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Rwanda: An African Phoenix

by Mark Nicholson

I was drinking a Mützig beer near Bukavu on the Congo border a week ago with a Rwandan when the BBC World Service headlines described a bus crash in Hunter Valley, which had killed ten people. The Australian Prime Minister gave a speech that was rather O.T.T., talking about “Such terrible loss of life…so sad, so cruel and so unfair…the unimaginable nature of this tragedy….the mental scars will be there forever…Australia wraps its arms around you…”. Er, well yes, it was of course an unfortunate accident caused by an idiot driver over-speeding, but hardly unimaginable. The average DAILY death toll on the roads in Kenya is above ten; in India it was 37 per day in 2022. Meanwhile, the death toll in Sudan, Nigeria and Ukraine during May was well above 30,000. It is laudable that Australia is so unaccustomed to fatal accidents but we were in the wrong place to be concerned by ten lives lost. My Rwandan colleague remarked dryly “Try 10,000 per day for 100 days in a row”. Yes, I remember it well; 29 years ago this month, I was working 300 km to the east, close to the Ugandan border. Rumours reached us of 500 or 1000 people a day being hacked to death. We did not believe it. Later, we found out the death toll was ten times that figure and it just went on day after horrible day. Never has there been such a shameful event for both the United Nations and the Belgian ‘peacekeepers’, who couldn’t flee fast enough while the rest of the world looked on aghast, helplessly wringing its hands. The life expectancy chart for Rwanda says it all:

Life expectancy chart Rwanda 1960-2022

Perhaps Anthony Albanese should get out a bit more to think about what constitutes an unimaginable tragedy. Meanwhile the former Prime Minister of the United Kingdom and his Home Secretary Suella (or is it Cruella?) Braverman should stay in more. One of his/ their more bizarre ideas is to send “illegal immigrants” arriving in the UK off to Rwanda, a scheme that is callous, immoral and probably illegal. I do not have an answer to the problem of illegal immigration but then nor does anyone else. If I were an Eritrean refugee who had risked life and limb crossing the Sahara and then the Mediterranean to get into the UK, I would be somewhat discombobulated to be told I was being flown to the middle of Africa. Fortunately, I am not; in fact I would be quite happy to be shipped off to Rwanda away from cold, unwelcoming Old Blighty because Rwanda is a young country with a great future. In the meantime, Britain has given the Rwandan Government $140m for the ‘storing’ of illegal immigrants whom it does not know what to do with. It would have become another Nauru in the middle of Africa. Anyway, as far as I am aware, no illegal immigrant has yet to be transported and poor Rwanda has its own problems with refugees from the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and Uganda.

Rwanda’s premier is the very smart and super wily Paul Kagame. He may not be liked by many of his neighbours but he has hobnobbed with various leaders such as Clinton, Obama, Blair and Johnson, and even King Charles: all find him charming and most of them he has survived. He brooks no opposition in his country, having ‘won’ 99% support at the last election. You oppose him at your peril, so it is hardly surprising he has many enemies outside his borders.

I was invited to Rwanda by two groups in the same week. The first was by a posse of amusing lady lawyers from Nairobi including Paul Kagame’s niece, who is somewhat less tall than Kagame’s 1.91m (6ft 3”) daughter (see photo - right). That trip was somewhat costly since tourism in Rwanda is high end and we were looking at $3000+ per person for four nights. I ended up joining a team assessing the viability of a fish-farming start-up on Lake Kivu, a small (see footnote 1)) Rift Valley lake shared by DRC and Rwanda. The six-man team was a wonderful example of how cosmopolitan East Africa has become. It was led by the CEO of a fish farm on Lake Victoria, an Egyptian born Irish-American married to a Dutch lady. Then we had the Kigali-based CEO of the Kivu project, a Manila born white Anglo-German-Bangladeshi, his grandfather having been the Bangladeshi Ambassador to Berlin when he was sentenced to death for treason by Islamabad for supporting Bangladesh’s independence in 1971 (see footnote 2). The third and fourth members of the team were a black Zimbabwean aquaculturalist (who admitted to me that he would have liked another 25 years of Ian Smith) and a white Zimbabwean engineer, now a citizen of eSwatini (formerly Swaziland), who said his sugar estate had been nabbed by His Majesty (King Mswati III of eSwatini, not King Charles of the UK). Finally, there was a Harvard–educated Rwandan CFO who had lost most of his family in the genocide, plus me as the team ecologist/ biodiversity consultant.

