City of the Future

As I’ve mentioned before, Rwanda is quite a forward-thinking country – mainly thanks to the propulsion of its visionary leader. In 2009, the Ministry of Infrastructure and the Kigali City leadership unveiled the Kigali Conceptual Master Plan, “the framework on which the development of Kigali City shall be based for the next 30-50 years.” It is most definitely a long range and ambitious plan, envisioning the future of Kigali as some kind of a cross between Miami, Singapore, and Geneva. The plan is focused around transforming the CBD, Central Business District, of Kigali into a world-class hub of investment, attractions, beauty, and wealth.

Here’s the futuristic video conceptualization – a mind-blowing experience:

There’s also a shorter version here, set to epic music:

I also came across a segment that CNN recently ran on Kigali as one of its Future Cities:

I have to commend the planners on quite a masterpiece. Needless to say, it’s an extremely, if not absurdly, ambitious vision. A question that comes to mind is – what about the rest of Rwanda?

Something encouraging is that here on the ground in Kigali I can actually point out several construction sites that follow the plan on the video, in particular the Kigali City Tower and roads being paved below the main roundabout. It’s an audacious plan for sure, but given the incredible progress Rwanda has made in the past fifteen years I don’t think it’s impossible fifty years down the road.



Living in the city of Kigali, it’s easy to forget that 90% of Rwanda’s population is involved in (mainly subsistence) agriculture. Rwanda is, after all, a primarily rural country and agriculture is its dominant economic activity. According to Rwanda’s Ministry of Agriculture and Animal Resources (MINAGRI), Rwanda also happens to be the most densely populated country in Africa with 300 people per square kilometer (and up to 600 people per square kilometer of arable land). The country’s main agricultural products include coffee, tea, bananas, beans, sorghum, potatoes, and livestock; however, only coffee and tea are exported. According to the CIA World Factbook, agricultural production has increased significantly over the last three years and as of 2010, Rwanda was self-sufficient in food production. (Prior to 2010, Rwanda depended on food imports to close the gap between production and demand.) In 2008, minerals overtook coffee and tea as Rwanda’s primary export.

Last weekend, I had the chance to get out of the city and accompany a friend to his fields on the outskirts of Gitarama, a small city just south of Kigali. Etienne, a man who sells vegetables to my office every week, had invited me to come see his fields just south of Kigali and even help cultivate a bit. The two of us set off with his brother, who also cultivates his own fields and sells his produce around Kigali. I learned that the two brothers actually supply produce for one of the best grocery stores in town, a German butchery called La Galette.

After a 20-minute bus ride from Kigali, we got off along a road meandering through lush mountains and valleys and set out walking through fields and hills. Along the way, Etienne and his brother, Jean Damascene, took me on a tour of their fields, which were spaced out over several miles and different hills.

Beginning of the journey

Etienne and Jean Damascene grow a wide variety of produce, including peppers, eggplant, sweet and regular potatoes, tomatoes, onions, avocado, passion fruit, oranges, peanuts, bananas, green bananas, cucumbers, corn, sorghum, cassava, watermelon, pineapple, garlic, and coffee.

Etienne showing me his pepper plant

I’ve bought the final product several times and it’s incredible how succulent and fragrant the green peppers here are.

A beautiful naturally-occurring plant that cures malaria when boiled into a tea

I always imagined that pineapples grew on trees but I stand corrected…

Baby pineapple!

Sorghum, a major source of grain and feed for livestock

After about a 45-minute walk to the hills, we started hiking up and came upon some houses in a clearing.

Not a bad view

Along came two boys carrying jerry cans full of locally-produced banana beer.

Each 2.5-gallon container of beer costs about $8 (5,000 Rwf). That comes out to a price of about 53 cents for 1 liter.

We wound our way up the hills and continued to find more plots of Etienne’s fruit and vegetables scattered about.

Peanut plants (L) and potato plants (R)

Fresh amata...yum

Along the way, I helped pick some eggplants and corn, which Etienne let me take home as a gift.

Running away from the camera

After another 45 minutes of hiking, we arrived at Etienne’s prized watermelon patch. Yielding about $3.30 per piece, watermelons are Etienne’s most profitable item. He currently produces about 500 per season and is planning to expand his fields next year.

Baby watermelon

I asked Etienne how he manages to cultivate so many fields spread across miles of land. He told me that he hires people to help him so that even when he is away in Kigali people back in Gitarama oversee his fields.

The end

When I asked Etienne if he enjoys farming, he replied enthusiastically in the affirmative. He explained to me that his parents and grandparents were farmers on this very land and he has been farming since he was a very young boy. He’s proud of being a farmer and of producing high-quality (and deliciously organic!) produce for people around Gitarama and Kigali.

