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.
“We barely talk about growth,” says infrastructure minister Vincent Karega. “We talk about socioeconomic transformation. Fifteen years ago, this was bush with a few villages. Kigali had five buildings that you would expect in a city. Now, there is construction on almost every corner.”
“We want to see how to make ourselves attractive to private-equity and venture-capital funds, not just to invest in Rwandan companies, but to be based in Rwanda to invest regionally in East Africa,” says Jean-Philippe Kayobotsi, private-sector adviser to Pres. Paul Kagame. The University of Chicago MBA adds: “We need to look at the tax aspects of these companies. We need to look at partnership laws. We need to make sure that the fiscal pressure at the company level and the individual level is low.”
As these capital markets emerge, Rwandan tourism expands rapidly. According to the Rwanda Development Board, tourism revenues have ballooned from $8 million in 2001 to $175 million in 2009. A decade ago, officials projected that they would welcome 70,000 visitors by 2010. In fact, in 2009, they hosted 690,000. Many of these are conferees who attend international meetings, though many stay to enjoy folk dancing, rural lakes, or the huge, but gentle, gorillas that inhabit the slopes of ancient volcanoes.
Those Mountain Gorillas may be Rwanda’s most unique and high-profile attraction. Gorilla trekkers walk through high-altitude rainforests, sometimes for an hour or more, in groups of eight, maximum. Local guides communicate with walkie-talkies to pinpoint the itinerant gorillas on any given morning. After wading through incredibly thick ivy, branches, small trees, and shrubs in countless shades of green, visitors discover a small family of gorillas nestled in dense foliage.
At a distance of no more than 20 feet, a big daddy gorilla — with the gray-haired “silver back” that gives his species’ males their nickname — busies himself by chewing leaves off a bush. The mother gorilla lies prone as her young offspring climb all over her. The little ones also play among themselves as enchanted humans look on. We avoid loud voices and flash photography, which can disturb these endangered primates, of which there are only some 790.
Americans have debated for decades whether or not we evolved from monkeys and apes. While this is hardly the place to rehearse those arguments, it is interesting that my Canon PowerShot SD 780 digital camera’s facial-recognition feature kicks in every time a gorilla stares straight into my lens.
Gorillae beringei beringei are amazingly tame. They must notice us Homo sapiens, as we sometimes are no more than about a dozen feet away. Yet they carry on this morning as if we still were asleep in our hotel beds. The vegetarian gorillas chomp on leaves, scratch themselves, groom each other, lie on their backs, and stare at the African sky.
Rwanda’s climate also is appealing. While the north’s mountainous region features some clouds and rain, Kigali is sunny and about 75 by day and perhaps 62 or so at night — much like southern California.
“Does it boil here in the summer?” I ask my host, Mike Brennan of the SEVEN Fund and OTF Group.
“No,” he replies: “It’s like this all the time.”
My complaints about Rwanda are almost exclusively financial. Good luck finding an ATM. Rwanda’s currency seems non-convertible, and it is very difficult to use credit cards here. I change a few dollars at the airport on arrival, thinking that this would cover souvenirs and small purchases, while Visa would finance everything else.
Few places take plastic. Some of those that do are cursed with broken credit-card machines. This leads to several mini-liquidity crises where Neal Carter and I scramble to pay for gas and meals. Thankfully, our hosts step in to prevent any major disasters.
Rwanda must address this soon, especially if it expects more overseas tourists and investors to land, spend money, and infuse it with growth capital.
Also, Kigali International Airport should mend its ways. Exiting passengers and their luggage must go through security immediately upon entering the departure terminal — even before checking in for flights. Fine. Removing my boots once is not so bad.
But then, one must repeat the entire process anew before boarding the aircraft. Off go my boots a second time!
Even worse, the bathrooms are outside the waiting room, beyond security. So, to use the facilities, one must endure the metal detectors yet again to re-enter the waiting room.
Also, the airport gift shops take no plastic. So, last-minute tchotchkes go un-purchased.
Finally, our outbound flight is scheduled to leave at 3:15 in the morning. Nonetheless, Rwanda Air insists on boarding our flight at 2:05 a.m. Carter and I plan to relax in the airport restaurant, and spend some of our remaining Rwandan banknotes on “African tea” — a splendid blend of Rwandan tea, milk, cinnamon, and other spices.
No such luck.
Rwanda Air demands that we drop everything, run through security for a third time, wait aboard a bus on the tarmac for 10 minutes, and then board our plane. We climb into the sky at 2:30 a.m., 45 minutes early.
Unfortunately, this precipitates an early arrival and extended layover at Nairobi’s Jomo Kenyatta International Airport, a masterpiece of Brutalist architecture with an equivalent level of comfort. The transfer terminal generally lacks air conditioning and also boasts hard, molded-plastic chairs that might have looked brand-new to the cast of The Brady Bunch.
It’s a shame that leaving Rwanda is so annoying. Apart from these comparatively picayune inconveniences, everything else is delightful, encouraging, and worthy of a return engagement — and certainly a first-time encounter for those who have yet to walk among this petite nation’s innumerable hills.
—New York commentator Deroy Murdock is a nationally syndicated columnist with the Scripps Howard News Service and a senior fellow with the Atlas Economic Research Foundation. Murdock visited Rwanda, thanks to a grant from the SEVEN Fund of Cambridge, Mass. The views expressed here are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of the SEVEN Fund.