Is it safe to travel in Rwanda?
When you mention Rwanda to most people, they think of it as a highly dangerous place. Their first memory or thought that crosses their mind would be the tragedy of the 1994 genocide. You will, however, be amazed by how much the country has come together, grown to rebuild the country and swore ‘never again’ would they ever bring their beautiful country down. It is actually one of the safest countries in East Africa to travel in today. The people are extremely warm, friendly, hospitable and welcoming to everyone. You will rarely read anything in the local newspapers about a visitor to Rwanda having safety and security problems during their stay in Rwanda.
Rwanda, the Land of a Thousand Hills, is definitely now a safe and stable country under firm leadership and development by an effective and determined visionary, President Paul Kagame. The Rwandan government fully realizes that it is its sacred duty to ensure the safety of visitors to Rwanda and its own citizens. Things such as petty theft, credit card fraud, overcharging all can be avoided. Security presence is found everywhere ranging from police, hotel security, and tourism police to ensure you are safe and your stay is undisturbed. Kigali, Rwanda’s capital, is known as one of Africa’s safest capitals and has turned into a model city for the rest of Africa with its impressive economic growth.
Political Situation in Rwanda
Rwanda is one of the safest places in Africa as it has been stable for most of its time since independence. Rwanda has a good political climate second to none especially after the genocide of 1994. The trauma that befell the people of Rwanda during this time where over 500,000 people were killed in just 100 days may be one factor why Rwanda is so stable because the citizens don’t want a repeat of that ordeal to happen again.
The political instability and civil war left permanent scars on the country although this must not deter you from travelling to Rwanda. The country has progressively rebuilt into a vibrant economical nation with an emphasis on community growth and preserving its natural resources. The Rwandan government and community have worked tirelessly to recover from the violence. A visit to the genocide museum in Kigali will give you a historical experience that highlights both the dark and light times of the country’s past.
The World Economic Forum ranked Rwanda as the 9th safest country in the world in 2017 ahead of Qatar, Luxembourg, Portugal, New Zealand, Austria, Estonia, Sweden, Slovenia, Spain, Netherlands, and Morocco. The rankings take into account the effects of common crime and violence as well as terrorism, and the extent to which police services can be relied upon to provide protection from crime.
Civil unrest in Rwanda
There are strict laws prohibiting the promotion of ideas regarding genocide based on ethnic, regional, racial, religious, language, or other divisive characteristics. Public incitement of “genocide ideology” or “divisionism,” including genocide denial, discrimination, and sectarianism, is punishable by five to nine years in prison and fines of 100,000 to 1,000,000 Rwandan francs.
Political violence in Rwanda is rather low with peaceful protests that are typically planned ahead of time. However, avoid demonstrations and use vigilance while traveling, especially outside of cities and along border areas. Even peaceful events can become violent. Ensure you keep up with the local news and alerts.
Corruption is very low and is not tolerated in Rwanda. If you are a victim of harassment or attempted bribery, contact the Rwanda National Police dedicated hotline at 116 to report problems.
Human Rights Observers, Journalists, NGO workers may be subjected to more scrutiny by the Rwandan Authorities.
Photography of military sites, government buildings, airports, and public monuments is prohibited. Your cameras can and will be confiscated by the police or security services.
Regional Safety and terrorism in Rwanda
Terrorism is a threat throughout the world, including in East Africa. The terrorist group Al-Shabab operates in the region but has not targeted western interests in Rwanda. There are no known international terrorist groups or domestic organized crime groups in Rwanda and the Government of Rwanda does not support any terrorist organizations.
The border regions are porous, making it easy to cross through Rwanda to another country. The Congo-based Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR) rebel group continues to operate along Rwanda’s western border and has been linked to grenade attacks throughout Rwanda. Congolese armed forces and UN peacekeepers continue combat operations against rebel and militia groups in North and South Kivu provinces. The Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda operates in eastern DRC, near the border.
Volcanoes Park is considered to be especially safe because tourism and gorilla trekking bring in thousands of travelers each year. Violence and guerrilla activity is known to exist in the Congo’s Virunga National park. Armed groups operate on the DRC side of the park (Virunga). Exercise extreme caution because the border may not be clearly marked. However, there is no known threat of guerrillas in Volcanoes National Park. Ensure you obtain a permit from the Rwanda Office of Tourism and National Parks prior to entry.
Rwanda is the fifth largest contributor of peacekeepers worldwide.
Safety and Security / Crime threats in Rwanda
The crime rate is relatively low though attempted home robberies, automobile break-ins, pick-pocketing, purse snatchings, and theft of vehicle accessories in Kigali do occur, most crimes committed in Rwanda are non-violent. Kigali remains the safest capital in Africa, though, as in any big city, take care at night and don’t take unnecessary risks since crimes of opportunity do occur. Serious crime or hostility aimed specifically at travelers is very rare, and there’s no more to worry about here than in most other countries.
Gorilla Trekking in Rwanda is done in Volcanoes National Park and is safe and secure with armed military guides accompanying every group for their safety.
