After two trips to Rwanda, I’ve developed a deep appreciation for this country and its people. I don’t know of any other place in the world where a country and its citizens have fought so hard to recover from a horrific act of violence, and with such success. The genocide of 1994 will always haunt this small African nation, but it’s approached recovery with fierce determination. With continually improving infrastructure, a rapidly growing tourism sector and devotion to cleanliness, Rwanda has opened its arms for both tourists and business.
In both 2016 and 2019, I traveled to Rwanda with Zoe Empowers, an organization committed to empowering orphans and vulnerable children to lead successful and independent lives. This gave me the unique opportunity to see both the popular tourist attractions and small, mountain villages not on the radar of most visitors. I believe the combination of my experiences allows me to provide a balanced view of modern Rwanda.
Where is Rwanda?
Most people know Rwanda is located on the continent of Africa, but not much more. Its located in East Africa with Uganda to the North, Congo to the East, Burundi to the South and Tanzania to the West. Kigali, the capital, is located in the center of the country.
What to do in Rwanda
Learning about the genocide and visiting the gorillas are essential parts of any trip to Rwanda, but there is so much more. There’s a rich culture of art, music and dance in this East African country that should also be explored.
Most tourists will arrive in the capital city, Kigali, so a visit to the Kigali Genocide Memorial should come early in any trip. This will give visitors an overview of the genocide, but also lays the groundwork needed to appreciate the significant development that’s taken place in the past 24 years.
If time permits, a visit to Nyamata Genocide Memorial is also recommended, and is located about 40 minutes East of the city. This church was first a sanctuary for 10,000 Tutsis and then the site of their murders. The clothing and personal effects of every victim has been retained and can be seen inside the church. Eventually the bodies of 45,000 Tutsis were buried on this property. When studying a genocide, it’s easy to focus on the total numbers of deaths, and forget that they represent the violent murders of men, women and children. Nyamata forces us to remember.
Depending on time and budget, a gorilla trek in Volcanoes National Park is a tremendous opportunity. There are no mountain gorillas in captivity anywhere in the world, so the only way to view them is in the rainforests of Rwanda, Uganda and Congo. (Gorillas that are currently living in zoos are from the lowlands, a species related to mountain gorillas.) While this trek can be arranged independently, I highly recommend organizing a trip through a reputable tour company like Gorilla Trek Africa which will provide the transportation, lodging and permit. Other trekking opportunities include Golden Monkeys and birding.
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Kigali has a thriving art scene. There are dozens of museums and galleries featuring local artists, many of whom turned to art as a strategy for recovery after the genocide. In the absence of a formal art school, most artists are self-trained and benefit from collaboration with others. Several of the upscale hotels now display these works in their public areas.
A highlight of both my trips to Rwanda has been live performances of traditional dance and music. (To see this type of dancing in action watch the 2 minute 3 second video above.) The dancing is energetic and recounts classic village activities like sowing seeds and hunting. The music provided comes from a chorus and drums. Some museums offer these performances as do many upscale lodges around the national parks. If you have the opportunity to view one of these shows, don’t miss it!
Finally, if you have the chance to visit the city of Huye (formerly Butare) definitely visit the Ethnographic Museum. The presentation of Rwanda’s cultural and archeological history is excellent. Displays include ancient weapons, baskets, clothing, cookware, and even a replica of a tribal family home.
Is Rwanda Safe?
Anytime I tell someone I’m going to Rwanda I’m likely to be asked if its safe. I’ve decided that this question is either referencing the genocide, or a general perception that Africa is unsafe. So let me address both of these issues.
The genocide started and ended in 1994. It lasted 100 days and the result was the deaths of 800,000 men, women and children. Horrific doesn’t begin to describe this event. However, it’s been over for 24 years, and the Rwandan people have worked hard to rebuild their nation. In the rebuilding public safety has been a top priority.
Africa is a continent comprised of 54 countries. There are both safe and dangerous nations. To make negative assumptions of an entire continent is unfair to all the nations that work hard to protect their own citizens as well as visitors.
According to Gallup’s Law and Order Index of 2018, Rwanda is the second safest country in Africa. 83% of Rwandans have confidence in their local police and feel safe walking alone at night. In comparison, the U.S. ranks just one percentage point higher at 84%. This is just one of several indexes available for evaluating safety in Rwanda, but in all of my research, the results are similar. Rwanda is safe for visitors.
Languages of Rwanda
The official languages of Rwanda are Kinyarwanda, French and English. Visitors will find that most people employed in the area of tourism will speak English very well. This includes all of the guides for popular treks like gorillas, birding, and golden monkeys. When visiting smaller cities and villages outside of Kigali, then English speakers can be hard to find.
