Rwanda: Some Initial Impressions

(This was originally written July 3, 2007)

We arrived more than a week ago, and today is our first full day of R&R since we arrived. We’re currently at Lake Kivu, in a town called Gisenyi. We have seen so many people, visited so many projects, and learned about so many things that it is truly a challenge to recount them all. We’ve been to sites in and around Kigali, Ruhengeri and Gisenyi.

Among the things we have done during the past nine days are the following:

  • We visited a mountaintop hospital, village clinics, schools and a church where 10,000 people were killed in the 1994 genocide.
  • We met with a farmer who, armed with a new disease-resistant variety of cassava, is about to yield a harvest that was impossible a few years ago.
  • We sat in on a village-based microcredit “trust group” meeting, and watched as the group received a new set of loans for developing their small businesses (for example, a village bakery and a sorghum distribution business).
  • We met with and interviewed 16 high-school graduates, nine of whom are in competition for four scholarships at our College.
  • We met with the Rwandan Minister of Education.
  • We learned how the Clinton Foundation has set up projects in Rwanda to respond to rural health needs and HIV/AIDS.
  • We got a rare opportunity to sit in on a gacaca court session. These are public, community-based court hearings that are hearing “category 4” cases (destruction of property, looting, etc.) perpetrated during the genocide.
  • We have met a lot of Americans who are motivated, as missionaries and “friends of Rwanda,” to do work here as part of their mission to God.
  • We visited the plantation of the late Rosamond Carr, who, at the age of 84, opened up an orphanage on her plantation to care for children orphaned during the 1994 genocide.

I originally considered offering a day-by-day accounting of all of these visits. But long travel days, somewhat sporadic internet access and the desire to wait and see what broader patterns have emerged from this trip have prevented me from doing that. So, over the next several entries, I will focus on different aspects of what I have observed during our visit here. I have learned and come to understand a great deal more about Rwanda than I ever dreamed of. This experience has convinced me of the value that opportunities like this trip add to the classroom learning experience. Although one would think that such an observation is glaringly obvious, the complexities of contemporary Rwandan society and politics that we have witnessed are still quite remarkable. The subtleties would be difficult to notice if one’s only reference were book chapters and journal articles.

In subsequent entries, I will consider various aspects of our visit here thematically. Entries will probably include topics such as:

  • Democracy and governance in Rwanda
  • Does post-genocide Rwandan economic, social and political development represent a break from the past?
  • The influence of Western (particularly American) Evangelism: Is Rwanda the “New Israel”?
  • The genocide and complications of creating a “post-ethnic” Rwanda

For now, I’ll offer up some general impressions I’ve had during our travels throughout the country.


We spent the first week of our visit in and around Kigali, the capital city. Kigali is quite spread out among the hills and valleys that make up the terrain of most of the country (Rwanda is called the “pays des mille collines,” the Land of a Thousand Hills). Reading accounts of the carnage that took place in Kigali during the genocide, it is almost impossible to believe this is the same city. The city is vibrant with activity. The main roads are well engineered and the streets are very clean (and traffic is relatively light compared to Nairobi, for example). Besides Harare (the capital of Zimbabwe), which I visited in the mid-1990s, Kigali is the nicest African capital I’ve seen.

Nevertheless, this is the dry season, and the inversion is quite severe. The air is constantly hazy, with the smoke from burning wood (which most people use for heat and cooking) and vehicle exhaust that is trapped near ground level. The electricity grid in the central part of the city is stable.

Our home base was the Chez Lando. I would recommend it to anyone coming here to visit. It is reasonably priced and very comfortable. They serve a good breakfast buffet every morning. The outdoor patio bar is friendly and relaxing. You’ll find a nice mix of Rwandan professionals and non-governmental organization (NGO) field people at the hotel. It feels more “down to earth” than the nicer digs found at the Serena. I understand the Lando is cheaper and nicer than the Mille Collines (“Hotel Rwanda”), where we will be staying at the night before we return to the U.S.

