Friday, February 05, 2010

Rwanda=Africa Lite (For a reality check, visit Burundi)

I’ve devoted a lot of thought to this, and I have come to the conclusion that Rwanda is wholly unlike any other country in Africa. I say this out of nothing but pure love for Rwanda, but I have to admit that I am ruffled when people go to Rwanda and marvel at how “everything in Africa works,” or “everything in Africa is clean,” or “everywhere in Africa is safe.” No. Things in Rwanda work, streets in Rwanda are clean, and Rwanda is safe enough that you could walk naked down the street at 4 a.m. without a problem (although I wouldn’t advise it). These are all great things, but they are Rwanda-specific. It’s a great strategy. When a country is safe and things work, you’re more likely to attract investors and tourists. And that’s what has happened. So many Americans (in particular) have flocked to Rwanda that I refer to it as “Little America.”

There is probably no better way to illustrate this than to describe my recent experience at Bourbon Coffee in Washington, D.C. I have spent hours at Bourbon Coffee in Kigali, enjoying their coffee while choking on their Starbucks-like prices. When I heard that the Rwandese-American owner had opened a store on L Street (where a Starbucks used to be…go figure), I had to see it for myself.

It looked exactly like a Bourbon Coffee in Kigali. My chin was on the floor. I cautiously approached the register and ordered a black coffee—from the Kivu Region. My region. It was almost too much to bear. I told the barista.

“Yeah, we get that a lot,” she responded dully.

Really? A lot? I was surprised for a moment, but then realized that a) aid workers, students, missionaries, and others have been flocking to Rwanda, and b) all those same people would probably go out of their way to come to this one coffeeshop.

To return to this idea of Rwanda being Africa Lite, or as my coworker in Burundi called it—“Disneyland Africa”—it became clear to me during my summer in Burundi just how different Rwanda is from its sister country to the south.

Burundi, on its surface, is the same as Rwanda. The ethnic make-up is the same. The terrain is basically the same (mostly hilly, but Burundi doesn’t have volcanoes). Burundi’s population is a little smaller (about 7 million to Rwanda’s estimated 10 million+) but still ranks as one of the most densely populated countries in Africa. Rwanda and Burundi even used to be the same country (Ruanda-Urundi), speak basically the same language, and have both known political turmoil since independence in 1962 (they share the same independence day from Belgium). In April 1994, both the Rwandan and Burundian presidents perished in a plane shot down over Kigali—the event viewed as the trigger for the Rwandan genocide.

There were massacres of Tutsi in Burundi in 1994, but not to the same degree. One critical difference was that the Burundian military was majority-Tutsi, which meant that the military could not be mobilized to kill Tutsi as it did in Rwanda. Another critical difference was that the Burundian population was more ethnically mixed. While there were certainly ethnic mixes in Rwanda, this occurred with greater frequency in Burundi. Divisive rhetoric is more effective when a population can be divided.

This is not to say that there was peace. Burundi’s short post-independence history is fraught with ethnic pogroms, coups d’etat, assassinations, rebel activity, and peace agreements. The rebel group Forces Nationales de Liberation (FNL) finally agreed to lay down arms and became a political party in 2009; the disarmament process continues. Violence in Burundi since independence has cost an estimated 200,000 lives, but there is now peace.

What is interesting is how Rwanda and Burundi diverged in development. In 2006, before I left for Rwanda, people asked me where it was. “East Africa,” I would say. Now, when people ask me where Burundi is, I say, “south of Rwanda.” The attention of the world community is very different toward these two countries. Burundi, in many ways, is Rwanda minus 20 years of development. The roads are pretty rough-and-tumble. Industries are not very developed. The health care system is weak. The UN has a huge civilian presence there in the form of BINUB, the UN Mission to Burundi. Policemen pull over expatriates, expecting a bribe.

It’s sad to think that Rwanda has received so much attention because of the extent of the tragedy it suffered. It says a lot about the international community, and (sadly) what it takes to get noticed. To its credit, Rwanda has managed the “guilt aid” (my term for the money that the international community has collectively given because it feels guilty for doing so little for Rwanda during the genocide) it has received very well. Anti-corruption measures are largely effective, and the Rwandan government demands accountability from all donors and organizations on the ground. This has created a dream environment in which donors can work.

