Back to Part 1
As we were taxiing in when our plane arrived, the flight attendant announced that “single use” plastic bags are illegal in Rwanda, and that if anyone had any, to leave them on the airplane to avoid having them confiscated, or being fined or imprisoned. Most developing countries are littered with plastic and garbage – I was really impressed with how clean it is in Rwanda. Apparently no other African country is as clean, in fact other countries have had deaths caused by flooding due to plugged drains filled with plastic and garbage. This Rwandan law came into effect in 2008, and back then, supermarkets caught selling food in plastic packaging were shut down until they paid a fine and wrote an apology. The fine is up to $19,000 USD or four years in prison. It’s been 11 years since the plastic bag policy became law, and everyone is very conscious and respectful of the law.
There was not a speck of litter anywhere. In addition to the law against plastic bags, this is largely due to “Umuganda,” which is community work focused on improving life in Rwanda. It takes place on the last Saturday of each month from 8-11 am. All Rwandans aged 18-65 are expected to help improve Rwanda at least once a month for Umuganda. This may include helping a neighbor build a new house, or cleaning the streets, or any other helpful communal work. No vehicles are allowed on the roads at this time, and the country basically stops for a few hours and does some sort of community construction or clean-up.
When I entered the airport and later drove to the hotel, I noticed how safe it feels in Rwanda. After passing through customs upon arriving, everyone had to have their carry-on bags x-ray’ed before being allowed to exit the airport. And when we got to the hotel, two security guards inspected the vehicle before opening the gate to let us onto the hotel grounds, and our bags were x-ray’ed again before we were allowed in the hotel building. Every school is fully fenced and has one or two security guards at the gate. Later on, when returning to the airport, I was shocked at the security there – all vehicles going to the airport pass through a giant x-ray machine while the driver and all passengers must exit the vehicle and go through a TSA body scanner. We saw one car, whose luggage must have been suspect, stopped and physically searched as we drove by.
Our first day in Rwanda, we went to Fazenda Sengha, a recreational center at the top of Mount Kigali. After admiring the view, we started on a downward hike down the switchbacks of the mountain and encountered several people near their homes on the way down. We had candy for the children and gave them each three, as they ran toward us shouting “Mzungu” referring to us since we are foreigners. There were goats everywhere. Many of the homes were constructed with local materials, including sticks and mud bricks. Rwanda gets a lot of rain so having good quality steel roofing is important.
About a decade ago, in 2010, there was an initiative called Bye-Bye Nyakatsi, in which the Rwanda government aided the 6,000 poorest Rwandans by deconstructing their grass-thatched homes (called nyakatsi), and rebuilt more robust mud-brick homes with corrugated steel roofing. During our hike down Mount Kigali, we encountered some mud bricks ready to be used to build a new house.
Once we reached the bottom of the mountain, we were picked up by Innocent, our driver for the week. Innocent is a super nice person, and a good friend of our host, Mark. I was thankful for him, as driving in Rwanda could be a bit hairy at times, especially in the intersections with no traffic lights or even lanes.
After completing our hike, we went to a Chinese restaurant for lunch and then we went to one of the markets, and that was an experience! Some shops were literally 3-ft by 3-ft square. Four of us stood shoulder to shoulder and could hardly turn around to look at the fabric on display. As we walked through the market, merchants grabbed our arms and tried to pull us to their shops to show us their products. We bought a few mementos and headed back to our hotel.
That evening, we went to Hotel des Mille Collines for dinner. This is the hotel featured in the movie “Hotel Rwanda” where a hotel manager saved over 1,200 people from certain death during the genocide.
Read Part three here.