Rwandan food and beverages
Rwandan food is simply prepared and heavy on the vegetables. Few spices are added during cooking so that the natural flavors of the food come through. Visitors will find an abundance of buffets at hotels and lodges that allow tasting of many different local dishes.
Traditional meat and fish dishes include brochettes (skewers of meat, often goat), beef stew and tilapia. While goat is a common meat throughout most of Rwanda, there are sections of the country that prefer pork. Be prepared for meat that is always well cooked.
Salt is the most common spice added to food during preparation, but Akabanga is a chili oil found on every restaurant table. If you enjoy spicy food, then this is the condiment for you!
There won’t be many meals served without some type of banana side dish, but don’t expect it to be sweet. Green bananas are a staple food throughout the country, and the taste and texture is similar to a potato. These may be mashed, fried, or stewed with onions and peppers.
During my recent trip to Rwanda I discovered the snack food called sambusa, or samosa. This fried treat is triangle shaped and filled with either beef or vegetables. Depending on the bakery where they are made, some have a spicy kick.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the Rwandan coffee. There is no such thing as a bad cup of coffee here, especially if you’re like me and enjoy your coffee strong and dark. I woke up every morning and could not wait to drink my first cup. Bags of Rwandan coffee beans are very affordable and great gifts for coffee lovers at home.
Americans will need to stick to bottled water while in Rwanda, even for brushing teeth. Some upscale hotels and lodges do offer filtered water and ice in order to cut down on plastic waste--check with the front desk at check-in.
Tipping in Rwanda
Whether or not to tip in Rwanda is confusing. Traditionally, this is not a tipping culture, but that is changing as tourism grows. Upscale restaurants will add a 10 percent service charge on the bill, but smaller, casual cafes will not do so. Some hotels and lodges provide a central tipping box which is then shared with all staff. If this is not available, and you wish to leave a tip, do so at check-out.
Where tipping has become expected is in the gorilla and animal trekking experiences. And it must always be in cash, so be prepared at the start of each day to bring the proper amount of money. The guide and the trackers are commonly given a tip at the end of the trek. At the end of a several day tour, the tour guide should also receive a gratuity. Your tour company should be able to provide guidance on the amounts.
Currency and credit cards
The local currency is the Rwandan franc. At the time of writing, one US dollar will buy 884 Rwandan francs.
This is an economy still reliant on cash, so I’d recommend converting a few hundred dollars upon arrival, or take some money out of the ATM. However, the Rwandan government is working towards a cashless system, so over time the dependence on cash will change.
I have read that US dollars are widely accepted in Rwanda, but I chose to use local currency instead. However, at the end of my trip I was out of francs and still needed to tip our tour guide and at that point did use dollars.
In a major city like Kigali, credit cards are widely accepted, but that isn’t the case in smaller towns. As an American, I rely heavily on credit and debit cards at home, so the frequent use of cash in East Africa took some adjustment for me.
Prior to all of my international travels, I notify my credit card company of the dates and locations of my trip. This will prevent a block on your card because the company suspects fraud. Many cards now offer a convenient and quick way to do this online.
Most visitors will arrive in the country by airplane, and will do so at the Kigali International Airport. Fortunately, it’s quite close to the center of the city and most hotels can be reached in under 30 minutes.
Getting around a city like Kigali is a very different experience for anyone coming from a Western country. Locals rely heavily on moto-taxis, or motorcycle taxis, which are cheap, but their safety is questionable. The government has been working to improve moto-taxi safety, but right now I wouldn’t recommend them for visitors. I’ve relied instead on taxi service arranged by the hotel. Taxis are not metered in Rwanda, so be sure to agree upon the fare in advance.
Getting between cities can be accomplished by mini-bus, which again is very cheap, but these can become packed very quickly. If you’ve arranged for a tour company to organize your trip, then you’ll have a driver to transport you to each new location.
Rwandan and East African Visas
A Visa is required for most visitors to Rwanda. Fortunately this can be purchased for $30 upon arrival. There are some unscrupulous websites that will happily charge you a fee to obtain this Visa, but that is a complete waste of money.
If you will be traveling to Uganda or Kenya in addition to Rwanda, then be sure to obtain an East Africa Visa prior to arrival. This costs $100 per person and will speed up each border crossing.