Flip the coin, and you have Burundi. The 200,000 dead from years of violence did not grab headlines. Some NGOs work there (with small staffs), but certainly not the panoply that dominate Rwanda, planting their logo signs across the countryside. In comparison, it was hard not to think that the international community had forgotten Burundi.

This made me think about the possible ripple effects. Could aid-drenched Rwanda have positive spillover into Burundi? I think it can, but it must start with the infrastructure that exists. Burundi has real potential for growth, especially in the tourism industry, among regional aid workers. While it doesn’t have the starpower that Rwanda’s gorillas carry, Burundi does have a stunning lake so large that it has tides, waves, and real sand. Bujumbura has a number of nice hotels, and luxury resorts are popping up along the length of the lake shore. Food is inexpensive and there are great choices. The nightlife is bustling. And, perhaps more than anything else, it’s also nice to have a reality check. For someone who has spent a lot of time in Rwanda, experiencing a moderately more gritty and more real country was refreshing. Aid workers (and students, missionaries, and others) in Rwanda would benefit from spending some time in Burundi. Not only would they be providing needed investment in the local economy, but they would get a reality check. It is also close—any easy drive or a cheap flight. Over time, money and capital flowing into the country from increased interest in the tourism industry could fuel investor confidence (we’ll also have to wait to see what happens with the elections later this year) and lead to increased development. It’s a small starting point, but an important one nevertheless. Burundi may not land on the East Africa Tourism Circuit anytime soon, but it could certainly benefit from the ripple effects of aid in Rwanda.


Blogger Haddock said...

Every thing is so interlinked, and finally it boils down to greed.

2/16/2010 9:31 AM  
Blogger Remus-Adrian M. said...

Please visit me

2/20/2010 3:50 AM  
Blogger Blogger from Beyond said...

This is a fascinating post - I heard about the Bourbon in America and wondered what it would be like. I spent two years in Rwanda and everybody says 'it's not quite Africa'. I stepped out to visit Kampala and then Freetown, Sierra Leone. And that really was an eye-opener. Although Rwanda is extremely clean and safe, it is missing a little something. Street food is the biggest loss. Street food and the bustle of people selling things in the street - the vibrant colours and smells. It buys safety and acceptability (in Western eyes) by selling a little of its soul in that respect. Really - street food illegal! It's the core of all great tourist destinations from Italy to Japan!

2/20/2010 7:25 AM  
Anonymous Gavin said...

The problem is that food on the streets is sold by poor people. And of course, there are no poor people in Rwanda.

2/21/2010 3:29 AM  
Blogger Ellen said...

Thanks for your comments, Morgan. Having spent a lot of time in Rwanda, I'll be traveling to Buju for the first time in September--will be interested in experiencing the issues you described.
On another matter, did you hear about the grenade attacks in Kigali on Friday? Do you think Rwanda is ramping up for election-related violence come August?

2/22/2010 2:45 PM  
Blogger Minouk said...

@ Ellen, I'm staying in Rwanda at the moment and colleagues have been telling me it probably has something to do with Sarkozy coming to visit (I think he's coming in today). Not everybody likes the idea that France wants to be friends with Rwanda..
Morgan, I really like your blog! Really helped me to get an idea before I moved here. Thanks!

2/25/2010 2:11 AM  
Blogger Chelvi said...

Hi Morgan. Found your blog very interesting. Very amusing and enlightening. I work with
Currently we are running stories on expats. We would be glad if you could participate in our interviews and share your experience with our readers.
We'd love to hear from you.

Pls e-mail me at

Thanks for your time.


3/02/2010 11:28 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Morgan,

My name is Nicki. I am currently studying Rwanda and writing a research paper on the genocide. I am also planning on volunteering in Kigali next summer teaching English. For one of my projects I have to conduct an interview, and after reading your blog, would be very interested in interviewing you! Just a couple of questions, over email if you would be willing.

If you are unable, no big deal, just loved your blog and thought you might have some interesting insights on Rwanda and its people.

My email is

Thank you for your consideration!

3/04/2010 4:52 PM  
Blogger atuchan said...

