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The mostly extinct Virunga chain of volcanoes straddles the borders of Rwanda, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
The mostly extinct Virunga chain of volcanoes straddles the borders of Rwanda, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

A new era dawns in Rwanda Add to ...

I like our chances, even as the front tire throws rags against the highway and the dusk-soaked hills wobble and shrug their silhouettes. The taxi driver steers the motorcycle into the shoulder and we slide to a sprawling stop in the dirt. I extract myself from the mess, filthy and unhurt. Unbelievably – because this is East Africa – I'm wearing a helmet. But this is Rwanda, and they do things differently here.

A farmer rushes over to see if we're all right. It wasn't a bad crash, but the bike's front rim is a mess. The driver hovers mournfully over his taxi. I can see the curve of electrified shoreline where the towns of Gisenyi and Goma meet on the Congolese border. Lake Kivu is a lurid mirror.

“If this was Uganda, our heads would be on the other side of the road,” he jokes, in a sudden fit of good humour.

You arrive in Rwanda with certain ideas about the place. If you work in the region, as I sometimes do, then you've heard the stories about the country's “miracle” recovery from the 1994 genocide. When I told my Ugandan colleagues about my holiday plans, they were enthusiastic. Rwanda, they said, is safe, orderly, prosperous. In spite of the accident, I'm inclined to agree.

But it's also place of oppressive beauty and roiling cultural complexity. Post-genocide Rwanda is an experiment in social engineering. In recent years, the government has enacted new laws on everything from Rwandese identity (Hutu/Tutsi distinctions are discouraged) to the use of plastic shopping bags (they're banned). There are speed laws, laws against littering and bribery, and yes, a law mandating helmets for motorcyclists.

I'm transfixed by this spectacle of a society striving to remake itself. For a week, I make a point of avoiding the memorials, but there's no escaping the genocide's legacy. Highway billboards inform citizens of their duty to remember. Villages commemorate their dead with humble monuments. Prisoners bury fibre-optic cable by the roadside, wearing cheerful jumpsuits – orange for convicted genocideurs , pink for those who await trial.

Yet, it's these reminders of human catastrophe that make poignant Rwanda's extreme physical beauty. As I travel high into the hills above the capital, Kigali, the forest thickens. Conifers line the immaculate switchbacks and farming communities dribble down the valley walls.

Cabins replace mud and wattle huts. Crop terraces lash every hillside, yielding to plots of silvery pyrethrum lower down. The wilds of Africa's most densely populated country have been tamed, picturesquely, but in this, too, there is the intimation of tragedy: Overpopulation was, and remains, a source of conflict.

On Mount Bisoke, in the Parc National des Volcans, I encounter a different kind of ghost. Halfway up the liquefying mountainside on a day beset by rain, my guide, a park ranger named D., lingers over a pile of gorilla dung. I'm hoping for a fugitive encounter. But the dung is old, and D. is more interested in the path running perpendicular to ours.

“Walk here,” he says, “and you get to the grave of Dian Fossey.” Fossey, the patron saint of the mountain gorilla, was murdered in the 1980s. Today, the organization that bears her name leads the country's exemplary conservation effort.

We plod on, up a trench of volcanic mud that sucks and farts at our boots. It's hard going. From the trees I can hear the crackle of radios. Three soldiers have been assigned to us for protection, I'm told, “against buffalo.” Clouds scud the crater lake, which gives off a mineral shine.

“This,” D. says, “is the Congo border. You cross it, and all bets are off.” Rwanda takes great care to protect the critically endangered mountain gorillas, who number less than 800 in the wild, but their range extends into the anarchic Democratic Republic of Congo, where they're poached for meat, hides and fetishes.

The next day, I sign up for one of the park's dedicated gorilla treks. I'd balked at the price – about $555 for an hour-long visit – but now I feel like I need to see them. At dawn, one of D.'s colleagues leads me and three other excited tourists into the bamboo forest that circles the slopes of a neighbouring volcano.

