Here she is! Estera Irena Bayer, born in 2015.
Last weekend, I went to a country that’s off the beaten track for low-risk Africa travellers like myself: the Democratic Republic of the Congo (formerly Zaïre). Notorious for its resource wealth and the corruption and pillaging that come with it, the Congo has been the setting for some of the world’s most violent conflicts ever since 1994, with estimates of 5 million deaths and also millions of rape cases. The two Kivu provinces that border Rwanda have seen quite some fighting even this year. With my friend Eric from Gitarama, I spent an afternoon in Goma, the capital of North Kivu, right across the border from Gisenyi.
Goma, despite the fact that it was besieged by Laurent Nkunda’s infamous rebels in October 2008, does not really show visible war damage (unlike Sarajevo, a city that I visited in 2006). This might have to do with the fact that half the city was destroyed by lava streams from a nearby volcano in 2002: everything looks chaotic anyway. Most of what I saw of the city is covered by lava debris mixed with garbage. In the poorer areas, wooden cabins have been erected as (temporary?) shelter, which gives the place a strangely Scandinavian feel (lava+wooden cabins = Iceland, right?). In the wealthy areas, lots of huge mansions are arising from the rubble. While that might seem a bit strange in the country with practically the poorest population in the world, it is easy to explain: the people who plunder the Congo’s vast resources (like gold, diamonds, coltan, …) get ridiculously rich, and Goma has the most important airport in the Eastern part of the country (with air travel being the only reasonable way to cover large distances), so it is a logical place to settle for anyone doing “business” there.
The history of the Congo is a sad one, that consists mainly of looting: in the time of the Transatlantic slave trade, the armies of Africa’s coastal kingdoms waged war there to capture slaves for the Americas; in the 19th century the Belgian King Léopold made it his personal possession; after independence, it was Mobutu Sese Seko who put billions in Swiss bank accounts and equipped his home village with a Concorde-airport; since his death in 1997, anyone who has the resources to finance a standing army or rebel group (which often just means buying AK-47s for a bunch of kids) can control part of the country, force the local population to mine resources, and sell them on the world market where they end up in jewellery and laptops.
Goma, while dirty and chaotic, is not that scary though (otherwise I wouldn’t have gone there of course); apart from a one-legged man who claimed to be a security agent and told me to pay him because I had taken an illegal picture of a sign by the road, we did not encounter any problems (Eric told the guy he would call the Rwandan police), and most people were just as friendly as Rwandans. Statistically, I did do one of the most dangerous things ever (?) in the Congo though: taking motorbike taxis is dangerous enough in Kigali, but in Goma there are no traffic rules or passenger helmets. On the ride we passed some guys on a truck who did have helmets on, blue ones. Their truck was white; a large contingent of Indian UN peacekeepers are stationed in Goma. Even if we do not take the actual military vehicles into account, Goma must have the highest density of UN jeeps in the world, something like 10%.
We preferred spending the night across the border in Rwanda, the country where I guess you could theoretically walk around at 3 a.m. waving around hundreds of euros clinched in both hands without encountering any difficulties. We had a nice Sunday in Gisenyi, swimming in Lake Kivu and exploring the area a little bit. No need to cross the border again.
Wow, it’s really been a long time since I last wrote something here! If I kept posting at the same pace, this would be the last Rwandan blog, as my period as a Togetthere volunteer only lasts five more weeks! Don’t worry though, I’ll be a good blogger from now on, and write at least one more before I leave. It’s actually a bit of a paradox: I’m online much more often than at the beginning now, but you hear less from me. One of my assignments at CAF Isonga is to identify potential investors using the internet, so I’ve been using their cellular modem (which is quite good) quite a lot, but that actually has swallowed time because with the internet there were more interesting things to do than typing blogs. One of my online activities has been to look for accommodation in Brussels, where I hope to “settle” at the end of September. No luck yet though.
So, what’s been happening around here? Lots of things: I was at the agricultural exposition in Kigali promoting CAF’s warehouse receipt system (you know, the thing I wrote about two blogs ago), and I hung out with some great people from Florida State University.