Mobile Miracle!

Last Monday, my phone was stolen from my pocket as I walked to lunch down the street from my office. It was quite a shock because not only am I very familiar with that calm street, but I had never been pick-pocketed before. Even though it could happen anywhere and happens to almost everyone at some point in life, the sense of personal violation and helplessness is overwhelming and frustrating. I also really loved my phone, a simple but user-friendly, practical, and durable Nokia 1200 that I got in Uganda in 2008.

Instead of a camera it has a flashlight. Now that's what I call a smart phone.

I spent the rest of the day kicking myself for not putting the phone in my purse, while at the same time breathing a sigh of relief that it was only my phone stolen and not my wallet, camera, passport, or laptop – as I’ve heard happen to expats and Rwandans alike.

While I was lamenting the loss of my wonderful number (it ends in 3366!), contacts, saved messages, calendar reminders, and high scores on Snake, a friend told me about a service that the mobile provider MTN offers: SIM swap. I went to the MTN service center later that day and, after answering some questions to validate that that number was indeed mine, they issued me a new SIM card with my number for a whopping 83 cents. I was happy to learn that I would be able to keep my number, and even happier when the MTN representative told me that they have a partnership with the local police to track down stolen phones.

A bit skeptical but hopeful nonetheless, I went to the police station and filed a report a few days later, which I then brought to the MTN service center. From my phone number alone, MTN was able to find out the serial number of my Nokia 1200 and track the new number that was using it. Once they populated the list of that number’s recent calls, MTN sent the information to the police, who went about calling the contacts of the user to find out where he was. Ultimately, the police, using “tricks” to lure him out that they couldn’t disclose to me, apprehended the man using my phone and brought him to the station. He unfortunately wasn’t the thief and simply had had the bad luck (and judgment) to buy the phone on the black market for about $13 one week ago. But he rather graciously and apologetically handed over the phone. I do feel a bit guilty for taking away his innocently-purchased phone, but he knows where to find the thief-seller and plans to work with local authorities to pressure him into giving back his money.

Joyous reunion

Although my original SIM with my contacts and messages is gone, I’m happily reunited with my phone. I’m also extremely impressed with MTN and the Rwandan police. Within one week of my filing a report, they tracked down my phone and returned it to me – a phenomenon that I’ve never heard of happening anywhere. And, in contrast to what most people envision about African police and bribes, the only money I had to give the police was about $6 to pay for airtime to call the contacts of the man who had purchased my phone.

Being pick-pocketed isn’t fun, but it was a gentle reminder to not let my guard down too much. Given that I’ve been here for almost 9 months, it’s a fairly good statistic and a reflection of Rwanda’s impressive situation that this is the only time I’ve run into any issues regarding personal security – and that it was resolved within one week. All in all, it was a pretty enlightening experience.

Back in mobile bliss

This past weekend I went on a trip with some friends throughout southwestern Rwanda and explored a few more parts of the country. We started out in Butare, a town two hours from Kigali where the National University of Rwanda is located. Besides being a cozy college town, Butare boasts one of the country’s main historical ethnographic museums and an enormous, lush arboretum run by university agricultural researchers.

Traditional banana leaf dwelling at National Museum

The inside of the hut was surprisingly spacious and the banana leaves gave it a really nice smell. I wouldn’t mind living in one.

Me on the banana leaf "bed" holding an agaseke, a traditional multipurpose Rwandan basket

Next, we set off to take a walk through the arboretum and ran into some entertaining locals…


They were quite comfortable with humans and didn’t seem to mind the passing students or even the clicking and flashes of cameras. I think they are Vervet monkeys.

National Geographic-worthy perhaps??

The arboretum at the National University of Rwanda, technically called the Ruhande Arboretum, covers 200 hectares of land and was first planted in 1933. It is home to about 200 deciduous trees and conifers, both indigenous and imported species. It’s often full of students relaxing or studying, especially during exam period.

Shimmery and fragrant eucalyptus grove

This next one is for you, Gloria the Fern Thief/Liberator:

Fern grove

Later that night, we discovered a funky bar/club tucked away behind a restaurant in Butare. It’s called Space Place and the ambiance and DJ were so good we danced for three hours straight.

Proof that I have friends besides the monkeys

Unfortunately, a trip around Rwanda is rarely complete without a visit to one of the numerous genocide memorial sites spotting the countryside. On Sunday morning, some of us headed out to Nyamagabe/Gikongoro, a beautiful hill town that is also the site of the Murambi genocide memorial.

