Land of 1000 Hills-A Rwandan Experience
I am sitting in a cafe in Kigali, Rwanda drinking a gorgeous cappuccino and counting the hours until my life becomes extremely intense.
At 04h30 on Sunday, February 5th, I will begin a 998 km/620 mile bicycling journey around Rwanda. I have entered the Race Around Rwanda and will join with 79 other cyclists. We have a time limit of 6 days to complete this challenging route that includes 17,460 meters/57,283 feet of climbing. There are four check points along the way. Riders carry all their own equipment and must find lodging and food en route.
I came to Rwanda in November 2022 for a reconnaissance mission. Upon arrival, I was delighted to discover that Rwanda is extremely clean and organized. The power stays on. The streets are clean and beautifully landscaped. The people are friendly yet reserved.
Rwanda’s primary resource is its people. A tiny country, Rwanda is one of the most populous countries in Africa. Subsistence farming forms the base of the economy. The Rwandan government plans to capitalize on infrastructure to make Rwanda a regional trade center and conference hub for the African continent. Wildlife tourism, especially gorilla trekking brings visitors from around the world.
On my first trip to Rwanda, I immediately found a bike to hire and an engaging guide. I spent ten days getting a feel for life in Rwanda.
My guide Claude took me on rides from Kigali through the rural areas. We cycled past the quarry where rock is cut and then pounded by men, women and children with hammers into uniform piles of gravel of all sizes. We also cycled past the brickworks by the river where bricks are formed from local clay and sand. The bricks are then dried and stacked to create tall, hollow structures. Chaff from local rice is burnt inside to finish drying and hardening the bricks. After my first visit to Kigali, I felt much more prepared to return for the upcoming race.
I have been back in Rwanda for nearly two weeks. I have done some longer rides and continue to learn how things work,
While cycling, I feel a lot of camaraderie with the local cycling labor force. Much of the transportation of goods happens via bicycle. Men on single speed, steel bicycles carry seemingly impossibly heavy loads over the hilly terrain.
Things I have seen being transported by bicycle:
People-men, women, school children, women with babies
Multiple crates of beer
Stack upon stack of raw eggs
Goats on a tray
Chickens in crates
Massive bags of avocados, cabbage and other fruits + veg
Huge bunches of bananas
Stacks of plastic chairs
Huge bags of charcoal
Cassava leaves, in bulk
Large metal milk canisters
When I am not cycling from place to place, I take a motorcycle taxi. Moto taxi drivers carry a spare helmet for passengers. I tell the driver which district of Kigali I would like to go to. When there is agreement that he can take me there, I pull up Google Maps and plug in the address. We look at it together and then we go. I keep Google maps open and often end up directing the driver with hand signals. The helmet slips around on my head, the plastic face shield is usually scratched and I have to wear reading glasses to see my phone. Add in balancing on the back of the moto as the driver does evasive maneuvers in heavy traffic and I am often impressed at our ability to get to my destination! Then comes the payment part which involves multiple steps of transferring money from my mobile account to the driver’s.
I have made some lovely connections in Rwanda. I met a mid-twenties woman named Noble on one of the group rides. Noble studied Aerospace Engineering in the US and has come back to Rwanda to work in Civil Aviation. Noble is expressive and thoughtful. Our conversations are insightful and warm.
Rene, one of my AirBnB hosts trained as a pharmacist in the Philippines and now works for a Silicon Valley start up called, “Zipline” that has two distribution hubs in Rwanda and uses drones to deliver medical supplies countrywide within minutes. He is also developing an app to create a database of inventory at pharmacies arriving the country to streamline access to medicines.
I met Tara, another Airbnb host. Tara is from Oklahoma and has lived in Rwanda for 14 years, based primarily out of an orphanage in Gisenyi. Tara helped found an art and craft initiative to help the young women from the orphanage transition to adulthood with viable skills. Of the original artisan group of 32 women, all became self supporting and 17 have graduated from university. The program continues and has on online shop, no41.org, along with a brick and mortar shop in Kigali.
Alvin lives near me. I was experiencing a mechanical problem with my bicycle and needed a lightweight, machine type oil. Not feeling very optimistic, I wandered around the neighborhood, hoping to find something that would work. As I peered into a hair salon, I noticed that the barber was using electric clippers. I had vague memory that the clippers need oiling. As I asked the barber if he had oil, it became clear that he was not understanding me. Alvin did. He understood the whole gestalt and translated. He and his friend Armand then walked with me to collect my bicycle and bring it for oiling. We then went to the shop next door and I bought beer and cold drinks for everyone and had a companionable afternoon chatting and laughing in the hair salon.
I have Alvin on speed dial so that he can help make bookings for me when I am doing the race. We are brainstorming ways for him to build an airbnb hosting and experience platform. He is an amazing young man. He also translates for Rwandan immigrants currently seeking asylum in the United States and gets urgent messages in the middle of the night asking for help in speaking English to immigration officials.
In the little town of Cyamutara, I have a friend Dieudonne who sat with me at the hole-in-the-wall restaurant frequented by the cargo bike and moto taxi guys. The owner Anicet welcomed me and offered me a steaming cup of milky, sweet chai tea. I chose chapati and beans to eat. Dieudonne sat and kept me company and chatted, breaking the ice in a slightly uncomfortable scene. It took a minute for the regulars to accept my presence in the traditional establishment. I have been back since and received a very warm welcome.
I am so enjoying connecting with people from all walks of life in Rwanda. I feel welcomed and included. The language barrier complicates connecting, but I have been very fortunate.
There is a lot more to be said about Rwanda culturally and historically. I am still learning and integrating. The 1994 Genocide sits as an energetic fog that permeates. The sun shines through and hopefully clears the remnants of the mass scale trauma. People are moving forward. The past is not forgotten.
The Race Around Rwanda route will take the riders around the perimeter of the country and through unbelievably scenic (and hilly) areas. Rwanda is a tiny country with a big heart. I am hoping my heart and legs stay strong and that I get to experience the whole route.