They were here in Gitarama/Muhanga for an annual volunteer programme called Global Peace Exchange. Too bad I got to know them too late though: they actually spent more than two months here, but I didn’t really get to know them until a few weeks before they left. That was because of my “why should I approach Westerners just because they’re white?” doctrine (which by now I have pretty much abandoned).
My volunteer activities here have been expanded: I now also give English conversation classes and computer workshops to the three organisations that I deal with here (my hosts Ugama/CSC and the two microfinance institutions). It’s great fun, their level is already quite good so we can do some interesting stuff.
What’s less fun is the fact that electricity and running water get interrupted very frequently lately. It’s dry season (three rainshowers since the beginning of June), so reservoirs get depleted more quickly, and I guess the heat somehow affects power generation as well. Plus, without electricity, no water is pumped, making things worse. It’s annoying to have to shower with a bucket around three times a week, but I manage. And the stars look even better without light pollution!
Last week and the week before that, Inge, who’s been a good friend of mine for years, happened to be here for her work (at AgriProFocus, an umbrella organisation that coordinates the agriculture-related work of Dutch NGOs). So we actually had some professional meetings (one dashing past rice fields in the back of a pick-up truck), and also had fun on the weekend, going out with my Rwandan friends (there was a great live band!) and diving into luxury in the countryside (at George and Lydie’s lodge in Shyogwe; that’s where my Belgian friend Bart stayed when he was still here – by now he’s finished his thesis back in Gent).
That’s all for now, let’s see what interesting things I can do in the weeks ahead!
This month, I am halfway through my stay here in Rwanda. Time for some vacation! I had told my parents that if they wanted to visit me they should do so in June, and so they did. Ton and Lucie arrived at Kigali Airport early in the morning on Sunday 7 June.
Their stay was eleven days, giving us the time to do some extensive travelling. Rwanda is a small country (as I have mentioned, it is about the size of Belgium) but has an amazing variety of different landscapes: beautiful hills used for agriculture in most of the country, savannah at Akagera National Park in the East, the enormous Lake Kivu to the West, Nyungwe Rainforest in the Southwest, and really high volcanoes in the Northwest. The latter is also what Rwanda is famous for, as it is there that the Mountain Gorillas can be found. We (or I, as it was me who was planning the trip) decided to skip the volcanoes and gorillas, as this is what all tourists in Rwanda do (boring!) and because it is quite expensive (500 US dollars a person).
During their first two days in Rwanda, I didn’t want to haul my parents around too much, so we stayed in Gitarama (a.k.a. Muhanga), meeting my friends and visiting the three organisations that I deal with the most here: CAF Isonga and Uniclécam EjoHeza (the two microfinance institutions) and Ugama/CSC (my hosts). We also had dinner with my landlady, Madame Astérie, and her daughter Nathalie, who is visiting from Belgium.
On Tuesday, we took off with Madame Astérie’s car and her driver, Aimable (she rent us her Suzuki Vitara 4×4 for a very reasonable price, which really increased our confort during our tour of the country!). Our destination that day was Kibuye on Lake Kivu, where we took a boat trip to an island with thousands of bats, swam, and had a very nice fish dinner at our hotel, Centre Béthanie. The next morning we had to get ready for a long trip, to Nyungwe Forest. Had the paved road to Cyangugu in the South been ready already, it would have been a lot faster, but as the road is still in very bad condition, we had to take a long U-shaped detour via Gitarama and Butare.
Nyungwe Forest is the biggest forest I’ve ever seen, it took us three hours to drive through it (on a paved road)! It is a tropical high-altitude rainforest with a wide diversity of species. Of the many animals there, we saw mainly small monkies though. We spent the night on the Western edge of the park, at a guesthouse close to the Gisakura tea estate (stunning views of the tea fields, the forest’s mountains and Lake Kivu far away in the valley!). On Thursday we set off for a guided four-hour hike into the forest, making a long descent to an amazing waterfall. After a rewarding lunch, we also paid a short visit to Gisakura tea factory (I had NO idea how tea is processed!), and then headed back to Butare, where we spent the night.