A lively welcome, in contrast to the sites and stories inside

I’ve visited several genocide memorials and this was by far the most graphic, in addition to being heart-wrenchingly tragic. The building pictured below was constructed in the early 90s to be a technical school, but before it could open to receive students the genocide broke out in Gikongoro. Over the course of the killing spree, more than 50,000 Tutsis were slaughtered and thrown into mass graves around the technical school. What’s even more disgusting is that French soldiers, who were deployed in Operation Turquoise to essentially protect and assist the genocidal government, arrived at the site towards the end of the genocide and played a game of volleyball on top of fresh mass graves. Because of French support to the Interahamwe murderers in this area, the genocide was actually prolonged in the southwestern part of the country only.

Murambi memorial site in Gikongoro

Behind the main building there are rows of school rooms that are now filled with whole preserved skeletons of actual genocide victims in various positions of anguished death. Some of them still had tufts of hair or disintegrated clothing on them and many of them were the tiny skeletons of murdered children. The majority of those murdered at Gikongoro were re-buried with proper burial rites, but a few hundred are now on display in one of the most graphic and disturbing sites aimed at ensuring people never forget.

Happy reminders of the new generation, dirty but adorable and smiling

After decompressing and digesting what we had witnessed, we headed to Nyanza, a town on the road back to Kigali that hosts another official museum of Rwandan history and culture. There, we visited the site of the former king’s residence: a much larger banana leaf house surrounded by several other houses, in addition to a building constructed by the Belgians to win over one of the last kings and secure his support and conversion to Christianity. Unfortunately no pictures were allowed, but here’s a link to see the banana leaf house.

It was quite an adventurous weekend and it’s nice to be back home in Kigali. Now I can say that I’ve visited most of southern/western Rwanda – Butare, Gikongoro/Nyamagabe, Nyanza, Gisenyi, and Kibuye. Next on my list are Nyungwe forest (where the most remote source of the Nile has been identified), Akagera National Park, and Virunga National Park. For such a small country, there is a surprising number of sites and attractions to visit!

Kwita Izina

Rwandan names have deep significance and offer a unique lens into culture and family here. For those of you who share my fascination with etymology of words and names, Kinyarwanda names provide a trove of discoveries.

There are three types of names that an individual can have, including a Kinyarwanda given name (surname), a name from the father’s side (family name), and a Christian or Muslim name, depending on the religion. Some Rwandans keep all three names, but it is more common for people to choose only two as their official name – in some cases, parents let the child decide which combination of names s/he wants to be called. Some parents give all of their children names with with the same root to have a familial theme. For Catholics, a Christian name is given only at the baby’s Baptism.

About one month after a baby is born, the family holds a naming ceremony, called kwita izina. At this ceremony friends and family gather to celebrate the birth and offer suggestions of names for the child. I recently attended the kwita izina of a friend, Olivier, whose wife, Jeannette, had just given birth to a baby girl.

Olivier, Jeannette, and their newborn baby

Each of the 40-some guests present stood up and suggested a Kinyarwanda name paired with a Christian name.

A guest offering a name suggestion

My name suggestion was Umutesi Helene.

Jeannette, her almost-named baby, and me

Ultimately, Jeannette and Olivier unveiled a name that they had already chosen: Keza Mporera Arnica (pronounced KAY-zuh mm-ho-RAY-ruh AR-ni-ca). Keza (“beautiful”) is her Kinyarwanda name, Mporera (“compassion, mercy”) is her family name from Olivier’s grandmother, and Arnica (a healing flower) is her Christian name.

I’ve started working on a list of some Kinyarwanda names and their meanings. There are a few themes, primarily variations on the root imana, or “God”, and variations on the root kunda, or “love.” It is still a work in progress, so I kindly request that any Rwandans reading please correct mistakes I’ve made about meanings or gender. Names from this list may be either one’s family name (name inherited from the father) or Kinyarwanda given name (surname). Here it is so far:


  • Ganza – be prosperous, be known
  • Gatanazi – strong
  • Gatera – invader, attacker
  • Habamenshi – people talk a lot
  • Hitimana – named by God
  • Kamanzi – warrior, hero
  • Mbarushimana – I am luckier than you
  • Mugabo – man
  • Mukunzi – lover, sweetheart
  • Ndabarinzi – I am protecting you
  • Ngoga – courage, speed
  • Nshizirungu – has friends, not lonely
  • Ntampaka – no disagreement
  • Ntarugera – safe, no worries
  • Rukundo – love
  • Shema – pride
  • Shyaka – commitment, courage
  • Turatsinze – we are the winners


