Why Rwanda?

Over the past month, I have been asked many times “why Rwanda?” with expression ranging from excitement to bewilderment.

In truth, this is another example of stumbling in a general direction and finding a wealth of opportunity for learning and discovery. Working in International Development (ID), I am subscribed to a number of NGO and networking email lists for ID work at home and overseas. Several postings for international positions with CCA arrived in my inbox some two or three months ago and immediately appealed to me. The positions are all entry level, paid (a very attractive feature for those of us who are members of ‘generation jobless‘!) and cover a range of sectors from agriculture to finance (credit union) to community development, all with the common theme of cooperatives.

Of the available positions, I was attracted to those based in promoting gender equality and elevating women’s status society. These positions were located in Rwanda, Peru, and Malawi. I had intended to apply for Rwanda and Peru, but Peru closed before I had a chance to apply.

So, why Rwanda? Why not! Unfortunately and understandably, most of our knowledge of Rwanda in North America stirs memories of the 1994 genocide. Just 6 when the violence broke out, I had no immediate recollection of this tragedy, but the interventions of the UNAMIR Lieutenant-General, Romeo Dallaire, a Canadian, are familiar to me. I remember going to see the film Shake Hands with the Devil, based on Dallaire’s experience, with my grandmother a few years back. I can recall being shocked and not understanding the full context of the situation. We talked about the film – and the genocide – after. Who would have known that six years later I’d be calling Rwanda home!

Though the decision was made primarily on the position I was accepting – Gender and HIV Program Officer – I was also excited to return to Africa, a continent I fell in love with while living and working in Malawi in 2011. I am also deeply intrigued by a society that has been through such a deep and violent tragedy and has managed to rebuild itself so vibrantly.

Having studied political science with an eye to gender studies, it is not lost on me that Rwanda has a female representation in government of over 50% – the highest in the world! Compared to 24% in Canada and a world average hovering around 20%, it’s quite remarkable and makes for an intriguing and attractive society for a young feminist to absorb.

I arrived in the Land of a Thousand Hills yesterday thoroughly exhausted from 20 hours in flight and a solid month of running off the soles of my shoes visiting family and friends, packing my apartment in Toronto, and attending CCA’s pre departure training.

Just as I was about to board the second leg of the flight in Toronto, I was told I would have to check one of my two carry-on bags as space was limited. I quickly rearranged my bags, consolidating electronics, cash, and important documents into one bag. Somewhere over the Atlantic ocean, I realized that I had left my Rwanda entry visa in my checked bag and let my mind drift into panic mode, imagining all of the possible outcomes – bag gets lost in transition, customs comes before bag retrieval, I am resigned to a life of limbo in the Kigali airport.

When I finally arrived in Kigali, with stop-overs in Rome and Addis Ababa, I was horrified to learn that customs do indeed precede baggage retrieval. As I waited in line to pass though customs I worked myself into a frenzy, and was only able to get out a few words about my predicament before the waterworks started. (Side note: I really hope that as I age I learn to become more stoic .. !!) The customs agent, probably uneasy and unsure what to do with my emotional response, assured me it would be ok and allowed me to proceed to baggage to find my Visa entry document. Thankfully, my checked carry on arrived and was one of the first bags off the carousel. I returned to the customs agent who stamped my passport and happily welcomed me to Rwanda. Phew.

The second challenge … one of my two pieces of checked luggage did not arrive! As luck would have it, it was the one that was extremely overweight and contained pretty well everything other than the books, toiletries, and three work out shirts, and nine dresses I had packed in my backpacking backpack. Having traveled extensively in Europe and doting in Africa, the Carribean, the United States, and Canada, you’d think I would have learned by now that you ought not to pack all pants in one bag, all shirts in another, and all of your $1000 malaria medication in checked luggage! Oops!

Combined with rain, language barriers (everyone speaks Kinyarwanda, some speak French, and fewer speak English), a definite lack of sleep, and no phone or internet to let family know I’ve arrived safely, it was a bit of a stressful start.

The fantastic news is that after a great, long, and much needed sleep, I woke to a brilliantly shining sun and the beautiful backdrop of the Muhanga (formerly called Gitarama) mountains to call home. My luggage, it turns out, made an impromptu trip to Bujumbura (capital of Burundi), where the plane I arrived on was traveling after Kigali. I asked the baggage retrieval clerk if it enjoyed the trip. She laughed and said, “Yes, but I think it will enjoy Rwanda much more.” I certainly have to agree!

I made the trip into Kigali to retrieve my baggage with Laurent, UGAMA’s driver. We chatted about the differences between Malawi and Rwanda as well as Rwanda and Canada. Thankfully, Laurent knows enough English to bridge the gaps in my rusty French. An unanticipated but very welcome side effect of this placement will be getting my French back up to par!

The trip into the capital reminded me of all of the things I loved about Malawi – the energy and buzz of activity, the resourcefulness of people, the communal culture. I also found many differences between Malawi and Rwanda on the short drive … everything is incredibly lush here! Though farming accounts for some 80-90% of industry in Malawi, they are subject to frequent drought and rely fairly heavily on international aid to fill food gaps as it is. Rwanda on the other hand has a much more consistent climate and the growing seasons are more stable and fruitful. The streets are also incredibly clean – an anomaly for Africa, Laurent told me, and something Rwandans take pride in. I also noticed that houses aren’t lined with barbed wire and guards and there are few police in the streets. Laurent told me that Rwanda is incredibly safe. I explained that in Malawi  we were cautioned against walking alone at night as young women. He chuckled and said, “Here, no problem.” (Of course, Mom and surrogate moms, I will still exercise caution, but I can say with confidence that Rwandans are on the whole a peaceful and jovial lot!)

I’ll try not to sound like a broken record when I sign off, but I am so excited to jump head first into everything Rwanda! Stay tuned …

A bientot! 🙂

9 thoughts on “Why Rwanda?

  1. what a great adventure awaits you….how long do you plan to be there…I know that it may be difficult to keep us “in the loop” but all news and pics will be enjoyed and appreciated….


    • If all goes well, between 8 and 9 months! The contract is 6 months officially, at which point we re-negotiate. I’ve started posting photos to my Flickr account … you should be able to find them on the right hand side of my blog home page and click on one of the photos to be taken to the whole set. Thanks for following : )


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