According to the Gallup Global Law and Order report of 2016, Rwanda continues to feature as one of the safest countries in the world. The report has ranked Rwanda 11th globally and 2nd in Africa with over 87 per cent of citizens saying that they feel safe and confident in the security organs. The Gallup Law and Order Index measures people’s sense of personal security as well as their experiences with law enforcement. Some of the questions posed to respondents include: “In the city or area where you live, do you have confidence in the local police force? Do you feel safe walking alone at night in the city or area where you live? Within the last 12 months, have you had money or property stolen from you or another household member? Within the past 12 months, have you been assaulted or mugged?”
Visitors to Rwanda are urged to take personal responsibility for their own security by being vigilant and taking common-sense precautions. As much as there are no off-limits areas in Rwanda, you must exercise caution in crowded markets, nightclubs, and any tourist areas.
- Don’t carry too much cash and keep a close watch on your possessions in public places.
- Don’t show off or display your money or money belt in public. Women should keep purses zipped and in front of them. Men should keep wallets hidden in their front pocket, especially in crowded areas.
- Keep your valuables locked in your safe in your room or hotel.
- Leave jewelry and valuable items at home.
- Always inform a friend or family member of your schedule and plans.
- Maintain caution in areas frequented by foreigners.
- Avoid walking alone especially after dark. Walk in well-lit areas.
- Drive with doors locked and windows closed.
- Always carry a copy of your passport and visa. Keep original documents in a secure location like your hotel safe.
- Theft of electronic items is common. Keep cell phones, tablets, iPod’s, and other electronics out of sight. Valuables in hotels or residences should be locked or stored in a safe.
- Maintain a low profile. Do not attract attention even if you are lost. Most Rwandans don’t go by street signs but by landmarks in giving directions.
- Be alert and vigilant of your surroundings.
- If you are mugged, it is advisable to give up your valuables and not resist.
- Women should not leave purses unattended or hanging on the back of a chair.
- Avoid overindulging in alcohol.
- When driving, lock car doors and do not leave any valuables visible in the vehicle.
- Avoid taking non-metered or van taxis.
- Do not share a taxi with someone you do not know, and negotiate the cost before you get in.
- Keep your photography equipment strapped in your arms if in a busy area.
- Keep your cell phone in your pocket, don’t carry it in your hands because it can easily be snatched.
- Rwanda has no laws that criminalize sexual orientation or consensual same-sex relationships. However, affection is not shown in public generally.
- You must respect Rwanda culture and must know some actions that are perceived wrong; don’t discuss or ask people about genocide, women do not usually drink in bars, public displays of affection is not encouraged, eating or drinking in public is not permitted.
- You must be aware that when in Rwanda, you are subject to local laws. If you violate local laws, even unknowingly, you may be expelled, arrested, or imprisoned. You may be detained for questioning by the police if unable to produce an acceptable form of identification. Convictions for possessing, using, or trafficking in illegal drugs result in long prison sentences and heavy fines. If you are arrested or detained, ask police or prison officials to notify your embassy immediately.
- Local authorities are responsible for investigating and prosecuting crime. Kigali City emergency hotline 112. Abuse or attempted bribery by a police officer hotline 116.
- There has never been a news report with Gay Travelers encountering any problems.
Rwanda National Police have limited resources and still lacks specialized skills such as investigation, counter-terrorism, bomb disposal, forensics, and interviewing skills. The police are unable to respond to an emergency call in a timely manner.
Note that the Rwandan franc (RWF) is the official currency, though U.S. dollars may also be used with bureaus and banks taking only U.S. bills printed after 2006, of large denominations.
Health and Diseases in Rwanda
There are medical facilities available around Rwanda. King Faisal Hospital located in Kacyiru, Kigali, provides Emergency and Assessment (E&A) services, open 24 hours with a physician on the premises at all times. Depending on the circumstances, a commercial flight may be used for evacuation, or an air ambulance may be required. These are extremely costly services, which the patient must pay for themselves. Taking medical evacuation insurance and travel insurance is highly recommended prior to travel.
- There is a local, very basic ambulance service called SAMU (Sanitaire Ambulance Medical Urgency) but does not provide paramedic-level care during transport.
- Pharmacies are available in all major towns although the range of medicines on sale may be limited. Carry your own prescription or over the counter medication that you may need. However, check with the government of Rwanda to ensure they are legal in Rwanda. Always carry your prescription medication in original packaging with your doctor’s prescription.
- The incidence of HIV/AIDS has reduced with the preventive measures and the wider availability of antiretroviral drugs. Do not engage in sexual activities.
- Malaria is the most serious health threat to travelers in Rwanda especially in low lying areas like Akagera National Park. The risk is far lower in highland areas such as Kigali, Nyungwe National Park, the Virunga Mountains, and the Lake Kivu region. Nevertheless, all visitors to Rwanda should take preventative measures against malaria. Use CDC-recommended mosquito repellents, sleep under insecticide-impregnated mosquito nets, use anti-malaria like Chemoprophylaxis which is recommended for all travelers.
- Sanitation-related diseases like cholera, giardia, dysentery, typhoid also pose a health threat in Rwanda.