  • Giramata – has milk
  • Girinka – has cow
  • Gisa – meaning unknown, from old Kinyarwanda
  • Imbabazi – sorry
  • Isaro – bead, jewel
  • Kabatesi, Umutesi – stubborn
  • Keza – beautiful
  • Kirezi – jewel, brilliant, beauty
  • Kundwa, Mukundwa – be loved
  • Mpore, Mporera – compassion, mercy
  • Nkunzi – be loved
  • Nzayisenga – I will worship God
  • Safi – clean, pure
  • Umubyeyi – parents
  • Umulisa – meaning unknown, from old Kinyarwanda
  • Umutoni – elite
  • Uwase – for the father


Kunda (“love”) root:

  • Bakunda – they love
  • Iradukunda – God loves us
  • Nkunda – I love
  • Nyirarukundo – something else with love, not sure…
  • Tumukunde – let’s love him/her, lovely
  • Uzamukunda – you will be loved

Imana (“God”) root:

  • Akimana – precious daughter/son of God
  • Dusabimana – let’s pray to God
  • Habimana – something else with God, not sure
  • Habyarimana – God produces
  • Hakizimana – God gives wealth
  • Ndagijimana – protected by God
  • Nsabimana – something else with God, not sure
  •  Uwimana – God’s daughter/son

And other unisex names:

  • Abayisenga – worshippers
  • Hirwa, Uhirwa – be lucky, lucky one
  • Ingabire – grace
  • Kwizerwa, Mwizerwa – trustworthy
  • Muhire, Umuhire – blessed, happy
  • Ndayishimye – I am happy
  • Nkurunziza – good news
  • Nzabamwita – we will name him/her later (funny one)
  • Tumurere – let’s educate him/her
  • Tuyishimye – we are happy
  • Uwamahoro – peace, serenity

Most Christian names in Rwanda are Francophone. Here are some of the most common ones:

  • Chantal
  • Emmanuel
  • Eric
  • Jacqueline
  • Jean + something (m): Jean de Dieu, Jean Damascene, Jean d’Amour, Jean Aimé, Jean Baptiste, Jean Bosco, Jean Paul, Jean Paulin
  • Justine
  • Olive (f)/Olivier (m)

On a personal note, I have falled in love with the word Amata (ah-MAH-tah) and I’ve added it to my ongoing list of names for a potential future daughter. I find it special for multiple reasons: In Kinyarwanda it means “milk,” in Hindi it means “immortality,” and in Latin it is the feminine perfect passive participle of amare, meaning “loved.” It’s also a beautiful name and if my potential future daughter decides it’s too “weird” she can just shorten it to Amy! (I also like Izina (ee-ZEE-nah), which ironically means “name.”)

Student Selection Begins

Generation Rwanda’s 2011 new student selection process is officially open! Last week we finalized our applications and sent them off to our ten partners, organizations around Kigali and Rwanda that act as intermediaries in order to avoid an inundation of thousands of hopeful students at our office.

Mountains of paper (11,000 pieces to be exact)

In recent years, student selection has been an extremely competitive process because the Generation Rwanda scholarship is essentially the best university scholarship available in Rwanda (I’m biased, but it is). It provides university students with full tuition, housing, healthcare, monthly living stipend, English training, computer training, career development services, counseling, leadership training, entrepreneurship training, and more. It comes as no surprise that last year we had a 2% acceptance rate: out of 1,500 applicants we accepted 30 who began university this past January.

This is the beginning of an extensive two-month process that will end in June. Once we receive completed primary applications, we judge them based on applicants’ scores on national examinations, secondary school results, financial status, and motivation. Successful candidates will be required to sit for a language exam in English or French and complete a secondary application consisting of essays. Applicants who pass the second round of qualifications will then be invited for interviews at the Generation Rwanda office. One of the last steps is a physical verification in which staff members visit the homes of successful students to verify that their financial claims are true and that they are indeed vulnerable and unable to afford university any other way.

Sorting and stapling took a long time...

