Known as the “Land of a Thousand Hills,” Rwanda rests just below the equator and its small size has a rich geography with mountains, savannas, and many lakes. This landlocked country is at a high altitude of 4,800 feet (1,463 m). The capital city is Kigali – one of East Africa’s fastest growing cities with an estimated population of over 1 million people. Rwanda’s economy is based on the subsistence agriculture and the people grow enough food to feed their families. With a presence of volcanic soils, steep slopes and high altitudes, Coffee & tea are the main cash crops also one of the country’s biggest exports.
Rwanda’s tourism is one of the fastest growing sectors. Rwanda is also lucky to be one of the three countries where tourists can get to visit the endangered mountain gorillas. There are three national parks found in this small country i.e. Akagera national park, Nyungwe forest national Park and Volcanoes national park. Most of the large mammals found here, include the Elephants, Lions, Rhinos, Giraffes, and many more.
The National Language in Rwanda is ‘Kinyarwanda’ spoken by most people. English, French & Swahili are the Official languages.
Currency used is Rwanda Francs, and 1 RWF is equivalent to $ 0.0012 USD.
Rwanda is one of the world’s most densely populated countries. The country is divided by great peaks of up to 3, 000m (9,842ft) which run across the country from north to south. To feed the people, almost every available piece of land is under cultivation, except for parts of the Akagera (along the border with Tanzania) and the higher slopes of the Virunga volcanoes. Since most of the country is mountainous, this involves a good deal of terracing. The Virunga volcanoes rising steeply from Lake Kivu in the west slope down first to hilly central plateau and further eastwards to an area of marshy lakes around the upper reaches of the Akagera River, where the Akagera National Park is situated.
The country’s scenery is much mountainous and the Mt. Karisimbi is regarded as the highest peak at 4,507m on the Virunga Volcanic ranges and the lowest point in Rwanda is the Ruzizi River, at 950m (3,117 ft.) above sea level. Lake Kivu is the country’s largest main fresh water body and one of the deepest lakes in Africa. Ruzizi river valley forms the western boundary with the Democratic Republic of the Congo and constitute part of the Great Rift Valley. There also other small lakes and Rivers such as Ruhondo, Burera, Muhazi, Ihema, Mugesera and River Akagera. Rwanda is also located on the eastern edge of the Albertine Rift which is a western wing of the Great Rift Valley and all these places attract a number of travelers’ whole over the world to Rwanda to explore more about the country.
Even though Rwanda is located only two degrees south of the equator, Rwanda’s high elevation makes the tropical highland climate. The average day time temperature is 24°C with a possible maximum of 30°C. There are four noticeable seasons, the long dry season is from mid-May to September and the short rains from October to mid-December to mid-march. Heavy downpours occur almost daily, alternating with sunny weather. Rainfall is generally heavier in the western and northwestern mountains than in the eastern savannas. The summit of Mt. Karisimbi at 4507m, is often covered with hail or snow.
Culture & People of Rwanda
Rwanda is a country of mainly three tribes and these are the Hutu, Tutsi, and the Twa. The Hutu dominates other tribes with over 84%, Tutsi with 15% and the Twa 1%. Rwanda is now a unified state unlike in many other African countries and it’s mostly populated by the ‘Banyarwanda’ people who share a single cultural heritage & language. An essential part of most ceremonies, social gatherings in Rwanda is the traditional music & dance also known as ‘umushagiriro’ (Cow dance) performed by women. The dance of the heroes is performed by men and this involves drumming on drums known as ‘Ingoma’.
In Rwanda, there are great items produced in the Art & Craft sector and these include woven baskets & bowls, wood carvings, customary housing styles. The women are the most gifted under this field and they normally use Imigongo, a unique cow dung art which it is produced in the southeast of Rwanda, with a history dating back to when the region was part of the independent Gisaka kingdom. The dung is mixed up with natural soils of various colors and painted into gorgeous ridges to form arithmetical shapes.
In Rwanda, agriculture is a crucial sector and is the backbone of the economy. 90% of the country’s food needs come from what they planted in the farms. Coffee & tea being the main cash crops for export, the staple foods include bananas, sweet potatoes, beans, corn, peas, millet, fruit, cassava, plantains and many others.
People in Rwanda prefer to eat simple meals cooked with locally grown ingredients. Agriculture in Rwanda itself employs about 70% of the labor force. Common factors like having very fertile soils have contributed to this. Also livestock is another growing sector.
Rwanda Travel Information
Passport and Visas:
A valid passport with visa is mandatory when travelling to Rwanda. The bilateral agreements allow nationals of the following countries to visit Rwanda without a visa for a period up to 90 days i.e. USA, UK, Germany, Canada, Uganda, Tanzania, Kenya, Burundi, Democratic Republic of Congo, Sweden, Mauritius, South Africa and Hong Kong. Also recently the East African tourist visa was introduced and this allows you to travel within East Africa with a single document. The Rwanda Visa can be applied for online or bought upon arrival.