Outside Kigali

Rwanda is roughly the size of Maryland. The Rwandan countryside is among the most beautiful I have ever seen. While the Eastern province is quite a bit flatter (it borders Tanzania), most of the rest of the country is like the mountainous parts of the Eastern United States. It particularly reminds me of the Smokies of western North Carolina or the Ozarks of northwestern Arkansas. The topography of northwest Rwanda, which we visited for several days last week (staying in Ruhengheri and Gisenyi) is much more dramatic, especially as you approach the range of volcanoes shared by Rwanda, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (where the mountain gorillas live). Very rural and very densely populated, this part of the country has some of the richest and most productive farmland in the country. The volcanic soil is dark as midnight. As you drive through mountain passes on the way from Kigali, the views of valleys below are breathtaking. You’ll see an immense variety of crops grown here: bananas; plantains; sorghum; beans; maize; potatoes; cassava; rice; tea and coffee.

Rwanda is the most densely populated country in Africa–590 persons per square mile. There literally are people everywhere—not just in towns and villages, but moving between them: on foot or bicycle; hauling plastic containers of water and various items on their heads for market or for home. One immediately notices the pervasiveness of land pressures: nearly every plot of land is cultivated or used for grazing, even on hillsides. In concert with the government, a variety of development NGOs recently have promoted terracing on the hillsides to prevent soil erosion. Heifer International, the Little Rock-based NGO, is active here in promoting “zero-grazing” techniques for cattle, in order to free up more land for cultivation. The shortage of land and the antagonism between cattle growers and cultivators was one of the many factors that contributed to the animosities that fueled the genocide.

One also notices evidence of the Rwandan policy of villagization, which has been part of the policy of the Government of National Unity since the late 1990s. In order to promote a sense of community (or, more cynically perhaps, to promote the consolidation of local authority), new villages—called imidugudu in Kinyarwanda—have sprung up throughout the country, but most noticeably (as far as I can tell) in the northwest. So you’ll see lots of new buildings—market spaces; storefronts; schools, and houses—in order to accommodate village life. The last I read about this, in the early 2000s, there was some resentment about this movement. Some people lost their land and homes in the move to the new villages. Others have been able to keep their land but now must travel long distances to maintain, cultivate, and harvest it. For others—especially survivors of the genocide—the new villages feel like much safer spaces than the places they once lived. It’s a complicated business and but one of many instances of how the genocide colors everything here, and how contested the genocide, its origins, and the aftermath continue to be. Of this I will write more about later.

Roads and Beautification

With the exception of the northwest, which is quite mountainous (and perhaps for other reasons), Rwanda has the nicest, best built and maintained roadways I’ve experienced in Africa. Of course, I’m only speaking of the main roads—the majority of roadways are still unpaved dirt roads, but even some of those are pretty nice (Note: the unpaved roads in the northwest are made of volcanic rock—which can be very uncomfortable if you are in need of a bathroom break).

One also notices how, even outside the major cities (which are often nicely landscaped, relatively speaking), people and communities have taken the time to plant gardens in their roadside “yards” or in the oddest of places along the roadside. And these are well-kept plots…not your typical throw-together plot that clearly has been neglected or abandoned. One reason for this, most likely, is a national policy of setting aside Saturday mornings for community beautification projects–even in the capital city. I’m not sure if this happens every week or once a month, but I do know that that cars are not allowed on the roadways unless you have official business (or are driving a group of tourists around). Whatever the policy, the results are quite noticeable.

English vs. French

Since the Belgians took over this part of German East Africa after World War I, Rwanda has been a francophone country (in terms of the European language of choice). Despite this, Rwanda is definitely not the place for haute cuisine.

Many Rwandans still speak French, and it continues to be taught in many schools. Increasingly, however, the government is pushing the nation toward an Anglophone future. Consider, for example, the photos of Paul Kigame, the current President of the country, that one finds in every public and private place of business (a very African practice): the caption “His Excellency, Paul Kagame, President of the Republic of Rwanda” is in English, rather than French.

Some of this “switch” from French to English is reflective, I think, of the recent antagonism between Rwanda and France over the latter’s role in (both) the perpetration of the genocide and the “escape” of the genocidaires into Zaire (now the DRC).

A more practical reason has to do with the formation of an Eastern African economic trading zone that Rwanda has entered. As Rwanda realigns its regional policy toward the Great Lakes, it must conform (especially in its business practices and language training) to Anglophone Uganda, Tanzania and Kenya.

For now, I’ll leave it at that. But there will be more to come.


~ by de cive on July 6, 2007.

One Response to “Rwanda: Some Initial Impressions”

  1. […] just re-read the posts I made the first time I was here and realized that in my second post, I mentioned that I would ruminate on a number of topics that interested me during that visit. Of […]

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