KIGALI – You’re going where?” “To Rwanda,” we said. “Are you taking the children?” “Yes,” we replied. Isn’t it where they had that genocide? Is it safe? Why are you taking three children under six there?
This conversation was repeated many times over the six months it took us to plan our family trip to Rwanda for half-term. We tried to explain to friends and family that we thought of the trip not so much as a holiday but as an adventure and a life-enhancing experience for the children and us as a family. Still, as we left for the airport the last thing people said to us was, “stay safe” — most clearly remained sceptical about our plan.
We initially decided to travel to Rwanda to take part in a rugby coaching tour that the innovative charity Friends of Rwandan Rugby (FoRR) runs every year. Sport in Rwanda plays a big role in helping heal the wounds left behind by the 1994 genocide, and FoRR provides children with new memories and shared experiences through rugby. Teaching a new sport to hundreds of children on a Monday and ending the week with a tag rugby tournament can be gruelling but creates incredible moments for everyone involved and we wanted the girls to be part of it.
Once we had decided to put the trip together around the coaching tour, we hit a stumbling block. Rwanda, it seems, is still regarded by the adventure travel industry as an adults-only destination. The reason to travel to Rwanda, in their view, is to see the gorillas and other primates you can’t visit until you are 15. However, we weren’t about to give up, and eventually came across Katina, of World Fusion Tours, an Australian based in Rwanda. She understood our aims and our concerns and we set about creating an itinerary that was about more than gorillas.
We arrived into Kigali late on our first evening with three exhausted children, and were delighted with the oasis that is the Kigali Marriott. Using this as our base for the first two days of the trip gave us space to enjoy the modern, bustling capital city. After a lazy morning taking advantage of the pool at the hotel we spent the afternoon on a community tour of Kigali visiting the Nyamirambo Women’s Centre, a collective that runs walking tours, hair-braiding and basket-weaving classes, followed by a trip to the Niyo Cultural Centre, which displays local art and teaches traditional Rwandan dancing and drumming to street kids. It was a very different experience to our previous holiday, when the girls had their hair styled at Disney’s Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique — but was significantly more rewarding.
Our week in schools teaching rugby was fantastic yet challenging. We left Kigali on a yellow school bus with no seat belts accompanied by 14 boisterous rugby players — it was a fun experience and our normal essential safety requirements were being peeled back day by day.
Our base for the week in the district of Ruhango wasn’t set up for tourists, and there was a distinct lack of facilities: there was no running water at points and while the kids were overjoyed at taking bucket baths, the lack of this basic resource with three small children was hard at times. Then I remembered that this is how a significant proportion of the world lives every day and decided we could manage for a week.
But as the week progressed and got better and better we realised we had made the right decision. Rwandans love children, “one child is everyone’s child” being the ethos. As a family we were welcomed with huge smiles everywhere we went. The kids, while a little overwhelmed at their celebrity status, conducted class singalongs and large games of duck, duck, goose. They played rugby with the younger kids and began to appreciate how much they have back home, and how lucky they are in comparison with many others. They also noticed how much the children of Ruhango smiled, despite having little to call their own.
However, it was with some excitement that we were collected from Ruhango at the end of the week by our driver Jimmy in a rather large and solid- looking Jeep (with — what joy — seatbelts!). It was time to explore the rest of this beautiful country, nicknamed The Land of a Thousand Hills. We drove through winding hills towards Lake Kivu and INZU Lodge at Gisenyi — the paddleboarding and fabulous views could have kept us longer but we had more to see.
From Gisenyi we made our way to Villa Gorilla in Musanze, from where we hoped to see the famous mountain gorillas (thanks to pre-arranged childcare). But it wasn’t all adults-only — we took a fantastic family canoe trip along the Mukungwa river. We ended our adventure of a lifetime with two nights at Ruzizi Lodge in Akagera Game Park, where we spotted hippos and crocodiles on a family boat trip as the sun went down.
At no time during our trip did we ever feel unsafe — quite the opposite, in fact. Returning home after two weeks of adventure, we were tired but happy — and the children said they’d had the best trip of their lives and want to go back next year. My advice? Go now before everybody’s doing it.
An eight-day trip to Rwanda with World Fusion Tours (worldfusiontours.com), including ground transport and accommodation at Kigali Marriott (B&B), INZU Lodge, Villa Gorilla (full board) and Ruzizi Lodge (full board), from £1,805pp. Rwandair (rwandair.com) offers direct flights from Gatwick to Kigali from £355 return.