Thursday, 5 March 2009

Day One

My name’s Henry, I’m 18 and on a gap-year. This is my first blog, and already I think the most I’ve written since my last A-level. That’s me in picture 1, don’t worry that should be the last self-portrait you get (although honestly the shiny forehead’s due to a lack of water this morning, it’s normally as clean as the Queen).

The aim of this blog is to tell you about my experiences in Rwanda, East Africa and hopefully to dispel some common misconceptions. In an era where more and more young people spend time in Africa, whether for a gap-year or something else, it seems to me that some first-hand information from somebody not trying to sell you an expensive trip or gather donations could be interesting and useful. Of course this is only one view from one country but since so many of our shared preconceptions are pan-African I don’t think this should put you off reading on.

Rwanda itself has a long and complicated history. Some of the first people ever came from around here, and it was mainly inhabited by Pygmy tribes for a long time. It was a German colony until after WW1 when it became Belgian. Of course the one incident which most people associate with the country is the genocide of 1994. Very basically, throughout Rwanda’s recent history there has been tension between two ethnic groups: the Hutus and the Tutsis. The Tutsis make up a small minority, and under the Belgians were raised above the Hutu majority, causing strong tensions. In April ’94 the President, an army general called Habyarimana and his Burundian counter-part had their plane shot out of the sky. This gave the extreme branch of his Hutu support their chance to bring about their ‘final solution’. Their first act was to kill the ‘moderate’ Hutu PM and 10 Belgian peacekeepers. This had the desired effect of scaring off the rest of the Belgians and giving them the freedom to do as they pleased. The Rwandan Army, as well as numerous Hutu civilians rampaged through the country killing any Tutsis or suspected supporters that they could find. Butchered corpses covered the streets of this small, but densely populated country and any churches being used for shelter were burnt to the ground. To give you a sense of scale I was told today that 20,000 people were killed in a local football stadium. That’s four times more than 9/11. Before Tutsi rebels invaded and restored some order, it is estimated that up to a million people were killed.

What has struck me most since I’ve been here is the lack of obvious resentment. There are many memorials and, on the surface, the over-riding message seems to be not of revenge or anger but of hope that history will not repeat itself. Whether this is really the case I’ve yet to find out. Although it has taken up a large part of this first blog, I think it’s best to get it out of the way now so I can focus on how much more there is to this country.

I flew out on Kenya Airways, which felt exactly like BA. Apparently the definition of a continental breakfast doesn’t change when you cross the Mediterranean and during my wait in Nairobi I had my first encounter with the legacy of colonialism: an airport official berating me and one other traveller for not queuing in the appropriate areas. Evidently British values are alive and well there.

My first impressions of Rwanda involved a 5-hour car journey, a short battle with a twisted mosquito net and a welcome mattress. I have though managed to fit one nice surprise into that short time. They are, on the whole, lovely people. The stares that come with being the only white faces in a town of 10,000 slightly unnerved me to start but as more and more are followed by waves, smiles and the odd word of English (tonight one girl wished us “good morning teacher”) this has disappeared. Two women have hugged me before we’ve swapped names (something that doesn’t happen to me in England as much as you’d think) and one of the locals working for Rwanda Aid spent an hour this morning teaching me Kinyarwandan with as much knowledge of my language as I have of his.

That’s it for today. My next blog, in two days time (internet permitting), will start to focus more on daily life here and on my work in conjunction with Rwanda Aid, a very sensible and ethically run group who have kindly given me the opportunity to be here. I encourage you to come back for more, as my second attempt should see me move away from amateur historian/Bryson-wannabe and onto something of real worth.

On a small side note, I’m using my Dad’s laptop which means my music taste is restricted to his and anything I downloaded five years ago. Rather worryingly I’ve just found Avril Lavigne and Beyonce which certainly isn’t mine. I dare not scroll down any further than that…


  1. Hi Henry,

    A really excellent blog and I have learnt a lot already ! Best of luck and we look forward to reading more about your travels in due course.

    Yours Stephen O

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. What's wrong with Avril Lavigne and Beyonce? Gavin G

  4. I have just read in the paper that the music you listen to says a lot about your inteligence. Ergo Beethoven and Bowie/U2 = brainy, beyonce = not so! Just thought I would share that with you. Enjoying the blog Henry, much better than the garbage I am receiving from Will's pal Guy in N.Z.