Dear Morgan,

I stumbled upon your Blog while researching (especially living) about Rwanda. I am about to depart to Rwanda (end of the month) for extended consultancy position (8 months in Rwanda within next year) and I wanted to know the situation over there. Your Blog is really intriguing with full of insights. I have spent time in other countries but it will be my first time to be in Rwanda so it is really fascinating to read your Blog.

As for the Bourbon cafe, as a resident of Washington DC, I need to visit the place to have some flare before my departure.

Thank you again for your fascinating Blog.

w/ arm regards, Atsushi

p.s. As a old hasher (I used be part of it when I was living in Mongolia back in late 90's), I am looking forward to picking up the Hash when I get there.

3/07/2010 1:35 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hello Morgan -
A million thanks ! Your dictionary has been very helpful,please if you can only tell me how do I say "I love you Rose" in Kinyarwanda.
If you can email it to me at I will be so grateful,
God Bless you

3/10/2010 11:02 AM  
Blogger Morgan C. said...

Anonymous, it's "ndagukunda Rose"! Glad the dictionary was helpful! Thanks for the kind words.

Atuchan, there's definitely a Hash House Harriers in Kigali. One of my biggest regrets was not taking advantage of it while I was living there! Enjoy!

3/10/2010 6:51 PM  
Blogger Red said...

hi, morgan(i)! your blog is an utter delight to read - beautifully and thoughtfully written.

i'm slated to travel to rwanda later this year, and would be so grateful for your answers to a few questions about the trip. please let me know whether i can drop you an e-mail!

3/11/2010 5:40 PM  
Blogger L.U.I.S said...

Actions speak louder than words.[2]

Greetings from Brazil.

3/15/2010 11:04 PM  
Anonymous Paul said...

hi Morgan

I came across your blog when googling around Rwanda. I'm planning to visit maybe in late April and would appreciate some expert advice on cheap but clean/safe/comfortable places to stay in Kigali, where to eat and so on. I'm doing some research for my masters, ad want to meet as many people as possible, maybe if you felt able to help you could reply to this post and I'll let you have an email address? thanks Paul

3/16/2010 2:46 PM  
Blogger MamaZum said...

JUst a thought: When travelling to RWanda in April, you have to be aware that it the month we commemorate the 1994 tutsi Genocide. A lot less entertainment, a lot more emphasis on the events of 1994 in the medias in general. Just so you know.

Thank you all for your interest in my little country.

3/22/2010 5:45 PM  
Blogger Marc Neilson said...

I could not agree with you more, Bujumbura is a far cry from "Disneyland" Africa haha. I live and work here in Burundi with the UN and often long for the order that is Kigali. However, it must be noted that Rwanda is quite harsh on keeping that order compared to relaxed Burundi and some of its citizens feel repressed. It's kind of like S. Korea before the big boom, necessary but difficult at the same time.

4/22/2010 10:30 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Morgan,

Regina here, for

I would like to personally invite you to list your blog on our Expat Women Blog Directory ( so that other women can read about and learn from your expat experiences.

Many thanks in advance for your contribution and keep up your great blog!


4/28/2010 5:08 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Difference between Burundi and Rwanda is LEADERSHIP. Burundi suffered and is still suffering from weak politics, e.g. the current president. Rwanda is blessed by a strong and visionnary head of state.

6/12/2010 8:37 PM  
Blogger About Me said...

Hi there, I have just started sponsoring a child in Rwanda through World Vision and I would like to know how to correctly pronounce his name. Could you please help me? His name is Egide Niyonkuru.

Please email me at

Thank you

7/21/2010 8:12 PM  
Blogger About Me said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

7/21/2010 8:14 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Niyonkuru means "God is great" and is pronounced: Nee-Yo-nkoo-roo

7/22/2010 1:46 AM  
Anonymous Inamahoro said...

