I met Rob and Peter a few years ago during one of my summers in The Netherlands with my husband (Peter and Stefan are childhood friends, having met in the Boy Scouts). They are born and bred Dutchmen, but have lived, worked and traveled all over the world. Last year they sold their house in Utrecht, packed up their belongings and moved to Rwanda. After a shorter stint in Cairo the previous year, they are now living in Rwanda for a few years. Rob's job in water management keeps them on the move to where his expertise is needed. With Peter's background in Religious Studies, he's working on making new connections in Kigali. I am fortunate to call these amazing men friends! Enjoy this glimpse into Rob and Peter's interesting lives. They also share a wealth of knowledge and tips for traveling to Egypt and Rwanda!
Rob - Tell about the work you are doing in Rwanda?
I am deputy team leader and water management specialist in a program called Water for Growth Rwanda. The program, funded by the Netherlands government, aims to achieve economic growth and improved livelihoods through better integrated management of water resources. We support the Rwandan government to improve their institutions and staff qualities to better manage water, and we demonstrate the benefits of integrated water resources management in four catchments, or watersheds. This requires that I travel regularly to different parts of the country, to meet with local officials and stakeholders. A great way to see the country and meet its people. The water focus is of course typically Dutch… without proper water management roughly half of the Netherlands would be flooded.
Peter - Are you able to teach while you’re living in Rwanda? Or volunteering?
I’m still working on getting a resident permit, so having a job is not yet allowed. However I did some networking that resulted in two potential leads for temporary assignments as a consultant in the area of education and career development. In the meantime I’m also investigating if I can do some research for Nijmegen University into Evangelical Movements. I have a background in Religious Studies and it’s remarkable to see how these movements are flourishing in Rwanda (and Africa as a whole). Next Sunday I will visit a service with a Rwandan friend, I’m looking forward to that.
Before moving to Rwanda last year, you were living in Cairo. Besides geography, describe the biggest differences between the two countries and people?
While both countries are located in Africa, the differences between the two countries couldn’t be bigger. Rwanda, at the source of the Nile, is tropical, lush, green and situated at high altitude while Egypt is a dry and typical Saharan country. Its population lives primarily in the Nile valley and its Delta, and is totally dependent on the same Nile for its water.
Another important difference is the fact that Rwanda is a Christian country, with a minority of Muslims (less than 10%), while Egypt is definitely, but not exclusively, Muslim. In Egypt our weekend started at Thursday night and ended by Saturday night. Sometimes I really miss the call to prayer, which is so typically Egypt.
Cairo is one of the world’s biggest and most polluted cities, with more than 17 million people (including suburbs), always dynamic, noisy and buzzing 24 hours a day, while Kigali, with around 1 million inhabitants, is relatively small, quiet, easy going, and has more of a residential feeling to it. In Cairo we lived in a tiny apartment at the tenth floor (with regular power cuts) overlooking the Nile, and now we inhabit a seventies’ bungalow in a residential but very central area, amidst a garden that is even bigger than the one had in the Netherlands. Oh, and the power cuts are less regular, but can last longer at times.
Egypt is well know for its beautiful, ancient cultural heritage but also has great beaches, sunshine all year ‘round, clear blue seas that offer the world’s best diving spots. Rwanda has gorgeous landscapes, three beautiful national parks (Akagera, Nyungwe and Volcanoes National Park), wildlife (mountain gorilla’s, chimpanzees, and soon all of the big five) and although landlocked it has one of the worlds largest lakes with amazing shores and recreational opportunities.
In short, Rwanda is very interesting for people who are passionate about nature, wildlife and people, whereas Egypt has a lot to offer for those who love (ancient) culture, beach life and watersports.
What are the must sees for travelers visiting Rwanda? Egypt?
