My relationship with Rwanda began with total rejection. I went there for two months last summer to do an internship with a local newspaper.
As our small, half-empty plane attempted to descend upon it, Kigali deployed the most beautiful fortifications I have ever seen. The city laughed in our silly pasty-white muzungu (non-African) faces while managing to seduce us at the same time.
To say it was “cloudy” would be like describing a typhoon as “rainy.” Calling it foggy or overcast would also be inadequate and inaccurate. The sky was simply brimming with giant cotton ball mountains. It was utterly beautiful, and I was so enraptured by the display that I banged my glasses as I pressed my face to the window. So thick were these billowy white monsters, that our little A320 trembled like a child’s toy when it dared to penetrate the thick flak-like cumuli.
I couldn’t help but think we were being repelled like invaders by some sort of natural defence mechanism. And it worked. After pathetically and awkwardly circling around for 20 minutes, probing for weaknesses, we were forced to retreat from Kigali’s flawless defence with our tail(fin) between our legs.
Despite the annoying delay, it was so awe-inspiring that I couldn’t help but smile. Kigali was playing hard to get, coyly repelling our advances. Rwanda had put us in our place, while increasing my desire to make its acquaintance. After a couple of humiliating hours pouting in an airport in Uganda, we tried again, and this time Kigali took pity on us, or perhaps admired our persistence, and let us in.
No wonder Kigali hesitated at first. It has experienced nothing but abuse from the outside world. Rwanda, like many mountainous regions, was once an isolated kingdom that even forbade the entrance of outsiders, which is how it was able to escape the slave trade. The first white person didn’t set foot on the country’s red soil until 1894. A decade earlier the kingdom had been “given” to Germany. After the First World War, Belgium became the lucky new owner of these backward people who couldn’t possibly govern themselves. Nothing that these foreigners did in or to Rwanda was in the interest of its people, and much of what they did was simply horrific. And that’s not even getting into the genocide.
I myself didn’t come to exploit Rwanda. In fact, I’m reticent to proclaim that I came to “help” the poor Africans, which sounds more than a little self-righteous and arrogant. I simply came to experience and to learn. Frankly I don’t think they need our help or guidance. They’re doing just fine, and it’s no thanks to us.
Many have taken to calling Rwanda the Singapore of Africa. It is now amongst the safest and most stable countries on the continent. Its level of corruption is “negligible” according to Transparency International, with lower levels than several EU states. Kigali is the cleanest and safest city on the continent. Rwanda went from being the poorest country in the world after the genocide to having an impressive and sustainable 8% growth rate, the third highest in Africa. Doing business there is extremely easy due to so little red tape. At least one million Rwandans have been lifted out of poverty over the past five years. Under President Paul Kagame, individual incomes have tripled and the death penalty has been abolished. Rwanda is also the only country in the world where the majority of members of parliament are women.
It is an incredible land, and I fell in love as soon as I smelled its smoky air.