Butare (officially known as Huye these days) is Rwanda’s main university town, with the National University and several other institutions. In combination with some European-style buildings from the time when it was the colonial capital (until independence in 1961), this gives the city a very pleasant feel. On Friday morning, we visited its main attraction: the National Museum, which was donated by the Belgian King Boudewijn/Baudouin in 1988. I liked it a lot, as it has been kept in very good shape and really shows traditional (pre-colonial) Rwandan culture very well. We then headed North, but before continuing onwards to Gitarama there were more museums to be visited: the three royal palaces in Nyanza. The most interesting one is a replica of the Rwandan Mwami’s (king’s) hut from the early twentieth century, an enourmous space constructed from woven fibres and wood. Next to it is the colonial-era palace (the Belgians kept traditional power structures in place and placed themselves above it), and at a nearby hill there is a palace that was built just before independence and has therefore never been used as such. It houses a nice modern art museum now.
The weekend was spent in Gitarama, so no travelling, although we did have an intensive programme because all my friends here wanted to meet and spend time with my parents. We also took taxi-mopeds to nearby Kabgayi, the most important catholic centre in the country.
On Monday 8 June we set out for the last leg of our trip: Akagera National Park, on the border with Tanzania. Supposedly the park is not as impressive as the big savannah parks that Tanzania and Kenya are famous for, but we did manage to see some really amazing exotic animals in the wild! On our afternoon boat trip on Lake Ihema and our early-morning safari drive we came across: nile crocodiles, hippos, fish eagles, warthogs (you know, Pumba), a black mamba, many impala (Rwanda’s national antilope), baboons and other monkies, giraffes, buffalos and zebras. We spent the night at the Akagera Game Lodge, which is very comfortable and has an awesome pool, so we had some quality relaxing time as well.
My parents’ last night and day in Rwanda were spent in Kigali. I took advantage of the situation to be treated to some quality Western-style food and Bourbon coffee, we visited the Genocide Memorial (which for me was almost as shocking and saddening as the first time), and my parents gained the experience of racing through the city on moto-taxis and being squenched into public minbusses. Their plane left at 3.00 in the morning on Thursday 18 June.
All in all, my parents’ visit here was a big succes: we did not encounter any problems whatsoever, and my extensive planning (I don’t think I’ll ever plan a trip in such an organised way again) totally worked out. Rwanda, as a microcosm of all Sub-Saharan landscapes, really is a great country for a short African vacation: in two weeks you can go on safari and see all the big animals (they’re going to import more lions, rhinos and elephants to Akagera), swim in beautiful Lake Kivu, visit mountain gorillas and hike through a beautiful and huge rainforest. At the same time, the country is totally safe for tourists. If the government manages to maintain this unique level of safety, promote tourism in international media, and build the huge new African-hub airport that they’re planning, Rwanda could really become a major tourist destination.
It’s been very long since I last wrote something here; sorry about that, but time flies when you’re having fun eh?
My work here has become more and more interesting: while I started out working only at Uniclécam EjoHeza (“BetterTomorrow”), a small union of savings and credit cooperatives (kind of what Rabobank or Raifeissen must have been like in the 19th century; the clients are the owners), I started to also work part-time at CAF Isonga (“CAF on top”), a somewhat bigger microfinance institution that has the status of Société Anonyme (S.A.). Combining work at the two is great, because whenever things are slow at one office I can walk five minutes to the other and work there. CAF is the only S.A. in the country not based in Kigali, and a really interesting organisation: it has developed an innovative system to increase productivity of small rice-farmers.
