Kigali. The capital and economic center of Rwanda, a small country tucked away in East Africa. Modern and vibrant by African standards, it's about as far away from Africa as you can get while still being in Africa. You'd be forgiven for foolishly believing you were somewhere else.
Known as the Land of a Thousand Hills, this tiny country will hypnotize you with its lush hills. Victim of a terrible nationwide genocide in 1994, an estimated 800k - 1m people were viciously killed in a span of merely 100 days. Friends and neighbors turned on each other as ethnic tensions rose and violence thrived. The world sat idly by when only a small contingent of peacekeeping forces could have prevented the blood bath.
Many genocidaires fled west into the Congo, but those that were caught and found guilty, faced punishment that rarely included actual imprisonment. Rather, those who destroyed the country were now forced to rebuild it. Rwanda has been going through aggressive modernization and development since the mass killings, focusing on education and economic development.
Given the bloody past, security in Rwanda is ever present. As you drive through town you'll see plenty of traffic police and armed military on patrol and standing guard. Hotels and other public destinations will have security, which might include the mirrors-under-the-vehicle bomb sweep before entrance. Imagine Brussels-on-lockdown, and you sort of get the picture. Yet, this is normal life for Rwandans. Which brings me to the story of how I nearly got arrested there.
Apparently, with the importance of security being what it is there, they are quite selective about what can and can't make it into the country. After having arrived by plane in Kigali and spending an afternoon acquainting myself, I spent the night at Bugesera Lodge, a new bed & breakfast with friendly and welcoming owners. Early the next morning, Kevin (friendly Western name), my driver/guide took me on the 3hr ride to the border with the Congo. Crossing into the Congo is its own story of its own, but lets just say at this land border crossing, seeing people walk up to the border and cross over in either direction, machete in-hand, is a normal part of life.
Having eventually crossed the border, I spent an absolutely amazing week in Virunga National Park. Getting to and from Virunga is most easily (and safely) done via this land border crossing, as flying into Congo is not exactly advisable. VICE even put out this great piece on flying in Congo that's worth the watch.
Most countries, don't really care that much about you when you are leaving. Rwanda didn't seem any different in that regard. The Congo, well, they don't really care much about you at all, other than as a potential opportunity to extract a bribe from you. You're western? You're rich. You're pretty much anywhere in Africa and you're western? You're rich. But leaving the country? Once again, they don't really care. Lucky for me, I had a guy from the tour company whose sole job was to help me cross the border.
When you cross into Rwanda by land, the customs and immigration process is, not as modern as say an international airport. There's no fancy x-ray to scan your bags. Hell, there's no antiquated x-ray either. Rather, you show your bags to the customs officer. Unzip your suitcase, let them ruffle through it a bit before nodding ok and onto the next bag. Camera bag cram-packed with cameras, lenses and other things that look like they might be expensive? Ok ok, no problem. So far, much better than getting an enhanced inspection in Havana (oh, yet another story to tell).
Wait, what's in that last bag? What is that? A drone? Where did that come from? Yes, my carry-on sized drone has caused me a world of trouble on this journey. The customs officials in Myanmar certainly didn't like it one bit. No no, they held onto it for the duration of my travels before releasing it back to me when I left. Congo? No problem. Mali? Accused me of being a spy and asked lots of other questions (again, another story to be told). Rwanda? Big problem. Big big problem.
As I was stuck at the border, things seemed to come to an impasse. Apparently, bringing a drone into Rwanda is about as bad as trying to bring a bomb into the country. No joke. A bomb. While the officer was generally nice, I couldn't really tell what was going on. She seemed to be on her phone in the same manner a high school kid working a summer job might be glued to their phone trying to escape the boredom.
Meanwhile, David (friendly Western name), my border-crossing guide was trying to help but to no avail. It was difficult for the officer to understand how I even came into possession of the drone as it's pretty clear the people crossing the border there had crossed into Congo earlier and are now crossing back. I was asked several times if my luggage was x-rayed when I arrived in Kigali and I explained that it was, and that the airport security had no issue with my baggage. I was asked if I flew the drone in the Congo (which I explained that I had), if I perhaps had purchased the drone in the Congo and was now trying to sneak it into Rwanda (which I hadn't).
David tried talking to the officer, but his translations were a bit short and was just told she's waiting on someone else - a boss perhaps, to figure out what to do. She took a photo of the drone with her phone and sent the picture to someone. Her boss I presumed. In the distance, I could see Kevin - the same driver that had taken me to the border just a week earlier - waiting to take me back to Kigali.
After nearly 30 minutes of this, Kevin approached to see what was going on. He figured something must be wrong that I'm just stuck there as other people cross over. Kevin really saved me on this one. We had a quick chat and he said things are not good but he could help. He made a call to what turned out to be a General in charge of that region of Rwanda. Informing him that I had the same luggage coming back into Rwanda as when he dropped me off a week earlier, and that I had a late night flight and was leaving the country anyways, the General agreed to let me into the country and informed the officer to let me pass.
Literally it was maybe 2-3 mins after Kevin showed up that this whole ordeal was over. Afterwards, he told me how the officer was actually waiting for someone to show up that could drive me to the police station, so that I could be "questioned" and that I could easily go to jail for this sort of thing. He stressed quite strongly that it was really really serious and that I'm lucky he knew that General (which I was). As I would find out on the drive back to Kigali, Kevin was pretty well connected in Rwanda. He's pretty much the ideal fixer I'd have to say. I never quite know where news agencies find their fixers, but I was so glad I stumbled onto Kevin.
If you're planning a trip to Rwanda or Congo, you might want to check out Amani Safaris. While the tour company I booked through sub-contracted out to them only for the border crossing and the drive to and from the border on the Rwandan side, I might be telling a much different story today if it wasn't for them.
The city lights of Kigali looked ever welcoming after nearly being arrested.