When to Visit Rwanda
Rwanda can be visited throughout the year. Gorilla trekking and other forest walks are less demanding during the drier months. The European winter is the best time for birds, as Palearctic migrants supplement resident species. The rainy season is from March to April and from October to November, but the gorilla’s habitat is in the rain forests and it can often rain any time of year. Travel can be slower in the rainy season but the views are often better. Gorilla tracking can be muddier but not impassable. In the mountainous areas it is much colder than on the plains and the rainfall is greater. One can travel when it is most convenient for themselves as the rain which is often for short periods, is part of the great experience.
Rwanda has an excellent cell phone network covering almost the entire country and the major telecom companies are MTN, Tigo & Airtel. International phone calls can be made easily and SIM cards for the network are readily available everywhere, even in remote towns. Cell phones can be purchased or rented from major shops in Kigali.
Common Kinyarwanda words are;
- ‘Amafaranga’ meaning Money
- ‘Amakuru yawe’ meaning how are you?
- ‘Ni Meza’ meaning Fine
- ‘Mwaramutse’ meaning Good morning
- ‘Murakoze’ meaning Thank you,
- ‘Mwirirwe’ meaning Good afternoon/evening,
- ‘Muramuke’ meaning Good night ,
- ‘Oya meaning No and ‘Yego’ meaning Yes
1 January (New Year’s Day), 1 February (National Heroes Day), 7 April (Genocide Memorial Day), 1 May (Labor Day), 1 July (Independence Day), 4 July (National Liberation Day), 15 August (Assumption Day), 1 October (Patriotism Day), 25 December (Christmas Day), 26 December (Boxing Day)
NB: Good Friday and Easter Monday are also recognized in Rwanda though they fall on variable dates.
Places to Visit
Akagera National Park
Named after the Akagera River running along its eastern boundary, the Akagera Park is warm and low-lying with undulating plains supporting a cover of dense broad leafed trees with acacia woodlands and grasslands. The park harbors over 20 mammal species including hippos, crocodiles, Lions, leopards and black rhinos which are present in small numbers. You can go for boat trips on the Lake Ihema to view some of these animals. For birders this is another paradise on earth with an extra-ordinary birdlife including Africa’s most inspiring concentration of big water birds.
This one of Africa’s most beautiful and pristine montane rain forest that is remarkably rich in biodiversity with 75 mammal species, 120 butterflies, 275 birds and over 100 varieties of orchids. The forest is well known for its primates and chimpanzee tracking can be arranged at a short notice and at small fee. Other primates in this forest include several other monkeys L’Hoest monkeys. A nature walk through this forest can be truly rewarding.
Volcanoes national Park
The Volcanoes National Park is a forested area in the Virunga Mountains that border Rwanda, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. This is Rwanda’s premier tourist attraction, with the mist-covered volcanoes of the Virungas being one of only two locations in the world where you can track a habituated family / group of mountain gorillas (the other in Bwindi National Park, Uganda). It was here that Dr. Dian Fossey lived and died studying and protecting the gorillas and her efforts were made famous in the film ‘Gorillas in the Mist’. 75 other mammal species also live here including elephant, buffalo and the endemic Golden Monkey.
The caves were used as a killing site during the 1994 genocide in Rwanda and the place is still littered with human remains. The caves are located in Ruhengeri 2 Km from the Gisenyi road. It has a huge entrance littered with marked black volcanic rubble and at the opposite end there lies a natural bridge formed from the lava flow from one of the Virunga Mountains.
Located in the albertine rift and apart of the Great Rift Valley, Lake Kivu is a large fresh water body that marks the western border with DR Congo. This lake is a tourist’s center with fresh waters safe to swim. It has nice beaches with splendid landscapes and the sunset is usually astounding – and anyone willing to relax would opt for such a place.
Mount Visoke at 3711m is topped by a beautiful crater lake with a hike to the top and back taking 6-8 hours. Further west on the border with the DRC is Mount Karisimbi, Rwanda’s highest mountain at 4507m – a tough overnight hike through several vegetation zones. Between these two volcanoes lies the ruins of the Karisoke Research Centre, the research site and burial place of Dian Fossey and some of her favorite gorillas. Further south just across the border from Rubavu/Gisenyi in the DRC lies the active volcano of Nyiragongo, a challenging overnight hike which offers the chance to walk along the volcano rim staring at the huge lava pot below.
One of East Africa’s fastest growing cities and very attractive. It’s centrally located making it a great base from which you can explore the other parts of the country. Kigali is a modern city with many places to visit including the genocide memorial center and has many fancy restaurants, bars & hotels. The Airport is also located here and offers international & domestic flights to major cities worldwide.
