It is a sunny Thursday, at noon as we head for a three-day domestic tourism campaign, commonly referred to as Tembera u Rwanda, with the customer service champions of 2017.
These champions are the Customer Service award winners recognised this year for their outstanding work. They each contributed, in their own way, to the quality of service, whether through their actions or the impact they had on customers.
One of them is senior sergeant Alex Murenzi from Rwanda National Police’s Department of Traffic. He spends his morning and evening hours on the streets of Gishushu along the Airport road directing traffic. Always smart, calm and focused.
Well, being part of the trip was obviously interesting enough for me to explore not just about what Rwanda has to offer but also Murenzi’s tricks and those of others that were nationally recognised.
Kiyovu Peage was our first stop. So many know the meaning behind the names of some city places. The name Peage, for instance, came as a result of the activity that was happening at this street.
“In 1975, a small house was built to collect taxes as part of raising revenue to build the city. People would pay (Peage in French) at this street, hence the name,” one elder who's conversant with the city told us as we began descending towards Town-Nyabugogo route.
We were curious about our next destination until we got to La Palme Hotel in Musanze. We took late lunch and immediately jumped back onto our bus. This time we were supposed to complete two tasks: visit the eco-park and caves.
Musanze Caves and Buhanga Eco Park
It’s hard to leave Musanze without paying a visit to the popular Musanze caves. It was my first time here. Here, we spent only 20 minutes, because we had to go to Buhanga Eco-park.
The caves stretch along 1km and 250m but we did half of the longest route, which was about 800m. There were echoes of bats inside. The caves offer snapshots of the country’s history.
Our guide wove together the history of these caves with the present situation.
The scary part of walking underground is that a lot of theories run in your mind. You wonder what if this and that happens. Well, when we got inside the guide told us to switch off the lights and it was complete darkness. It was scary.
From here, Buhanga Eco-park was our next stop. But since I've been around the park before, there wasn’t much anticipation. But, of course, I was interested to know more about the history of the place.
The park is home to vast species of birds and some ardent tourists are not scared of camping here, despite scary stories of the place being habitat to different dangerous animals like snakes.
For many Rwandans, at least learning more about the unique historical background of the place is what attracts locals. The place was a sacred forest where Rwandan Kings performed initiation ceremonies, but today it is only testimony to past societies that conducted such rituals. We went on a trail through the park and saw where some of these rituals were performed.
Time can move fast. Within hours, it was time to wrap up, sleep and wake up in time for the biggest activity of the second day, trekking gorillas.
The trekking experience
Later we went on to trek gorillas in Volcanoes Park. It was the biggest highlight of the trip, and one that every person on board was enthusiastic to experience.
The stories from regular visitors were fascinating.
Upon arrival, we were given a warm hospitality at Kinigi; tea and coffee were in plenty, and with that cold weather it came in handy.
As a standard, we were divided into different groups, each with eight people, the maximum number of people permitted in a single gorilla trekking expedition.
Eugene, who has spent nearly 17 years here, was our tour guide in Volcanoes National Park. We visited Muhoza group, one of the 12 gorilla families on the Rwandan side of the Virunga Mountains that can be visited by up to eight tourists for a single hour a day. But there are about 20 groups, and we were informed that other groups are exclusively used for research purposes.
Some gorillas are as old as 40 years, we are told. The ones we visited, the oldest is 19 years old, and this is silverback Muhoza. It is in the youngest family, having been formed last year.
"Trackers are up now. They are looking for them and we are communicating with them minute by minute for them to tell us when they see them," the guide told us as we embarked on the trek.
It is a fun-filled moment but creepy for others. Of all the seven people we tracked with, it was easy to tell those with cold feet.
We strolled through potato plantations of communities around the park. The journey turned out to be different from our briefing. We thought we would take less than 30 minutes to the park boundary, but it took about an hour and 10 minutes.
But, fortunately, it was a short walk through the park to where we met silverback Muhoza. We all look in awe.
As we watch in dead silence, the silverback walks barely one metre, breaks a bamboo tree and starts munching on it.
Then our guide advises us to leave and go look for other members of Muhoza family.
As we walk away from the silverback, he starts following us. It was a nerve striking moment, triggering anxiety which was not consistent with instructions from our guide.
The Silverback stands up and stares surprisingly into our faces.
At this time, nearly everyone was frozen and holding each other tightly. Later, we managed to continue and as we were getting closer to other members that rangers had tracked down for us, we had them grunting from a distance. Reaching them, behold they were playing and eating, the guide recommended that we sit down, the exercise that took about 40 minutes.
As we sat enjoying our moment looking at the lifestyle of these species, the silverback, who also ‘owns’ all other females is heard crashing into vegetation approaching where we were. Eugene tells us that the ones we were seated watching were actually waiting for silverback, the head of the family.
To Jean Pierre Kizito, this was his biggest experience he had ever had. Kizito was one of the customer champions of this year. He works with the Ministry of Justice. Upon recognition, he was promoted and is now a Senior State Attorney in International Justice and Judicial Cooperation from being a notary.
The family we visited is comprised of Ikirezi, Tembera u Rwanda, the youngest of all, Agasaro, Twitabweho, Inkubito, who is the mum of Tembera u Rwanda, and Ubwiza, who was named this year. There's also one called Iriba, named last year, and Ntamuhezo.
Together, our group had a chance of seeing all, except two of them (Ntamuhezo & Iriba). I and one of the potters had to run after them to have a glimpse on these primates.
I have to admit that watching these endangered species is one of the most exciting encounters of my life. There are lessons learnt: buy a good camera when you are preparing to trek, and don’t spend a night out when you know you will be up in the wee hours.
Our trip concluded in Rubavu District at the modest sandy Beach of Lake Kivu, where we also spent a night and about seven hours at the luxury Serena Hotel. Swimming was a must here as a stress reliever, although some preferred sitting and serenely enjoying the lake’s breeze.
The head of Customer Care and Tourism Regulatory Division at RDB, Emmanuel Nsabimana, who was on our trip, said the idea of rewarding the customer service champions was to continue recognising the country’s firm efforts towards promoting quality services.
“We wanted to show the determination of RDB in encouraging the spirit of delivering good customer service, showcase the value of delivering good service, and tell the public that whatever they do in service delivery can be noticed,” he said.
He added that the reward was also in line with the country’s policy of encouraging Rwandans to visit their country and know all it has to offer in terms of tourism.
“The mountain gorillas, for example, should not be seen as a product for foreigners only. This reward is also a message that Rwandans can enjoy their country's beauty,” he said.
The trip was generally a lifetime experience that one rarely gets. There are so many stories in Rwanda to tell.