Five Hundred Dollars in Rwanda

“They say Mzungu, you are white,” the man sitting next to me informs me.

I shrug, “I know.”

“You see the gorillas?”

“No, it’s too expensive.”

“It’s $500, very cheap.” We are sitting in a small bus in Musanze, Rwanda waiting for it to fill with passengers for the fifteen minute ride back to Kinigi. Every seat is occupied, but max capacity is negotiable in Africa.

“Actually, it’s $750 for one hour. Not cheap.”

“Five hundred dollars, very cheap in the United States, you can earn it very fast.”

“Maybe some people but not me.”

“Everyone has money in America.”

“I’m not sure about that.”

“Does everyone have a car?”

The last passenger squeezes into our row and pushes a nursing mother slightly onto my thigh. I wiggle closer to the man I am conversing with and notice he is carrying a manilla envelope. If it rains, which it is prone to do in Rwanda in late October, whatever documents he’s carrying will be ruined.

“Most people.”

The bus starts on the second try and departs.

“How much does a teacher make?”

“Maybe $25,000 a year, but then they take taxes from that and you pay for your home and food and there is not much left.”

“Here a teacher makes $50 a month. It is hard to save with only $50 a month. Nothing left to invest.”

I smell sage burning and look outside at a woman carrying a bundle of wood on her head. Agriculture extends in every direction, right up to the border of Volcanoes National Park.

“I see your point. It’s hard to explain. Five hundred dollars can be a lot here but in the U.S. it doesn’t get you so much. One loaf of bread is $5.”

“How much for this?” He nods to his envelope.

“I’m not really sure.”

The bus swerves, honks, and a collective gasp waves through the passengers as we realize a boy still in diapers just ran into the road to touch the bus. Even after our near miss he still reaches for the bus, tottering toward us in the zombie traipse universal to children new to walking. The passengers silence as the intensity dwindles.

“You take nice photos here?” the man asks finally.

“Yes, some.”

“You go back and show your family?”

“Yes, of course.”

“You show them, this is Rwanda this is the black people?”

I pause. “I guess.”

There was no condescension in his tone. Even as I felt led toward a trap I assessed him for the hint of a viper attack, but he wasn’t venomous. He simply wished to know and wished to tell, and in doing so he unwittingly put into words exactly what I’ve been feeling.

A family near Lake Kivu

A family near Lake Kivu, Rwanda

Like many travelers, I enjoy photographing people. There is a challenge in capturing individual expression and the uniqueness of cultural dress. Yet more often than not, I shame myself into leaving my camera in my pack. First of all, I’m not incredibly skilled in photography, and secondly it feels intrusive to pull my camera out and make a spectacle of someone’s life without permission. Although it is not my intention, it feels pompous in the moment as if I am trying to capture an entire people through one photo and show people back home how life is abroad: This is Rwanda, this is the black people.

Such photography is perverse in nature, as if all of Rwanda bears an elusiveness akin to the gorillas in the mist. Behold the intangible beauty of a people so unique and yet almost like me! In truth, we are not all that different. Certainly cultural and lifestyle differences exist but at the core we are strikingly similar in needs and values. Yet we seek evidence of difference when we travel. We have conversations with locals to show we are the same; we take pictures to prove that we are different.

Maasai people in Tanzania

Hoodies juxtaposing traditional robes. The Maasai people in Tanzania.

Before arriving in Rwanda, I visited Tanzania where I preferred to take pictures of the pastoral Maasai people in full traditional robes rather than those wearing jeans. I’d skip photo ops of Maasai using cell phones, even though it was obvious that everyone carried one. Effectively, I edited reality through the framing of my lens. I opted for the photo that provided evidence that I dug to a cultural depth that I didn’t. This is Tanzania, this is the black people.

In Kinigi, I thank the man for talking with me and walk to my hotel, unsure of how to spend the rest of my afternoon. Rwanda has priced me out from its most alluring activities. Even yesterday’s hike up a volcano cost over $100, and looking out for my bank account leaves me slightly remiss. Yet, right or wrong, the price tag makes sense.

