IS IT SAFE TO VISIT RWANDA?

Rwanda is regarded as one of the safest countries to visit in Africa.Thousands of tourists visit Rwanda each year, mainly for gorilla trekking safaris and they’re generally warmly welcomed and made to feel safe and secure in the country. As long as you’re travelling with a reputable tour operator and taking the usual precautions to keep safe, your holiday in Rwanda should be incident-free.

Sadly, the country bears the burden of its violent past and the name Rwanda still conjures up feelings of fear and trepidation when people speak of it.Rightly so, the Rwanda Civil War - or rather the famed genocide period - will never be forgotten but the ruling party has almost overcompensated to some extent to make Rwanda a safe and sought-after travel destination.

Like any country in Africa, you need to make your own safety a priority and take the usual precautions to falling victim to a crime or tourist scam. There are legal matters to consider that’ll keep you on the right side of the law as well cultural issues that need to be respected so you don’t offend anyone. Otherwise, Rwanda is a breath-takingly beautiful country and perfectly safe for the majority of travellers.

POLITICAL SITUATION IN RWANDA

It’s been 25 years since Rwanda experienced the most brutal period in its history; the mass slaughter of Tutsi and moderate Hutu. In just 100 days in 1994, about 800 000 people were slaughtered by ethnic Hutu extremists.

It started when the Hutus overthrew the Tutsi monarchy and tens of thousands of Tutsis fled to neighbouring countries, including Uganda. A group of Tutsi exiles formed a rebel group (RPF) and returned to Rwanda to carry out the prolonged slaughter of Hutus.

The Rwanda genocide only ended when the well-organised RPF gained more territory and took over the country. Sadly, the bloody fighting didn’t end there and a new war dragged in 6 countries and led to the creation of numerous armed groups fighting for control of the mineral-rich country. In total, it’s estimated 5 million people died in the Rwanda conflict which continued until 2003.

Today, Rwanda has been transformed from a devastated country to one experiencing rapid economic growth. On the surface, the country enjoys a sense of order and peace since the genocide. People are discouraged from identifying as Hutu or Tutsi but rather as Rwandans. However, the country still has a long way to go. Two-thirds of its population lives below the poverty line and youth unemployment sits at 40 percent.

President Kagame is largely credited with turning the country around, in particular setting it up as the technological hub of Africa. Lauded by many as a driver of economic growth and severely criticised by just as many for his often brutal authoritarian rule, there’s no doubt that President Kagame is responsible for lifting many Rwandans from the grip of poverty; bringing improved healthcare and education to the fore.

The genocide is still a hugely sensitive issue in Rwanda. In fact, it’s illegal to talk about ethnicity because it’s feared any hate speech will trigger more bloodshed. There is absolutely no room for dissent within Rwanda. As the say, “You agree, you accept Kagame’s supreme power or you leave.”

RWANDA BORDER CONTROLS

The majority of international travellers on a trip to Rwanda for gorilla trekking safaris arrive by air on scheduled flights. Rwanda has one international gateway airport that services the majority of popular tourist destinations. Kigali International Airport is located at Kanombe which is 10 kilometres east of the centre of the capital city of Kigali.

If you’re travelling overland and plan to cross into or leave Rwanda via one of its border posts, it’s important that you check with government authorities who’ll advise on whether it’s safe to cross the border. This is due to an ongoing political dispute that’s playing out between Rwanda and its neighbours Uganda, Burundi and the DRC.

Rwanda and Uganda have had a love-hate relationship over the past few decades. At the moment, mounting tension between the two presidents has reached worrying heights and the international community is on the watch; fearful of a war breaking out between the two countries.

Rwanda has accused Uganda of abducting and legally detaining Rwandans in Uganda, sheltering dissidents who are working to overthrow the government of Rwanda and sabotaging trade transiting through Uganda and destined for Rwanda.

Relations between Rwanda and Burundi are also strained and travellers are advised to avoid travelling within 10 kilometres of the Rwanda-Burundi border due to crime and ongoing conflict between the government and rebel groups. 

There is also a heightened security risk for border crossings between Rwanda and the DRC due to local conflicts between government forces and militia groups. As a precaution, travellers are advised to avoid crossing into Rwanda from the DRC.

CRIME IN RWANDA

Rwanda is an extremely poor country so yes, there is crime in the country but it’s generally described as low-to-medium risk. Criminal elements rarely target travellers as long as they stick to the beaten tourist path and take care to keep safe.

