Last weekend Janet and I took advantage of visiting grandparents to escape the children for a night to investigate the potential of Rwanda ?s cycling trails ? a possible additional tourist offering to the usual visitor fare of gorillas and genocide sites.
We took the bus, the Karisimbi Ponctuel Express, to Ruhengeri, about 90 kms from Kigali. The 25 passengers, who paid Rw1500 each (US$3) for the journey, were made up of all sorts, the teacher alongside me marking (what my matric algebra told me was) pretty complicated maths. All the while gospel music blared and cell-phone calls were loudly conducted. Whoever said that cell-phones and the lotto were the blight of poor Africans in gobbling up their precious disposable income, has a point it would seem.
The bus was indeed ponctuel, arriving five minutes before the two-hour schedule, disgorging us in the middle of the city ? well, perhaps town would be a more accurate description.
Ruhengeri sits at about 1,750 metres under the shadow of the Muhabura volcano in the Virunga range, on the road to Lake Kivu . A market town, it is also the site of the Rwandan Military Acadeny, and once the heartland of extremist Hutu power. This explains why it was targeted by Paul Kagame?s Rwanda Patriotic Front in its guerrilla campaign, launching a lightening raid in January 1991 to dramatically display the regime?s vulnerability ? a Rwandan Tet offensive if you will. Now it is better known for the other gorillas, the launch-pad for tourists trekking to visit the mountain primates in the Volcanoes National Park of Rwanda.
We soon met up with Jock Boyer, the American coach of ?Team Rwanda ? cycling. Jock is the first American to have ridden the Tour de France, with a best place finish of 12th in 1983 in his five attempts. He has moved to Rwanda to establish their first-ever professional cycling team, with six young cyclists now flying the green, blue and yellow flag.
Jock believes, as do we, that Team Rwanda offers an extraordinarily positive role model for Rwandans, and an image of self-help and upliftment far from the madding activities of donors and humanitarian relief agencies. In spite of this, it has been a struggle to fund the initiative, with lots fulsome in their praise but less so in their financial generosity. So Jock, who does not draw a salary, has moved to US$400.00 a month house in Ruhengeri to keep overheads to a minimum, where he trains the riders and tests new recruits.
Together with the ?inventor? of mountain-biking, fellow Californian Tom Ritchey who has bankrolled much of the Team until now, Jock is putting together a series of mountain-bike trails for tourists as another funding stream. This is what we went to check out.
As if it was not enough riding with a cycling legend, few superlatives would suffice at the scenery and the humility of the people we encountered. We first went around Lake Ruhondo towards the border with Uganda , climbing about 500 metres to a Catholic retreat with a staggeringly beautiful vista over the Lake . The next day we went around the higher (and larger) northern lake, Burera, via a series of small villages, brickworks and stream of chasing small boys and moving people ? even encountering a band, complete with guitars and, balanced on their heads, speakers and amps.
The density of the population reminded me of two factoids I recently learnt: countries which grow their populations at 3 percent per annum (a touch more than Rwanda ?s) will double their populations in 24 years, those (like Burundi ) at 3.5 percent, in just 20.
There would be little space to accommodate them in Rwanda . The place is already clogged with people. It also struck me how difficult it must have been for anyone to escape the genocide. Where would they have escaped to? And how would they have got through what would have been then almost entirely ?enemy? territory. A horrible thought in beautiful countryside.
But this now seems, at least from our perspective, a long way away. Almost totally neglected by travellers, in every small village we were mobbed by friendly crowds, a few with outstretched hands asking for ? mali ?, but most wanting only to see their picture which we could take. The poverty is breathtaking, and people have so little: children in little more than rags with tied bundles of plastic as their football, women ferrying ubiquitously heavy loads from unknown place to unseen place, others with hoes tending their small shambas. Mostly it was a trip of great humour. And it did not stop with the friendly banter between riders and with the locals. Our hotel?s menu offered some extraordinary Rwandan treats: Funished Goat Schemer, Tilapia Good Woman, Filet of Sangala its Nest, and Captain Thermidor. Being the adventurous sort, I had the Spag Bol.