?
The single East African tourist visa means that Rwanda has to compete with Uganda and Kenya? What can Rwanda do to stay a step ahead?
We need to be welcoming. Having interacted with people of different backgrounds and characters has made me realise that not everyone is pleasant or patient. Therefore, it’s important to treat them in a way that will make them want to stay or even come back. We need to give our visitors good quality services. This way, they will give a good report about Rwanda and more people will be interested in visiting.