My journey to Rwanda started with a vaccine for the dreaded yellow fever, the one that has caused millions of deaths and god knows how many infections in African economies. Yet this was not the actual reason for my mini anxiety attacks. It started after the family started to utilize the full potential of the internet and go on a full research mode; “are you sure it’s safe there?” “Don’t drink water from the tap and make sure you don’t eat random meat from the streets.” “Do not go anywhere alone and make sure you keep everything inside a locker, will there be lockers in your room?”. All these paranoias and yet one thing kept me on track i.e. the prevailing lockdown in Nepal. I had this amazing opportunity to travel to an exotic continent while everyone else is thinking of what to bake or cook. So, with my bags packed, I ignored all the concerns and patiently waited for the date of my flight. Honestly, as hard as I tried, I could not ignore my own concerns. Look, at any other time traveling all around a new country for a month seems intriguing, but during these times where the virus is causing deaths and restrictions concerns do arise. Everything though, went out the window as soon as I stepped out of the Kigali International Airport.
The looming misinformation mixed with my own misconceptions had guided my thoughts and my perception of the word Africa. A third world continent with uneducated inhabitants who have, as Russel Peters put it, “freaking clicks” in their names. Yet the one step outside the airport made me realize that I was the one who was from a third world country with uneducated inhabitants who (my Newari brothers and sisters) still have hard time pronouncing “ta ta ra ma ta”. The first glance outside was enough to say that this nation was something different. This country has three times lower GDP compared in Nepal (which is not much to begin with) yet, I see no dust outside. I see clean-pitched roads that are occupied with clean cars which are driven in proper lanes system and by proper respectful drivers. As being a driver myself, I feel that the way people drive during the rush hours inside the city can tell a lot about the mindset of that person. Here, I noticed people are hesitant to honk the horns and overall drivers here have the decency to stay on the lane and respect the traffic signals and the road speed limit. I was astonished to see a country that is 3 times underdeveloped than Nepal (at least in papers), to have a far more managed traffic scenario. Now, I was curious about what other things would make me stunned, and spoiler alert there were a lot.
I was part of a team who had to analyze the agro-tourism prospect in the Western and the Northern Provinces of Rwanda. This meant, I was given the opportunity to travel to places where hardly any average tourists have reached, interact with the locals from those sites and along the way see what this beautiful country had to offer. Little did I know, I was about to have an experience of a life time and get much more than I ever thought of. The best way to start the experience would be to talk about the road trips. Well, I can’t emphasize it more but, the roads in Rwanda are amazing. Because of the quality wide roads mixed with proper drivers, completing 200 Km in 2 hours was not stressful at all. To put it into perspective, driving to Pokhara from Kathmandu on a fine day with no interruption will take about 4-5 hours. However, that hardly happens. We have to adjust the time taken stuck in traffic and road blocks caused by random broken trucks and these will increase the time taken to 6-7 hrs. However, this was not as interesting as the conversations I had with Eric (our local help). I spent most of the mission talking with him on the road. We shared about culture, history and current situations and had super long arduous arguments regarding which driving side is the right side (Rwanda had left hand driving). Backtrack to the more interesting conversation I had with him, I was mentioning about roads in Nepal, about how bad it is. Eric interrupted me and said “can’t be worse than this”. For him the road that we were driving on was, in his words, “bad quality”. There I was thinking if only Nepal had these kinds of roads, traveling would be much simpler. But here, these “dream roads” were not in par with the standard there.
People from Rwanda have experienced something that no one should have ever experienced. After the genocide, the economy was completely turned upside down. Hunger was prominent around the whole country and recovery seemed farfetched. However, in just 16 years, they have climbed up to become one of the cleanest, safest and strongest country in Africa. Being landlocked and small, they have had the power to step up over their giant neighbor Uganda, Congo, Burundi and Tanzania. Knowing the past, it went through it is impressive how Rwanda has come to become what it is today. And for me this is all because of the collectiveness and aspiration each individual here holds. Sidetrack to Nepal, we tend to compare everything with India, we just want to be like India or be one up above it and to be brutally honest we are simply satisfied with it. But in Rwanda, things are different. They aspire to be the best, work with the best and to be compared with the best. For instance, we were interviewing with a young coffee farmer, who at first glance did not look that interesting, yet after talking to him my mind was just blown away. A 28-29-year-old guy, who studied agriculture at a local university, is the owner of one of the biggest coffee farms in the Western province which is producing one of the finest Arabica coffee beans available in the country. At his age, he already has international contracts and is in a process of creating a 6-villa resort in his farm. Asking about his aspiration, he talked about doing as much as he can to be satisfied while helping his own community. And to tell you the truth, he is actually delivering what he mentioned. He has invested on his community by employing the community members to his business and self-financing road networks for ease of access to the community. In 30 days, I travelled 2 provinces, around 15 districts and about 30 different sites interviewing about 30-40 people and surprisingly most of the people had similar aspirations as the fine young coffee farmer. It made me think what it be like if Nepalese aspired to be collective and to be the best.
