18 days in the Land of a Thousand Hills
- By Ashley Harden and Ann-Elise Francis
We took time off this past August from our jobs at the Council on Foreign Relations to embark on an exploratory research project for Bpeace to investigate the budding film industry in Rwanda. (We will be providing our report and insights to the Bpeace leadership later this month.) Both of us are avid travelers and have lived abroad before, but have never traveled to sub-Saharan Africa so we were beyond thrilled to support Bpeace with this opportunity.
It’s sad to admit our ignorance about Rwanda before our arrival. We knew the basics: it’s one of the safest countries in Africa, there is a huge push for private sector growth, and it’s still plagued by the legacy of the 1994 genocide. We hoped to learn more than what was taught to us in history class about the genocide. We wanted to gain knowledge on how this country has worked tirelessly towards development, and if and how Bpeace could assist in its progress. We were lucky to meet wonderful people in a growing city that made us feel welcomed for our short stay.
Before arriving in Rwanda, we made the decision to keep our research about the country limited so we could explore it for ourselves and make our own conclusions. We assumed Kigali would be like any other city in a developing country--crowded, loud, and somewhat dirty…were we wrong. Kigali is a sprawling city with traffic and up-and-coming restaurants and hotels, yet there is a quietness and calm to the city that permeates through the air unlike any other we’ve seen before. Our first few nights in the city we were astounded by how quiet it is--you can actually hear crickets...and bull frogs. People rarely loiter, most are doing their daily activities, keeping to themselves. It’s a small country, which makes Kigali, a city, have a small town feel--you are always seeing a familiar face or watching the embrace of hugs and handshakes from passing friends. The openness and willingness to slow down and talk was interesting for us loud New Yorkers to witness.
And while Kigali is quiet, so are its people. Rwandans are reserved and shy, but one thing we were shocked about was how willing people were to meet with these two strangers after a two minute phone call. Not only were people willing to meet with us, they gave us ample time to talk with them and get a good sense of the film industry, their place in it, and where they would like it to be. They connected us with their networks so we never felt like outsiders. The warmth and willingness to embrace strangers out of the blue was something as jaded New Yorkers, we never would have done.
A major part of our trip was to gain an understanding of the business climate in Rwanda and the markets currently in place for the film industry. Some of the first things you see in the Kigali airport are posters saying how easy it is to start and do business in Rwanda. To our surprise most people we spoke to either had their own companies or were hoping to start their own business soon. Easy, one stop business registration allows those eager to be innovative to branch out to make a name for themselves and add to the economic growth of Rwanda.
As eager as we were to learn about Rwanda, Rwandans were very curious about our lives in America as well. A lot of the questions we were asked revolved around food. Do we eat burgers a lot? What’s our favorite type of cuisine to eat in New York? Did we like cassava? But the most interesting questions we got came from women living in rural Gitarama, in the Muhanga district. They wanted to know what our homes looked like, if we fetched water from wells in New York City, and what were some popular American dances. Many were curious about what we thought about Rwanda. It seems that everyone person we met asked us that question, whether we were at a coffee shop or in an interview with the head of Rwanda TV. They wanted to know how their country stacked in comparison to the U.S. and other countries we’ve traveled to.
We told everyone we thought Rwanda was great. You feel so welcomed when you are there, the weather is perfect, and the lushness of the country and endless mountains and valleys makes it a stunning place to visit. And it’s safe and easy to get around. If you go, don’t just focus on Kigali, make sure to spend sometime in the rural areas. See how most of the country lives and do activities alongside them. Try an African Buffet! Mound your plate with beans and cassava, fish, potatoes, and rice. Travel to Rubavo and lay on a beach looking out on Lake Kivu. Climb Mount Bisoke in Muszane to see Crater Lake (after you climb two and a half hours of sheer joy to the top.)
Like anywhere you travel it’s the people you meet that really make the experience. Our favorite memories of the trip will be highlighted by those with whom we were able to spend time. Probably one of the best moments of our trip was our last day at our guesthouse, Heaven Inn. One of the guards, Charles, had taken such great care of us--making us breakfast in the mornings and generally making us feel welcomed. Ashley noted we should give our unused office supplies (pens, pads, folders, etc.) to Charles for his children’s upcoming school year. The delight and joy on his face when we presented him with a handful of supplies was wonderful to see. With tears in his eyes, he said “God bless you” and shook both of our hands. As we write this blog, it comes to our mind that we forgot to take a picture with Charles, but like most of our experiences in Rwanda, his spirit will continue to be with us.
There is a spark in Rwanda that many should see. We hope we’ve been able to give you a snapshot of our brief time there. If not, then you must visit for yourself. Experience the people, the food, and the culture. Rwanda is ever changing and developing, with warm and passionate people. We look forward to the next time we’ll be able to go back and see what’s happened there.