KIGALI, Rwanda — We’ve been on the road, driving up to the north, east and south of the country, a trip that has taken several days.
First stop was Butaro, where we visited a new hospital established by the Rwanda government with Partners in Health, the international organization started by Harvard’s Paul Farmer.
Next we went to Kinigi and Ruhengeri, where we went into Volcanoes National Park for close encounters with the endangered Mountain Gorillas.
Then we headed back to Kigali, in the center of Rwanda, and after that we went down south to Bugesera, where there are plans to build a big new airport.
And today we went to the southwest of the country to Butare where we met with students at the National University of Rwanda. Butare used to be known as Huye and was the old capital of the country.
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All that time on the road has given fascinating glimpses of Rwandan life. Here are a few things I have noticed:
The roads are great. The major highways are excellent and there appears to be continuous work on improving the roads and preventing erosion in the steep mountainous areas. China has rebuilt several major roads and right now they are working on a steep stretch just north of Kigali.
Chinese workers can be seen driving some earthmovers, but there are also some Rwandans in the driver’s seat, too. The Rwandans insisted that 70 percent of the workforce must be Rwandan. In many other African countries, the Chinese have made up more than 70 percent of the workforce.
Rwanda is Africa’s most densely populated country and it shows. There are very few open stretches of land. There is a great deal of development along the major roads. Little storefronts and beerhalls and churches and more storefronts. Plus mosques. Did I mention storefronts? The stores sell lots of goods including Coca-Cola, Fanta and the country’s two most popular beers, Primus and Mutzig.
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There is activity in the fields, at homes, by the storefronts. Little children play by the side of the road and wave and shout “Mizungu” (“white people” in Swahili).
This is carrot season and there are tall stacks of the bright orange vegetables lined up by the side of the road, waiting to be taken to market. Women and men carry baskets on their heads with bananas and mangoes.
Rwanda’s mountains make the country incredibly picturesque. Crops are grown right up the steep hillsides, which are intensively terraced.
Bicycles use the roads, packed with large loads of sugar cane, sweet potatoes and other produce. I saw a convoy of 20 bicycles, each loaded high with containers of fresh milk. The riders cycled from the high altitude farms of Ruhengeri to the resort town of Gisenyi on Lake Kivu. With their heavy loads, the milkmen raced downhill, reaching speeds of more than 50 miles per hour.
Going uphill is another matter, and most cyclists would walk their bikes up the slopes. Several cyclists hitched lifts, by grabbing on to the back of a big truck and letting it pull them along the roads. I saw three cyclists hanging on to the back of one truck.