The Hills are Alive with the Sounds of Rwanda
Impressions from a visit to Africa


Deroy Murdock

Kigali, Rwanda — Rwanda is like a black Switzerland. Its nickname is “The Land of a Thousand Hills.” This is a gross understatement. Beyond the runway at the airport here in the nation’s capital, one struggles to stay on flat ground for long. In every imaginable direction, hills roll, small mountains dwarf tea plantations, and dramatic, volcanic peaks vanish into the clouds. Curvaceous bends on narrow byways penetrate lush valleys and craggy canyons. On twisted roads, a modest miscalculation could trigger a treacherous and likely fatal tumble into oblivion.

Given the terrain that they have been dealt, Rwandans farm everything they’ve got. Wheat, potatoes, and peas spring from hillside terraces that rival Bali’s magnificent tiered rice paddies. According to the World Food Program, in some areas, 25 percent of local land was cultivated before terracing began in 2007. Now, 95 percent of available acreage yields enough crops for Rwandan farmers to nourish themselves, their animals, and their food customers.

Meanwhile, Rwandans, especially women, traverse the streets in iridescent attire. Many wear the incredibly vivid textiles that dominate sub-Saharan Africa. Swirling and interlocking patterns dazzle one’s retinas with nearly neon intensity. Some are discernable as flowers, birds, or umbrellas. Others are geometric, and still more are as abstract as they are stunning.

Rwanda’s mountains hardly rival the Alps, but neither Geneva nor Zurich has anything on this tiny nation as far as sanitation. During a four-day visit last December, I detect precisely three pieces of litter on the ground. Kigali is virtually spotless, but so is the countryside. Graffiti appears to be non-existent.

Litter and graffiti are a dreary feature of most developing-world cities and — to my daily disgust as a New Yorker — thoroughly routine in America’s premier metropolis. But an intense civic pride and organized clean-ups on the final Saturday of every month (in a presidentially led activity called Umuganda) make this one of the cleanest nations I have toured.

“We can be poor, but we’ll be clean,” says Patrick Kabagema of Rock Global Consulting.

Riding from Kigali to Musanze is an unforgettable voyage. The capital’s modern, if modest, buildings soon yield to small structures made of conventional masonry and, eventually, bricks crafted from mud and straw. After a day of meetings with officials and business people, my friend and traveling companion Neal Carter and I must look like visiting dignitaries. Our driver, a student named Armand Muganga, steers a black Toyota SUV as we Americans wave from its open windows while wearing our white dress shirts and ties. As we bounce from one small village into the next, little kids run out to greet us.

Umuzungu!” — roughly “white man!” — some cheerfully yell as they see Carter, who clearly is of Irish descent. Another kid spies him and shouts: “Good morning, teacher!”

These children and their parents are mainly poor people, but the exhausted looks of resignation that haunt much of the developing world are absent from the places we visit. The mood is broadly upbeat, friendly, and pro-business.

Rwanda’s impressive basics confirm the progress that must have been unimaginable when it was devastated by a uniquely senseless genocide in 1994. One American expat here recalls an acquaintance whose family enjoyed a meal at the home of their next-door neighbors one night, 17 years ago. The very next day, these very same Hutu dinner hosts, fueled by tribal rage, killed nearly all of their previous evening’s Tutsi supper guests.

Rwanda’s real GDP growth averaged 8.3 percent between 2002 and 2009. Per capita GDP swelled those years from $206 to $520 or 252 percent. While 47 percent of Rwandans enjoyed clean water in 2000, 75 percent were so fortunate in 2010. While 78 percent of the country was considered poor in 1995, that number stood at 57 percent in 2009.