We're tracking the Susa, a troop that has made Rwanda its semi-permanent home. We find the animals in a clearing near the edge of the forest. They idle in knots of five, six, eight, dozing and eating and grooming.

The ranger squat-walks toward the largest silverback and grunts submissively. The male regards us for a second or two and scratches his jaw, a gesture of almost theatrical indifference. He's massive, at least 450 pounds, with a head like a boulder and an expressive face that betrays his curiosity. Another silverback, one of the younger males, lies on a bed of vines, surrendering to the ministrations of a female. Two youngsters play-fight silently, baring their teeth and rounding their lips as if to hoot.

“They are pacifists, did you know that?” the ranger whispers. A female wanders by with an infant, a bundle of stringy limbs and matted fur, cradled in one arm. A protective teenager follows her.

“Gorillas like harmony. The younger males, they wait until the leader is not looking and they jiggy-jiggy the females. They do not fight him. He teaches them and they respect him as the leader until he grows old and dies.”

Their calm is contagious. I feel relaxed and oddly humbled. When we leave the forest, the farmers' fields are a shock. The hills roll on for miles, silver and green and black.

And then, finally, I visit the genocide memorials. I go first to the Kigali Memorial Centre. Housed in an elegant pavilion on one of the city's many hills, it serves as both a museum and a mausoleum. A quarter-million of the dead were exhumed from mass graves and reburied here, beneath a garden.

The exhibition traces the genocide from its roots in the colonial era, when ethnic differences between the Hutu and Tutsi were exaggerated by European pseudoscience, to the frenzied bloodletting of those 100 days in 1994 – and you follow the narrative with a quickening sense of dread. The exhibition goes so far as to explain away ethnicity altogether, describing “Hutu” and “Tutsi” as markers, in their original sense, of class rather than tribe. (I can understand what the government is trying to do, but rewriting history, even in the interests of unity, strikes me as wrong-headed.)

The same day, I visit Murambi Polytechnic School in Gikongoro, two hours south, where classrooms occupy a flowery bluff surrounded on all sides by more hills. There, the bodies of several thousand Tutsis and moderate Hutus have been preserved in situ with lime. Arranged on platforms, the bodies look at first like sculpture, abstractions of violent death. Then you make out a rag of T-shirt, a shard of femur breaking skin, a fontanelle ripped and fringed with soft hair.

The horror of the genocide is in the details.

As I stumble through the school, I meet a tour group from Kigali and get to talking with a student named Félicien. Questions about Rwandese identity do not make for polite conversation, but I can't resist asking about what I saw in the capital. Félicien shakes his head. “At school, at work – okay. I can be Rwandese. But all of the time I am Tutsi.”

I accept their offer of a ride to Butare, the nearest city and Rwanda's intellectual capital. There, among the students and the flowering trees, we'll eat lamb brochette and drink Primus beer. And we'll argue happily about another contentious subject – soccer.

Special to The Globe and Mail

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Pack your bags

GETTING THERE Flights from Canada go through Europe. Kenya Airways offers daily flights from London to Kigali via Nairobi. WHEN TO GO The country enjoys mild, warm weather year-round, with average daytime temperatures around 24 C except in the highest mountains, where they are about 15. July to September is high season for gorilla tracking, but the country is at its verdant best the rest of the year. WHERE TO STAY Auberge la Caverne Blvd de Nyabugogo, in the city centre, Kigali; (250) 57-4549; a clean budget hotel with hot water. WHAT TO DO Genocide memorials Highlights include the memorials in Kigali and the hill towns of Gikongoro, Nyamata, and Ntarama. They're not for the squeamish, but offer an excellent, unsentimental account. Parents with teenagers should feel comfortable taking them there. WILDLIFE The gorilla trekking in Parc National des Volcans is reputed to be the best in Africa. About $555 per person for a half-day trip; permits can be arranged from Kigali or the park. A few hours away, Nyungwe National Park offers chimpanzee and lion safaris. ON THE BEACH Gisenyi, a resort town on Lake Kivu, offers a change of pace, with good beaches and great food. MORE INFORMATION Rwanda Tourist Board: www.rwandatourism.com.

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