The driver showed up on time yesterday to transport us from Nyungwe to Rwanda's capital, Kigali. The national museum in Huye, which we visited en route, was well done, and our stop at the palace of the former Rwandan kings was interesting. (I particularly loved the ceremonial cattle, whose enormous horns would give a Texas longhorn horn envy!)
For my money, though, our coolest experience yesterday came when we stopped at the Cafe Connexion in Huye. We'd heard about it during our hike in the forest Sunday. Our three hiking companions were expats in their early 30s, living and working in Kigali (an American woman architect, a British gal working for an NGO, and an American guy who was an ER doc working part-time for Paul Farmer's Partners in Health.) The Brit was particularly chatty, and she said Cafe Connexion was serving the best coffee in all of Rwanda. She urged us to make the short detour.
That worked well, as we finished visiting the museum around 12:30 and quickly ate the picnic lunches the lodge had packed for us. While we were in the museum, our driver had figured out the cafe's location (across the street from the university, biggest in the country, serving 24,000 students.) We walked in and were greeted by a tall, energetic man who looked to be in his 40s. Speaking perfect English with an unmistakable Latin-American accent, he told us the proprietor had stepped away, but he could serve us. He talked non-stop as he whipped up our cappucinos, blowing us away with his story and his enthusiasm.
Born in Panama, Mario had grown up on a coffee farm, then he'd gone to school in Hawaii, near Kona. Somehow, he's wound up teaching biological pest-control methods to agronomy students at the Rwanda's national university. But his main job was working for a small family coffee-roasting business based near Sacramento, and he was on a mission: to turn Rwanda into a true coffee culture.
Coffee is already Rwanda's biggest cash crop, and the country's coffee farmers already have achieved some fame. They all grow a variety known as Bourbon (which Mario says originated on the island of La Reunion in the Indian Sea). Maraba Bourbon coffee, grown near Huye, has won international recognition for its flavor. But it was grown with pesticides and inadequate knowledge about the cultivation requirements, according to Mario. In his travels, he had found an organic coffee plantation near Lake Kivu (S and I grew excited when we realized we had walked and biked past those very trees while staying in Rubona and biking with Tom.) It was this organic Kigufi coffee that's available at the coffee house — and very delicious, I can attest. Moreover, Mario was buying the whole crop, shipping it to California for roasting, and selling it all to Costco. This was great for the Lake Kivu coffee farmers, whose income had climbed from $300 to $1000 a year on average since Mario began buying from and advising them. But Mario wanted to spread a taste and appreciation for coffee within Rwanda, where the vast majority of people have nothing to do with it. (They drink tea with milk in it.) Hence the cafe, which opened one year ago. A couple of college students had been trained as barristas, and the prices were rock-bottom. (We paid about 85 cents for each of our excellent cappucinos.)
There were signs the plan was working. That very morning, at least 50 people had shown up, astonishing Mario. If I ever return to Rwanda, I expect to see a lot more coffee-drinking. And in the meantime, I'm going to be on high alert next February, when Mario says the Kirkland “Rwandan” begins showing up in Costcos. (It's typically there through April or May, he says.)