Rwanda – half a year full of surprises
By Thomas Verkooijen
After an intense Christmas break, full of meetings with family and friends as well as some last-minute packing, I hopped on the plane on the 2nd of January for an adventure in Eastern Africa. I have to be honest, I don’t think I have ever been so nervous, but I was more than ready to travel somewhere unknown and see what it would bring me.
On the plane, I met Jaime, a South-African young lady teaching at the International School of Kigali. During the entire flight, we had amazing conversations about Kigali, Rwanda and everything surrounding the country. I think by then I already felt more comfortable and was ready to get things started. That night at arrival, I was picked up by my Ugandan and Dutch house mates Hank and Bente and I was extremely surprised about what was happening around me. What I saw was a city that was extremely organized with proper infrastructure, people walking on organized pavements and well-lit streets. Next to that, Rwanda is extremely clean; plastic bags are not allowed (which is quite a contrast to other countries in the region) and there is a monthly community cleaning day - Umuganda, where everybody is expected to help clean the neighborhood.
I went to Kigali to do a six-month internship at the Ministry of Finance and Economic Planning, as a part of my Bachelor. I worked in the office of the Chief Economist, with primary tasks in external finance, macroeconomic planning and budgeting. The majority of my colleagues was Rwandan and initially it was a challenge to become part of the team. However, as the months passed by, I got to know most of them well and we had a lot of fun during different meetings and projects.
In the following weeks, I got to know the amazing city of Kigali, built on countless hills. The local motor taxis, better known as motos, can take you around the whole city for less than a euro and especially around dusk it is great to see the sunset over the city while driving around town. At one moment, you pass the extremely modern Kigali Convention Center with its colorful dome and at others, there would be crowded markets full of color, smell and a lot of noise.
I got to meet many amazing people during this time; Kigali is a relatively small city and so is the social life for expats and young professionals. The community is diverse with people from many different backgrounds, mostly working for the UN, different embassies or NGOs. Every week there would be many events, such as pub quizzes, drinks or nights out. Next to this, I had a great group of friends with which we would do weekend trips to places all around the country as well as lazy Sundays at the famous pool of the novel A Sunday at the pool in Kigali.
Travelling around Rwanda and neighboring countries is expensive but very much worth it. Within Rwanda, I have been to the National Parks of Akagera as well as Nyungwe and spent some time at the shores of Lake Kivu. I had the opportunity to travel across Uganda, do many amazing safaris as well as visit Zanzibar. All these are experiences I will never forget. Especially the contrasts between tropical paradises and rural areas in Uganda made me realize that things do not come easy per se and that we are extremely lucky to live in Western-Europe.
Living in Rwanda is a life-changing experience and contributes to personal development substantially. Initially, Kigali looks like a metropolitan city with many internationals around. However, the rest of the country is poor and shows you the real East-Africa. It shows you the genuine happiness of the people as well as the amazing nature of the country.
I think it is very important to mention that it also brings challenges when you’re used to living in Europe. Punctuality does not exist and hours without WiFi/electricity/water or a car that doesn’t work make you use your imagination and be creative. However, it takes only a few weeks to get used to this and, after that, I noticed how much fun it is to be spontaneous in terms of just grabbing food and going out because in the end, every day is a surprise!