Under The Mango Tree

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7 September 2015 by Justine

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Cycling in Rwanda – October and November 2014

Traveling and speaking the first language is always nice. And so we entered Rwanda, happily shouting to everyone: “Bonjour! Bonjour! Ça va? Oui, merci!” (Hello! Hello! How is it? Good, thank you!) First impression of our second African country: there is people EVERY-WHERE. Not a single kilometer without someone working in a field or escorting animals to let us pee or take a break in tranquility. Just like in southern Uganda, as soon as we set foot on the ground, it’s too late – we are surrounded with intensely excited people. In the locals’ mind – thanks to our NGO fellows, PeaceCorps (young Americans volunteering for two years in rural areas all around the World) missionaries and previous travelers – the only reason for a Muzungu (White people in local language, or sometimes, any modern people from the city) to be in their village is to donate stuff like food, clothes, toys, medicine and money. So we can’t really blame them, children and adults, to be asking for everything that is strapped on our bikes or for all the items they know the English word for. And so, our duty, for the sake of the next travelers, is to be rude and selfish, to not give anything and to explain them that, no, we won’t give away ONE of our paniers or our cycling chain – especially since it doesn’t fit on their single-speed bikes (…). And no, we won’t give money to people who ask for it, even if it’s less than 0,10$, even if it’s children, especially in more touristic areas, because we believe that successful begging feeds the poverty’s vicious circle.

[…]

It’s our first night in Rwanda. The sun is getting low and with that many people everywhere, we don’t even bother looking for a wild camping spot. We would like to ask a family to host us tonight, so we cycle slowly, watching the yards of some of the fenced houses, trying to get an eye-contact with someone – no luck. We find a guarded and fenced construction field 1km before a small town. We ask the guard if we can throw the tent for the night, “pas de problème” (no problem) he says, as he opens the gate, automatically saving us from the dozen of kids and adults that started to circle us in the sixty seconds we were standing there. It’s a quiet spot on high comfy grass. Everything is perfect: a vegetable ten-egg omelette, fresh homemade buns and cookies, and a Primus beer. We are eating our feast as our guard walks to us with two other man. He’s here to introduce us to the night guards, and to the chief of the construction field. A bit of a small talk and formalities, and they leave. Glad that the official encounters are done, we go to bed, drained by our day of cycling, and happy to get a moment of quietness. After 9PM, we are falling asleep when we hear people knocking on our tent: “Bonsoir, quelqu’un voudrait vous parler au sujet de votre sécurité” (Good evening, someone would like to talk to you about your security). I put some clothes and a smile on, and go meet with two “secretaries”, the chief of the construction field and the night guards. The ladies are politely asking for our IDs. Turning the pages of our not-too-empty 24-pages passport, they don’t seem sure what to learn from those colorful stamps with country names they never heard before like Tajikistan and Kosovo. Nevertheless, they seem happy with the fact that we own such official documents. Satisfied, they all leave. Around midnight, the night guards are cold and decide to start a fire – we are higher than 1000-meter above sea level and it’s spring time – and yes, nights can be cold in Africa, unlike all clichés. They figure that it would be much better for our security to build their fire right besides our tent and to crack local jokes all night rather than letting us sleep. Rwanda… A 24-hour human experience. Annoyed, we put some earplugs on. The following morning, we have a new message on our InReach GPS. It’s JP’s dad. He informs us that last month, ten local people got killed in the mountains facing us, in direction of DRC, by rebels. We swallow back our stupid impatience and selfishness, and thank once more the construction supervisor who came back this morning only to wish us safe travels.

In Rwanda, cyclists are everywhere. Riding those endless rolling hills on fixed gear is already an exploit; those guys are putting huge charges on their crooked bikes and still want to race us. Cabbage, pineapple, charcoal, passengers, pieces of furniture, chickens, pigs, goats, water, gasoline… They take any charge, “pas de problème” (no problem), and as soon as they see us on the road, they stick either on our back or front wheel, or besides us. We met some incredible people in those circumstances, and sometimes cycled for hours with the same people. But we would also get “blackflies on two wheels” (annoying local people on a bicycle), intensively asking for stuff, money and food, dangerously blocking our way, or stupidly racing us back and forth. JP, full of creativity, rapidly developed some techniques to get rid of them. For those following our back to the point of bumping our paniers, it’s easy: we suddenly brake. The shock on our paniers isn’t the best, but the satisfaction of seeing their sorry face is greater. For those following us in a hill, we cycle as slow as we can… With our 27 gears, we can handle the speed. But with their unique gear, even standing on their pedals, they lose balance, and then have no choice but to get off their bikes and push. For those following in front, JP takes them to their limits. Out of breath, they always end up entering a village or a drive-way after about 15 minutes of JP’s madness. In any way, since none of them is cycling extensive distances, we would always get rid of those flies sooner or later, but then they would get replaced but others in the next village. At the end, being escorted either by local bicycles or running children has been our day-to-day reality for most of Eastern Africa. While bicycles appear in flatter regions of Southern Africa, not a single mountain will stop a Rwandan, Ugandan, Tanzanian or Burundian to carry his load of goods from his village to the next town, and for that they have all our respect.