Accommodations in Kigali and Beyond
I’ll begin with accommodation options in Kigali. Since the completion of the convention center in 2016, there’s been a steady growth of upscale and international chain hotels. In the last few years the Marriott and Radisson Blu have built new properties here. The government hopes this trend will continue since it is now a popular destination for meetings and conventions on the Africa continent. While prices are on the rise for these new and upscale hotels, the rates are far more reasonable than other large cities around the world.
During both of my stays in Kigali, I enjoyed the service and ambience of the Hotel Villa Portofino. This lovely property has a pool, restaurant, and large, comfortable rooms. With a group rate, we paid just $80 a night.
For those preferring AirBnB, there is a nice selection in Kigali for very reasonable rates. Before reserving one of these be sure to consider the AirBnB’s location and how you’ll get around the city.
Most visitors traveling outside of Kigali will be staying in some type of lodge near the national parks. While these can be booked directly, most tour companies will handle these arrangements. During my recent trip we opted to stay in luxury level lodges which I definitely recommend. The rooms were lovely, service impeccable and the food delicious.
Vaccinations, medications and precautions
During my first trip to Rwanda I was told that a yellow fever vaccine was required and that I would be asked to show proof of it at passport control. So I dutifully got the vaccination but was never asked for proof. During my recent trip I learned that the requirements have changed and only people traveling from countries with yellow fever outbreaks would be required to show proof of this vaccination. So at the time of this article, there are no vaccinations required for Americans entering Rwanda.
Regardless of official vaccination requirements, a visit to your doctor is highly recommended prior to a visit to Rwanda. My doctor recommended the typhoid vaccine which I did receive. For those visiting other African countries during the same trip, a visit to a travel clinic may be helpful.
All doctors will prescribe anti-malarial medication for trips to East Africa, including Rwanda. This is taken one day before arriving in the country, each day during the visit, and seven days after returning home. It’s very important that the directions for anti-malarial medication are followed. While malaria is completely treatable, it can be an miserable experience.
Many hotels and lodges will provide a mosquito net above the bed--use it! (If this is not provided, the hotel likely has a regular pest control program in place.) First, this helps cut down on the chance of exposure to mosquito-born illnesses. Second, it allows you to sleep without the annoying buzz of a mosquito in the middle of the night (I speak from experience). Also use bug repellent frequently to prevent the transmission of other mosquito-borne illnesses.
Finally, be sure to travel with Ciprofloxacin, a prescription antibiotic that can used to treat and prevent the growth of bacteria, especially that in the stomach. And Immodium, or another anti-diarrheal medication is essential--not just for Rwanda, but for any travel destination.
Recommended Rwandan Souvenirs
I pride myself on purchasing souvenirs that truly reflect the country or region I’m visiting. In some parts of the world this can be difficult, but not in Rwanda. Here there are endless options from handmade baskets and shopping bags to locally roasted coffee and colorful, patterned fabrics.
I returned home from my first trip to Rwanda with a dozen handwoven baskets. These colorful baskets are crafted from sisal and sweet grass, and have played a role in Rwandan life for centuries, often given as gifts to friends and families. A few years ago these baskets came to the attention of Macy’s and were sold through their stores. A visit to Rwanda will allow you to purchase these baskets for a fraction of the Macy’s price. More importantly these baskets are a steady income stream for many poor Rwandan women. Ranging in price from 7 to 10 USD, these are a lovely souvenir that directly benefits local women.
In 2006 Rwanda banned single use plastic shopping bags. In their place a popular reusable shopping bag made of plastic ribbon was created. These are used by local women while visiting the market, or purchased by visitors like me. Since many U.S. states have now banned single use plastic bags, this is a particularly practical souvenir.
While driving around Rwanda visitors notice the lovely dresses worn by many women that are made of colorful, patterned fabrics. These fabrics can be purchased in many markets or tailor shops. During my first trip to Rwanda I purchased a large section of this fabric and used it at home as a table cover. More recently I selected a fabric to have made into a skirt which was ready for me just one day later.
I’ve found that some visitors are eager to discuss the genocide while in Rwanda. I caution you not to do this unless you’ve developed a relationship with a local who seems open to the subject, and even then proceed cautiously. First, you may have no idea how painful the subject is for an individual. Second, the country is working hard to create a successful future, and not everyone wants to discuss the past. The most appropriate place for questions is at one of the genocide memorial sites that are staffed with trained professionals.
Visit Rwanda Soon
The lives of Rwandans are improving. The GDP is growing, unemployment is low, and the population is becoming healthier. Tourism has played an important part in this improvement, and as a result, I’ve been delighted to spend my money here. I’ve enjoyed two trips here so far, and I’ll definitely be back. I hope that I can help convince other travelers to visit Rwanda too!