IXP – Rwanda Nziza! Students Explore Beautiful Rwanda

Twenty-six HBS students set out this fall of 2010 as part of the Rwanda IXP to learn about Rwanda’s striking journey of recovery since the Genocide, to work on consulting projects with local entrepreneurs, non-profit and public sector organizations and to enjoy an exotic African adventure.

Rwanda Nziza literally means “Beautiful Rwanda,” but to the Rwandese this phrase, that can be seen on enormous billboards across Kigali, does not only refer to the gorgeous scenery of the country, but also describes the resilience of the survivors .

Our journey started with a visit to the Genocide museum where we learned about and saw footage of the tragic events of April 1994 when extremist leaders of Rwanda’s Hutu majority launched a campaign of extermination against the country’s Tutsi minority. In 100 days, as many as 800,000 people were murdered and hundreds of thousands of women were raped. However, what was truly astonishing was that Rwanda has turned to a traditional form of justice as a way to foster reconciliation in the country and to handle the tens of thousands of perpetrators that were still awaiting trial for the mass killings. Around 260,000 local judges were appointed to cut through that backlog by applying a community-based approach, known as gacaca, which entails public confession on the part of the perpetrators and forgiveness on the part of the victims’ families. While this seems to be a perfectly logical way to move the country forward, it must be an incredibly difficult version of justice to accept.

The second day, we headed for a two hour, incredibly beautiful bus trip to Nyirangarama to meet a local entrepreneur named Sina Gerard. Gerard has built an impressive business in his local hometown starting in 1983 with a staple product similar to a donut and then gradually growing the business by adding products such as juices and a hot pepper oil with “secret” ingredients and then diversifying his product offering to include pig and rabbit farming, agricultural products and wooden tables and chairs for local schools. Everyone was blown away by Sina’s description of his life journey which was mainly a story of learning from anybody he met and traveling in search of learning about ways in which he can improve his business. Gerard’s endless curiosity and eagerness to help the villagers improve their lives by creating jobs was truly admirable. We took a tour of the fruit juice factory, the wood shop, the agricultural farm and finally the “musical” pig farm where Gerard’s assistant explained that if they want the pigs to relax, they would play soft music and to encourage the pigs to mate, they play hip hop music for them. Several students were questioning the accuracy of this claim and the effectiveness of this method but we all agreed that was another demonstration of Sina Gerard’s creativity at Nyirangarama. The hospitable entrepreneur invited everyone to a discussion about how the students think he can improve his business over a delicious Rwandese lunch mainly comprised of boiled beans, bananas, sweet potatoes, cassava and Umutsima. Everyone felt that we had more to learn from this self-made entrepreneur than to teach him but we offered whatever observations and ideas that came to mind before bidding him and Nyirangarama farewell.

Over the next three days, everyone split into their project teams and met to visit their project partners. The projects included: Nyungwe Nziza Project, Akazi Kanoze Project, Indego Africa, Post-Harvest Handling & Storage Project, Karisimbi Business Partners and Rwanda Small Holder Specialty Coffee Company Project. The kind of work ranged from helping with ecotourism development, analyzing the feasibility of manufacturing silk, finding export channels for high-end coffee, turning around a local media company, to financing post-harvest handling.

I was a member of the Nyungwe Nziza Project team and we worked with DAI and USAID to help a remote village called Banda Village located in the middle of the rainforest located in Nyungwer National Park to attract tourists and develop its tourism product offering. After an information session with DAI management in their beautiful offices located at a hill in Kigali, we asked to see Banda Village and meet with its head. After a four-hour drive to Nyungwe National Park followed by a two-hour and a half hike into the rain forest which included an adventurous canopy walk over and above the rainforest trees, we arrived at Banda Village. We found that Banda is a cultural destination that inspires the soul with entertaining traditional dances, charming villagers, and incredible traditions. Breathtaking photo opportunities fill the journey along with a village tour, local food tasting, nature hikes, waterfalls visit, basket weaving and the chance to see a group of Mayebe chimps. During our visit some of us tried the village’s own banana beer, witnessed a traditional wedding ceremony and learned about traditional medicine. We also met with the head of the village with whom we discussed information about the village that was pertinent to our project. It was very impressive to see how committed the villagers are to preserving the forest and their cultural heritage. We were then offered to purchase beautiful local crafts and the opportunity to stay overnight in a camp tent or the King’s hut where the villagers will treat the visitor like a Rwandese King for the day. That day at Banda was truly memorable.

As much as we would have loved to stay over at the village for the night, we left the village to spend the night at the five-star Nyungwe Forest Lodge owned by Dubai World and operated by Mantis Group. The lodge was located in a tea plantation surrounded by beautiful hills and gorgeous scenery. While having breakfast the next morning, we were told that the US Ambassadors to Rwanda and South Africa were having breakfast at the table right next to us. We went over to say hello and the Ambassador to Rwanda gave us his perspective on tourism in Rwanda which was helpful to our project. We left the Lodge knowing that we were scheduled to meet the Ambassador again later in the week with the entire group.