We have found a nice route for Rwanda: following the shore of Lake Kivu on the Congo Nile Trail. At first, it seems like an off-beaten-roads paradise dirt path along the beautiful lake and through the coffee plantations. Finally, it is, in the first portion, a crazy hilly dirt road, then a very steep walking path, and, in the second portion, a main road under construction in order to have the coffee, tea and rice more easily exported (…). What a surprise it was to read on the construction advertisement board that the building and supervising were done by a Chinese firm, and that engineering was done by a bunch of Canadian, more precisely, by the firm for which my dad works for… “Génie conseil: CIMA+, Laval, Qc”. I’m proud to say that that construction field was the first we have seen in Africa where all workers were wearing closed shoes, hard helmets and orange shirts. Good job, CIMA ! 😛

Afterwards, we met travelers that cycled the Congo Nile Trail few years back when it was still completely rural. It is quite sad though to see that environment radically change with this huge construction field. The first portion is still untouched (between Gisensyi and Kibuye) and is amazingly beautiful and challenging to cycle. Hopefully, it will stay that way… Rural development has its good and bad sides. An example of success stands not too fare from that trail: the Nyungwe National Park. To get to Burundi, we left the trail at Buhinga (while it continues to Bukavu) and cycled a full day on a brand new tar road in the middle of the jungle to get back to civilization towards Butare. That park is the home of a primary humid forest filled with monkeys, birds and orchids. Here and there, we saw on the road signs for walking treks. We briefly stopped at the information center and witnessed modernity and tidiness like we won’t see often in Eastern Africa’s public installations. With a couple of stated international partners in the project, hopefully the local rangers will be trained enough to maintain the park that way – well protected and welcoming for tourists.

On the trail, we met our very first backpackers: Diane from Ireland and Daniel from Ile-of-Man. Strange circumstances surrounded their encounter. Daniel arrived where we were camping on the back of a boda-boda (taxi motorbike) in the night, asking for his wife Diane. They were cycling the trail on shitty rented bicycles that kept on breaking. Daniel had a job interview planed on Skype for the following day. The closest access to Internet being Kibuye, a big town apparently 30km from where they were, they decided to split. Daniel would cycle to Kibuye, get a motorbike and comeback to get Diane, who could cycle slowly and stop wherever, on the trail. If Diane stays on the trail, it will be easy to find her back, right?! There is only one trail… And only few tourists. The 30km distance turned out to be 70. Daniel got to Kibuye exhausted at 7PM after rebuilding his two wheels from scratch and fixing few punctures. By the time he was back on the trail on a boda-boda that accepted to ride this crazy trail in the dark, it was almost 8PM. At 10:30PM, he had reached our campsite, hoping that Diane had stopped there too… But no sign of Diane, even though locals had said so – asking for a Muzungu lady on a bicycle should be easy, right?! (…) The taximan didn’t want to keep on riding in the dark. Daniel was freaking out. They both slept under the stars with a mattress and a sleeping bag that we gave them, spooning like old friends, and left the following day to find Diane. We didn’t see Daniel in Kibuye the next day to know how that whole story ended, and we hope they found each other back (…).

Yes, we can witness the footprints of the 100-day Genocide that took place in 1994 and brought the killing of 500 000 to 1 000 000 people because of conflicts between ethnics. How could we travel in Rwanda without thinking of the horrible events that happened not so long ago. Here and there, refugee camps and memorial statues stand as a reminder. But every single machete, nowadays used by all children and adult farmers, and which horribly was the main weapon of the killings, stay the biggest reminder. Every time I would see a Rwandan holding a machete, working in a field or walking on the road, I would feel a little discomfort – until that he would see me and greet me with a smile, or by holding his massive knife up in the air as a salute.

Often, we get asked if the local people are rougher or more aggressive when they have experienced violence in the past… On one hand, no, because most of those people didn’t choose to be in war, suffered a lot and only want to live in peace, for their own sake and their family’s – who wouldn’t. And so, they are extremely happy to see tourists because it means that their country is more stable and is starting to get a better reputation tourism-wise. But on the other hand, those people have been living in horrible conditions for a long time, and some still are because governmental and international help can’t reach every single one. The economy of those countries is vulnerable to begin with, so introducing a war in there really destroys the little they had. The population then gets hopeless, living in extreme state of poverty, and has nothing to lose. Without being the only elements leading to criminality (whatever size or level of organization), they surely are a good motive.

Overall, we haven’t experienced a single doubtful situation. This may be the result of staying in the backcountry, avoiding cities and touristic circuits, and being on a bicycle instead of a big shiny Land Cruiser 4×4. Everyone that we have encountered have been extremely friendly and curious of our “mission across Africa”.

Next stop :  Burundi !

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