- Bilharzia can only be caught by swimming in freshwater habitats inhabited by the snail that carries the disease.
- Common cold, flu or travelers’ diarrhoea are not normally a serious health threat. However, travelers with such symptoms might not be allowed to track gorillas or chimpanzees, both of which are susceptible to infectious airborne human diseases.
- It is recommended to take up immunizations and inoculations for tetanus, polio and diphtheria, hepatitis A, meningitis, tuberculosis cholera and rabies. Proof of vaccination against yellow fever is needed for entry into Rwanda for all travelers over one year of age, regardless of where you are coming from. Hepatitis B vaccination should be considered for longer trips (two months or more) or for those working with children or in situations where contact with blood is likely. The Rwandan government retains the right to turn travelers without the immunization away.
- You may find more in-depth information on infectious diseases in Rwanda from the Centers for Disease and Prevention (CDC).
- Make sure your health insurance plan provides coverage overseas. Be aware that U.S. Medicare does not apply overseas. Healthcare providers require payment in U.S. dollars/Rwandan francs before services are performed. It is recommended to take supplemental insurance to cover medical evacuation.
- Never drink water from the tap. Instead, purchase bottled mineral water which is readily available in all towns.
- You must be fit, and in good health to be able to trek the strenuous hike. Children under 15 years of age are not permitted to trek gorillas.
Traffic and Road Safety in Rwanda
Rwandan roads are mountainous, circuitous and poorly lit. Motorcycle taxis are a common mode of transportation for locals because they are easy and inexpensive. For longer distances, buses are used by everyone. It is completely safe for women to travel on any mode of transportation, however, it is not safe to travel at night. It is better to pay more for a taxi to reach your destination safely instead of walking. Traffic accidents due to fog, mountainous roads, pedestrians in the road, and poor drivers are common. In addition, medical or police services may not be able to reach you in a timely manner should you be involved in an accident.
- Be cautious of erratically driven motorcycle and van taxis which cause most hazards.
- Many drivers travel at unsafe speeds, ignore standard safe driving procedures, and take unnecessary risks without regard to pedestrians and other drivers.
- Many vehicles are poorly maintained.
- Road conditions for major towns are good, but many secondary roads are unpaved and require a four-wheel drive to manoeuvre. The roads lack shoulders and become impassable during the rainy season when flooding and mudslides occur.
- Be aware of pedestrian traffic, including children darting into the road. You will find many pedestrians on the road, especially outside Kigali, throughout the day and during the hours of darkness. Street lighting is limited, and it is difficult to see pedestrians, cyclists, and roaming animals.
- Do not drive outside the city limits after dark and/or in extremely inclement weather.
- Beware of headlights that are extremely dim or not used
- Professional roadside assistance is not available.
- Rwanda Development Board provides and regulates driving permits, vehicle inspection, road tax, and mandatory insurance. An international driving permit and third-party insurance is required.
- Cell phone use while driving is illegal unless it is fitted with a hands-free device.
- Tinted windows are prohibited on all vehicles.
- If an accident occurs, call the police and remain inside the vehicle until they arrive. If a hostile mob forms or you feel your safety is in danger, leave the scene and proceed directly to the nearest police station to report the incident. Do not stop at the scene of an accident or at intersections where people have gathered, as mobs can develop quickly.
- Drivers are responsible for damages if involved in an accident resulting in injuries, even if the driver is not at fault.
- Causing a fatal accident could result in up to eight years imprisonment.
- Drunk drivers are jailed for 24 hours and fined up to $400.
- Police roadblocks are common throughout the country. Travelers may be stopped and vehicles and luggage searched.
- Use only official Kigali city buses, and licensed taxis, which are orange-striped. Confirm the fare before departure. However, avoid using mini-bus taxis which are unsafe due to overloading, reckless driving, inadequate maintenance, and the risk of petty crime.
Environmental hazards in Rwanda
- Rwanda is in a seismically active region, including Mount Nyiragongo volcano in Virunga National Park, that is at the border with Rwanda. The volcano is active and last erupted on January 17, 2002, killing 47 people, destroying 15% of Goma and leaving 120,000 people homeless.
- An earthquake in eastern Congo killed 38 people and injured 292 residents in the Rwandan border town of Cyangugu in February 2008.
- Being a hilly and mountainous region, heavy rains may cause landslides and flash floods.
- Lake Kivu, in northeastern Rwanda, is saturated in high levels of methane and carbon dioxide gases and have the potential to explode. Although the probability of an explosion cannot be determined, the potential impact from an explosion could be catastrophic due to the high population around it million.
- Protect yourself and exercise caution when visiting the park or near wild animals. Heed all instructions given by guides or trackers. Don’t leave your vehicle when in the park. Animals have right of way, do not block their path.
- Plastic shopping and grocery bags are banned and may be confiscated upon arrival.
Thus, the safety and tranquillity in Rwanda at any time has been citizen-centred and driven. The government has put up initiatives such as Community Policing, to build capacity among community members, thus created a bond with the community to make them part solutions to security. Tourists need to be vigilant and aware of their surroundings and valuables at all times.