Sunday, 31 March 2013

Rwanda's Tea of Hope

On the road to Kitabi/Veronique Mistiaen

Etienne, the young agronomist who drives me around Rwanda is full of hope.  I am in the country to look at how the tea industry is helping rebuild the economy and healing genocidal wounds, and Etienne is one of the experts accompanying me on the trip.

I love this assignment because Rwanda is one of the most exhilaratingly beautiful countries I know, and also because the mood is so much more positive than when I was last there some ten years ago.  At the time, the country was still in shock and deeply scarred by the 1994 genocide in which nearly 1 million Tutsis and moderate Hutus were butchered by Hutu soldiers and militia. Now the country has one of Africa’s fastest growing economies, a Parliament with a majority of women and a strong focus on health and education.

“Not just in Kigali (the capital), but also in the rural areas, life has started again. We would never have thought it could be possible,” Etienne says. “We used to be the country of a thousand problems; now we are the country of a thousand solutions.”  

Kitabi tea gardens/Veronique Mistiaen

We have now reached the Kitabi tea gardens – the highest in Rwanda and perhaps in the world.  Hills after hills are covered in a dense carpet of tender green and the breeze smells of fresh apples. Bordering the gardens is the vast Nyungwe National Park, one of Africa’s largest and oldest virgin equatorial forests –a refuge for chimpanzees, hundreds of species of birds and trees and myriad exotic flowers. And beyond the impenetrable forest lies an immense inland sea - Lake Kivu.

On the roller-coast road from Butare (the second city in Rwanda) to Kitabi, which tumbled through lush banana fields, patches of silvery eucalyptus and red earth, Etienne kept pointing excitedly: “Look, all the huts now have tin roofs. You won’t see thatched roofs in Rwanda any longer.”  Or  “Look, everyone is wearing shoes. No one is walking barefoot any longer.”  And he says that every family in the countryside has received a cow so that its milk can feed the children and its droppings can fertilize the soil. These policies were devised by president Kagame to help lift the countryside out of poverty and foster peace and reconciliation, he explains.

 I know that not everyone shares Etienne’s enthusiasm for Kagame’s governing style, which some call dictatorial. And the sprawling refugee camp we passed on the way reminds us of the savage conflicts at the border, which Kagame has been accused of inflaming.  But I am in Rwanda to look at tea and there, the government’s work with tea owners, NGOs and even the British company Taylors of Harrogate, has been successful. 

Tea is vital in this hilly, densely populated country where about 90% of the inhabitants live in the countryside. Rwandan tea is cultivated on steep slopes at high altitude on an acidic soil where little else grows, so it is the only source of revenues for many farmers and their families.   The crop is now the country’s fourth biggest export after tourism, minerals and coffee. Last year, it earned the country $59m and provided jobs for some 100,000 families, according to the agriculture department. And prosperity helps maintain peace.

With Etienne at the Kitabi tea gardens

One of the causes of war is poverty – on top of social inequalities, says Ndambe Nzaramba of the National Agricultural Export Development Board.  “The government cannot help someone with a head full of images - that is the job of doctors and psychologists - but it can help you put food on the table, give you an education and give you hope. Orphans and victims are more likely to forgive if they are not hurting financially.” 

But even more important than boosting people’s income, the tea gardens are helping people to learn to live alongside one another again, explains Dr Nzaramba.  “Farmers are organized in cooperatives, so innocent and guilty, victim and killer work alongside each others all day long in the fields and in the factories. They to talk, they share the same problems, they plan together, they work for the good of the cooperative – and that’s how the healing happens.”

Read my story about tea and hope in the April issue of Reader’s Digest here.

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