The socio-economic factors in Rwanda are improving, albeit slowly. The people are better off than they were a decade ago, especially in the capital city of Kigali. Crime tends to be restricted to house robberies, car hijacking and petty theft such as pick-pocketing and bag grabs.

Typical tourist scams occur as they do in any country in Africa attracting high-end tourists. This includes credit card skimming or cloning at hotels and restaurants. It happens everywhere in the world and the trick is to know how these scams work and be vigilante.

SAFE TRANSPORT OPTIONS IN RWANDA

Possibly the least safe aspects of Rwanda are the condition of its roads and locals who drive badly. Reckless driving and speeding is a problem, coupled with vehicles that are often not roadworthy and a hazard on the road.

The road infrastructure is not well maintained and most roads are unpaved and poorly lit, particularly in areas outside of the large towns and cities. You’ll also experience problems with people and animals walking on the roads, day and night.

It’s highly recommended that you book your holiday to Rwanda through a reputable tour operator who’ll transport you from A to B in a reliable, roadworthy vehicle. If you have to use local transport, these are your options:

Bus

Rwanda has a well-established and reliable bus network between major cities, towns and neighbouring countries. Don’t expect a fancy bus; they’re mostly old, dirty and crowded, particularly in the cities.

Minibus

A 16-seater minibus is one of the most popular modes of transport in most African countries. They’re cheaper than taxis but aren’t recommended for your average international tourist. They don’t drive off until they’re packed to the brim, some aren’t roadworthy and they ‘stop and go’ as they driver pleases.

Train

There is no train network in Rwanda.

Licensed taxis

You can hail a licensed taxi from Kigali International Airport and from the large shopping centres in the city. They are easy to spot; white with an orange stripe and a sign on its roof. They’re not cheap because they’re usually priced for tourists but they are a safer option than the local bus. Make sure you negotiate the price of your trip before getting in the taxi. You’ll get ripped off if you’re not careful.

Car hire

You can hire a car from rental companies based at Kigali International Airport or in the city centre. This might sound like a good option but it isn’t recommended; mainly because the roads are so poor, the drivers are bad and the roads are often not marked. Rather leave the driving to an experienced tour operator in Rwanda.

TOP SAFETY TIPS FOR RWANDA

Be vigilante

Take care when walking around the large towns and cities of Rwanda. Pickpocketing, bag snatching and petty theft of phones and electronics is fairly common in crowded market areas. Avoid attracting unwanted attention to yourself in the large towns and cities in Rwanda. Don’t flash fancy camera equipment around, cash or expensive jewelry; leave your valuables at home or in a safe in your hotel.

Avoid at all costs walking around after dark, particularly if you’re on your own. Most crimes committed in the city are non-violent but it’s not worth taking the risk. At the very least, a mugging where you lose your camera, phone and possibly important documents can derail your holiday plans.

Don’t do drugs in Rwanda

The possession, use and trafficking of drugs in Rwanda is illegal and offenders will be fined heavily and face potential jail time. Do not offer to carry a package from an unknown of suspicious source in your luggage as you risk being used as a drug mule.

Be careful what you photograph

You are prohibited from taking photographs of military, government buildings and border crossing points. If you’re unsure if it’s safe to take a photograph of something, ask your tour guide for permission.

Don’t drink and drive

Drinking and driving is illegal and punishable by a heavy fine or possible jail time. The same applies to using your mobile phone while driving. Remember, if you get tipsy or very drunk on a night out on the town, you are vulnerable. Your senses are dulled and you make poor decisions. You risk being followed home, falling victim to a crime and being seriously hurt.

Don’t mention the genocide

Talk of the Rwanda genocide that is inappropriate or divisive is illegal and you risk getting a heavy fine or being thrown into jail. Avoid any discussion of the genocide with locals, regardless of how harmless you think it might be. Many locals have been affected by the atrocity and still experience trauma from that brutal period.

Do your research on common tourist scams

Whether you’re in Paris or Kigali, you’ve got to watch out for the same old tourist scams. This includes card cloning, online fraud and overcharging. Do research on common ways tourists are ripped off in foreign countries and keep your wits about you so you don’t fall victim to whatever is popular in that country.Don’t trust people too quickly, rather rely on the advice and help of your tour guide.

Book your holiday in Rwanda with a reputable tour operator

For gorilla trekking safaris, always book a tour with a reputable tour operator. These tour operators make your safety a priority and will be quick to alert you to potential risks that could see you get badly hurt or put in a dangerous situation that could get you killed.

