Saturday, May 29, 2010

Development as Tourism?

This past weekend I went to Nyungwe National Forest in the Southern Province near my house in Nyamagabe. The allure of seeing a chimpanzee while hiking in an eco-montane forest screams AFRICAN ADVENTURE. After arriving at the visitor center and looking over the potential hikes, I noticed an unexpected sign which listed USAID and the American People as the donors of the visitor center. Really? I thought to myself, is this the most pressing development issue? On the way to the forest we passed town after town of underfunded schools, acres of subsistence farms, and no health centers. Easily this money could have gone to fund a smaller project directly impacting one of these areas. But it in the end it didn’t, and this is the problem with development as tourism.

Tourism has proven to be a tool used in increasing GDP and the standard of living in many developing countries. Natural resource/wildlife rich countries who find themselves in the bottom of the HDI such as Tanzania and Kenya have used their natural gift of the Serengeti, Mt. Kilimanjaro and the Great Migration to attract tourists from around the world who bring in enormous amounts of cash. For example, Tourism remains a significant portion of the Services Sector in Kenya, which consists of nearly 60% of the nations GDP. By creating an atmosphere for tourism they have increased the standard living for all citizens. Rwanda is currently hoping to be a part of this tourism as development success story, yet has a long way to go.

Arriving at Nyungwe with my girlfriend and her visiting friend was exciting, as we had high hopes of seeing chimpanzees in their natural habitat. Once we arrived however we learned that the chimpanzee tracking starts at 5:30 AM, a fact that the Bradt guide book we had, the flyer the park ranger gave us and the multiple internet sites failed to list before arriving. No problem, let’s do another hike we thought. A beautifully displayed list of hikes, estimated distance, required time, level of difficulty and highlights of the trails were listed (all compliments of the plaque provided by the American People). As I glanced over the hikes the first one I saw was an opportunity to use a canopy bridge. Lets do it! The ranger then mentioned that the bridge wasn’t finished yet, sorry…next time. I disregarded the fact that they already had a picture of people walking on a treetop bridge. Ok, let’s do the hike that guarantees a waterfall! Nope sorry, a tree fell and it’s difficult to pass. Sounds like a typical problem in a forest I guess, so we went on and chose the Yellow Trail, a nice trail that provides the opportunity to see monkeys and is moderately difficult. DEAL! As we handed our money to the ranger at reception and waited for our change….Oh sorry we don’t have bills to change here the ranger said. Really? So everyone has the exact amount that you ask for EVERYTIME? The frustration of this was also compounded by the fact that there is one bus service that runs to the visitor center. It must be caught in Butare, 30 minutes in the opposite direction from my home, which is closer to Nyungwe AND which Sotra (the bus services) would have to pass. Luckily, with the help of my counterpart, I was able to find a driver to personally drive us on the terribly paved roads, past the six landslide areas.

As I thought about these my frustrations, part of me thought, this is Africa and I can’t come with my American comforts and standards and apply them to all things Rwandan. As I thought about it more I realized that these frustrations weren’t because of my standards, as much as it is my frustration with poorly planned development. USAID was happy to front the money, adding a visitor center to a widely unknown, yet tourism ‘diamond in the rough’ forest of Nyungwe in hopes of bringing in more tourists and opening the tourism money floodgates. This intervention is the typical shortsighted aid organization project that didn’t factor in all of the pieces to the puzzle. The simple addition of one item in the flow chart is what USAID felt was the missing. Visitor center + more visitors= development. Right?! Yeah! We just saved lives …Not really.

The small problems that we encountered are all problems that need to be addressed for this visitor center to reach its target of increasing tourism revenue, providing jobs, bringing money to the local communities… the list continues. Tourism can have tremendous benefits on the economy of a country, but without substantial planning, money is wasted, ending up in our case, spent on an empty visitor center in a hard to reach forest. It is great to see the signs in Kigali advertising Nyungwe with its 200 plus species of birds and 13 primates but what happens when someone asks, how can I get there? These are the questions that need to be asked before projects are funded and before time and effort are spent attempting development as tourism.

Monday, May 24, 2010

My kind of town, Nyamagabe is...

Well here I am finally in Nyamagabe, in the office of AEE and officially a Peace Corps Volunteer. My apologies for not writing anything sooner, as I just noticed my last blog post was days before my swear-in…nearly three weeks ago.

The swear in ceremony was held at the US Ambassador’s house, and attended by current PCVs, former PCVs, Government officials, PC staff, and even the Rwandan news, which mentioned us later that night during their broadcast. The feeling of taking the oath and becoming “official” was a bit surreal and still somewhat of a blur. During the ceremony I reflected back on filing out the PC application in December 2008, sitting on the couch with snow outside. Now I’m in Rwanda where the application process, interview, and endless waiting are a distant thought (as well as any snow).

After the swearing in ceremony I had a week to shop and relax in Kigali aka “mini Amerika” (Ikinyarwanda spelling) before going to site. As nice as the white chocolate mochas were at Bourbon Coffee at Nakumatt, I was anxious to get to Nyamagabe and start settling into life as a PCV. The plan of settling in was short lived however as I a few days after sleeping with my mattress on the floor with most of my bags still unpacked, I went back to Nyanza for training in Permaculture (Permanent-Agriculture) and then onto Butare for training on Internal Saving and Lendging Groups (ISLGs). As I sit now, my first full day in the office of AEE and no more trainings, at least in the next week, I’m looking forward to my furniture arriving tomorrow (fingers crossed), finding out where exactly to throw my trash, and asking the landlord if I can turn part of my yard into a permaculture garden.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Two Cups of Tea

As the sound of Amayobera (look up this song if you download music, its the biggest thing in Rwanda right now) faded at the close of our last dance party in Nyanza, it was hard not to get sentimental thinking about the past 9 weeks of training. The first step in the PC process here in Rwanda has come to an end and as quickly as it started, its now time to move out, swear in and move to site. Can it really be May already?

I settled into this temporary home or as we like to call it Camp Peace Corps, with an open mind and readiness to learn. Everything was manufactured to allow us to focus only on language and culture, with meals prepared, schedules made, and the summer camp euphoria of living and learning together. Beyond the PC bubble however I realize that in these short 9 weeks, I’ve made a home here in Nyanza, and one that I’m going to miss. On my morning runs, I have changed many of the “Mwaramutse Mzungu” to “Mwaramutse Ryan” (or shall I say Lion). I have small posse of soccer kids that never let me walk away without being deemed a new soccer star. I’d like to think its because they like the way I play, but it could just be the Barcalona jersey I wear around town. I’ve reached the “hug level” as I like to call it with my host mom’s children, who were always so shy when the muzungu came over. Also, Mama Francine makes sure I don’t leave without drinking two cups of African tea, because to leave after one is just plain rude.

Now here I am with three days until officially swearing in as a Peace Corps Volunteer; language test passed, bags to pack, and the bitter sweet feeling of leaving Camp Peace Corps. After swearing in on May 5th, I’ll leave for Nyamagabe on Sunday or Monday. I’m excited to make new friends, find new routines, and once again settle into life here in Rwanda.