During the genocide, only twenty years ago, Rwanda received international support from no one. When France finally did intervene they aligned with the perpetrators in a baffling blunder of international aid. Essentially, Rwandan rebel forces pulled through for the country on their own. Now that politics have simmered and travel in Rwanda is nonthreatening, it’s hard to fault a country for pricing out the international community that consistently abandoned them during their most desperate times.

Bosoke volcano in Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda

Mt. Bisoke, a volcano in Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda

When I arrived in Kigali’s international airport, I was surprised to declare I had visited an ebola affected country in the previous three weeks: the United States. The punishment was slim—a compulsory online survey to be filled out daily to apprise the government of any symptoms I experienced—and even slimmer in that the mandate was rescinded two days after it was implemented. This requirement was introduced on the heels of two Rwandan students being refused entry into their New Jersey school simply because they visited an ebola affected continent. Details like Rwanda has remained entirely ebola free or that continental flight patterns make it nearly impossible to introduce the disease to the small country didn’t concern the United States, and that obfuscation did not go unnoticed by the Rwandan government. Undoubtedly, pressures from the United States squashed the compulsory survey, but the message was clear: you mess with our people and we won’t hesitate to mess with yours. Simply put, we don’t need you.

Those are the politics but the problem of $500 remains incommunicable. Perhaps the man on the bus was more correct than I. After all, I can travel and he cannot, and perhaps that right there is what $500 represents. Truthfully, I don’t save my money as wisely as many of my peers and instead I opt for occasional, half-assed world exploration, but ultimately I have $500 to use as unwisely as I wish. I could burn $750 in a pile right now should I so choose but much like spending it on the gorillas that’s not going to help me pay rent this winter.

The fact is, I have a choice to be in Rwanda; this is not my home. When the country fell apart it wasn’t the product of some long-standing tribal feud, it was instigated through colonial imperialism. Outsiders stirred up trouble, left the country to its own devices, and the world turned a blind eye. The United States, for instance, wouldn’t even admit the genocide existed in the moment.

But we’ll come to see gorillas, thank you very much.

Although I don’t agree with the price tag of Rwandan tourism, I find it difficult to fault.

Rwandan countryside

Rwandan countryside


8 thoughts on “Five Hundred Dollars in Rwanda

  1. Dorothy, that was an interesting conversation you had with the man. The thoughts and reflections it fostered in you are important. You will probably not look at things the same again, as you travel to other countries and encounter other cultures. When I made my last overseas trip, I found viewing the places I visited through a camera lens meant I was not as “present” as I could be, and not really experiencing what the place had to tell me. I ended up buying postcards instead, which also helps the local economy.

    • Buying postcards is a great idea! For me, I think the inequity between photography and reality is partially what leads to me to write. It’s my chosen lens, and the way I reflect upon and digest information so I can share my experiences with others. All of that being said, any travel plans in the works?

  2. Personally so proud to call you my friend. Know me. I don’t say that shit lightly at all. You have ascended to true humanity as a world traveler. Not self indulged western white privilege obliviousness to the historical and the current. But someone ready to visit your country, any country, see it’s beauty, it’s wildlife, it’s people, and do so without shying away from the fact your own culture
    or government may have harmed these people profoundly, but you are there, to show them you want to know, you do care, and we are so much the same. All over the world. Danger-girl keep that shit real, everywhere you go.

    • Thank you for the reflection, Lemmon! I was fortunate to do a study abroad in college that just so happened to coincide with September 11th. That was an intimidating time to learn to travel abroad, and I was nervous about how people would see me as an American when so much of the world disagreed with our knee-jerk, military response. Repeatedly, however, people’s response to me was, “we are disappointed in your government but we like you.” Hate the policies, not the person—and then learn from that. For those that have the means to do so, I think the best gift we can offer each other around the world is to travel and see each other for who we are; connect individuals without the interference of political or religious agendas, but then have open conversations about those aspects of our lives when the setting allows.

  3. Pingback: Resolving to Your Natural New Year | Professional Nomads

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