- Gorilla tracking (children should be over 15) or other activities in Volcanoes National Park in the North (Dian Fossey lived and died here among her beloved silverbacks)
- Nyungwe National Park, with tree top trail and chimps
- Lake Kivu, for (sun)bathing, kayaking, and the awesome scenery
- Akagera National Park, Africa’s first national park, with now again four out of the big five, but Rhino’s coming soon, funded by Dutch government
- Impressive Genocide Memorials all over the country
- Active volcano Mount Nyiragongo, with the world’s largest red-bubbling crater lava lake, in neighboring DRC just across the border from Gisenyi in the North of Lake Kivu
- Ancient temples along the Nile (Nile Cruise from Luxor to Aswan, but don’t skip Abu Simbel further upstream at Lake Nasser)
- The Red Sea: Dahab, one of the world’s most beautiful diving spots and Southern Sinai. Try to avoid the huge tourist resorts of Sharm el Sheikh and Hurghada though.
- Cairo: the Old City, the National Museum, the Pyramids, Coptic Cairo, and ‘garbage city’ for a very interesting view on how a metropolis recycles almost all its waste
- Alexandria and Mediterranean coast (Mersa Matruh)
- The oases of the Western desert (depending on travel advise) and the large oasis of the Fayoum, with excellent pottery in Tunis village
What’s your best tips for tourists traveling to Egypt or Rwanda?
For inexperienced travellers our advice would be to book an organized tour. This will get you around and experience highlights, without the hassle or burden of having to find the right bus in a language that you can’t even read. For those more adventurous, don’t listen to tour guides but go your own way. Meet the locals, experience their friendliness, and discover gems that mainstream tourism isn’t even aware of. For the fit and sports minded, travel Rwanda on foot or by mountain bike. The Congo-Nile trail caters to none, and yet to all. While in Kigali, check out www.livinginkigali.com, which provides up to date information on the capital and the country as a whole.
Do you find locals accept western travelers better in Egypt or Rwanda?
In both countries the majority of people are very hospitable, warm and welcoming. Much more than you’d encounter in any Western country. We didn’t come across any problems while traveling either country. In Rwanda as well as Egypt, Westerners attract attention, especially in tourist places. In Egypt that turns out to be annoying every now and then, mainly because the amount of tourists dropped incredibly after some terrorist attacks in the nineties and recent upheaval due to the Arab Spring Revolution. In Rwanda the attention is limited to smiling children welcoming the ‘muzungu’ or white (wo)man. Sometimes children ask: ‘Gimme money’ but mostly they shout ‘good moh’ning’, (even far in the afternoon).
What are the biggest misconceptions about each country?
That Africa is poor, dirty, chaotic and dangerous. We all know the news items about war, terrorism, starvation, malnutrition, malaria and AIDS for example. Of course these things are there, but there’s another reality hardly focused on in the West. Africa is working hard on economic, social and environmental development. Not to mention the huge urbanization that takes place and gives rise to new forms of life, the arts and the economy.
Especially after the Revolution, parts of Egypt (Sinai and Western Desert) are declared unsafe by Western governments. These areas are easy to avoid though, and leave more than enough to discover.
Rwanda is notorious for it’s genocide past. The present couldn’t be more different. At the moment Rwanda has been rated the safest country in Africa. It’s amazingly clean, well organized and yes, they are connected to the World Wide Web. More and more people are well educated, ambitious and striving for change in their own way.
A very typical Rwandan thing is Umuganda, or community work. Every last Saturday of the month, all Rwandans join in morning activities that serve the common good. As muzungu you are most welcome to join, and celebrate togetherness with them for a complete local experience.
Describe a typical day living in Kigali? Cairo?
On Saturday we normally sleep in a bit. Our breakfast is pretty much the same as in the Netherlands because we’ve been stocking up on cereals, which are hard to get or very pricey here. Of course we add the lovely Rwandan fruits like pineapple, mango, tree tomato, passion fruit and very sweetie mini bananas that taste so much better than at home.
