Rwanda ni’Nziza, but who can afford to enjoy it?

Back in the late 1990’s, back when Rwanda Broadcasting Agency was Television Rwandaise, there was a song that was played right after the television opened each day at around 5pm.

It was a catchy music video that they played with the lyrics going something like, and please forgive my Kinyarwanda, ‘Genda Rwanda uri’nziza…” (Rwanda you are beautiful).

The vastly overpriced Paradis Malahide hotel is an foreign favourite. Their POS doesn't accept Rwandan Francs

The vastly overpriced Paradis Malahide hotel is an foreign favourite. Their POS doesn’t accept Rwandan Francs

Lovely images accompanied this music video, showing the lovely hills, lakes, flora and fauna in the country. Single-handedly, this video made me fall in love with my country, a love I have up to today. Whenever I have a little extra cash in my pocket I jump on a bus and travel to my two favorite spots in the country, Huye and Rubavu.

With a few friends in tow, I drove to Rubavu this weekend and spent a night at a modest lakeside hotel. And when I say modest, I don’t mean that I paid around Rwf25,000 for a room, rather I mean that I paid a little less than Rwf 60,000. And what did I get for that amount?

A pretty mediocre room and a extremely blasé breakfast. However, on the bright side, I woke up to a wonderful view of a shimmering Lake Kivu. But that was it. I didn’t feel like I had got anything close to my money’s worth.

I woke to this view. Is it worth close to Rwf 60,000? I doubt it

I woke to this view. Is it worth close to Rwf 60,000? I doubt it

Looking around, I believe that I wasn’t the only one who felt that it was a rip off.

I quickly realized that there were only two Rwandans in the entire place who didn’t actually work there, a friend and I. The rest of the guests were foreigners. And that made me sad. Did locals not want to spend a night hearing the soothing sounds of the waves? Did they not want to get away from the hustle and bustle of the city? Did they not appreciate the things their country had to offer? Of course they did. So, where were they?

I believe that the vast majority of the local populace simply can’t afford to enjoy their own country. And mind you, when I’m talking about the ‘locals’, I don’t mean rural farmers, moto-taxi riders and small traders (although they too have every right to enjoy it).

I’m talking about low to middle level civil servants and other members of the formal sector i.e. the people who should be making up the Rwandan middle class. And how could they if a single, mediocre room cost about a fifth of a civil servants salary?

To make me even feel more unwanted and uncared about as a local, when time for payment arrived, and we pulled out our VISA cards, we were informed that they would only accept debit and credit card payment in American dollars not Rwandan Francs.

While this was convenient for the foreigners, whose bank accounts are in dollars, what that meant for us locals, paying in Rwandan francs, was that we’d actually have to pay MORE than was advertised because the hotel chose its own dollar-franc exchange rate. Luckily we had cash. I’ve not always been that lucky.

Inzu Lodge, Gisenyi. Their tents are obviously NOT for locals. After all, who pays good money to sleep in a tent?

Inzu Lodge, Gisenyi. Their tents are obviously NOT for locals. After all, who pays good money to sleep in a tent?

Last year, I paid about an extra Rwf10,000 simply because I used a credit card at a hotel that only had a US dollar POS (Point of Sale) machine. The worst part was, I didn’t even know that I would be charged so much for my credit card usage; I only found out I had been ‘robbed’ when I got my credit card bill a month later.

Mind you, I’m not saying that the hotels acted illegally, what I’m saying is that they acted like I, and the local Rwandan market, wasn’t that important to them. And truth be told, they are probably right. However, that doesn’t make it right.

RDB’s (Rwanda Development Board) tourism department is breaking a sweat, trying to increase local tourism. National park permits for locals are a lot cheaper than those handed out to foreigners. That is a good step. However, if something isn’t done about the lack of affordable accommodation, the push for local tourism will be DOA-Dead on Arrival.

So what is the way forward? The lake side towns of Cyangugu, Kibuye,Rubavu and the rest of the Lake Kivu shoreline has been mooted as tourism ‘central’. Well, I suggest that along with 5-Star accommodation, there must be a plan for affordable hotels as well.

Let the Serena’s have the choice lakeside spots, but then make sure that there are affordable, family-friendly hotels and guesthouses as well. And for the love of God, insist that POS machines accept our legal tender.

Lake Kivu in the morning: What a view

Lake Kivu in the morning: What a view

This blog was published in The New Times        

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4 thoughts on “Rwanda ni’Nziza, but who can afford to enjoy it?

  1. verena says:

    You make me think that Switzerland never stopped being the Rwanda of Europe.. Pour le meilleur et pour le pire, toute proportion historique gardée of course.. I’ve had the chance to live in both countries for a while. And even as n’musungu I never found Rwanda a cheap place to explore and trust me I took my time to travel up and downhill..
    Let us have a look at Switzerland today: most Swiss simply can’t afford a long-family-weekend in the Alps, let alone a full skiing or sightseeing week . And I’m not talking about mountain farmers, precarious workers or unemployed people. Most Swiss would never choose a wooden chalet as an accommodation, while many foreign visitors do. Most Swiss who have some spare money would fly anywhere for a cheap-package-holiday. Many Swiss never visit their country. Many Swiss complain about high prices. And yes, some (more and more) struggle to get till the end of the month and pay rent, bills, taxes and more.
    But yes some students do travel, they choose a youth hostel and shop for food. Some families with children do visit the country, they often pitch a tent in a camping place near a lake. Some couples who can afford it save money to spent a charming weekend in a beautiful hotel.
    As I said, pour le meilleur pour le pire..

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