In and out of Rwanda - the land of a thousand hills
Oh yes, I entered Rwanda and I wasn't disappointed
It's the land of a thousand hills and a million smiles! That much is certainly true and I could stop writing right now.
Rwanda became world famous born out of a terrible event in 1994. It's strange how that works, because Rwanda had been around for a long time before that with hundreds of years of culture and traditions. You could even say thousands of years depending on how interested you are in history. In 1994 more than 1,000,000 people who loved their families and friends got slaughtered on account of a political decision. That's called genocide. As a logistics coordinator, I'm fascinated as it took place over only 3 months which means that 8 people had to die every SECOND for the entirety of 3 months!! As a human being, I'm absolutely appalled!!! What is at times wrong with us humans?!? The Kigali genocide memorial is a formidable museum which explains the buildup, the tragedy and the aftermath. Why would I start by telling you this? I need to get it out of the way, because it was 22 years ago and it shouldn't be what Rwanda is known for, although it should never be forgotten either.
I crossed the border into Rwanda from Burundi with great ease. My East African Visa ensured that. Making a visa which covers 3 countries (Rwanda, Uganda and Kenya) is forward thinking! The visa gives you access to multiple entries over the duration of 3 months and it's relatively inexpensive with its $100. You even get it online within just 2-3 days. I needed an invitation letter though, which was swiftly provided by my friend Dennis who lives in Kigali and owns Waka Fitness with his fiancé Jeanetta. Friends of mine now, but I had never before met them. Dennis is the brother of René who I have still not met. But René has been supporting the Saga for a long time and contacted me as I approached.
A bus ride from the border took me through a large part of the small country and the green hills roll up and down everywhere you look. It's mountainous, volcanic gorilla country, although I only saw the hills during this short visit. Looking out the window of the bus it was clear that the agricultural part of the society was well advanced. Instead of just planting crops up a steep hill the farmers had formed terraces. The houses looked to be in good shape and the countryside looked very clean and neatly kept. Actually, Rwanda has by law declared that on the last Saturday of every month they participate in Umuganda. It's a community service for cleaning, improving and building Rwanda into a better country. It even includes the President and as a result Kigali, the capital, is the cleanest in all of Africa.
I've had a lot on my mind for a long time. The Saga is in many ways successful and I want to keep it that way. We have overcome so many difficulties and recently I sat with a journalist and spoke of what type of qualities someone might need in order to complete a challenging and ambitious project like this? We came up with 3 things:
1) A special intelligence for solving a specific type of problems.
I'm not saying I'm super intelligent. In fact you're likely more intelligent than me. It's to be understood as an intelligence in line with when people are good with music, sports etc.
2) A highly developed social intelligence.
There is no doubt that this is a "we" project. I had no chance of getting this far on my own and I need help and assistance from people all the time. If I was socially awkward, shy or severely introvert then I would be unlikely to make the contacts necessary to complete the Saga.
3) A stubbornness second to most! A real will to pick myself up and soldier on.
In that you should read: "...second to most". And I am real headstrong which you might imagine. If you've been following the Saga for a long while, then you should have a good idea about how many times someone else might have given up and gone home. But around here we keep on keeping on...
With those 3 qualities in mind one could speculate about how many people really posses all 3? I know many people who have either one or two of them, but to have all 3 might be very rare? Who knows? It was just a question...
The bus pulled into Kigali and it was raining. About a million people approached me as I made my way from the bus terminal to the nearby market area to get a simcard. Everyone who approached wanted to know if I needed a bus to Kampala in Uganda or Nairobi in Kenya. I needed neither. The ground was muddy but clean. The situation was slightly chaotic, but the surroundings where clean and I felt safe. People were just doing business. I joked around with the man who sold me my simcard and then I bargained a price with a motorcycle driver to take me to Dennis' house. While on the motorcycle I gave him a call and heard his voice for the first time.
The roads were good and I had to wear a helmet to be on the motorcycle. All the drivers would carry a spare helmet for their passengers. That's really not common practice in most countries! But in Rwanda it is. The road we took snaked up and down nice residential quarters and everything looked clean. No waste. No plastic.
I entered a large blue gate where Dennis' house was, shook the hand of the ex military security guard and walked towards Dennis who was waiting in the courtyard. "Welcome to Rwanda" he said and skipped the handshake I was ready to give him? He grabbed me and gave me a big warm hug. "Around here we hug" he said with a laugh. Then we walked inside, where I was told to feel at home while Dennis had to run out and do a few errands. His home was now mine. I took a shower and changed to some clean clothes. I then texted my girlfriend that I had arrived and was safe.
Dennis and Jeanetta live on a hillside with a marvelous view over Kigali. While I was waiting for Dennis to return, the housemaid arrived with little Bo. Bo is their "cute as can be" daughter who hasn't quite learned how to speak. But they immediately ran towards me and wanted to sit on my lap.