After breakfast we’re heading for the gym. We have a membership at WaKa gym with great views of hilly and lushy Kigali from the treadmill. After a good workout we’re heading for a nice latte or flat white and a little bite at our favorite coffee bar Chocolat, a trendy African style furnished bar that wouldn’t be out of place in any European or American city. They’ve great organic food too.
In the afternoon we do some shopping, which is a totally different experience here. Besides colorful but pretty overwhelming local markets with an abundance of vegetables and juicy fruits, some shopping centers downtown offer almost anything you need… if you’re lucky. Mostly you have to visit more than one shop to scrape your stuff together but that’s fun too…. sometimes.
Sometimes we go for a hike, but Sunday morning mountain biking also is great fun. Kigali is located in a very mountainous environment in the center of “The land of a Thousand Hills”.
Nightlife in Kigali is limited. There’re some local bars and international hotels that offer live music. Here we’re more focused on inviting friends and organizing parties ourselves, or visiting dinner evenings or parties at homes of friends.
Much unlike in Cairo, we have a car here, plus a couple of (un-motorized!) bicycles, allowing us to conquer the hills or to escape for the weekend. We are much more mobile than in Cairo, where a lack of private transportation means kept us on the Nile island of Zamalek most of the time. The island however also had a lot to offer: the gym, shops, galleries, museums, one of the very few operas in Africa, and most of all a very nice group of friends with whom we had many nice dinner evenings.
What’s your favorite memory of living in Cairo?
In daily life definitely the people we met and the beautiful view of the Nile and its party boats in downtown Cairo from our roof top terrace. As tourists certainly the Nile cruise we did. We were overwhelmed by its beauty and realized that it is definitely not only for pensionados or honeymooners. Head for the smaller or more upmarket yachts or the traditional Dahabiyas though, unless if you want to spend your holiday packed up like sardines in a floating motel, eating junk food instead of local delights. Even Agatha Christie’s favorite boat still steams up and down the Nile in great luxury. And while you’re at it, stay at the Old Cataract hotel where she wrote Murder on the Nile. We were thrilled by the gorgeous view of the Nile cataract, and by the hotel’s ambiance that still breathes ancient times.
For those brave enough (or realistic enough) to travel to southern Sinai, our best and most laid-back beach experience was in Dahab. Our trip from there to St Catherine’s monastery was unforgettable. Next time we should climb Mount Sinai though. Too lazy at that time… what a shame!
Have you encountered any safety issues in either country?
Both countries can be challenging and overwhelming at times for inexperienced travelers, but this is mainly related to poor public transport, language issues, and cultural differences. However, Rwanda is a safe country with very low crime rates. Because it’s a poor country, of course you need to keep an eye on your valuables. But there’s definitely no violent robbery like in other (African) countries, and at night even women feel safe on the streets of Kigali. Rwandan men and Rwandan society in general are very female friendly. Rwanda has a pro-active gender agenda and is the only country with more women than men in parliament!
We lived in Egypt right after the moment that president Mohamed Morsi was unseated (2013). In the beginning there were tanks all over town, but we never felt unsafe. The only precautions we took were: keep an eye on your valuables, do not attend big demonstrations and gatherings, and never travel outside Cairo during the night. We even visited South Sinai, its North deemed as notoriously unsafe, without any problems.
Do you plan on visiting other African countries while you’re living in Rwanda?
We plan to visit Uganda, Tanzania, Zanzibar, DRC and hopefully Mozambique. Visiting our friends in Egypt is also on the agenda.
What do you miss most about living in the Netherlands?
Of course the things we miss most are family and friends. When we visited the Netherlands last month it was great to catch up. Remarkable was the abundance of food in the supermarkets (so we just had to stock up!). In Rwanda we have to visit a few markets and shops to scrape together our meals unless either paying a fortune or setting out without a fixed plan on what to eat tonight. And last but not least we miss culture, theatre, cinema, and cosy old city centers.
We definitely do not miss the weather!! Rwanda has a great, moderate climate, never too hot, never too cold, and at least a bit of sunshine almost every day.
Until the next adventure - bon voyage!