Landlocked Rwanda is tiny, slightly larger than Wales. In contrast, DRC, its troublesome neighbour to the west is ninety times larger,, and the former Sudan a bit further north was almost exactly one hundred times the size. The countryside is one of endless rolling hills covered in exotic eucalyptus trees and coffee plantations, with rice paddies in the narrow valley bottoms. Flat land is almost impossible to find which made even building the international airport’s runway a challenge. The climate is perfect, neither hot nor cold but it can rain heavily in certain seasons. Kagame is determined to make the country the Singapore, Dubai or Switzerland of Africa.

The languages are Kinyarwanda and English, a new language for the citizens. If you are under thirty you will know English. Over 30 and you will speak French. Both Kigali and the country are scrupulously clean and well organized. In the whole of Africa and South/ Central America, there are only two countries where I would not dare bribe a policeman: Chile and Rwanda. Smart new speed cameras are everywhere and a bit further on there will be a policeman waiting to pounce. We were stopped for exceeding the speed limit (mostly 60 or 80 k.p.h., which makes all car journeys very long). The fine is $25, payable by M-Pesa, rising to $35 if not paid in 24 hours. What a contrast to Kenya where the ‘fine’ (kitu kidogo or ‘small something’) is negotiated after much arguing, and instantly pocketed (but charm, smiles and banter also helps the offender hugely).

To get to Lake Kivu, one drives first to Rwanda’s second largest city, Huwe (formerly Butare, a Tutsi stronghold). The last time I went there in the 1990s, my Tutsi taxi driver told me about 60 of his relatives who had been slaughtered. Today, all mention of ethnicity is taboo but memorials to the genocide are everywhere and widely respected. After Huwe, one passes through the Nyungwe National Park in the south-west, which together with the Kibira National Park in Burundi has to be the most beautiful forest block in Eastern Africa. The 150,000 ha. forest (381,000 acres) covers the staggeringly steep topography. The biodiversity is magical. There are 13 species of primates including chimpanzees (see footnote 3) and varied birdlife.

Great Blue Turaco

There are only three problems with Nyungwe. First, it teems with heavily armed soldiers who have frequent fixtures with opposition rebels coming in from Burundi keen to depose Kagame. Second, the road through is a deathtrap especially for the huge trucks heading for the Congo border from Tanzania, Burundi and Rwanda. Crash barriers do nothing to stop trucks smashing through them and plunging 100 or 200m down near-vertical slopes. The other day they found a car in the forest that disappeared five years ago with four occupants, The skeletons were still wearing seatbelts. Lastly, for tourists, it is expensive: many lodges around the forest charge at least $1500 per night.

Nearby Lake Kivu is deep (>500m) and clean. Occasionally apparently there is a belch of methane and CO2 from the deep, which tends to reduce oxygen levels and reduce fish growth but nothing like the belch from Lake Nyos in Cameroon that killed 1700 villagers and 3500 cattle one night in 1986. Sadly (or perhaps fortunately), the crocodiles have been wiped out; so, swimming is safe. The steep hills all around are degraded and my job will be to restore the land. The only downside is that the lake is shared by DRC and Rwanda so rebel attacks are common near the border. But what a perfect place for a camping holiday, far from the madding crowd. I am longing to go back both to work and to camp by the lake.

Rwanda has risen like a Phoenix from the horror of 30 years ago. It is now a delightful and friendly country and I left with a positive vibe for the future.

1 ‘Small’ must be qualified. Loch Ness, the second largest lake by area (or loch) in Scotland contains more water (7.5 cubic kilometres) than all the fresh water in England and Wales combined. Lake Kivu contains 450 cubic kilometres and is therefore sixty times the size of Loch Ness but a puddle compared to Lake Tanganyika, which contains 18,750 cubic kilometres with a shoreline of nearly 2000 km.

2 Yet another genocide which accounted for 300,000 to three million deaths.

3 Mountain gorillas are found only in the Virunga volcano area in the northeast sharing a border with DRC and Uganda. I have seen gorillas in both the Virunga and Mgahinga area of Uganda and have never had to pay. These days you will pay $1500 a day on top of your hotel bill for the privilege. Personally, I find chimpanzees far more interesting, frequently behaving as viciously as their closest cousins, humans.


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