Be respectful of local cultures

Homosexuality isn’t illegal in Rwanda but it’s still considered taboo and not widely accepted. LGBTQ travellers should avoid public displays of affection out of respect for the local people who are still largely conservative, although not homophobic. Kigali is more gay-friendly and has a few popular restaurants and bars you can visit where you’ll feel safe.

Travel with a reputable tour operator in Rwanda

Consider all modes of road transport in Rwanda as highly unsafe. The drivers are reckless, the roads are in a poor condition and most vehicles are not roadworthy. For this reason, you are safest in Rwanda with a reputable tour operator in a luxury vehicle and a driver who’ll navigate the dangers.

Don’t pack plastic bags

You’ll notice as you travel around Rwanda how clean the country is. This is largely because the government has banned all non-biodegradable plastic bags. Your luggage will be searched at the airport and you’ll be fined up to 50 000 Rwandan Francs (roughly US$60) if found to have plastic bags in your bag or on your person. It’s such a serious offence that you may even be jailed. Be safe and don’t put anything in a plastic bag for your trip to Rwanda.

Be law abiding

You do not want to find yourself locked up in a Rwanda jail so it’s highly recommended that you abide by the country’s laws and stay out of trouble. Rwanda’s legal system is efficient and relatively uncorrupted, although it’s fairly common you’ll be asked to pay a bribe to get off a traffic fine. If arrested, you’re treated as ‘innocent until proven guilty’ in Rwanda and you have a legal right to a lawyer.

INSURANCE COVER FOR RWANDA

TRAVEL & MEDICAL INSURANCE

Travel insurance is highly recommended for Rwanda. It should theft, loss and medical emergencies and evacuations. Check the small print when taking out travel insurance and some policies will not cover dangerous activities such as paragliding, scuba diving, helicopter rides and even motorbiking, cycling and hiking.

Medical insurance for Rwanda is very important. You can take it out as part of your travel insurance cover or request extra cover from your existing medical aid company. In most African countries, doctors and medical facilities expect payment in cash if you’re a foreigner. Find out from your insurance company if they make payments directly to a medical provider or reimburse you when you return home.

One of the crucial things to cover is transport for an emergency evacuation. This might be an ambulance or helicopter. If you need urgent medical help when you are far from a city or town, sometimes the only option is to have you evacuated by air.

HEALTH WARNINGS FOR RWANDA

Rwanda is a very poor country but remarkably it has one of the best organised health care systems in Africa. There is an organised network of health care providers including district and referral hospitals as well as local health clinics.

There are 3 main hospitals locate in the capital city of Kigali; King Faisal Hospital is the one most foreign tourists will go to as it provides health care to private patients with private insurance cover.

Yellow fever

Travellers need to have a yellow fever vaccination before arriving in Rwanda and must carry their certificate with them. It needs to be presented to the immigration official on arrival in Rwanda.

Yellow fever is spread by infected mosquitoes. Symptoms are similar to malaria ranging from flu-like chills and fever to server hepatitis and jaundice. If left untreated or not diagnosed early, the disease is life-threatening.

Malaria

Rwanda is a medium-to-high risk malaria area, depending on the season and where you are travelling to. The risk of contracting malaria is higher in the humid summer and rainy season. The risk is lower at altitudes higher than 2 000 metres. The highest risk area for malaria in Rwanda is in the eastern region.

It’s highly recommended that all travellers take anti-malaria tablets for a trip to Rwanda. Malaria is a life-threatening disease. If left untreated or not diagnosed early, it can lead to death. Speak to your doctor or a travel clinic for advise on anti-malaria tablets.

To prevent being bitten by an infected mosquito; sleep under a mosquito net and use a mosquito spray or coil to repel mosquitos, cover your arms and legs before the sun sets wearing long pants and long-sleeve shirts and apply mosquito repellent on exposed areas of skin. Mosquitos are most active from sunset to sundown but it’s advisable to spray yourself during the day as a precaution.

The symptoms of malaria show between 10 to 14 days after being bitten. Depending on the severity, malaria symptoms range from flu-like aches and chills to abdominal pain, fever and unconsciousness. If you experience any of these symptoms once home from your holiday to Rwanda, seek immediate medical attention and request a malaria blood test.

