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How does a country that left thousands dead feel so alive?

Updated: Jul 25, 2021

All photos taken by Julie Raworth

During Rwanda’s genocide hundreds of thousands of people died amongst the beautiful and vast thousand hills. But somehow, from all this death, I find there is more energy and life in the earth of Rwanda than in the UK.

Each time I come home from Rwanda I feel, what maybe some people appreciate as a ‘stillness’, I experience now as a ‘deadness’. Maybe it is in part about me, that I have isolated myself out into the countryside for the last few years in the quest for stillness that now I feel deadened by it. But even in busy town I still feel it. It is as though the people are all asleep.

It is a hard one to describe but when I look out across the hills of Rwanda I see and feel a magical energy oozing and emerging. A gentle musicality from within the ground. When I think about looking out onto the UK landscapes, whilst it is still beautiful, there is something really very lonely and dead about it.

My main reasons for this that I have so far come up with is that….

….virtually every piece of land is being kept alive, being grown on and nurtured by the people

….to achieve anything there has to be movement of people rather than doing all business via email.

….it is just the nature of the Rwandan people.

While documentaries focus on the development of Kigali as a developing city this is still a very small part of what the country really is. Rwanda is 26,338 km square and has a dense population of 416 people per km2 (NISR, 2012). 85% of its working class citizens depend on agriculture and this is visually evident by the infamous patchworking of the thousand hills.

Thousand Hills of Rwanda by Gill Raworth 2018

Unlike the UK, agriculture continues to be done by hand, particularly by the elder ladies while children might go to school and men may do labouring work. Throughout Rwanda it is usual to see ladies bent doubled in the crops, painstakingly nurturing each individual seed by hand, with limited tools. Or in towns they are found keeping the cities land tidy.

Unlike the UK where vast acres of land is owned and managed by individual professional farmers, each family may own a small piece of land in the hills. Here they farm the land by hand and carry down the crops to the towns for selling either to locals, in the markets or to pass on to big business for exporting within or outside of the country.

Unlike the UK we are not talking about elegantly flat and cascading plots of land either. A majority of land is virtually vertical and requires long and steep climbs just to reach them, and their homes. In my recent trip to Gisenyi there were a number of regular paths up into the hills within the town. Whilst my curiosity wanted to attempt to climb one I knew my Western body would never make it up the first steps. I could blame it in part on humidity and altitude sickness but reality is my Western lifestyle has not prepared me the same the way the Rwandans have.

Unlike the UK water is not readily available everywhere, in particular not up in the hills. They have had to do the climb up the hillside repeatedly since childhood to bring down crops, to buy food and to collect water and carry it back up. As you drive through the hills you see points along the rode where people are gathered to collect water that has drained from the hills. Strings of yellow canisters are carried and pushed along on bikes by children, ladies carry them on their head through town. Whilst there is clean water being provided in Rwanda it is still not as accessible as just turning on a tap.

Unlike the UK where remote villages are gradually having their roads pulled up to fit fibre cables, with the percentage of the country in rural agriculture settings the need for efficient communications in Rwanda is still not essential throughout the country. Where mobile phones and internet are available in towns the service is still somewhat haphazard. Business is still very much done in person and through a lot of discussion (this will be covered in another blog). In the UK business people sit in their ivory towards, watching over their apprentices sat behind computers filing their thousands of emails sent to and from each other from the same open planned office. Instead of walking across to their colleague to pass on a message they have to pay extortionate gym memberships to obtain exercise after work. In Rwanda, if you want an invoice paid, like my husband, you take the 3hour bus ride to the city with the invoice and don’t come back until the money is in your hand.

What all of this creates for me is movement, energy and most importantly connectivity, and this I believe is the reason for the sense of the country being alive, along with the nature of how all this is being done.

Whilst there may be frustrations, traumas, hunger, exhaustion etc, there is also still something so simple that allows children to run around the streets with torn clothes laughing and smiling.

People know what needs to be done and they may push it a bit with the tourists but they are not aggressive and know when to back off. They are not confrontational but kind and giving. Whilst they may not be organised they are a cooperative community and know that to be looked after they need to look after others in return. And this sense of camaraderie, of community and connectivity runs through the hills for me.

Each time I return back home from Rwanda I really notice that the silence I always craved for is now deadening my soul. Because of the distance and space the hills create in Rwanda, even in the bustling city of Kigali, noises from the neighbours are muted and carried into the valley, enabling you to still always feel there is life around you but it is not right on top of you (although the tendency for dogs barking throughout the night is an exception). Throughout the country people are always walking along the road, not hiding in their cars and homes. They are all sat outside their shops and bars alongside the road having conversations, not sat staring at phone screens (although this is emerging). It’s not noisy or busy but you get a sense of life. People are relaxed, hanging out waiting for trade to come, children are running around and playing, women are working on the land. It is never still, but somehow it does not feel busy. I miss this feeling of life.


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