How does it work? Most farmers here are organised in production cooperatives, so they try to combine their production and sell big amounts. This usually does not work very well, as the cooperatives are often poorly organised and it is more lucrative to sell to travelling traders. This is where CAF comes in: it provides credit to the farmers so that they can increase their production using improved seeds and fertilisers, but they have to agree to sell all their rice to the cooperative. At harvest, they go to the cooperative’s office where they receive a voucher for their production. They can then go next door to the little CAF office, where their voucher is used to repay their debt; the surplus wanders into their savings accounts, which they can access of course if they need cash. So why don’t the farmers sell their produce to little traders like they did before? Firstly, they are sure that they can sell all their produce to the cooperative at a guaranteed voucher price right after harvest. Secondly, there is warrantage: the cooperative stores all the rice until the price on the market is highest, and then sells it to traders. The additional profits from this are distributed to the farmers according to the amount they sold to the cooperative. Everybody wins in this concept: the farmers get credit to increase their production and then benefit from the storage (which admittedly is a form of speculation), CAF makes a profit on the amounts it lent to the farmers for planting and to the cooperative for storage, and the cooperative can become a strong player on the rice market. When a Terrafina delegation (Dutch microfinance initiative) visited the CAF office at Mukunguri (in the middle of nowhere, no electricity) I joined them, and the office was packed with customers.
Repayment rates are at around 99%, so the whole system seems to be working very well. At Uniclécam EjoHeza, we’re considering borrowing the concept for manioc (cassava). So what do I do at these two institutions? I get a lot of trust (why I don’t know, perhaps because of my two master’s degrees), and they allow me to brainstorm with them on business plans and demands for subsidies and financing and then have me write the documents. Apart from that, I help wherever it is needed.
Besides work, I also do other things. On Dutch Queensday, I was at the embassy for a low-key party (thanks a lot Karst T!). There I met Mara, Inge and Sarah, three Dutch girls doing medical-related internships. They invited me to join them for a weekend trip to Gisenyi, so I did. Gisenyi is the northern Lake Kivu resort town, and basically forms a twin city with Goma, DRC. The proximity of the Congo is quite noticeable there: UN soldiers on leave from the peacekeeping mission in the Kivu provinces, lots of Congolese licence plates, and many offices of big humanitarian organisations.
We wanted to go swim on the public beach along the boulevard, when I was offered wooden statues by a street seller. I have developed a taste for negotiating, so our little chat turned into the event of the week for the hundreds of people hanging around on the beach. When the deals had been struck, they decided to linger, hoping for another spectacle, that of seeing Saar, Maar and Inge (all blonde) in their bikinis. So, no swimming that day, but we compensated it the next morning by going to the private beach and pool at the five-star Serena Hotel. It was a pretty good deal, all we needed to do was order drinks and rent towels. A tip for all visitors of Gisenyi!
The past months I have also gotten to know Kigali much better (partially thanks to my six visits to the immigration office; I have an awesome visa now though). I was wrong about the lack of Western-style facilities there, in fact there are quite some. The fact that my guidebook is from 2006 led to the disappointment I mentioned last time. The biggest discovery has been Bourbon Coffee, a Starbucks-esque mini-chain where they turn Rwandan coffee into excellent espresso and serve hot food as well. A trip to one of the brand new supermarkets and shopping malls is also like a short visit back to the Western world (barcode readers!!).
I still find the capital a little annoying though: while it has only 700,000 inhabitants, it is spread out over a large number of hills (kind of like L.A. I imagine), and you often have to travel ten kilometres to get from one place to another. The upside is that you can do this by motor-taxi, which is very exciting (also because it’s dangerous).
The guidebook from three years ago is outdated in many ways: even here in Gitarama (which is now named Muhanga by the way) buildings are shooting up like mushrooms, petrol stations get all shiny and lit up like back home, and the internet connection is about five times as fast as when I arrived I would say. Most of this development takes place in the cities though; rural Rwandans are still among the poorest people in the world. Actually, now that I think of it, that’s not entirely true. The village where I once had dinner by candlelight is now connected to the electrical grid.
One thing that I find fascinating is the often random way that parts of Western culture sickle through to Rwanda:
Firstly the clothes that most people wear here. Very often it is very apparent that they originate from the containers that Westerners throw them in when they don’t need them anymore. Sports jackets from VfL Unterbentheim, Westwood High or FC Knokke and “funny joke” T-shirts with vulgar lines on them that people get from uninventive friends for their birthday and then throw away without ever wearing them (e.g. “ich bumse besser als dein Freund”).
