Rwanda, The Royal Tour
The television series is a gem of an idea; ask a head of state to act as tour guide of his in own (So far it has only been a he) country, with the show’s producer and host, Peter Greenberg, as companion and prompter. After Israel, the kingdom of Jordan, Mexico, and Peru among others, it was the turn of Rwanda, and its President, Paul Kagame.
The films usually begin with a potted history of the country about to be presented to the viewer. In a quirky twist, it is Greenberg, and not the heads of state for whom the red carpet is rolled out. It is, it seems, in more senses than one, Peter Greenberg’s Royal Tour. One would love to be there when the request that Greenberg is received on the red carpet is made. There must be some quizzical looks, a few raised eye brows, but, he is humoured, and given his way. At the top of the programme, he pulls up to the grand entrance of whichever Palace, or State House, door is held open for him, steps out of a limousine, and marches up the red carpet, to be greeted in this case by President Paul Kagame, who welcomes him to Rwanda.
The programme is a travel show with a difference, a brochure on film, and a tourist office’s dream come true. Greenberg does however stray beyond travel journalism, understandably to put the country into context for the viewer. And on this occasion, he drew from the media narrative about Rwanda to quiz president Kagame about the country’s referendum to amend the constitution and suspend the presidential term limit and questioned him about the unusually high winning margin in the last Presidential elections – Kagame received 93% of the votes cast. “If that happened in the United States”, declared Greenberg somewhat intensely, ”there would be uproar, the elections would be rerun…”
President Kagame, who must be bored out of his wits with answering the same old questions, patiently explained that the high approval rating was no more than people expressing their satisfaction with their government. He might have retorted that not even his opponents question that his victory at the polls was the true expression of the overwhelming majority of the people of Rwanda, unlike what has taken place in America. But for less than transparent vote manipulation, Al Gore’s address in the early 2000s would have been the White House, and yet, there was never any question of rerunning the elections.
And there is no mystery about President Kagame’s margin of victory at the polls, if one bothers to understand Rwandan politics. A strong governing party, a weak opposition, and a wildly popular incumbent running on a record of achievement that is so far ahead of expectation, he could take a year’s holiday, and still come out ahead. Paul Kagame is a Rock star in Rwanda, and increasingly, his mood music is striking all the right notes across the rest of the continent. This is against much of gnashing of teeth from “Africanists” for whom Rwanda no longer lays out the red carpet, and once they are enthroned, sit at their feet, and be told what’s best for the country.
All of which monarchical imagery brings us back to the main objective of The Royal Tour, which in this particular case, was to show the splendoursof Rwanda, with its very own President as tour-guide-in chief. Like most citizens of the world, many Rwandans’ world revolves around their localities, and if honest, would have to admit that it takes an American television programme to show them the wonders of their own land. And the relaxed style of the programme offered them an added bonus; it gave them a glimpse to a side of their much admired President that they never get to see. It is almost mandatory for media descriptions of President Kagame to have the words, taciturn, stern and the like. More often than not, he is subjected to clichéd, two-dimensional descriptions, but, so accustomed to them are we, that the warm smile, naturally mischievous, playful manner comes as quite a surprise.
As he welcomes Greenberg, he adds that he is eager to discard the tie, and start their adventure. And when he settles himself in the Presidential Helicopter, he has the demeanour of an excited child about to go on a long awaited trip. Bicycling is fast becoming a popular pastime for visitors to Rwanda. Soon, the President jumps on one, and takes Greenberg up, and down Rwanda’s many hills, mostly up.
The filming of the programme is a well- kept secret, mostly to avoid crowds. But, as they cycled through a town, some surprised, eagle-eyed pupils espied their President, and in minutes, he was mobbed by excitable young children, soon to be joined by their parents. We then have a telling moment, as everyone’s instincts are revealed. For Greenberg, this is a photo opportunity that American Presidents would take months to arrange.
In a voiceover, he finds it necessary to assure the viewer that neither he, nor anyone else arranged it. The President’s security detail for whom the words, spontaneous, and crowds must be the bane of their lives, are all business, and one suspects less than pleased. In the midst of it all, a beaming President Kagame, excited children, and some of their parents, are having fun, oblivious to film crew, and security concerns. One imagines the arguments next day at school…yes, I am telling you, we were with the President…just us and him…yeah, pull the other one, someone will say. But, it’s true, he was on a bicycle, at which point, there will be laughter, and the story teller will be left standing alone, shouting, you can see it on television.