Bilharzia

Bilharzia is a disease spread by minute worms that are carried by a species of freshwater snail. The parasites penetrate human skin when someone is paddling or swimming and then migrate to the bladder or bowel. Symptoms range from a light fever and rash to blood in the stool or urine. If left untreated, the bilharzia infection can cause kidney failure and permanent bowl damage.

Avoid swimming, paddling or wading in remote freshwater lakes or dams that make be suspect or slow-moving rivers. If you are concerned you’ve been infected, visit a specialist infectious disease clinic and request a blood test.

HIV/AIDS

The risk of contracting HIV is extremely high but only a concern if you have unprotected sex or receive a blood transfusion in the region. Always use a condom when having sex with anyone on a holiday in Rwanda who’s not known to you and a trusted partner.

For an emergency blood transfusion, contact The BloodCare Foundation (www.bloodcare.org.uk) which can provide safe, screened blood transported to any part of the world within 24 hours.

Tap Water

It’s advisable that you don’t drink tap water in Rwanda unless it’s been filtered, boiled or disinfected with iodine tablets. Rather opt for bottled water from a trusted source. Avoid drinking water from streams, rivers and lakes as a precaution against contracting bilharzia.

Toilets

The majority of places in Rwanda have western-style flushing toilets. The popular tourist hotels and safari lodges in Rwanda have clean, quality toilet facilities. It’s only the more remote areas that you’ll find public ablutions that are fairly unsanitary. Avoid sitting on the seats and always wash your hands after a visit to a public toilet.

VACCINATIONS NEEDED FOR RWANDA

The following vaccinations are recommended by the World Health Organisation (www.who.int) for Rwanda: diphtheria, tetanus, measles, mumps, rubella, polio and hepatitis B.

Consult your doctor or travel clinic for advice on the following vaccinations for Rwanda: hepatitis A, meningococcal meningitis, rabies and typhoid.

Proof of a yellow-fever vaccination is mandatory for travel to Rwanda.

IS RWANDA SAFE FOR WOMEN TRAVELLERS?

Rwanda is a safe country to visit and there’s not real risk for female travellers as long as they take the usual precautions to avoid becoming a victim of crime, rape or other serious offences. Avoid wearing revealing clothes like short shirts and halter tops, mainly out of respect for the Rwandans culture. Local women generally dress conservatively, covering up their shoulders and legs.

IS IT RWANDA SAFE FOR CHILDREN?

It’s safe to travel around Rwanda with children as long as you follow the usual precautions to keep them out of harm’s way. Children are welcome at restaurants and safari lodges and it’s an opportunity of a lifetime for them to go on a safari in the Rwanda national parks.

However, there is an age restriction on gorilla trekking in Rwanda and it’s strictly enforced by the park authorities. The minimum age for gorilla trekking in Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda is 15 years and older. You need to present an original passport before being permitted to continue with gorilla trekking so your age can be verified.

The main reason behind the age restriction on gorilla trekking is because children are more likely to have common colds and flus or other childhood diseases that can easily be transmitted to mountain gorillas. Another reason is children can be unpredictable and loud noises or screaming or a child running amok could cause a big problem.

SAFEST TIME TO VISIT RWANDA

If you’re interested in gorilla trekking, the safest time to visit Rwanda is during the short dry season from mid-December to early February or over the long dry season between June and September. The dry weather makes hiking in the impenetrable forests easier and the risk of contracting malaria is lower as malaria-carrying mosquitoes are more of a nuisance in the wet, rainy season.

If you’re interested in chimpanzee trekking, the best time to visit Rwanda is during the two rainy season; mid-February to early June and mid-September to mid-December. This is because the apes are easier to find. In the dry season, food is hard to find for the chimps and they tend to extend their foraging range far into the forest interior. The rainy season is not the safest time to visit in terms of hiking because the paths are slippery and muddy. Bring good quality hiking boots for the trip.

ANYTHING ELSE YOU NEED TO KNOW ABOUT RWANDA

At the time of writing, Rwanda was regarded as one of the safest countries in Africa to visit. However, there is tension brewing between Rwanda and Uganda and the international travel community is on alert that the situation may escalate and war might break out.

Your travel agent will let you know if the problem worsens and whether it is safe or not to visit. Watch the press for details to monitor the situation and plan your holiday so you avoid areas of conflict.

MoAfrika Tours is a leading tour operator in South Africa that offers an outstanding selection of tours to Rwanda. We have a close association with the most reputable tour operators in Rwanda and ensure that you’re in excellent hands from the moment you arrive.