Secondly the old Japanese minibusses that provide public transport for most people. Their drivers/owners usually paint them to display some affiliation: names of musicians like Lil’ Wayne, 50 Cent, Akon and Lucky Dubey (the South-African Bob Marley); football clubs and their sponsors like Arsenal (Fly Emirates!), Manchester, Chelsea and Barcelona; Jesus and God; and even (to my delight) Barack Obama! On the road from Gitarama to Kigali, you can also frequently spot one of them with the N-word in spelled out in huge letters (the gangsta way, with an A in the end).
Last weekend, I finally visited Bart (my Flemish friend) at the place where he’s been staying here in Rwanda: Shyogwe, in the countryside south of Gitarama. His Belgian hosts, Georges and Lydie (he’s a Rwandan-Belgian filmmaker and she’s an amazing cook), have a little hotel where they receive their guests in a very personal manner. The place is great: on top of a hill, with an amazing mix of traditional Rwandan architecture and modernism, using mainly local materials. The way there is also very interesting, a dirt road through really rural villages, where we had to take a bicycle-taxi to get back to the city.
Next time, I will write about my parents’ visit here (they are arriving in one week!).
I have quite something to tell! First of all, I have been meeting a lot of people from the Netherlands lately. This is not a coincidence, as the organisations that I work with have very good contacts with Dutch NGOs, and many happened to be passing through in late March and April. In total, I met five Dutch and one Belgian working for three Dutch organisations doing development work here in Rwanda: ICCO (whose Toggethere programme brought me here), Terrafina (microfinance) and Wageningen University.
One of the Dutch I knew already: Monique from ICCO is the one who got me in touch with Ugama/CSC, the organisation that is hosting me! It was nice to show her what a good job Ugama/CSC has done to make me feel at home. Monique also took me along on a Saturday mission to Rubengera, where the white ICCO Land Cruiser (from Bukavu in the Congo) took us over a rough path to visit a pepper field in the hills: for some time I was in a white jeep cruising through Africa (see also the romantic adolescence image I described in the first Rwanda blog)!!
Given that Ruhengeri is quite close to Kibuye, a lovely little town on Lake Kivu, we spent the night there. Lake Kivu is one of the Great Lakes of Eastern Africa and forms the main part of the border between Rwanda and the Congo. It is deep, going down more than a kilometre. In deep lakes like that, there is the danger of huge methane- and CO2-bubbles emerging, swallowing swimmers who then find themselves pretty deep below the surface. Apparently a lot of people have drowned that way around Kibuye, so when I went for a swim after an early-morning run on Sunday I made sure I stayed close to the shore! It was absolutely great to drift in the water and enjoy the view of the Lake from the Centre Béthanie, the hotel where we stayed. All in all, it was very relaxing to be in such a beautiful and calm place and talking Dutch all the time with Monique!
The week from April 7th to 13th was the national week of mourning for the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi, the event that had a defining impact on the Rwanda of today, and looking at the holocaust and the genocide against the Armenians, will remain on people’s minds for generations to come. Over one million people died in the Rwandan genocide and the humanitarian crisis that followed, which means it affected everyone here. It was a strange experience to be in Rwanda during the commemorative week: as an outsider, it is impossible to grasp the full extent of the horrors that took place in every corner of the country, and people know you can’t. At the same time, there is a lot of blood on the hands of Western governments, who through their passivity allowed the genocide to happen (or in the case of the Mitterrand government, helped facilitate it to some extent, but don’t get me started on that now), and as a European I felt somewhat guilty for that.
To show my respect, I participated in the commemorative ceremony on the 7th. Given that the weather was pretty grey when I left, I decided to dress like I would at a funeral back home and also not take a hat. Not a good idea as it turned out, as the sun did come out after a while. With the big crowd and the sun, it was quite hot, and apparently I suffered a light heatstroke there: I got a big headache, and my feeling for temperature was totally off for several days. I was lucky that everything was closed in the afternoons during the week of mourning, so I did have some time to recover. On Saturday, I had recovered enough, so I went to Kigali to visit the national memorial centre there. That was an intensely heartbreaking experience: the centre is from 2004 and documents in a very graphic (yet professional) way what happened from April to July 1994. It was very crowded, and so there was a lot of devastating sobbing from visitors for whom the memories got too much. I’m glad I went there during the week of mourning though: it enabled me to witness and understand the incredible grief that people still feel about the genocide.