Over the days I would spend time with Jeannetta, Dennis and Bo. Jeanetta and Dennis would run to and from their very impressive fitness center which was only a short walk away: http://www.wakafitness.com/ Jeannetta is also a lawyer and would switch between her fitness outfits and her stylish office outfits for meetings in the city, as she works to implement and follow up on American development programs. Over the next few days both Dennis and Jeannetta helped me a lot by sweeping out some of the cobwebs in my mind. I have referenced this before and I don't mind doing it again; I think I am able to keep up physically, but I sometimes in doubt that my mind will cope with all of this. Visiting every country without flight is a very ambitious target to set yourself. Missing even just 1 country would mean failure. On top of that I do all the Red Cross work which isn't centrally coordinated anywhere. And having a message to convey to as many people as possible doesn't make the task any easier. But I truly believe that the world is a far better place than we give it credit for, although it has its problems. Finally the logistics and the administration of the Saga often becomes such an enormous workload that I don't know how to deal with it. In addition you can add the stress of being away from home for 3 years, while trying to keep a long distance relationship to my girlfriend. Yeah, I guess no one can blame me for getting frustrated once in a while? But if the above isn't enough for you, then just throw in the complications of entering South Sudan, Ethiopia, Somalia, Eritrea and Libya. Those 5 countries complicate matters of safety or bureaucracy. Some of them complicate both. Only you don't hear much about it in the news, because it's of lesser geopolitical importance that Trumps latest outrageous claim and of less entertaining value than a confused kitten that fell out of a cardboard box. Then there are the Sagas finances to consider and the timeline for completion. At this point I may see my country again around 2019.
Don't get me wrong, I do enjoy much of what I do, and I'm not walking around frowning. I shake hands, smile and joke with people all the time. I take in the beauty of landscapes unseen to my eyes and I get to taste, touch and smell things I had never dreamt of. I'm a far better man than when I left home simply on account of a greater understanding of people and our world. My problem solving skills have improved as has my ability to swiftly judge a strangers general characters. I'm still curious about the world and I want to see and do much more. Although if I only had 1 more country left before I could go home I wouldn't mind that either ;)
Jeannetta and Dennis are truly wonderful people with a lot of practical experience. We went out a few times, caught a movie in the cinema and talked about a million things I needed to talk about. A stranger is a friend you've never met before!
A guy from California reached out to me one day. His name is Jon and he invited me to come and see their drone operation in Rwanda called Zipline! That sounded quite interesting so I accepted the invitation. I went back to the bus terminal in Kigali and found a bus to Muhanga, where I got off the bus at Cyakabiri - just one hour outside of Kigali.
This drone project had been a well kept secret for a very long time. But it recently went both public and viral. It is very much to the credit of Rwandas government that Zipline had the opportunity to launch their beginning in this forward thinking country. Rwanda is most likely not what any of you think. It's really a well organized country where plastic bags are banned and the economy is booming. For it's cleanliness Rwanda is often nicknamed: "The Singapore of Africa".
On the bus I met a nice local guy who ended up guiding me to where I was meeting Jon. Around the area there was a fence which would make Donald Trump proud. Inside a smiling man was walking towards me. He was wearing a colorful "wife beater", he had long golden hair, lots of tattoos and a stylish cap on his head. Jon was really sporting the surfer look up in the hills of rural Rwanda.
Jon gave me a firm handshake and began to show me around their operation. I cannot even begin to get into the technical details as it's way over my head. But the overall idea is to make deliveries of blood, vaccines and medicines by sending it out with drones. The drones are rather lightweight and the custom made software makes them truly smart with a long list of security and safety measures. The drones elegantly race across the sky at speeds around 100 km/h to drop off packages in biodegradable boxes, which gently reach the ground under a biodegradable parachute. Then they return to their hub ready for another delivery.
Depending on road conditions you may or may not be able to drive a vitally important blood delivery to a patient and get it there on time. But in any case this is the land of a thousand hills and there is no way you will ever beat a straight line.
Check out more about Zipline here: www.flyzipline.com
Is Rwanda the one country in the world with the greatest need for a solution like this? Probably not. But there are many countries out there which could benefit from Zipline and Rwanda is helping the world bring the future a lot closer.
Afterwards I met the Zipline team which were a bunch of young guys with their heads firmly attached to their bodies. All of them from the Bay Area in California, USA. We had lunch and Jon then gave me a ride back to Kigali.
I had a chance to go for a long walk in Kigali. I was actually looking for a certain neighborhood, but I ended up walking out of the city and into the countryside. Again clean and neat, but not as clean as the city. My walk also took me through a neighborhood which was less privileged and it was clear that their first concern wasn't where to throw their plastic waste. In that neighborhood children would go absolutely bonkers, when they saw me!! I vividly remember one boy so exited that he could hardly contain himself within the confinement of his body. He was jumping up and down, while pointing at me screaming: "MZUNGU! MZUNGU! MZUNGU!" If you don't know then "mzungu" is traditionally a Bantu term used to describe people of European decent. It has largely been adopted into Swahili and is commonly used to refer to people like me throughout a number of countries in Eastern Africa.
Hanging with Andreas and Tamon from http://accelerator-magazine.com/
The Rwandans are generally known for being more reserved than people from their neighboring countries. And I'd have to say its true. Much of the time it felt like I needed more time to make contact with a stranger than in e.g. neighboring Burundi. Almost like a thin layer of ice before the first smile. But the ice is easily broken and once the smile comes a laugh isn't far away. And after that there is no difference what so ever :)
Emmanuel Ntakirutimana who is the head of Planning, M&E and Reporting
I opted to stay with Jeannetta and Dennis for a few more days and eventually got a night bus to Uganda's border. Before I entered the bus Dennis gave me another warm hug. I was seated next to a man in the bus who deals within timber from DR Congo (and probably precious stones as well). He threw a empty plastic bottle out the window right next to me. I asked him why he did that? He just laughed. I asked where he was from and he answered he came from Burundi. I asked if he noticed how clean Rwanda was compared to Burundi. He stopped laughing and we started talking... as it turns out this man goes to and from Congo by road via South Sudan all the time. "No problem" he said. But in the end there is a big difference if you're mzungu or not.
Mr. Torbjørn C. Pedersen (Thor) - mzungu
"A stranger is a friend you've never met before"
ONCE UPON A SAGA