Hi Morgan,
Thank you for your blog, so alive and so true!!
In Burundi, we say that people turn their back to the lake, because on weekends, they prefer to go « à l'intérieur », up the hills, instead of spending nice afternoons on the beach! That's culture, I guess! The Tanganyika is clearly one of the most attractive site in Burundi (the Source of the Nile is another one, but not as nice), and if peace may last, it will certainly bring more tourists in a few years...
After spending more than a year in Burundi in 2009-2010 (I lived there m<with my husband, a Burundian, and our two kids), I wish I could visit something else in Rwanda than the airport! And, why not, meet Meddy the singer, who is a star in Burundi as well!
Thanks for your post, I hope you enjoy urugwagwa!
Inamahoro G.

12/29/2010 9:22 PM  
Anonymous Jack said...

Morgan, I've been in Kigali for 8 months but just found your blog. Very good reading.

You said, "Things in Rwanda work, streets in Rwanda are clean, and Rwanda is safe... These are Rwanda-specific."

I spent 4 years in Botswana & it is also clean, safe & things work.

I do agree most of Africa is not like these 2 countries.

4/14/2011 12:52 PM  
Blogger Sesa Bakenra said...

When you say "Africa Lite" I think you're grossly misrepresenting an entire CONTINENT, while also assuming that it "has" to be bad-looking in order to live up to your own expectations. What you may realize if you travel to more African countries is that NO, Africa does not look like a waste land in its entirety. Another point I think I must raise is that Africa is literally about 3 times the size of the entire United States. That's a HUGE amount of space. If there was a fire in California, I don't think the people in Ohio would need to worry about their houses burning, would they? It's an appalling statement, that Rwanda is "Africa Lite"...incredibly appalling. Rwanda is an African country, one of 55. It being nice looking is because the human beings who live there decided to put time and money into its infrastructure. The way that everything is immediately compared to a European standard is becoming increasingly apparent in these myopic posts about a country that you clearly do not fully understand. I lived in Senegal, Gambia, and also Morocco. What occurs in one country is almost entirely independent of the other countries that do not immediately border it. Burundi is the way it is in many ways thanks to the Belgians, however if you go to Belgium, you won't see any remnants of the struggles that Burundians face every day. That, to me, is backwards and ridiculous... I just can't believe I even read this.

10/11/2011 1:58 PM  
Blogger Morgan C. said...


I find your post interesting for a number of reasons, and your main point is right-- Africa is not all the same. As someone who has lived and worked in Rwanda, Burundi, Congo, Sudan, South Sudan, Chad, Mali, Mauritania, and Togo, and who has visited Kenya, Uganda, and Tanzania, I agree.

The point I intended to make is that, as someone who lived in Rwanda and elsewhere on the continent, it can be frustrating to see muzungus who arrive in Rwanda and see a country that is unlike any other in Africa in terms of how rule based it is (I accept Jack's comment that Botswana's governance is exceptional--I haven't been yet, but this is what I have heard from my friends who have lived there). Those muzungus leave Rwanda, proclaiming they have "seen what Africa is like." And I'm with you--it is an amalgamation of very different countries with different histories and systems of governance. It is false to claim that you have "seen Africa" when all you have seen is a tiny, unique sample.

By calling Rwanda "Africa Lite," it's not to say that Rwanda is without problems. It is dealing with unique issues, and that's what makes it such an interesting place to live and study. But Burundi has a rougher edge. The infrastructure, as you note, isn't as good. The country often teeters at the brink of conflict. Like other countries, it suffers from endemic corruption. In other words, Burundi suffers from some of the same general problems as a number of other African countries, many of which I have spent considerable time in. And that's important to see and understand.

That said, I disagree with your statement that the continent has to be "bad-looking" to meet my expectations. It is where my heart is, and I have found beauty in every African country that I have visited.

11/02/2011 5:58 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Google the film "Stateless" on vimeo
Google who runs Rwanda wikileaks
Google UN Mapping Report
You are all being decieved

8/19/2014 9:40 AM  
Blogger Lucille D.Clarke said...

Your stories are so heartfelt and so heart wrenching. I was trying to find a food blog for Burundi. I am trying to learn about this food I live in through bloggers and food. Are should I say, the lack of food? I am new to blogging. My blog started out as a college project but has blossomed into so much more. I love the interaction via web with so many people around the world. My hope is to connect with someone in each country. I have until December... Wish we luck... Please feel free to checkout my blog at:

Thank you,
Lucille Clarke

10/01/2014 5:17 PM  
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