Given the total destruction that the country and its society underwent in 1994, it is truly amazing to see the progress that has been booked: the economy is booming, and all the survivors do their best to transform Rwanda into the best-functioning country in Africa.
In Kigali, I also took some time to explore the city centre and check out if there really is such a big difference between the products available there and here in Gitarama. Thus far, I would say there isn’t: given the image of Kigali as the “El Dorado for rich Rwandans who live just like Westerners”, the supermarkets and shops I found were rather disappointing: nothing you wouldn’t find in a European town of around 5,000 inhabitants, and at prices for imported products that are even higher than in Gitarama. Maybe I’m wrong though, and I have to look more carefully. It’s not a big deal anyway: it’s not like I’ve been craving imported food, I was mainly looking for some decent non-stale chocolate. There are considerable opportunities for development in the Rwandan food processing sector: after all, it is ridiculous that cacao is harvested in East Africa (Kenya for instance), transported to the Netherlands to be processed in hypermodern plants, only to be shipped to Northern Africa as Snickers for the middle-Eastern market, and then end up back in East Africa when the chocolate has turned grey!
Two weeks have passed since I last posted an entry. The main reason for this is that there was not too much going on: I had some digestion problems (giardiasis, don’t look it up though, it’s pretty gross) for around five days which kept me from travelling, for instance.
I have already found bunch of friends who are my age here in Gitarama: through Madame Astérie, my landlady, I got to know Gilbert, who in turn introduced me to his group of friends, centred around three DJs who run a tiny studio close to my workplace. Besides DJ-ing at parties, their main business is selling people videos and other digital gadgets for their mobile phones, and burning CDs and DVDs. As everyone knows everyone in this town, I’m starting to develop quite a social network myself, finding lots of interconnections between my group of friends and my colleagues. I also got to know the tiny Western community here in the area a little bit, running into two British girls the other day, and (again, through my group of friends) meeting Bart, a néerlandophone Belgian who is working on his thesis here. This Friday we went out: me, the group around the three DJs, Bart, and the Belgian ambassador’s son and daughter who were passing through on a visit with their parents. It was very nice to talk to some fellow Europeans and to dance with them and my Rwandan friends! The DJ even put on some “white” music for us (he thought we’d like Kelly Clarkson, haha). The only thing that annoyed me a little later on were some men I didn’t know who were trying to dance with me all the time. I mean, I’m perfectly comfortable with the local habit of men dancing with each other as if one of them were a girl (there really is nothing homoerotic about it) as long as I know the person I’m dancing with. When it’s some random guy (who is also not very attractive), it gets really annoying, especially when he’s pulling me away from girls and won’t let go of me.
My work here at Uniclécam EjoHeza is also starting to take more and more shape: my main task thus far has been assisting in the creation of a three-year action plan for two of EjoHeza’s ten microfinance cooperatives. This is where my lifelong computer experience comes in handy: I can handle software like MS Word and Excel much more quickly than my colleagues. I have also been asked to do a little research on the influence of the agricultural cycle on savings and deposits at the Muhanga cooperative (that’s here in Gitarama), pretty interesting stuff. A week ago, we also had a celebration, at the cooperative in Kamonyi (on the road to Kigali), where I was the only white person among the 1,500 attendees. The governor of the Rwandan National Bank was also there, and he even mentioned me in his speech (as the action plans I’m working on will be used to for a financing request). And, of course, there was some traditional dancing and singing!
Yesterday I had a cool first-time experience: having dinner in a house without electricity! Monsieur Laurien, the coordinator at Ugama/CSC (the organisation that’s hosting me) took me to hill where his family is from, at some kilometres from Gitarama, and introduced me to his parents (who are in their eighties!) and some of his brothers and sisters. It was very nice to have some amazing-tasting food that had been produced a few hundred meters away on the same hill (except for the rice) by the light of a petroleum lamp.