It is not an IXP without a little adventure – or in our team’s case, a lot more adventure. The projects work stopped in the weekend and on Saturday morning we went on a early trip to Akagera National Park to go on a safari. We split up into Safari jeeps with 6 to a vehicle and I was with Ben Wells, Lauren Pflepsen, Maurice Kuykendoll, Olga Vidisheva and Will Fotsche and our driver was named Charles. We drove a few hours and stopped at a local village along the way. This village was formed a few years ago by Rwandese who previously sought refuge in Tanzania during the Genocide but were then forced to come back to Rwanda. They were asked by the government to stay in Akagera National Park. The German government and other aid organizations helped them create newer huts however, they live in extreme poverty. They welcomed us with music and dance and showed us where they dye clothing, make honey and smoke milk. On this last stop to taste smoked milk, the rain fell heavily and we all went inside the huts to wait for the rain to stop. It was interesting to see HBS students with their muddy feet and wet clothes sitting rather uncomfortably on the floor of the small hut and tasting smoked milk. After we were free to go out again, the village said goodbye to us with a dance performed by the boys of the village dressed in traditional Rwandese costumes.

All along the way from there to Akagera, the people were extremely friendly and welcoming as everyone waved to us, especially the children who would wave with two hands and a big smile. At the park, we opened up the roof of our jeeps and sat on the top of the vehicles to get the best view. We saw baboons, hippos, buffalos, giraffes, zebras, eagles, antelopes and monkeys. It was a fantastic day that gave us the opportunity to take see animals in the wild and take amazing photos. We spent the night at a small hotel in Akagera with the plan to head back to Kigali the next day.

On the drive back to Kigali, we stopped at a Rwandan hospital run by Partners in Healthcare (PIH). It was interesting to learn about the basic structure of healthcare in Rwanda and the major issues they are facing. The hospital was really nice and it was a nice stretching break on our long trip back. The last 2 hours consisted of bumpy roads, but all of us slept soundly through it to get back to the Hotel des Mille Collines (Hotel Rwanda).

The new week started was filled with project work and meetings with partner organizations and key constituencies to the projects. The week also included a trip to the local markets where we all learned the art of haggling for a lower price. It also included fantastic outings to Heaven Restaurant, Serena Hotel and Papyrus. We were also invited over to US Ambassador’s house where we engaged in a question for a question session that is, the Ambassador would answer a question from us and we would have to next answer a question from him. It was an informative discussion that covered several topics with the constant reminder of the big responsibility that we have on our shoulders towards our countries and towards making the world a better place.

While we were wrapping up our projects in the last few days, we were told that the President was able to give us time on his calendar. We headed to the house of parliament and sat in a circular room where he holds meetings with his cabinet members. A few ministers were sitting amongst us as well. He was soft-spoken, but incredibly candid and passionate about his country. He gave us real answers and did not shy away from tough questions, including mine about how they manage to keep Rwanda as clean on the inside as it is on the outside and John Smith-Ricco’s question about free speech and transparency. Legally no more than half of his cabinet can be from his own party and there are multiple other parties who each must have a seat. No fewer than 30% of his cabinet can be female. This ensures that minorities are heard and that democracy operates fairly. It is truly amazing how this man has been able to turn beautiful Rwanda into a safe and stable country in only 17 years after the 1994 genocide. The Rwandese seem to rally behind the clear vision that he has for the country and he seems to empower them with full confidence and faith that they can do fulfill this vision. After taking a photo with the President and after having lunch with several of his cabinet members at the house of parliament, we stepped out to find the press waiting for our comments on the visit. Professor David Thomas answered their questions and Ming Zhao made Section E proud by giving the press the students’ perspective on Rwanda.

That night my project team had a fantastic meal at the house of Donna Marizah, a Rwandese woman we worked with at DAI. She and her husband hosted us to a great Rwandese meal with steamed matoke, potato, chicken, beef stew, rice, yam, banana, tomato, avocado, pees and lots of beer. She was an incredible host and it was great company with her, her husband Godfried, their daughter Teva and their friends Rita and Eric. To us, it demonstrated the welcoming nature and wonderful hospitality of the Rwandese people, who have made this trip more than worthwhile.

In the last couple of days, the teams made a final work push in preparation for the final presentations to the partner organizations. Overall, they were all received very well and included detailed analyses, feasible recommendations and clear action plans. DAI was extremely pleased with our ecotourism development project and especially when we went the extra mile on training the head of Banda Village how to update the facebook page that we created for the village, how to send the thank you e-mails which we created to Banda visitors, how to sell a visit to Banda to an interested potential visitor and other tangible deliverables such as these. As a consultant, you never know if your ideas will be implemented. On this IXP, however, the teams felt that they were able to carry out some ideas and make a difference.

Once we got through our explanations, training and clarifications with DAI and the village head, we handed over all of our final documents and our project came to a happy ending. To celebrate, we went to a delicious lunch at our favorite lunch spot in Kigali, the New Cactus. The New Cactus has delicious pizzas and a big bottle of oil which has hot peppers soaking in it, which tastes like pepper oil but with a tasty spicy kick to it. Upon our return to the hotel, we concluded the IXP with a wrap-up session . A group of students decided to stay in Rwanda and go see the Gorillas in Ruhengeri, near Volcanoes National Park while others decided to go to Kenya and neighboring countries.

As I took one last look at the land of thousand hills from the plane back to Boston, I felt that I am truly looking forward to watching Rwanda grow and evolve even more because Rwanda is truly Nziza.