A Week in the Land of a Thousand Hills

And the beauty of Rwanda and its people.

View from the top of Mt. Bigugu in Rwanda’s Nyungwe Forest.

The shock that came upon arrival to Rwanda — the land of a thousand hills, as it is known — was accompanied too by the shock that didn’t; the city was simultaneously more developed than parts of the “first world” and woefully lacking in some of the most fundamental ways. It was familiar but also not; similar in many ways, but different in many more. To compare it with anywhere else, however, would be unfair and also useless, because to understand Rwanda is to understand not only the country as it is but also the country as it has been — racked by a genocide only a generation earlier, landlocked, but undeniably beautiful, both topographically and culturally.

There is a pride within the people that, sadly or not, is there in no small part because of the tragedy they endured at the hands of others, influencing their own; at the hands of a country that understood them not as they were, but as they wished them to be. This power, though — this beauty; this inner strength — is a result of continuing to overcome that tragedy, and having understood that at its heart, the Rwandan genocide was the result of manufactured — rather than structural — conflict; a result of decades of civil segmentation that the people of Rwanda had neither asked for nor needed, but suffered because of. These people, now, have been given the opportunity that every people deserves — to rebuild their society on their own terms, but to never forget the tragedy that befell them. To be sure, the Rwandan people have not forgotten the split into Hutus and Tutsis — the split that eventually led to the genocide — but they have managed an almost unimaginable feat of collective forgiveness, and remain intent on moving forward not as a group divided, but a group united; not as Hutus and Tutsis, but as Rwandans. After 23 years, there is still work to be done, infrastructure to be built, lessons still to be learned, and relearned, and never forgotten, but so too after 23 years is it clear just how much progress has been made, and how much beauty has been discovered and rediscovered, both by the people of Rwanda, and those that are lucky enough to spend time among them.

Upon arriving in the city, it was clear that it was on its way up, from the flow of downtown Kigali to the technological innovations enabling that flow — innovations like stoplights with clear and continuous countdowns, such that traffic may flow better and transportation efficiency may be maximized. And yet, the country was also profoundly poor — in the cities, yes, but even more so in the spaces between them. It was common to see huts constructed from mud and sticks with roofs of corrugated iron that acted as precious little more than rusted umbrellas, some painted, but most not; the finishing touches on a home, but little more than that. So too was it common to see scenes indicating both the parts of the country that were caught up with the rest of the world and those that were not. Upon return to Kigali, we passed a semi-truck, likely carrying either coffee or tea — the country’s main exports — turned over in a ditch off to the side of the road, having slid off the road per the country’s habit of raining anywhere, anytime. To mark the accident, however, there were no traffic cones, or flares — there were only a dozen eucalyptus branches, spread out in intervals of a dozen meters or so, pushing cars to the other side of the road such that they would not aggravate the incident. It was symbolic of Rwanda’s progress, but also its potential; the country is full of people itching to make it great, people like the driver of that semi, transporting goods in, around, and out, quite literally driving the economy. But the country is also finding itself in an important way, sliding off the roads at times, learning from each mistake, and yes, addressing those mistakes sometimes with what is on hand; figuring out problems as they come, and in turn creating the institutions necessary to foster structural — rather than transient — progress. To say that the eventual replacing of eucalyptus branches with traffic cones is a start is to miss the point, but institutional progress is what may give way to that, and, eventually, everything else.

For now, though, the country needs what most developing countries need: capital. They have the labor, that is certain — roads are lined with people in everyday clothes keeping the forest at bay with machetes; every market, packed with people buying and selling the goods that drive the economy — coffee and tea mainly — as well as other agricultural staples. Tourism helps, too; 10–15% of proceeds reaped from licenses sold to track the gorillas — of which only 96 can be sold per day for the Volcanoes National Park where we observed them — go directly back into infrastructure for the local communities, communities in which education is of paramount importance, even if sometimes, it happens in little more than huts visible from the roads on which tourists drive, and locals walk. And for as important and as emphasized as education is, begging and pleading for handouts — though it happens — is frowned upon; the understanding that reliance on the kindness of strangers is little more than a temporary fix is clear among the Rwanda’s people, especially those who have shunned said behavior, and seen success. In Rwanda, as is elsewhere, the people work hard for what little they have — 63% live on less than $1.25/day and 70% work in subsistence farming — and while foreign aid is nobly intentioned and frequently given, it is no match for the fostering of a culture of hard work and self-reliance; of community and oneness, and Rwanda has both in spades.

After having visited, any bet on this country, I believe, would be a good one. Ambition is not easily found nor easily created, but it is everywhere in Rwanda; it is in the eyes of the people wondering how to increase both visitation to their country and efficiency within it, just as it is in the hearts of people who know that Rwanda is special — both citizens and non-citizens, but all people who see the country’s potential; who know that there is something to a place that people visit and then visit again; a country that people miss even while there, and hope to get back to, but wish well regardless.

At its heart, Rwanda is a country of immense topographical beauty, biodiversity, history, culture, and ambition. It is a country that cannot and will not forget where it has been; a country that is itching not to omit those pages from its history book, but to transcend them. And it is a country that anyone with curiosity about how countries get from here to there should be lucky to visit, lest we forget that sometimes, conflict leads to resolution, and then to beauty. Nowhere is that clearer than in Rwanda, the land of a thousand hills, and a thousand valleys, figurative bumps on the road to realized potential, and real reminders of both where the country has been, and where it is going.

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