We all start as muzungu

This past week has been pretty uneventful. It is our last week before the 24 students in the other SIT group arrive so I have been cherishing the peace. ☺ We had regular classes all week – we also had our first couple of papers due. It is a little frustrating because we have to take our papers to a papeterie and pay to have them printed but after paying 200 rwf per page we found a different one that prints for 20 rwf per page. It just means that we have to finish our papers a day and a half early to make sure that we can print them in town before the day they are due. Other than our classes we did go on two excursions that were very interesting.

One of our excursions was to COOCEN, a group that produces briquettes for cooking as an environmentally and socio-economically conscious initiative. Employees gather garbage from homes and around the streets of three districts near the production center. They then separate the organic and inorganic materials from one another. Organic materials are then dried, ground and pressed into briquettes that are sold to be used in the place of charcoal. This was such an interesting visit; COOCEN is very innovative and is a simple solution to so many issues. First off they have employed over 100 individuals who were living in considerably worse conditions beforehand. As well as having regular income all of these people are now contributing to the Rwandan economy and government programs like social security by paying taxes. All of their employees also have health insurance now, something they did not have access to prior to working with COOCEN. From an environmental standpoint, the organization is doing two things. They are cleaning up the districts from which they collect trash, all of which apparently suffered from an overabundance of waste before and no solution to deal with it. Additionally, most people in Rwanda either do not have electricity or if they do they most likely lack an electric stove. Burning charcoal is very common but it puts a strain on forests because of the demand for it. Briquettes alleviate this issue and are also slightly more cost effective than charcoal. Once they are done burning, the ashes can also be used as fertilizer, which is very cool. I like what they are doing at the COOCEN. The facility was very basic – a concrete area where they sort and dry, a single machine and building for grinding materials and then a very small machine that presses the ground material into briquettes. This last machine was hot-wired to the tee. It ran just fine but there were so many little wires twisted together and wrapped around red-hot coils. It impressed me. The only thing about the facility that seemed problematic really was that I never figured out what they do with the inorganic materials after they are sorted out.

We also visited the Free Trade Zone in Rwanda this week. It is a very interesting place. Rwanda is a land-locked country, which creates quite a few issues for it with regards to trade. I had never realized that this was a problem before so I enjoyed learning about it. Rwanda does not have access to the ocean and also does not have railways so there is no cheap way to import or export products. In order to move towards building the infrastructure required to resolve this issue as well as boost the economy by attracting domestic and foreign investment, the Rwandan government has established a the Free Trade Zone. Rwanda is a member of the East African Community and shares a common tariff, among other things, with the surrounding countries. The zone takes up 270 acres and is a haven for industrial production. Companies or investors can purchase plots after which they have two years to finish construction and being production. Right now Chinese, French and Rwandan companies have the biggest presence in the zone. Additionally, construction materials and agro-processing are the largest production types currently taking place in the zone. There were not many finished plots when we visited but the Minister of Trade and Commerce said they were looking at 98% occupancy with pending contracts and investors that had expressed serious interest. The zone provides qualifying businesses with a 15% tax break. They qualify by exporting 80% or more of their products or services outside of the EAC. For Rwanda, the zone will reduce importation costs and allow them to conserve their hard currency, aiding the economy. I am not exactly sure what the regional benefits of the zone are though. He also said that for the most part businesses will import materials, process and finish them in the zone and then export the final products. The minister also said that the zone serves as an inland container depot with the hopes of a new airport and railway being constructed soon. Until then, the zone has established a fast track to the ocean through Tanzania along the central corridor. The zone is expected to boost the Rwandan economy through spillover effects that will inject capital and continue to attract more and more investors as a result, however the Minister did not want to speculate on how much of a benefit it will provide in the years to come. I really enjoyed visiting this site. The zone is such an innovative aspect of Rwanda’s growth and seems like a very impressive step for a developing country to take.

Other than that the only exciting thing that happened this week was that I made a running buddy. He is from Burundi and moved to Rwanda to play soccer. He kicks my butt everyday when I run with him but I appreciate it. We had a very interesting talk about money when after working out the other morning. He told me he wants to live anywhere but Africa and I told him I want to live anywhere but America, funny right? We basically discussed what it means to be happy. It was really interesting because to him having lots of money = happiness and I tried to explain that in my opinion money is not what creates happiness. I agreed with him that money provides security (food, shelter, health, etc.) but beyond that I had such a hard time explaining that living in luxury is not the same as doing what you love or having relationships. The closest I could get to accurately expressing myself was that money corrupts; more or less a universal concept. I never thought about my views on this from the perspective of someone who had absolutely nothing. I did not realize how influential my upbringing was in how I answer the question ‘would you rather do something you love or make a lot of money.’ I definitely miss some of the luxuries of my life in America (mostly toilets that flush) but I genuinely enjoy how I live here. I guess I will never know how I would feel about this if I had grown up in a family that lived off of a dollar a day or in a less developed country.

Saturday when I was running, on my way back home, three little kids started running with me and held my hands while I ran. Two of them peeled off and (I’m pretty sure begged for) got a mango from a woman and were eating it while we jogged. They talked to me and shared their mango with me. It was so adorable. The children here never fail to impress me. Even when they are hungry they still were ecstatic to share a teeny tiny mango with a muzungu who they just met!

One of my cousins had a baby on Tuesday this week and I went with mama wanjye to go visit her Saturday evening. It was really fun. I met two or three (not sure if they were all related to me or not) more of my cousins and their other two children – I feel like I have 100 cousins – and got to hold the little baby girl. She does not have a name yet, which is interesting. Mama wanjye said I am free to name her if I want, not sure what I would name her though. It is quite a lot of pressure. My new family members were funny though. The baby girl had pretty light skin and her dad said, “we all start out as muzungus, I don’t know what happens to us after that.” We had some entertaining conversations about why people have different skin colors and then another one about dowries. He told me that the minimum here is usually 500,000 rwf (about 830 USD) and everyone was very surprised to hear that we do not have dowries in America. They thought it was hilarious when I told them that we give our daughters away for free. After meeting my cousins and the new baby mama wanjye took me to a bar near our house and we watched what I guess is the equivalent of an open mic night. It was very impressive. Two people danced and another guy did some comedy dancing. I have noticed that Rwandans really enjoy performing Michael Jackson. There was also some Backstreet Boys, Britney Spears and Shakira. I had a great time and met so many more people while we were out, some more family members of course. I even had a man ask to buy me from my mom but luckily she decided to keep me. :p

Categories: From Rwanda | Leave a comment

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