Rwanda is a country landlocked in central Africa and blessed with incredible beauty. It is often dubbed as “the land of a thousand hills” for its volcanic mountains, snowcapped peaks, high altitude forests, and gently rolling plateaus. Much less known about is Rwanda’s lakes, beautiful beaches, and archipelago of islands. Most tourists today come to see the country’s famous mountain gorillas. And in the process, they inevitably discover Rwanda’s natural riches.
Geographically, Rwanda is located just south of the equator and surrounded by Uganda in the north Burundi in the south, Tanzania in the east, and the Democratic Republic of Congo in the west. The landscape is consists of mostly rugged mountains and rolling hills, which are interrupted by rivers, lakes, and valleys. The country’s average elevation is more than 5,000 feet above sea level, with the highest peak being the snowcapped Mount Karisimbi located in the Virunga volcanic range in the northwest; it rises to 14,780 feet. And straddling the border with the Democratic Republic of Congo is Lake Kivu, the country’s largest lake.
Rwanda has a greater percentage of land set aside for national parks than any other country in Africa. Its most famous national park may well be the Volcano National Park (or Parc National des Volcans). Rwanda, after all, is home to half of the world’s mountain gorillas, with many of them residing in Volcano National Park. The park is one of the last sanctuaries in the world for this species. Famous American naturalist Diane Fossey spent 18 years here studying the gorillas before she was murdered in 1985. Guided tours are offered and gorilla tracking can be arranged.
Another famous national park is the Akagera National Park; it covers more than 1000 square miles of savanna that is cut by the Akagera River. The park is home to over 500 species of birds and a once teeming population of zebras.
The Kabarando park is best for safari gaming. This preservation is home to zebras, hippos, antelopes, leopards, buffalos, apes, impalas, giraffes, warthogs, elephants, elands, fish eagles, crested herons, and cormorants.
Other natural attractions include the Virunga volcanoes. Located between Gisenyi and Ruhengeri, these volcanoes include the Nyiragongo and Nyamuragira, which are both still active and can be climbed.
In the eastern region of Rwanda, Kibungu has a set of lakes and waterfalls, including the Rusumo Falls and Lake Mungesera. Lake Kivu offers various watersports opportunities. Kibuye in the south is a lakeside resort. At Nyakabuye, you’ll find thermal waters as well as the grottoes of Nyenji and Kaboza nearby.
The climate in Rwanda is mild and even a bit temperate. There are two dry seasons: one from December to January, and another between June and September. There are two wet seasons as well: one between mid-September and November, and another between February and May. The average rainfall is about 40 inches a year in the northeast and about 60 inches per year in the southwest.
While Rwanda has only one common language, it is home to three major ethnic groups: the Hutu, Tutsi, and Twa. The Hutu constitute 85% of the population while the Tutsi compose 14%. Historically, the Tutsi were cattle owners who dominated the majority Hutu in a feudal system based on livestock. Most of the Tutsi today are farmers. The Twa, on the other hand, make up less than 1% of the population. They are Pygmies who are no taller than 5 feet. Many of them are farmers, but they also hunt, fish, and gather in the Virunga range.
Rwanda was first settled by the Twa who were hunters and gatherers. The Hutu came some time between the 7th and 10th centuries. The Tutsi arrived from somewhere north between the 14th and 16th centuries and developed a centralized feudal kingdom based on cattle. Hutu farmers agreed to serve the Tutsi in exchange for protection and the use of cattle.
During the 19th century, King Kigeri Rwabuguri established a unified state between the Hutu, Tutsi, and Twa inhabitants, but not too long afterwards, Rwanda was annexed and colonized by the Germans in 1899.
After the Germans were defeated in WWI, governance of Rwanda was turned over to the Belgians who allowed the Tutsi minority to continue their dominance over the Hutu. In the 1960s, independence was granted to Rwanda and rule of the country was given to the Hutu majority. This triggered the start of intercommunal violence between the Hutus and Tutsis.
In 1973, Habyarimana led a military coup that established a Hutu military government and set up a one-party system controlled by the Hutus. In 1990, the rebel Tutsi group, the Rwandan Patriotic Front, launched a resistance movement that attempted to overthrow the government, triggering the Rwandan Civil War that is still ongoing. The Rwandan Patriotic Front set up bases in Uganda to launch their guerrilla attacks.
In 1994, President Habyarimana was assassinated, triggering the “Rwandan Genocide”; in vengeance, Hutu extremists began systematically massacring the Tutsis. An estimated 800,000 were killed – a number that included not just Tutsis but Hutu moderates as well.
By 1996, the Tutsi-led Rwandan Patriotic Front had successfully captured the Rwandan capital, Kigali, and dethroned the Hutus. The Rwandan Patriotic Front, led by Kagame, set out on a mission of retribution, and more than two million Hutus were forced to flee the country. Kagame placed Hutu Rwandan genocidal leaders on trial for their war crimes. However, the international community has criticized Kagame for appropriately recognizing and memorializing the genocides of the Hutus but hypocritically failing to own up to his own crimes leading the Rwandan Patriotic Front.
Today, Kagame continues to rule over the country as president. The country is currently attempting to rebuild and learn to live together as one people after 60 years of intermittent wars. Small rebel groups in the border regions, however, continue to cause trouble.