On the motorbike taxi journey to Kigali Airport I think about all the people I have met and all the stories that we have told: Fragments of personal existence. Ways of building friendship through the laughter or sadness shared.
Kigali has been a place of many stories. I think first of Kathleen, the wonderful American I met at my hotel. She’s about my mum’s age, perhaps slightly younger. At breakfast she’s a little perturbed as many of the younger travellers here have shown no interest in her. I invite her out for lunch with Mike and I. She thanks me, and tells me she ‘appreciates’ it. This makes me smile. I think of the time I spend with my mum. I don’t do it as a favour. I do it because I enjoy it. I tell Kathleen this.
She’s got a wealth of interesting political knowledge and some hilarious and wonderful stories. But the one I remember is of her father chasing after a new, escaped puppy at a petrol station and falling to the ground, immediately dead, from a heart attack. Her mother took a long time to bond with the puppy after that.
Funny how animals and children always get our emotions. Wonderful how, when we know our time with newfound friends is limited, we find ways of sharing our lives through the stories and fragments that matter to us.
Then there’s Mike and John: the cycle mechanics I met up at Lake Kivu. John and I share stories of the alcohol recovery centre he worked at in Nottingham and the hospitals I’ve worked at in Brighton and Sheffield. Mike is the best kind of engineer: he’s worked with a team to design and build electric hobs. Sounds quite ordinary, but it’s the cheapest way to cook a meal in Kenya. Sometimes, when it comes to International Development, the simplest ideas are the best.
Then there’s Rwandan Patrick, ready to put forward his understanding of local politics. This is important, for I’ve met more ex-pats than Rwandans here. Many ex-pats question the lack of political discussion, or a perception that press freedoms are limited. Indeed, many of the newspapers carry almost entirely good news, and Rwandans are often unwilling to talk about politics. Yet, says Patrick, surely it’s important to build stability, roads, schools, houses, and to provide electricity and clean water? Full press freedom can come later. And anyway, he says, it’s press freedom that wins votes for People like Trump. Some nations can’t afford to be so destabilised by an irresponsible tabloid media, he thinks.
I’m not saying I entirely agree, but I am saying that he has a point. The values we prize so dearly are ultimately our values, drawn from our context. This does not mean they can suit other regions. Kathleen refers to a TED talk (which I can’t find), where an African scholar relates Maslow’s hierarchy of needs to developing nations. She explains how international aid organisations want to bring full democracies to Africa, yet if you asked a man with no food or clothes if he wanted democracy tomorrow he’d probably say no. Could he have some food instead? I think of the case study of South Korea from Geography at school. The country was built on long hours, low pay, and strict rules. But this allowed it to prosper.
There’s another element to this, too. Rwandans are quieter, more polite, shy, and reserved than others. Unlike in Senegal, Ghana, or Kenya, I’ve not seen anyone shout in Rwanda. An ex-pat tells me how he once raised his voice in an argument and everyone, including an armed police officer, stepped away. Some ex-pats judge the quietness of Rwandans as a kind of fear of government, or lack of freedom. But what if it’s none of those things at all?
Many people my age or older in Rwanda will remember their friends killing their families. Surely they can be forgiven for avoiding confrontation and being a little shy for the rest of their lives? I think how unnerved I feel when I meet quiet people in the UK: I don’t know what they think, I worry that they may not like or understand me. But that’s my problem, not theirs. Perhaps our society values being outgoing too much. It’s not always the quiet ones we have to watch.
I’ve not been in Rwanda long enough to judge, and what right does a privileged white European have to turn up, look around, and draw conclusions?
In any case, the fortnight has felt like a lifetime. Perhaps because the last few days haven’t felt like a holiday at all: John and Mike and Patrick have welcomed me as a transient guest in their day-to-day lives. It’s as if I’ve stepped into a parallel version of my own life in Sheffield, seeing newfound friends at work and home in their city. Mike and I joke about whether he has dinner on the table for his breadwinner-girlfriend each night, and John and I discuss his plans to build a house in Kigali over the next year or so. It’ll keep him occupied whilst his girlfriend is out at work.
So, if I’ve not been here to judge, then I guess I can finish my Rwandan story with a question and a reflection.
The question is one I ask of Patrick: ‘What can I do, if I ultimately want a job on this continent, but I don’t want to be another westerner carrying out a western-led project?’ Patrick advises that if my intentions are good, and there’s a feeling that the role in question is in line with my personal values, then it’s probably alright. This strategy isn’t foolproof, but it’s as sound as any, and good-spirited.
And the reflection. This has to be about the landscape. Too many people hear and talk about development and politics and genocide. Yet Africa is full of good stories that never reach Europe or the US.
As I sit on the motorbike, I think of my previous moto journey up the nation’s second-highest mountain. Mount Karongi rises over two-thousand metres above Kibuye and Lake Kivu. From it’s top, I can see a range of shapes and sizes of fertile volcanic islands and blue sea melding into an equally blue horizon. The Democratic Republic of Congo, and Burundi – both nations in states of war – are not far beyond these horizons, and thus the region is not without trouble.
But Rwanda is a good story, and a beautiful one. I feel privileged to have been able to visit, privileged to have been welcomed and respected by locals and ex-pats alike, and sad to leave.
This sadness is pronounced by the lack of separation between airport and city. From the flight gates I can see the roads and people of suburban Kigali as the sun sets behind the glass wall of the terminal. The city remains tantalisingly close, yet already beyond the international border that has no physical wall or boundary, but only a solitary exit stamp on a random page of my battered passport.
And so to Kenya, Jambo [hello] again. It’s been over ten years. And Nairobi was the first place I ever stepped out onto African soil. Will it be anything like I remember?