You may have heard that Rwanda is known as the land of a thousand hills. The name is well-earned. Anywhere you look in the country you’ll see hills climbing up to hilltops and descending into valleys. I know the hills in my area well — populations are centered on hilltops so my town and the Peace Corps training center, for example, are on hills. The valleys, however, are more mysterious. The valleys consist mainly of small, cultivated plots of land and scattered, very simply dwellings. So far, as a PCT (Peace Corps trainee) I simply haven’t had the reason to venture down into one. Yesterday, however, another PCT and I went for an afternoon which turned into a pretty intense hike down one hillside, across a narrow valley, and up another again, with some surprises along the way.
The walk turned into a hike when, having followed well-trod paths down the slope of the hill, we found ourselves looking out over a deep valley, the sides of which were covered with cultivated land. A path led the way down to a small house but it was steep and made up of unstable loose rock. As we stood contemplating the descent, a young boy of 9 or 10 appeared next to the house and waved, climbing the path towards us with good cheer and good coordination. Having arrived at the top he turned wide-eyes to us and panted. Kids came out of the woodwork now, running uphill and skidding downward until our audience comprised 8 sets of wide-eyes and 8 quiet mouths. Some of the younger ones shifted their rubber sandals to one hand and sucked on some fingers of the other as they contemplated us.
“How do you get down?” we asked the first boy and he started walking to the head of the path and began running downhill, stepping nimbly and lightly like a goat, which their family had tied to a peg on the hillside. We followed tentatively after, slowly choosing where to place our feet and cursing the loose rock as we slid down. Rwandans have a tendency to laugh at we abazungu (white people) among them. My family always laughs, for example, when I wash clothes, clean the floor or carry water. But this sweet boy and the others with him never laughed at us except to join in when we were laughing at ourselves.
Back on level ground (for the moment) we greeted a new crowd of curious valley residents. Among them was an intricately wrinkled, roundly stooped and (I think) partially blind old woman who greeted us warmly and repeatedly shook our hands with the one not holding her cane. She tahnked us for coming by as her grandchildren gathered round and made faces while we took pictures.
We told one of the kids that we wanted to get to the other side of the narrow valley so he shouldered the jerry can of water he had just filled and led us down a thin path that reached the valley floor after just a few switchbacks. On the way, though, we passed another home with a thin but not starving dog sunning itself outside. Dogs are generally disliked in Rwanda because of the dogs who fed on corpses during and after the genocide so we were surprised to see one. And then we were surprised to see another. Then, we were very surprised to see fluffy tan puppies lying curled upw ith each other on the ground and nuzzling towards their mother’s teat when she came near them. We tried to pet them but backed away promptly when the mother growled softly.
A short walk past the puppies brought us to the bank of a small stream. Although we are in the midst of the rainy season, the water was low and the creekbed was rocky. A series of rough footholds in the bank led to the crossing spot. As I navigated the slippery steps I heard a yell and turned around to see my friend dangoing by an arm, feet off the ground. Caught between the dual desires to get out of the way and double up laughing, I watched her laugh too and yell as she stabilized herself with the branch she was holidng on to and made it down to the river bank.
A jump later and we were on the other side where our relief at having made the valley floor was tempered by the sandy, rocky, steep hillside left to climb. Once again, our young guide navigated the hill quickly, unhindered by the 10 liter jerry can. At the top of each section, he turned around to wait for us and, again, we cursed and clambered up.
Before too long, we had reached a more level footpath and we paused to survey the valley. Scenery here is really spectacular — across the valley we saw all the terraced fields of cassava and sweet potato, separated by winding foot paths. Women traversed on of the paths to the crest of the hill with bundles and baskets on their head. Looking down the valley, we saw the rows of more distant hills receding into the horizon and, as if framed by the hills, the skyline of Kigali. The sky was a deep gray, cloudy with impending rain and newly tilled fields formed a contrast with their patches of dark earth.
The path now was solid rocks and so we walked more easily, following the path another steep 1000 feet or so to the top of the ridge. Along the way we saw a trio of women planting beans in a field. When they saw us emerge from the valley they yelled a greeting and asked us a common question here: “Where are you coming from?” “Down there,” we answered, motioning. “What were you doing??” they asked. “Just walking,” we said, and they laughed.
We continued on and hurried in to a tea shop as rain began to fall again. It really was a nice afternoon walk.