Food writer Karen Coates and I got quite the agricultural lesson as we
drove through the lush green mountainsides that make up “the land of a
thousand hills” on our drive to Musenze and Lake Kivu, in Northern Rwanda
that just rubs shoulders with Congo.
“That’s tea, and sorghum. Also cabbages and carrots,” pointed out our fixer
Atha. “Drop a seed anywhere and it will grow here.”
And grow it does. The volcanic soil is black and rich with nutrients–far
different from the red dirt surrounding the bustling urban hub of Kigali,
where we’ve been staying this past week.
This was green and verdant. This was rural Rwanda. And I have to admit,
after the congestion of the city’s traffic circles, it was a breath of
“Can I take a picture of the carrots?” Karen asked, pointing to
the towering columns that farmers had stacked like orange skyscrapers.
We pulled up across from the farmers and immediately were swarmed by
children, banging the windows and shouting, “Give me money! Give me money!”
Children here are accustomed to American tourists to whom handing over a
dollar means nothing, and it’s encouraged them to become more
insistent–and sometimes aggressive. It’s been a conundrum I’ve been
struggling with this whole trip: I look at these children dressed in what
can only be described as dirty rags, and it tugs at my heartstrings to want
to hand them everything in my bag and my own crisp shirt. But the fixers
are insistent that we not encourage them, and you wonder that even if you
can solve the short-term problem of getting them fed for a day, it does
nothing for the longer-term issue of hunger and poverty. Rwanda, I am
finding, is a complicated country. People are incredibly warm and kind, but
interlacing everything is the unmistakable issue of money–how you as an
American have more of it, and how your day-to-day priorities and
motivations are different from theirs because of it.
Karen returned from taking pictures of the carrot towers, and I tucked away
my iPhone after a few shots.
It was only later that night, when we were driving back and I heard a fixer
ask our driver, “Why do you have so many carrots?” There was a bushel
rolling around in the trunk. He had bought it in exchange for our taking
There is a price for everything, and I’m learning it behooves me not to
As much as we’re here to enlighten our audiences back home about the
changing face of development in Rwanda, there’s also a fine balance to our
not taking advantage of that relationship. It’s a tricky, tricky line.