Igihugu Cyiza (An Ode to Rwanda)

I have lived a lot of places in my life. Specifically, eight different houses between birth and age 18. In chronological order:

Kansas (6 months) || North Carolina (4 years) || Georgia (2 years) || Rhode Island (1 year) || Georgia (2 years) || NoVa DC Suburbs (4 years) || North Carolina (3 years) || Texas (1 year) ||university || Rwanda

Until university, I had very little say in these relocations. Mom and Dad would inform my brother and I that we were moving and placate the sadness of goodbyes with an offers to paint a new bedroom with the color of our choosing. Chapel Hill, North Carolina was the first place that I chose to live. Rwanda was the second.

In many ways, a year is a preciously small amount of time. Too small. However, lasting psychological effects from my “army brat” childhood continue to ensure that I approach any new place primed to make it my home. I can become quickly emotionally attached to places. Particularly places of my very own choosing-a novelty. 75% of the way through my time in Rwanda (we don’t speak of this), I find it prudent to confess and extrapolate my love for this country. Why I came. Why I’m happy I did. Why my dream is to return for the long term. And it’s not just the pretty hills or the perfect weather.

Why I love Rwanda (in ascending order of substance)

  1. The weather. Perpetual springtime. 60 degrees Farenheit in the morning and evening, 85 during the day. Except for July and August, lots and lots of rain. Flowers always. Birds chirping each morning. “Dressing for the weather” means basically wearing whatever you choose and putting a raincoat in your bag just in case.
  2. The hills. A peer in my fellowship program commented on my Instagram presence this year, asking, “Where do you live, the Garden of Eden?” I’ve yet to develop a tolerance for Rwanda’s sheer natural beauty. I do not ever wish to do so. Rwanda’s hilly, terraced farms provide endless opportunities to run, bike, and hike; unparalleled outdoor opportunities at little to no cost to me.
  3. The produce. Sure, I miss cookie dough ice cream. But I harvest kale and sweet potatoes from my farm on a weekly basis, for free. I buy avocados everywhere for the equivalent of US $0.10. I can pay less than half a dollar for enough guava to make me sick to my stomach.
  4. The coffee. I didn’t drink coffee until I came to Rwanda. Coffee has been a cash crop here for decades, and falling coffee prices and accompanying economic strain contributed to rising tension in the early 1990s. But aside from a generator of foreign exchange, coffee is becoming a homegrown cultural staple in Rwanda (as with many things, this change is occurring centrally in Kigali and spreading outward). There are no shortage of coffee shops in the capital complete with 4G WiFi and stunning vista views. You can tour coffee farms and purchase ground coffee in supermarkets (“Buy Made in Rwanda, Support Rwandese Products”). You can order your coffee iced, strong, with milk and sugar, or with a shot of chocolate or caramel.
  5. The variety and accessibility. Rwanda is a small country. You can fit 99 Rwandas in the neighboring DRC. It is about the size of Vermont. But you can also visit lakes, underground caves, dormant volcanoes, rainforests, and savanna lowlands. You can see gorillas, baboons, chimpanzees, lions, and giraffes. Road infrastructure is impeccable in regional comparison, buses drive safely and leave on time, and no trip within country will set you back much more than five hours.
  6. Small towns. In Rwanda, there is Kigali, and there is “everywhere else.” You can frame this in a variety of ways, but I find Rwanda’s “second cities” irresistibly charming. I have a special fondness for Musanze, my second home in-country, but Butare (intellectual, cultural and historical mecca), Kibuye (sleeping lakeside town with stunning views), and Gisenyi (the “party capital” of Rwanda, probably due to its proximity to Goma, DRC) are not to be neglected. I like being able to bike everywhere and buy chapatti, avocado and eggs where the shopkeepers know me by name and ask how my workday was or what my weekend plans are.
  7. #HeforShe. President Paul Kagame  is a “global champion” in the #HeforShe campaign, an initative aiming to incorporate male voices into the international fight for gender equity. 64% of Rwanda’s parliament is female, the highest ratio in the world. The government recognizes sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) as a critical threat to human rights and has established One Stop Centers and reporting mechanisims, as well as aftercare support, throughout the country. It is not uncommon to see female park guides, police and military, doctors, or business executives. Of course, culture shifts do not always accompany policy shifts (true everywhere in the world), and intersectional oppression contingent on economic status, education level, and regional origin of course plays a role in the female experience in Rwanda as globally. But on the whole I can say that in many ways it is a “woman’s world,” in Rwanda, a world that I’m happy to live in.
  8. Abantu beza (beautiful people). To paint with broad, superficial brush strokes, Rwandan women are beautiful. Rwandan men are handsome and, generally and comparatively, respectful of women. Science proves that familiarity with someone’s inner beauty (or lack thereof) influences the way that we evaluate an individual’s outer beauty. The beauty I see in my Rwandan peers, friends and colleagues is only reinforced as I develop a more mature understanding of each person’s umutima mwiza, beautiful heart. It is a spirit of strength, resilience, and just general kindness that I see reflected across Rwanda’s abantu beza.
  9. Ejo Hazaza (the future). A friend put it best: “Rwanda has a chance to do it right. The country is almost at a crossroads. I’d rather build my career here alongside Rwandans trying to do things right the first time than go home and spend my life’s work fixing what America has already broken.” I think there is incredible, incredible value in the fight against social injustice in America. Fixing our broken systems is necessary work, work I may find myself in one day, and I applaud social justice activists in the States “fighting the good fight.” But I must admit that one of the exciting things about Rwanda is its “clean slate” atmosphere and real political will to develop in ways that are economically and gender equitable and sustainable for the environment.
  10. Ubumwe (community/unity). I will never fully understand or appreciate what happened in Rwanda in 1994, or the way this period continues to inform the daily experiences of loved ones here. Trying to do so is in some ways a useless exercise. I can, however, understand what I see in front of me now. I see local authorities looking to help those living on society’s margins due to physical or mental disability. I see schools promoting education access for young women in rural areas. I see a government intent on protecting the socioeconomically vulnerable with social safety nets. I speak with Rwandan friends surprisingly open and accepting to differences in sexual orientation, beliefs about gender norms, or others’ experiences with mental illness. I see a society that is powerfully familiar with the price of social exclusion and the potential of social inclusion to not only restore negative peace (the absence of conflict) but to build positive, development-conducive peace.
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