I have never seen so many kids. On the way to Volcanoes National Park from the Kigali city, on new roads funded by China and constructed by Chinese and Rwandan convicts, each woman we pass appears to have three or four kids under 10; everywhere I look there are conga lines of tiny boys and girls in smart school uniform strolling along the side of the road.
Kigali city may be growing fast, but 90% of Rwandans are still dependent on subsistence agriculture. It appears to be every scrap of land in this mountainous country is cultivated; terraced slopes look in danger of breaking down due to the weight of crops of cabbages, potatoes, sugarcane, sorghum, maize and beans. The red earth smells rich and ripe; through the drizzle and mist the scene glows emerald. Have I ever seen anywhere so fruitful and copious? With its banana trees and tethered cattle and consistent influence of human activity it reminds me of South India; its terraced mountains and slopes recall Madagascar or Indonesia.
The intensely forested Volcanoes National Park is dominated by the Virungas, a range of six extinct and three active volcanoes, the tallest being Karisimbi (4,507 meters) on the border with Democratic Republic of Congo. The closest town is Musanze, where there are backpacker hostels, lodges, restaurants and a lot of bars in brilliantly painted buildings advertising Primus, a local beer (others incorporate urwagwa, a lethal homebrew made with bananas). Up here in the far north, the soil is volcanic dark and phenomenally fertile, however the majority of the building in Musanze and the adjacent village of Kinoni are built with mud bricks made of red soil trucked in from the south. Corrugated iron rooftops have replaced the more traditional thatch in most places, despite the fact that mud-and-eucalyptus structures are still common.
As we were approaching Kinoni village we are pulled over by soldiers armed with guns. My tour guide, Nsubuga Ivan, stops behind a truck overladen with bulging sacks of potatoes. From behind comes the rising swell of melancholy singing and soon hordes of schoolchildren in crisp blue-and-white uniforms begin streaming past, their voices clear and practiced, their footfall a synchronized drumbeat. In the end we are waved on by the soldiers and drive slowly past a memorial where crowds are gathering for a remembrance services. Memorials like this have been constructed all through the nation, often at the site of mass graves; signs along the featuring a cupped-hands symbol urge Rwandans to learn from the past and strive for unity in the future.