Essays & Musings · May 4, 2018

Fascinating Stories From Kigali – The Genocide Story, A President’s Plane Crash in His Home & Lots More!

What do you know about Rwanda? You might have heard about the genocide of 1994 or you might be more familiar with this small country making big waves in contemporary Africa. There’s so much intrigue in Rwanda and it is a country I highly recommend as a top tourist destination in East Africa. However, I spent a day touring the highlights of Kigali – Rwanda’s capital city and came across a few stories that are fascinating (not butterflies and rainbows, but intriguing and captivating). The third story resembles an African political legend, complete with an assassination and a disappearing snake. However, these stories are just as true as they are gripping. Here we go!

  1. The Genocide Memorial is vivid and heartbreaking but an example of how memorials should be done!

Photo: Funmi Oyatogun

How do you take responsibility for your horrific past, document the realities of this past, pay tribute to the victims and survivors, foster unity among everyone and lead the country on a path of healing and advancement? Well, Rwanda is doing exactly this with the Genocide Memorial. The Memorial holds details about the genocide – the politics, the images, the videos. There’s more than you’re expecting to see. There is no attempt to deny or censor the realities of what happened. Alongside the Memorial, there’s a whole center dedicated to providing professional counselling and support to survivors. The videos from the tour show survivors recounting their experiences, walking through their healing process and moving forward with their lives. It is vivid enough to be real but somehow, it provides a true learning opportunity that no classroom lesson on the genocide can provide.

Photo: Funmi Oyatogun

Inside, thousands of unidentified bones can be viewed in a section of the museum. It is hard to stomach the sight of childrens’ skulls laying beside tiny shoes and damaged ID cards but this is an important visual that helps visitors recognize the extent of the horror of the genocide. The display is not for show or shock value, it is a respectful arrangement – similar to a lying in state. Outside, mass graves are surrounded by a wall of names and dozens of flower arrangements. I was able to place a single rose at the memorial too. 

Guests can pay a fee to take photos inside the museum but I took notes, instead, almost certain that the things I saw would remain indelible in my mind. I successfully held back the tears until one simple sign towards the end of the tour broke me down to tears. It read: “Children, you might have been our heroes.” It was a story of some of the children victims, as told by their living peers and with photos shared by their families.

2. It is illegal to identify as Hutu or Tutsi in today’s Rwanda

Photo: ‘Funmi Oyatogun

If you pronounce yourself as Hutu or Tutsi in today’s Rwanda, you will be arrested for genocide ideology. I initially struggled to understand how this could be done so easily and what people tell their children when they ask about their ethnic origins. However, after visiting the Genocide Memorial and speaking with so many Rwandans, I understand that the Hutu and Tutsi classifications were not exactly tribes and could be dismantled almost as easily as they were created. After all, everyone speaks the same language, eats the same food and has the same customs. The drive for a new Rwanda did not wipe away people’s memories, but it has fostered a unity that upholds their shared humanity. In Rwanda, everyone is Rwandan.

3. A former Rwandan President was killed when his plane crashed in his own compound!

Photo: Funmi Oyatogun

Everything about this story made me gape in shock. I couldn’t believe that I almost skipped visiting the museum where I would discover the most enchanting story out of Rwanda. Here it goes: In 1973, Juvénal Habyarimana seized power as the President of Rwanda during a coup. He ruled as a dictator for 21 years and his wife Agathe was considered complicit in the genocide. So, in 1994, the president – Juvénal was flying in his private jet from Dar es Salaam back to Kigali when his plane was shot down over his presidential residence. When the plane fell, it landed neatly in his home garden – just few yards from the swimming pool. He died alongside Cyprien Ntaryamira – the president of neighboring Burundi at that time, and several others. That’s not all! The president’s private giant pet python mysteriously disappeared the moment he died. A tour of the presidential palace shows the remains of the plane, the python’s pond, the president’s private room in which he consulted his witch doctor and his private chapel which the Pope John Paul II is rumored to have visited. The events surrounding his death will eventually spark the already-brewing pot of genocide and lead to the most horrific element of Rwanda’s history. Unfortunately, the presidential palace will be turned into an art gallery from the 15th of May, 2018 and won’t offer much of these insights into Juvénal’s life anymore. However, the remains of the plane will presumably stay on the grounds.

If you’re looking for a place to go for a historical tour, Kigali is worth your time. What other fascinating stories from Rwanda or the entire continent of Africa do you know? Let’s share in the comments and on Social Media using the hashtag #DidYouKnowAfrica.

Follow ‘Funmi’s discoveries, travel stories and guides on Instagram — (@funmioyatogun). You can also book a group tour or a custom travel itinerary with TVP Adventures (@TVPAdventures). ‘Funmi is available for writing or travel expo opportunities.