Rwanda Looks to Nature for Economic Growth

Rwanda 2011

By Mary Rose Madden

April 27, 2012

Also aired on WYPR, an NPR affiliate

In Rwanda, April is a time for remembrance. Beginning on April 6, 1994, and continuing for the next three months, nearly a million people were killed in a genocide.

Today, the final installment of our series "Rwanda's Next Steps: A Generation Living in Genocide's Aftermath" looks at how Rwanda is faring 18 later. The country is rebuilding in astonishing ways, and Rwanda's image is trying to catch up. Here's WYPR's Mary Rose Madden.

The pool at Mille Collines, or "Hotel Rwanda."Photo: Mary Rose Madden

We're standing on the rooftop deck of the Hotel des Milles Collines, better known to American movie-goers as Hotel Rwanda, the place where in 1994, hundreds of Rwandan Tutsis took shelter, trying to escape the genocide.

Today, a family is playing in the pool and lunch is being served on the veranda to businessmen and tourists. Fred Mwasa, a local journalist, is looking out over Rwanda's capital, Kigali.

"So much has changed. So So SO much."

Fred is pointing to an area that he says used to be forest. It's shocking to him to see such development.

"What has been built in the last seventeen years I think is like four times what was built from 1960 "“ 1994."

Fred points out some homes built in the past few years.

"Have you those very beautiful houses with red roofs "“ very large houses? All of that is new. That was just bush there was nothing there."

There are many changes taking place in Kigali. A new airport is in the works, a new convention center, too. And officials are trying to make the city a regional hub for Information and Communication Technology.

There are changes in the rest of the country, too. They're just not as easy to see. In the countryside the roads wind through strikingly beautiful hills and valleys. This is where approximately 80 - 90% of Rwandans live. About 4% of Rwandans living in the rural country have electricity. And there's little access to running water. Most are subsistence farmers, growing enough to feed their families.

The hills are planted in rows that cascade down to the valley. Amaterasi "“ or terraces - control soil erosion on the hills and they help Rwandans use every inch of the land for farming.

Life here goes on much as it has for hundreds of years. But the West, which was accused of standing by and doing nothing to stop the genocide, has tried to reach out in the aftermath. The town of Butaro, is at the northern tip of Rwanda, where the country meets Uganda.

Before the construction of the Partners in Health hospital, one doctor served thousands of patients.Photo: Mary Rose Madden

"My name is Mugabe Jiste. I'm the Pharmacy Manager."

This pharmacist is one of about 220 Rwandans who work at this hospital built by the non profit group, Partners in Health. He sits in a small room that opens onto a concrete patio, filling orders and passing patients their prescriptions.

Fifty percent of Rwandans suffer from depression, he says, then lists the drugs they use to treat those patients. This hospital saw close to 24,000 patients in 2011, its first year. The international acclaim the hospital attracted helped bring paved roads, a few new restaurants, banks, and generated quite a few jobs.

It also inspired something else. The hospital asked the government to back a hydro power station.

And they did. The station is harnessing the power of a waterfall. Hundreds of homes that once had no electricity are now connected to this hydropower station. And it supplies the nearby hospital and health center. Rwanda is landlocked and suffers from a lack of natural resources. So, getting the maximum return on what they do have is often the goal.

In this case, it's water. Rwanda gets a lot of rain and has six massive lakes. It also has the lush flora and fauna of rainforests, hundreds of rare and beautiful African birds, volcanoes, and gorillas.

Along the borders between Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda shares the Virunga Mountains. This mountain range has eight volcanoes, most dormant. And it's the only place in the world where you'll find the world's largest primate --- the mountain gorilla who shares 98% of same DNA as humans. More than 600 mountain gorillas roam these mountains.

"Can you come closer here now please?"

We're trekking to visit a group of gorillas at the Volcanoes National Park with our guide, Eugene Twahirwa. Before we enter the forest, Eugene smiles and offers sage advice:

"You can do anything but never run." Laughs. "You can do any other thing but don't try to run away if the gorilla comes to you."

"Okay, we're in the forest. It's very dark." Very muddy, very wet. Branches snapping. "Thistle is sticking to my hair, walking and crouching. Going under the hanging vines, cutting the vines with a machete."

Eugene makes a noise.

"Why did you do that?"

"We are close I'm telling them we are coming."

"There's a gorilla six feet away "“ a huge, huge gorilla."

Muninya, the 440 pound silverback, greets us as we turn the corner. He's sitting upright, with a somewhat skeptical expression--like he's judging whether we are okay to meet his group. He's the dominant male in this group of 15 gorillas, which has numerous juveniles, infants, and even twins.

"Sweet little baby gorilla pulling leaves and chewing them. Ohhhh, this is the mother with the twins. The twins are playing - climbing on their mother."

Many hope gorilla tourism will lift the economy.Photo: Mary Rose Madden

"So those twins as you can see they are playing around their mother "“ they are very healthy?"

The infant twin gorillas wrestle with each other until their mother separates them "“ holding one in her hand and the other in her outstretched foot.

"Those twins are lucky because they can play when the mother rests. Baby never rests. It is nice."

The smells of mint and pine drift through the air.

"They are on their back laying in the leaves "“ very very peaceful."

Soon, they'll start wandering through the swamp, the ferns, the wild orchids, and gather bamboo to eat.

"Today if you want to see the gorillas you have to make your reservation at least a year before."

There are only about 600 mountain gorillas in the world, all living in Uganda, Rwanda and the DRC.Photo: Mary Rose Madden

Faustin Karasira who leads the tourism sector the Rwanda Development Board says gorilla tourism is a substantial source of revenue for the country.

"We are coming from less than 5,000 visitors in 1995 to 666,000 last year."

A permit to visit the gorillas costs 500 dollars, soon to be 740 dollars. Contrast that with the per capita income for a Rwandan, about $550. And you'll see why the government has high hopes for high-end eco-tourism. Five percent of the revenue brought in from gorilla tourism goes towards community building programs.Officials say the revenue-sharing program has helped protect the forest "“ and the gorillas from poaching.

Prosper Uwingeli is the Chief Warden for the park. He's standing with Francois Ndungutse, the head of this ex-poachers' community.

"They don't call themselves ex-poachers. They call themselves the saved people. They have been saved because when they compare from when they were poachers they are living a completely different life from before."

Francois is known as the opinion leader of the 600 people who are from this village.

"He's saying before they didn't understand why to conserve the park, but after training and education he started to see things happening - the schools for kids, the water tanks, development of hotels, roads, electricity that comes and is very, very important."

Prosper looks at Francois and tell us this man is key to the park's success.

"I can't lose them. I can't think of anything that can compensate for what they do for the park."

In the shadowy memory of the genocide's brutality, is the beauty of a thousand hills "“ and the people here working together, finding reasons to trust their government and their neighbors.

I'm Mary Rose Madden for 88.1, WYPR.

Mary Rose Madden reported from Rwanda on a Gatekeeper Editors trip with the International Reporting Project (IRP). You can contact Mary Rose Madden at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).