Chapter 3: Land of a Thousand Hills

It is a nickname for Rwanda.

Translation by Ms. Haruka Osada (Simon Fraser University)

sketch Dr. MinamiCountless hills as high as 1300 to 2100m range across the country, and gentle hillside areas extend to the all directions from the capital, Kigali. I was fascinated by the view for the first time in 2009.

I arrived at the airport around 11pm. This is a country where I cannot use English, where I had never been to, and also where many serious dangers follow around. When I got to the hotel by a cab, it was too dark to see anything so I decided to just go to bed. It was when I was heading out for breakfast next morning that I was captivated by the view – it was a lovely, “cute” hilly terrain. My sense of danger quickly turned into curiosity.

The space is used very efficiently in many places called “ancient cities” like Kyoto, Paris, and Sarajevo. In Rwanda, because of its geographical features, we can enjoy the beautiful hilly view in front of you wherever you build your house. We can only see the mountains as high as 1300 – 1500m in the capital, Kigali, but if we turn our steps to the western regions, we can enjoy the astonishing view of the hills over 2000m high (refer to the pictures).
Rows of brick houses extend along the hill lines to all directions, and the domestic water, the drainage channels and the roads run through them. In Rwanda, only the main roads in Kigali are paved and maintained. People do laundry, sell food, and cook in the same place; there is no wasted space here. Everything is used for their everyday lives. That is why, just by walking on the streets, we can feel their livings, their presence, and even their views of life.

“Land of a thousand smiles” – it is another nickname for Rwanda. Rwandans are all very friendly; they never forget greeting each other. They always say “muraho!” (“hello”), “amakuru?” (“how are you?”) to me, with smiles on their faces. Kinyarwanda, one of Rwanda’s official languages (Rwandan, as well as English and French), is almost identical to Japanese in terms of pronunciation and structure. All Rwandan words are spelled with combinations of a consonant and a vowel just like Japanese. When I write down a new word that I learn from my guides, friends or members of the research team, they are often surprised and say “Masa, how do you know how to spell Kinyarwanda?”.

Pronunciation is also very similar to Japanese. There is no R or L sounds in their language as well. Japanese people would find it easy to learn Rwandan, and Rwandans also would feel easy to learn Japanese. Even the language expression, and more broadly, the norms and the etiquettes are similar to Japanese.

Kinyarwanda has an expression, “yego”, similar to “Domo” (a greeting or an expression of appreciation in Japanese, often used during verbal conversations). Just like Japanese people use this word in a repeated form, like “domo, domo”, Rwandans repeats this like “yego, yego” in their conversations; it quickly became one of my favorite phrases. “Kinyar buhura” means ”well-mannered”, and “uburere” is a word that expresses ”ill-bred”, or “bad-mannered”. Most Rwandan people outside big cities value a good upbringing, and have a culture that honours respect for the old, manners, and etiquettes. It is so similar to Japanese culture that it is not strange to use Japanese manners here in Rwanda.

“Switzerland in Africa”, “Land of Eternal Spring”,… these are other nicknames of Rwanda. All year around, the temperature stays around 24-28 degrees Celsius during the day, and the humidity is also just right. It is a little chilly in the morning, but it gets warm and even a little hot after 11am, until it gets chilly again in the evening to the night. It is a very comfortable climate, just like Japanese Spring time.

Making the most use of its geographical features and climate, tradition agriculture has been the main industry in Rwanda. In fact, the land is cultivated throughout, and it is said that the most of citizens in the country make their living by farming. The products include their staple food “cassava” (a kind of potato), yam, potato, beans, sugar cane, and also coffee and tea, which are the leading products.

I had never tried Rwandan coffee until I came here. The true fragrance of roasted coffee, an unique, rather wild accent of smokiness, its amazing smoothness, and a refreshing aftertaste… for a coffee junkie like myself, it tastes like Heaven!

For tea, it is common to sweeten it by adding wild lemongrass, home-made milk, and sugar. If you drink it by itself, you can enjoy the slight scent of rich Rwandan soil.
In the western region of Rwanda, we can see the mountain gorillas, the endangered animals only live in Rwanda. In the east, the wild colobus (a kind of monkey) can be observed. Anywhere you are in the country, even in the capital Kigali, we wake up to the beautiful song of colourful birds in the morning.

Rwanda is a place just like the heaven drawn in the pictures; there is no sign of its tragic history and the Genocide.

Heaven to Hell, then Heaven Again

I have a favorite place in Rwanda; it is Rwanzu village in Kayenzi ward, a part of Rulindo District in the North region. The view from the 2133m altitude is simply astonishing. It is a peaceful farm village filled with dreamy melody of birds, crystal sound of winds, a hum of grasses and cheerful cries of domestic animals.

I still remember very clearly the day I visited the village for the first time. Emmanuel, my guide, was actually born in the village nearby, and since his childhood friend is the head of the ward, he invited us to visit the village. Excited and happy, Emmanuel and I took a bus together from Kigali to Rulindo, then sat in the back of a bike-taxi going up the hill to the altitude of 2133m. I wondered, “where are we heading to?” When we reached the peak, I saw the beautiful view for the first time and I was just captivated. I sat down where I was and took a long view of the majestic sight. It looked like Heaven.

Led by the headman, we were taken to a local farmhouse first. A middle-age woman served us boiled cassava, potatoes and beans that she grew there. We enjoyed the taste of vegetables grown without any fertilizer, and her potatoes were very rich in flavour.

Another man also treated us to his Banana liqueur “urwagwa” that all Rwandans love, and liquor made from sorghum called “icigage”. We used gourds as cups (“agacyuma”) and stems of water spinach as straws (“umuheha”, refer to picture). They had wild tastes. Their alcohol percentages were probably around 7-10%. Urwagwa tasted just like banana smoothies, and icigage honestly tasted like mud but was still flavorful. Both of the woman and the man welcomed us as much as possible.
We visited one more house after, where another middle-age woman was waiting for us; we saw loneliness in her eyes. She lives by herself in a large house made of concrete, and there was also a similar annex next to the house. She welcomed us with a big smile, just like others did, and said “Masa, stay at my annex when you visit here”, “if you want to live here, I give you this building”. My heart was filled with joy.

It was when we promised them a reunion and started to leave the village; the ward head opened his mouth. He told us, “both the women who treated us a meal and who said to give you her house, are survivors of the Genocide”, “almost all of their family members were killed during the incident”, “even in this village, the survivors and the perpetrators live together”…

I was staggered by what he just told us. It felt like the time had stopped.

Until then, I was enraptured by the wonderful view of Kayenzi and the cheerful smiles and kindness of the people there. But in a moment, I was brought back to the harsh reality that people were living in.

I thought of today’s heaven-like Rwanda and its warm-hearted people that let us forget about the Genocide. Yes, this Heaven and the people all have experienced the Hell before, but now returned to the old Heaven – or, they are still in the middle of recovering.

On my way home, I was filled with mixed feelings from the experience of the complex reality. Both of Emmanuel and I stayed quiet, thinking that people of Rwanda, who live in this Heaven today, also feel this way.