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Once war-torn Rwanda is now ready to shine

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Rwanda's newly opened cricket stadium outside the capital, Kigali, is just one spark of change for this formerly war-torn nation. Dom Dwight

My Rwandan guide, Robert, is holding up his identification card, flashing it proudly like a golden ticket to Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory. “On my ID, it says that I’m Rwandan, not Hutu or Tutsi,” he says fervently.

In a country formerly divided into two warring ethnicities, today, a Rwandan ID card — which formerly identified citizens according to those ethnicities, the Hutus and Tutsis — is the golden ticket to Rwanda’s prosperous future. It’s proof that after 23 years of rehabilitation, the Maryland-sized country, hugged by Tanzania, Burundi, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, is united and on the precipice of change.

We are in Kigali, the shiny capital city, where there’s a palpable sense of pride and optimism. The streets are squeaky clean, with not so much as a candy wrapper in sight. (It’s illegal to litter.) The city is constantly being preened: I see one man trimming grass on a roundabout that’s been dressed up as an urban park, while another is painting over road lines that have barely faded.

“We think the future is good for Rwanda,” says Robert. “Before, the country was in darkness. But today, we live in peace and there is zero tolerance to corruption.”

Since Rwanda’s harrowing genocide in 1994, where over a million people perished, the country has wholly transformed. Not only do Rwandans live more peacefully, but tourism, especially to see the gorillas, is booming and Kigali has become a business hub. Ranked as the 2nd easiest place to do business in sub-Saharan Africa in this year’s World Bank Doing Business Report, gleaming new developments like the Kigali Convention Centre and its adjacent 292-room Radisson Blu (from $240), the 254-room Kigali Marriott Hotel (from $243) and the brand-new cricket stadium are physical proof of the growth.

To further business travel, the country’s national carrier RwandAir launched daily flights to Lagos (one of Africa’s other hubs) as well as new routes to London and Mumbai. In 2018, RwandAir plans to launch a direct flight to New York.

Iky's Photographic

Kigali is an interesting study in contrasts. Women carry baskets of fruit on their heads as they wander through busy markets, millennials furiously text on their phones and scooters buzz and beep past cluttered storefronts that line the pristine streets, where the sparkly new buildings sit as a backdrop. This is modern-day Africa at its best.

Rural parts of the country are following closely behind with new lodges, catering to a very high-end tourism market. Before this year, Volcanoes Safaris, the first company to introduce gorilla tourism into the country, was the only one that offered luxury accommodations.

Gorilla tourism via resorts of this caliber and other, less pricey outposts is one of Rwanda’s most successful income earners; tourism earnings grew 6 percent between 2015 and 2016. To support Rwanda’s high-end sustainable tourism policy, this year, the price of gorilla permits — which allow each visitor access into the park and an hour to observe the gorillas — also doubled in price (from $750 to $1,500).

There’s even more buzz just outside Kigali. The opening of a new cricket stadium a half hour’s drive away in Gahanga in late October of this year serves as a poignant emblem of how far Rwanda has come. The stadium will host year-round local and international matches and also hopes to become a community hub, with a bar, restaurant and HIV testing facility for the local community. “Cricket is really playing its part in the healing process of the country,” says national team captain Eric Dusingizimana. “It’s bringing people together.”

Before the genocide, no Rwandan played cricket. But when, after 1994, when refugees returned home from surrounding countries such as Kenya and Uganda — former British colonies — they brought a new sport that they’d learned how to play with them. It is now the fastest-growing pastime in the country, with over 15,000 players, as well as a unifying force for its citizens. Former rivals are now batting for the same side and working together to grow support for the sport.

“Now we can finally start hosting tournaments,” Dusingizimana says, as he gazes out over the new cricket pitch. The look in his eyes is one that can be seen in the eyes of so many Rwandans; it’s the unmistakable glimmer of hope.

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Safari Activities

Chimpanzee Tracking

Tracking chimpanzees in their natural habitat, as they swing from the branches in the canopy high above the forest floor is nothing short of exhilarating. The chimps effortlessly cross and scamper through the trees above the gorge, and visitors on the other hand must cross the river using natural bridges in order to keep up with the chimps. So although the walk usually lasts only 2–3 hours, descending the steep gorge and crossing the log bridges over the river requires some agility and fitness.

Chimpanzee tracking is also available in nearby Kalinzu, a forest reserve 30 minutes drive from Kyambura Gorge Lodge where there is a community of about 40 habituated chimpanzees.