For students in Rwanda who are interested in applying for a scholarship, first make sure you meet these basic criteria: You graduated secondary school in 2009 or earlier (students who graduated in 2010 must wait until next year to apply), you are not currently studying at a university, and the combined average of your S5 and S6 results is 65% or higher. In addition, you must meet specific criteria regarding your national exam score. Select from the locations below where you can pick up the application (note: you will have to return the application to the same location so make sure it is the closest to you):


  • SOS Children’s Villages – Kacyiru, close to MINAGRI
  • Uyisenga N’Manzi – Kacyiru, close to King Faisal hospital
  • Gisimba Memorial Center – Nyamirambo, near Green Corner restaurant
  • FAWE – Kiyovu representative based in the RAUW office at KIST (the gate across from Handicap International)

Southern Regions

  • JAM Orphanage – Shyogwe, Gitarama
  • SOS Children’s Villages – Gikongoro office in the Nyamagabe district

Northern and Western Regions

  • SOS Children’s Villages – Byumba office in Gicumbi district
  • CARITAS – Ruhengeri, at the Bishop’s residence

Eastern Region

  • CARITAS – Kibungo, next to Bishop’s office/house and across street from UNATEK
  • Hope and Homes for Children – Bugesera town

Completed applications must be returned to the organizations by 3 pm on Friday, May 6th, so don’t delay! Feel free to contact me with any questions at helaina@generationrwanda.org.

A Bujumbura Getaway

I just returned from a trip to Burundi, Rwanda’s southerly neighbor that is often referred to as its twin country. Both nations share related histories full of tragedy and Burundi only recently emerged from its most recent conflict in 2006. While Burundi’s official language is still French, its local language, Kirundi, is mutually intelligible with Rwanda’s Kinyarwanda.

At the border crossing

I stayed in the capital of Bujumbura, a city of about 300,000 people. Its untouched colonial architecture and wide boulevards create the feeling of time warp, especially considering the modernization that other East African cities have undergone. As Bujumbura is located on the northeastern shore of Lake Tanganyika, its most alluring attractions for tourists and Burundians alike are its exquisite beaches and waterfront resorts.

The majority of my time in Bujumbura was spent lounging at the resorts of Saga Plage, like this one:

Bora Bora Resort, where nearly the entire expat community of Bujumbura can be found on Sundays

And gazing at breathtaking sites like these:

The serenity of the lake was only interrupted by the occasional sailboat, motorboat, or jet ski

Mountains of DR Congo across the water

Along other shores of Bujumbura – luckily far from these beaches – there live hippopotamuses and crocodiles. One waitress recounted the story of Gustave, a killer crocodile who has eaten over 200 people.

While eating some delicious fresh grilled fish, I was entertained by this performance:

Traditional drumming troupe

Away from the beachfront and in contrast to its luxurious amenities, most of Bujumbura is essentially a poorer, hotter, and less developed version of Kigali.

A street downtown

At the central market

Central Bujumbura viewed from main cathedral spire

An experience that I found quite instructive was a bus ride I took to the center of town. To begin, the sliding door was so rusted that it could not fully shut and left a 6-inch space between the door and the platform. In order to start the bus, the conductor had to reach down into the engine behind the driver’s seat and pull a metal chain; presumably a part of the engine that had come loose over the course of the past 15+ years the bus had been in use without maintenance. The coup de grace was that the driver was using a padlock key to start the bus, a fact that even the Burundians on the bus found entertaining. As the bus was turning into the town center, it was stopped by traffic police because the driver wasn’t wearing his seat belt. Avoiding what should have been an official 20,000 Burundian franc fine ($16), the driver slipped the policeman a 2,000 note ($1.60) and got off for a tenth of the cost – something that would never happen in Kigali. Watching this ensue from the back, one man turned to me laughing sardonically and said “C’est l’Afrique.”

Burundi has an annual GDP per capita of about $160 USD, making it one of the ten poorest countries of the world. The contrast I saw between the standard of living for most Burundians and the luxuries found at Bujumbura’s beachfront is quite uncomfortable and not unique to Burundi. In most of the world’s underdeveloped countries, there are small privileged elites and exotic luxury destination spots off the beaten path. The petty corruption I witnessed on the bus is anything but unique to Burundi, often indicates systemic corruption, and usually goes hand in hand with weak governments and large gaps between rich and poor.

With its strategic waterfront location, Bujumbura has serious potential to be a tourist destination. That is, if the government can successfully transition from post-conflict reconciliation and reconstruction to establishing political stability and accountability, improving security, and attracting more foreign investment. It might take a good decade or so, but if Burundi needs a good model or any advice it need look no further than its northerly twin, Rwanda.

Here are some interesting photos from the trip. The first three are from the side of the road in rural Burundi after my bus to Bujumbura hit a parked car, delaying the trip by an hour as we all waited for the traffic police to arrive.

The final product, a beef brochette, was delicious

Daring bicyclists getting a lift up a hill

Composition in orange

This last one is as funny as it is sad:

Joe the monkey getting drunk at Saga Plage...his caretakers said he loves beer and I suppose he needs something to help him enjoy his captivity.