Like I mentioned earlier, most of my trips were filled with conversation with Eric. Our conversations, though random, were very knowledgeable for both of us. Since I have a good background knowledge on construction, it was obvious for me to enquire about the cost of materials and labor. To my surprise, in Nepalese currency terms, bricks costs NPR.2 per piece in Rwanda (in Nepal its NPR.20) and cement per bag was NRS.1000 (in Nepal its NPR.750-NPR.900). However, I was more surprised when I heard how much an average daily labor cost. People are working for NPR.100 per day making their monthly earnings to amount to just NPR. 3000. Yet, the development here in Rwanda is mind boggling. The work hours starts at 8 am and ends at 5pm, 2 hours more than in Nepal. But, unlike any other cities, there is no hassles. Hardly anyone is in a hurry or anyone seems to feel stressed. Most people here do what they love and love what they do. Kigali is chilled out place filled with chilled out people. However. when it comes to work and time, they are spot on.
From my observation and discussion with my colleagues, one thing that has kept the country in control and managed is the fines. Break a rule once, fines may make you pokiest to feel lighter. For instance; it was our last day at the Western Province, we were simply having a city tour. Eric (by mistake) entered into a one-way road. The police, immediately fined him RWF 25,000 (NRS 2500). For an economy, where average daily wage is NPR 100, being fined NPR 2,500 is huge. This fine is more than 80% of the average salary. This has made people afraid to break any rules, which, to be honest, is how people should feel.
Lastly, a topic that needs to be discussed is the Coronavirus pandemic. The date of my return flight (10th October, 2020), the total number of new cases were 2. The government were deciding on resuming schools, universities, bars and clubs. Except for the new-normal of wearing masks and hand sanitization at every point, everything seemed to be “normal”. The highest number of new cases, 231, was recorded on 26th August 2020. Since then the country has been able to curb the graph to be in the current situation. Compared that to Nepal, the last time we had that number similar to that, 213, was on 7th June 2020. Now we are on the upper ranks with over 115,000 cases. So how was Rwanda able to do what Nepal could not. Both are small landlocked economy surrounded by bigger neighbors. In fact, Nepal has 3 times GDP than Rwanda. Yet Rwanda is much safer. And there is one simple answer to how; information. Everyone everywhere was well informed about the pandemic. All of them knew what to do, what not to do and the consequences of their actions. On my travel, I visited extreme remote areas, yet I saw people maintaining social distance. Everyone was wearing masks and even if there were no sanitizers, they at least had a homemade washing station with soap and water. MoMo pay (the mobile money platform in Rwanda) was utilized effectively. Even for people who had no smartphones, MoMo pay was integrated into the communication SIM in a way that people could use normal “tyaktyake” phones and would have the ability to pay with simple press of few codes. And of course, the fines were there as well. If found without proper masks or not maintaining social distances people would be fined RWF10,000 (NPR 1,000). The violators will also be held for 24 hours to undergo sensitization aimed at changing their mindsets, the guidelines said. For second-time offenders, the fine will be doubled. Hosting mass gatherings for events such as birthday parties or bridal and baby showers will lead to a fine of RWF 200,000 (about NPR 20,000. People who attend these events will be liable to pay RWF 25,000 (NPR2,500). Private businesses using more than 50% of existing employees will be fined RWF 150,000 (about NPR15,500). Places of worship that reopen without permission will be fined RWF 150,000 (about NPR15,500), while those allowed to reopen will have to pay RWF 100,000 (about NPR10,00) if safety rules are breached. Now, with these well informed, law abiding citizens, strict policies and six months of strict lockdown, Rwanda was able to curb the graph. To be fair, Rwanda has always been at the fore front to manages such pandemic. The swine flu and Ebola outbreaks have made Rwanda well prepared to handle such pandemics as well. Yet, to be able to control the entire nation is something to be praised about.
When I travelled around Rwanda, it felt like Nepal. Everywhere seemed pretty familiar and I actually never felt that I was in a different country. Lake Kivu reminded of lakeside Pokhara, the hills reminded me of Nagarkot and the busy towns reminded me of Newroad. However, there were certain aspects that made me loath for progress in Nepal. The wide clean pitched roads, the ease caused by the use of technology, proper execution of development plans and finally the strict fines with minimum corruption. Rwanda has shown the world what a small landlocked economy is capable of becoming if done correctly. It can be a perfect example for Nepal to aspire. Now that I am back to the country that I call home, I have a totally different view of Rwanda than the day I had when I was taking about the yellow vaccine. The country is 5 times smaller and 3 times poorer than Nepal and yet the audacity of the government and aspiration of the people have made the country an inspiration among the landlockeds and me imagine Nepal as “if only”.
Thumbnail picture source: Aayush Shrestha