Huye formerly known as Butare is the intellectual town of Rwanda where you will find the National University, the Institute of Scientific Research and the National Museum which contains some excellent ethnographic collections and provides insights into Rwandan culture and history. Once the largest colonial settlement in Rwanda, today it is a sleepy, attractive town renowned for its colonial buildings and terrace cafes.
Though the national museum of Rwanda was only established in 1989, the country’s network of compelling museums has expanded rapidly since then, and today there are six sites all across the country administered by the Institute of National Museums. From ethnography to environment and art to architecture, the national museums of Rwanda are among the finest in East Africa, and with locations around the country, it’s easy to fit at least one of these fascinating spots into any Rwanda itinerary.
Ethnographic Museum: This is Rwanda’s first Museum built in 1989 that sits wide in the tranquil gardens of Huye town. The Museum covers a number of topics in Rwanda including banana beer, basketry, geology, cosmology, farming, cattle, music, dance, poetry, history, tools, and transport.
National Art Gallery: The national art gallery is located in Nyanza on top of Rwesero hill. It showcases both traditional and contemporary Rwandan artists and also hosts temporary exhibitions.
King’s Palace Museum: This is the former palace of King Mutara III built in the 1930’s also found in Nyanza. A tour at the palace will take you royal compound and marvel at the intricacies of the traditional architecture. A colonial building which was also used as the palace for a time sits next door and contains a series of exhibits on the monarchy and court customs.
Presidential Palace Museum: Former presidents of Rwanda called this home for almost 3 decades. Located in Kigali, the palace is a fascinating window into modern history and preserved presidential furnishings and cultural exhibits can be found here.
Natural History Museum: Sitting on a leafy garden with amazing view over Kigali, this new museum was built in the 1900’s. A number of historical exhibits, photos, information on the physical and geological history of Rwanda can be found here.
Museum of the Environment: This museum focuses on environment and climate of Rwanda. There is a rooftop garden with a number of exhibits on Rwandan resources like energy.
Umuganda means ‘coming together for a purpose to achieve a common outcome’. In Rwanda the last Saturday of every month all services, shops, businesses, transport means are stopped and the morning is dedicated to public works projects around the country. This includes cleaning environment, tree planting, building houses for the vulnerable and a lot more. The social and economic benefits of umuganda are easy for all to see.
Rwanda’s past about the genocide has haunted the country for a number of years but their impressive recovery story has become an inspiration. The Kigali genocide memorial center is the most common one & visited by most people who come to Kigali. It acts as a humbling reminder to those present and honors the lost. For travelers who want to gain insight into the history of the genocide, this is a worthwhile visit.
While the largest memorial is in Kigali, the genocide touched all corners of Rwanda and as such there are many emotionally charged memorials located throughout the country. Some are as simple as a quiet garden space for contemplation while others are larger and hold relics, remains, and exhibits on the genocide itself. Beyond the main memorial center in Kigali, a few of the memorials that can be included on any Rwanda Tour itinerary include:
Nyanza Genocide Memorial: This site holds graves of more than 10,000 Tutsis who were massacred in the 1994 genocide located in the grounds of ‘Kigali’s Ecole Technique Officielle’. Also used as the main site for the genocide anniversary commemorations.
Ntarama Genocide Memorial: A memorial garden located south of Kigali where 5,000 people lost their lives in the grounds of the church.
Nyamata Genocide Memorial: Another church located on the main road south of Kigali where over 10,000 people lost their lives.
Murambi Genocide Memorial: One of the most significant of all genocide memorials located in Nyamagabe, Southwest of Rwanda. Over 50,000 bodies that were murdered here and an interpret center is available to better explain events that happened here.
A distinctively Rwandan craft is the Imigongo or cow dung paintings that are produced by a local co-operative in the village of Nyakarambi near the border with Tanzania. Dominated by black, brown and white whirls and other geometric shapes, these unique and earthy works can be bought in craft markets throughout the country. Weaving and basket making is a traditional art still used today to make dry containers for storing food and medicines. These are also known as peace pots and had traditional values such as to commemorate weddings or as a welcome gift. Pottery is one of the oldest forms of art in Rwanda and can still be seen in many towns today using traditional Batwa techniques. Known for its good quality clay these potteries are still widely used for cooking and storing liquids.
The finest displays of Rwanda’s dynamic traditional musical and dance styles are performed by the Intore Dance Troupes. Founded several centuries ago, the Intore also known as ‘The Chosen Ones’ who performed exclusively for the Royal Court were given military training and taught the technique of jumping which forms a significant part of the dance. They performed wearing grass wigs and clutching spears – this dance is a true spectacle of Rwanda. Live dance performances can be seen at cultural villages, museums and at many lodges and hotels across Rwanda. The Iby’ Iwacu cultural village in Musanze, and the National Museum of Rwanda have regular performances and daily dances occur at the RDB office at Kinigi, Volcanoes National Park.