Thursday, April 24, 2008


Pre-visit Research Meets First Impressions

“The hills are alive…” but it’s not the sound of music. Instead we find many sturdy houses, mostly accessible roads, and hordes of people going to and fro. Kigali, Rwanda’s capital, is a city built on several hills marked by trees, greenery, and beautiful scenic views.(see photo) It is known as one of the safest cities in all of sub-Saharan Africa and it is a symbol illustrating the amount of change possible when leaders, organizations, and people are willing to work together toward a common goal.

When I started my background research on Rwanda I did not know what to expect upon arrival. The facts that I usually look into (recent history, life expectancy, health risk etc) were not too encouraging. Recent history focused on the 1994 extremist genocide that saw 14% of the population brutally murdered. For a perspective driven juxtaposition: 14% of the US population would be 45 million people and Rwanda is only slightly larger than New Jersey. Life expectancy read: women 45 / men 42 (nearly 66% that of India). Health risks were plentiful: a nasty form of malaria, an HIV prevalence rate of 3%, and a slew of warnings about cholera, meningitis, and yellow fever. Switch gears to providing care - are there enough healthcare practitioners to combat or address these needs? Well the figures show 3,900 people per nurse and 50,000 per doctor. These stats should jump off of the page, but the point I emphasize is what I am seeing in light of what I read.

One cannot glance over Rwanda’s status as a developing country (its 2007 GDP is 1/10th of New Jersey’s 2007 state budget). Needless to say the country is very dependent on foreign aid. Moreover, threats and struggles are realized in varying arenas, such as border tension with the Congo, the growing global crisis on staple food prices, and the everyday ills of poverty, that make Rwanda’s successes fragile. For instance, poverty in Kigali is not as visible, or “in your face”, as in Mumbai or Surat, but that certainly does not mean poverty is not a problem or it does not exist in large numbers. Perhaps it is better hidden or more likely a layered issue that takes some time to piece together? With only four days in country I can only comment on what I observe. What I see is many beautifully groomed main roads lined with trees, trimmed bushes, and freshly cut grass. More importantly, I see direct responses or positive steps toward addressing my previous fact-finding results. I see HIV awareness billboards all over the paved streets (see photos). I open the newspaper and read about the government launching an integrated health system through Partners in Health and the Clinton Foundation. A measure that will train 21,000 health advisors and rise to 40,000 as time goes on. It is a joint style that believes in high quality medical services for all people and focuses on holistic approaches (infrastructure, provisions of water, electricity for health facilities etc). Also of note is the daily public reminders of the genocide but the approach is meant to build unity not make excuses or deny the past, which are jailable offenses.

Many of the daunting facts that built an impression before stepping foot in Rwanda are present in the media and appear to be an issue that a plethora of organizations are combating together. In all my travels I have never seen such a presence by the international community as I do in Kigali. Visibility is of course enhanced by Kigali’s small size, but it does not dismiss the shear volume of organizations. There is still much work to be done, but there is a sense that the direction and ingredients are here on the ground.


Kate said...

It's amazing all the places your research has taken you, Marco! I'm very interested in how things are in Rwanda as I've been reading the book
"We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed with Our Families" about the 1994 genocide. It's uplifting to hear that things are improving there. Looking forward to seeing you in May!

Cousin Kate

Marco Ambrosio said...

Funny you should mention that particular book. I was in a meeting at the US Embassy yesterday and they suggested it as a must read. I won't have a chance to get it while here but I will read it when I return. Oddly enough I am writing this from Hotel Mille Collines (made popular by the film Hotel Rwanda). The Genocide is something that everything in this country comes back to. I have a meeting with a Rwandan Genocide Historian today who is in the process of finishing his book. It should be very helpful with getting my head around the tragedy.

Graham said...

While people are suggesting books may I add The Great Lakes of Africa: A 2000 Year History. Written by Jean-Paul Chretien, is simply perfect for contextualizing not only colonial/post colonial Rwanda, but the region as well. Summary here

Also, I'm graduating in a couple of weeks and will have some time freed up before I go to Haiti and then Botswana for grad school. If you need a set of eyes and a brain to check out what you have written so far I'd be pleased to review and edit.