By Gilbert Mwijuke
Rwanda is more than just the home of the iconic, critically endangered mountain gorillas that inhabit the Volcanoes National Park in the north.
To the south of the country, you’ll find incredible cultural and historical sites, and it is around here what we call the Heritage Corridor, where you can truly lose yourself in Rwanda’s rich history and unique culture as you discover the country’s hidden gems.
I was part of the group that set in motion the recently launched Tembera U Rwanda domestic tourism campaign, which comprised journalists, the Rwanda Development Board’s (RDB) tourism and conservation staff, as well as local tour operators.
Take off was at the RDB offices in Gishuhu, Kigali, and our first stop was at Ijuru rya Kamonyi (Heaven of Kamonyi), a historical site that is located in Gacurabwenge sector in Kamonyi district. A gentle hill, Ijuru rya Kamonyi was home to at least 13 Rwandan kings, including the very famous Huyi Mazimpaka, according to local elders with some knowledge about Rwandan culture and history.
History aside, Ijuru rya Kamonyi, which is also referred to as the Heart of Rwanda, offers visitors a clear view of numerous hills – gentle peaks unfolding into infinity. It is suitable for a day trip, during which an informative guide will walk you through some of the most interesting rituals and traditions of Rwandan kings as you savour an introspective walk in nature.
It’s at the tip of this hill that the king used to station his army, according to the elders we found here – the self-proclaimed Rwandan history ninjas. Ijuru rya Kamonyi was particularly considered strategic for the king’s army because it not only radiates silence but also offers clear views of neighbouring districts, including Huye, Bugesera, Ngororero as well as the capital Kigali.
Our next stop was at the Amasuka ya Papa (The Holy Hoes) in Muhanga district, a monument that was planted by Pope John Paul II when he visited the country in 1990. The Pope’s message was simple: let the land be fertile and produce as much food as possible.
After Pope John Paul II’s handiwork, our itinerary called for us to make another stopover at Kankazi, which was named after Queen Lodegounde Kankazi, the late Queen Mother of the last two Rwandan kings, Mutara III Rudahigwa and Kigeli.
Apart from her Queen Mother title, Kankazi’s other claim to fame was her generosity. A story is told that Queen Kankazi’s palace welcomed all and sundry, and the locals here fetched water from an outdoor tap just outside her palace. She was one of the most loved queen mothers in the history of the monarchy, we were told.
A fascinating story awaited us at Kamegeri’s Rock in Ruhango district. “Kamegeri was a leader under the reign of Mibambwe Sekarongoro Gisanura who was burnt on that rock after he had asked that criminals be thrown on that rock after it was made red-hot,” an inscription on the monument reads in part.
But the king didn’t follow his chief’s advice. Instead, he concluded that Kamegeri was so inhuman and should get a taste of his own medicine. Chief Kamegeri was roasted like bruchettes on this rock.
From Kamegeri’s Rock, we headed to Nyanza, a town with colourful history. It became Rwanda’s first capital city in 1889 during King Huyi V Musinga’s reign and was home to the monarchy for many years until 1959 when an uprising deposed the king and brought the epoch of the Nyiginya Dynasty to an end.
Nyanza represents the folk culture of the country and is surrounded by a good number of cultural attractions, including the King’s Palace Museum, which welcomes up to 2,000 visitors per month.
Also in its vicinity is the National Art Gallery, which plays host to an international art exhibition at least once a year, attracting some of the most adept painters the African continent has to offer.
We ended our expedition in Huye district, formerly known as Butare. For those interested in Rwandan culture and history, Huye also has a lot to offer, as we found out. The Ethnographic Museum houses a couple of exhibits that take visitors back in time, while the physically fit can savour a hike to the tip of Mount Huye, which is locally known as Ibisi bya Huye.
The tip of Mount Huye is said to have been the home of Nyagacecuru, a woman who established her own kingdom of sorts here until she was defeated by King Ruganzu II way back in the 16th Century.