Next to be surprised were fishermen, as their President passed their rowing boats…on a jet ski, before climbing on to a power boat. They sung in rhythm as their oars cut into the water, “the God who protected our president in the struggle will protect us also”, “that’s right”, shouted the very man at them, to their rather bemused expressions.
No tour of Rwanda can be complete without humans causing inconvenience to their nearest Simian cousins, the Mountain Gorillas. They never seem to mind the intrusion however. Perhaps the knowing expressions in their dark eyes suggest they understand their survival owes everything to Rwanda’s ecotourism. Only a few years ago, these animals were critically endangered, caught between the twin dangers of human encroachment and poaching. Now, they are thriving, a flagship for one of the most successful conservation stories anywhere in the world.
Communities whose homes abut the gorilla habitat see them as a resource to be protected, thanks to the Government of Rwanda’s policy of ring fencing a percentage of proceeds from tourism for local people. Former poachers are employed as rangers, and many are developing expert understanding of the animals they once drove to near extinction. Coming face to face with the gorillas is a reward for the arduous hike that must precede the encounter. In the “land of a thousand hills” such a trek is inevitably, ever upwards.
President Kagame commanded the liberation forces of the Rwanda Patriotic Front (RPF), who brought the 1994 genocide against Batutsi to an end. A poignant moment is when he explained that it was in these mountains he and his guerrilla fighters hid, and from which they attacked the enemy. “The gorillas would hide from us” he quipped.
Soon the gorillas were left to do what they do best, frolic about for the young, and munch bamboo for the adults, lots of bamboo, tons of the stuff. The Royal Tour progressed to Nyungwe Forest, reputed to be the best preserved mountain rainforest in the region. Among a dizzying variety of endemic animals and birds, Nyungwe is home to the Angola Colobus monkeys. Sadly the only place they can now be found, having been hunted to extinction in their native homeland.
If the very thought of a trek is enough to exhaust you, the forest can be surveyed from the high canopy walk, part of Igishigishigi trail, which for some may be harder to say than to walk. Canopy walk sounds innocuous enough, but, probably best avoided if you suffer from vertigo. Imagine a high suspension bridge which moves with you as you traverse it. “Let’s see how you hold up”, said the President to Greenberg who was eyeing the bridge rather suspiciously, as his guide sallied forth.
In the middle of the bridge, the President stopped to look at the scenery, and wait for his companion. Greenberg, probably too preoccupied with hanging on as tightly as he could to enjoy the view, was informing anyone who cared to listen, that this would his first and last time on the bridge. The President chuckled. A strong wind begun to move the forest. “You see that wind moving the trees” he said, pointing to the trees, now swaying to and fro, in an apparent wind conducted dance, “it will be doing the same to thing with the bridge”. But, sensing that Greenberg would be less than amused, he led them off the bridge.
The tour draws to a close with a relaxing walk through the gardens of the President’s understated, elegant country home, which he insists is “a working farm whichever way you look at it”. It does have a fine herd of long-horned cows, native to the region, and traditionally prized by Rwandans, although, the immediate impression is more country villa, than farm. The President is keen on ball games, and the farm boasts decent tennis and basketball courts.
President Kagame is one of those fortunate souls who can survive on very little sleep. He is also unquestionably one of the hardest-working heads of state anywhere. But, now we know that in the small hours, he does steal away from his desk to watch basketball. His knowledge of game, and of his chosen team, down to individual players, suggests that he steals away rather often.
Someone must have challenged someone to a game. Perhaps remembering that canopy walk, Peter Greenberg wanted to get his own back, and he chose a game of tennis. There was a wager, Greenberg was offered one of the President’s cows, should he win. And should he lose? “I will make you suffer Peter”, threatened the president, “I shall take you back to the mountain gorilla hike”.
Most journalists’ homing instincts are to the bar, and rather than the gym, and so the President didn’t have to part with any of his rather pampered cows. The jury is out about his tennis game. But, in spite of Greenberg’s unflattering comments about the President’s basket ball skills, the latter should definitely challenge his opponents to the basketball court, to keep his entire herd. It’s clear he does more than watch the game. He plays a bit too, as was made clear from his jump shots.
Parts of Rwanda, The Royal Tour can be seen on YouTube.