We visited Rwanda in January. It is a special place for me. I lived there for several years from 1994-1997 following the war and genocide. I worked with some extraordinary people with an organization called Food For the Hungry. We were young and idealistic and working to better the world.
We did some good for people and we made some classic development mistakes. But we learned a lot and made lifelong friends. For most of the time I was there, I lived in the northwestern town of Gisenyi along the border with the Congo.
I was returning after 21 years. Here are edited impressions that I wrote to my former colleagues following our visit:
I am writing to you on a rainy afternoon from our house on the shores of Lake Kivu south of Gisenyi. It is a beautiful tropical mountain landscape with tranquil views of the fishing fleet across the inlet and the outline of the Congo on the far shore. I forgot the mysterious beauty of this place with its mists and the mountains.
We are finishing our week in Rwanda. Is it even possible that it has been 21 year? It feels like a few moments have past since we drove these roads and watched the smoke from the refugee camps across the border.
The most striking difference I notice is the sheer population. It has nearly tripled since we were here. Rwanda has 11 million people living in its hills. When we were here, there were around 4 million with another million or so returning over two or three years in the mid-90s. You can feel the numbers.
I only now realize how we lived and worked here during a period that was so vastly different than the norm. Thinking about it, that seems obvious. The population was traumatized and fearful and, well, missing. But, what was I but a wide-eyed, self-focused 20-something seeing it for the first time and thinking I knew it all. There just weren’t that many people here.
The rural population is better off now: Health and well-being is apparent. Almost every person is wearing shoes. The rural Rwandans are wearing bright and colorful clothes and they are better fed.
The whole country is cleaner and very organized. There are more and better paved roads. Roadside and town landscaping has filled the ditches and trash mounds of the past. Motorcycle helmets are required. Cellular communication is everywhere.
I think back to our old crackling long-distance radio we used to reach Kigali. When we were in the field in 1995, we were largely on our own. Now even our gardener at this house and the road sweepers have cell phones. They can buy a good amount of airtime for as little as 15 cents. We purchased a sim card and 4G data plan for $11/week in Kigali.
Another thing that strikes us is the pace and depth of work and effort going on. We have been traveling in the developing world and other parts of Africa for over 5 months. We have seen a lot of places where able-bodied men and women just sit around for lack of anything to do. In Rwanda, everyone seems to be in action – men and women are shouldering heavy furniture up the hills balanced on their bikes; fruits and vegetables are on the move in any sort of conveyance up and down the roads; women and men are working the fields and selling on every corner. The land is fertile and nearly 90% in cultivation. Every night and morning, we watch a fleet of outrigger boats with 12-18 men at the oars of each joined boat singing and rowing out to the center of the lake. It is a moving and living small economy – trading goods and services at every hour .
Our former hillside house is still there and looks unchanged along with the other houses on the road. They have built an enormous new hotel at the entrance to our road called the Peace Land Hotel.
There is more going on at the lake. We hired a boatman to take us across the lake around the brewery and back. As I said earlier, there is a fishing fleet of over 50 boats (imagine 3 large outriggers connected to each other by 50-foot bamboo poles) that 9-18 men row out into the middle of the lake and stay all night fishing. They sing and chant as they go.
We have stayed a few days here on the lake and it is beautiful to see and hear it each night and morning when the return. I did not realize the level of disruption that occurred those years ago when the military closed the lake for security purposes.
We first stayed along the waterfront in one of the old colonial houses that has been converted to a hostel. The waterfront street is still an oasis - clean and beautiful and quiet. Most of the tourism seems to be centered on climbing the volcano outside Goma and gorilla trekking in the forests near Goma. It now costs $3,000/person to see the gorillas in Rwanda and only $600 in the Congo. Many travelers are arranging with agents in Gisenyi to go to the Congo on day-trips.
There is more tourism but it still hasn’t fully arrived yet. They have built several nice resort hotels along the lake near the brewery that have million-dollar views of the lake. While we are here, they are mostly empty but it was mid-week. There is a lot of genocide memorials and museums but we skipped those since we were so close to it in the past.
The Nile? One surprisingly weird difference from 20 years ago is how Rwanda has embraced the Nile River. Apparently, an exploration mission a decade ago determined that one of the sources of the Nile is in Rwanda (as it is in Uganda, Ethiopia, and Kenya) and they have embraced it like Coke to the Superbowl. Source of the Nile tourism has sprung up. There are a lot of Nile hotels and Nile tours, Nile products, and Nile billboards.
They have created a hiking trail in Gisenyi from just south of the Brewery all the way to Kibuye along the lake. They call it the Nile to Congo Trail and it takes about 10 days with camping spots along the way. The idea is that the water flowing to the east from the spine of hills flows to the Nile and the water to the west goes to the Congo. It sounds like a cool idea…but, for the population.
We drove from Gisenyi to Kibuye which now has a nice paved Chinese-built road between the two. We mistakenly took a more scenic and rough route along the lake for about half of the journey. It was nice to get out there and see life up close on the communes. Then came across a poor European couple hiking that trail on probably their first or second day. They were being hounded by at least 20 kids running along and talking with them. I am not sure there is any solitude on that trail for its entire length! The couple looked a bit haggard. You can mountain bike it which would probably be better.
We got lost on that road until an old man in broken French told us this was the bad road. We made our way to the good one. On the drive we also saw the renewed tea plantations and the amazing central roads that the Chinese are building all over Africa (everywhere in Kenya as well).
Luckily on our last day, deep in the countryside, we found some kids still using kichugutus, the wooden bikes to haul things that the young ones used to ride, loaded with hundreds of pounds of charcoal and vegetables, flying down the Gisneyi Hill with nothing but their foot and a small piece of rubber to stop them. Those kids and their efforts were one of my greatest memories of our time here.
The scooters have been outlawed now and have mostly disappeared in the main towns. I happily stopped and got a photo with the one we found.
It has been nice to return. I love the lake and the mysterious mountains and the feeling of being in the center of Africa. I can say that Rwanda is still beautiful and working hard to get over its past. And I am reminded what a privilege it was to serve with all of you here those many years ago.