We take two buses south towards Huye, the student city at the bottom of the country. The landscape around is so green, fresh from the long rains, and there are so many hills – not for nothing is this country known as Le Pays des Milles Collines (Land of a Thousand Hills). The little baby alongside me plays with my hands and the rings on my fingers. We change at Muhanga and heave our rucksacks into the back of yet another bus: there’s dust all over and a film of dirt on my face and neck and arms.
Huye was the colonial HQ during the Belgian occupation and after country’s independence was declared in 1962 was pitted to become to capital, losing out eventually to Kigali which was chosen for its central location in the middle of the country. The city was the first to open a university, a year after independence, and it’s known for academics and intellectuals. During the madness of the 1994 genocide, Tutsis and moderate Hutus fled here, hoping intellectualism would reign over the carnage but they were very wrong and a quarter of a million people were slaughtered here. My friend Libby used to work here so we’re armed with a list of things to do and places to eat and we’re looking forward to experiencing a different part of Rwanda.
We find a super cheap but very clean and nice guesthouse and are welcomed by Johnny, the very sweet guy who works there. When he sees me walking around with no shoes on, a lovely feeling on the cool tiled floor after a day of travel, he says “ahhh you’re barefooting! Is nice”. He puts the tv on for Moz so he can watch the second leg of the Champions League quarter final and sits with him wearing a long denim coat fringed with fake fur oblivious to the fact it is a girl’s coat.
On the first day, we walk to the Ethnographic Museum which has been highly recommended. We make our way past the stadium, lined with the country’s colours of green, blue and yellow and empty except for some people training.
The museum was a gift to the city from the Belgians to commemorate 25 years of independence and everything that the museum in Kampala wasn’t, this museum was: well lit, interesting and engaging.
The first room displayed geographical information about the country as well as a topographical map of Rwanda, a model of endless hills. The population of the country has doubled in to past 25 years and combined with scarcity of arable land, intensive farming and soil erosion many people live a subsistence lifestyle, existing on less than a dollar a day. The majority of the country are rural people making ends meet, something you see from the windows of buses and not evident from the modern, vibrant exterior of the capital city. Agriculture is the major occupation of the population and life revolves around the rainy and dry seasons; the difference between good and bad crops is the difference between prosperity and famine, life and death.
I really liked the displays on the pottery and weaving, and there was a lady sat on the floor weaving a basket from papyrus grass. Some of the pots displayed were big enough for a human to sit inside (designed to store beer, much tastier!) and some of the baskets were tiny and intricate, to store secret things.
There was one room with a huge kagondo (thatched hut) inside, a unique design that is disappearing as people move to modern housing. The huts were set in family compounds rather than villages and, if you took your shoes off, you could step inside and walk around. It was cool and dark inside and smelt of reeds and grass; there were separate compartments for sleeping, living and storage and it was really cool to see inside.
Back outside we walked through town to have lunch at one of Libby’s recommendations – a student cafe which was a large room with a buffet along one edge. We filled our plates with rice, beans and greens for £1 and sat down to many stares and giggles from the surrounding students. Afterwards we made our way down the hill to another Lib recommendation to a cafe serving ice cream and coffee, and said hello to the ladies who worked there who remembered Libby. Just as we were leaving we were caught in a rainstorm and sheltered for cover before walking home when the rain cleared, the air smelling warm and rich with soil.
The next day we caught a bus north out of town to Nyanza where we were going to visit the King’s Palace museum. Up until the mid 20th century, Rwanda had a monarchy which had lived in various royal palaces throughout the country. In 1899 Mwami Musinga Yuhi V established Rwanda’s first permanent royal capital in Nyanza and we walked around the royal compound, a series of thatched houses where we could step inside. The king’s home was large and we saw his sleeping area, where he would entertain and where his harem of women would sit until he wanted them. “He had a good life” our guide said pointedly.
Behind, we saw the house where the milk was kept. Milk was sacred and only men allowed to drink it, the women and children having to take yoghurt or cheese. A virgin girl was selected to look after the milk house and there she would stay, unmarried, until she was in her forties. Next door was the beer house where a boy would similarly live, sleep and guard the beer.
Behind the royal compound we got to visit the inyambo (the sacred cows) with their enormous horns. They were pretty scary looking but we were allowed to approach them and stroke one of them who looked at us calmly under her long eyelashes whilst the cow handler sang her a song!
Next we went to visit the royal residence of Mwami’s son, King Mutara III Rudahigwa. The Belgians built the house for Rudahigwa in the 30s, and it was a beautiful colonial style home. During the genocide much of the furniture was stolen and so many of the rooms were empty and sad, though some of the items were returned in the following years. It was good to visit though the part I found more interesting was that Rudahigwa, who was open-minded to modernism and development, saw that his people were yearning for independence from the colonialists. The once good relationship between the king and then white colonialists began to sour and the Belgians, who had given power to the Tutsi minorities then turned their favour to the Hutus. You can begin to draw a line from this to the atrocities that happens decades later in 1994.
It was a nice trip to Huye – we perhaps stayed a little too long as there wasn’t tonnes to do, but I found the museums interesting and learnt a lot. The morning we left, we were looking forward to getting back to the bustle of the capital for our last stop in Rwanda.