Battery power

With our trip to East Africa fast receding behind us, I didn’t think there’d be anything more to write about it. Then the following showed up at our door the other day — an envelope from Rwanda! Sent in a very official plastic envelope, emblazoned “Securite assuree (Safe and secure).”

Rwanda bureaucracy1

Inside Steve found an even more official looking letter from Dr. Alexis Nzahabwanimana, the “Minister of State in Charge of Transport,” who was responding to the letter Steve had written him.

Rwanda bureaucracy2

Steve had been complaining about an incident that I didn’t report on in this blog. It occurred June 12, when we flew from Kigali (the capital of Rwanda) to Tanzania on Kenya Airlines. Here’s how Steve described what happened:

“After passing the first checkpoint, I checked my baggage, which contained items such as large bottles and a pocket knife that are prohibited in the cabin. In my hand luggage, I had some AA and AAA batteries that I need for my electronic devices. These items are not on Kenya Airlines’s list of prohibited items. I have traveled all over the world and I have never been told that dry-cell batteries are prohibited from airline cabins. Had Kenya Airlines advised me that these items are prohibited, I could have tucked them in my luggage before checking it.

“At the second checkpoint, the police confiscated my batteries. ¬†I explained that they were not on the list of prohibited items, but the officer in charge was not amenable to reason. The loss of my property caused me considerable inconvenience and some expense.

Steve wrapped up with a lecture: “If Rwanda is to realize its goal of becoming a high tech center of East Africa, it is important that visitors not have their property confiscated illegally, especially when it relates to their electronic equipment. I am bringing this matter to your attention because I hope you will correct this improper behavior on the part of the police through appropriate channels.”

Dr. Nzahabwanimana begged to disagree. Batteries are a component of improvised explosive devices, he pointed out, helpfully including for our edification a diagram of how to build one.


As “a signatory to the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) that establishes international Standard and Recommended Practices (SARPs) that have to be complied with by all its signatories to Safeguard International Civil Aviation against Acts of Unlawful Interference,” Rwanda had a duty to keep such potentially dangerous goods out of airline cabins. Hence, the police “were therefore acting within the confines of the International Standards and National regulations…”

Dr. Nzahabwanimana also included a “Dangerous Goods List” that included “Batteries, dry, containing potassium hydroxide solid, electric storage” on it. Steve jumped right on that, determining it to be part of an obscure UN document. He also researched the US Transportation Safety Administration (TSA) guidelines. We all know how lax they are — but they make it clear dry batteries for personal appliances can be transported in cabins.

Steve was threatening¬†to write back and argue with the Africans some more. For my part, I’ve been urging him to spend the time instead earning some money that we might use for further travel to electrifying destinations.

Genocide and beyond

One souvenir of visiting Rwanda I’m unlikely to lose is that I finally get the difference between Tutsis and Hutus. It’s actually quite simple. The tiny Batwa (Pygmy) people were here forever. Then about 700 BC, medium-size farming people (Hutus) moved in and started kicking the Batwa out, chopping down their forest, and cultivating the land. A thousand or more years after that, tall, cattle-herding Tutsi people (aka Batutsi or Watutsi) arrived and immediately started lording it over the Hutus (and Batwa, tho there were so few of them and they were all out in the forest, so nobody really cared about them). The maltreatment (of Hutus by Tutsis) got worse in the early 20th C. under the Belgians, who made everyone carry passports identifying their ethnicity. But by the time Rwanda gained independence (in 1961), the tables had turned, and Hutus finally came into power. They then began exacting revenge on their former oppressors, instituting quotas for jobs, harassing and even killing Tutsis, and so on. This continued for 50 years, until resurgent Tutsi power and international pressure were poised to make Rwanda a more democratic and multinational place. But this didn’t sit very well with the ruling Hutu fanatics, who began planning a final solution to the Tutsi problem. In April of 1994, the (Hutu) president’s plane was shot down while landing at Kigali Airport, (where our plane for Tanzania took off). To this day, the identity of the shooters remains mysterious. Within an hour, barricades went up, and the killing began. By the time it ended, about 3 months later, a million people (primarily Tutsis but also some moderate and/or heroic Hutus) were dead, with millions more damaged in one way or another.

Today the biggest tourist attraction in Kigali is the Genocide Memorial. S and I visited it yesterday afternoon. It’s well done, forcefully conveying both the heartbreaking scope and the details of this disaster. I also admired the efforts made to put this genocide into perspective (as one among many) and to analyze the components shared by all genocides. The resolution that it must never happen again was a repeated motif — along with the acknowledgement that this resolution hasn’t fared too well over the past 100-plus years.

Talking to Tom Tofield, our biking guide at Lake Kivu, didn’t exactly fill us with hope that Rwanda was forever done with violence resulting from ethnic strife. Tom told us that large tracts of land in northeastern Rwanda had been granted to the family and friends of President Kagame (the Tutsi military hero who’s been president since April of 2000). Tom also talked about the involvement of the Rwandan elite in the illicit trade in Congolese coltan (that mineral ore critical to so many electronic products) and military arms fueling the continuing bloody upheaval in eastern Congo. Many of those arms, by the way, having been manufactured in the good old USA and Britain and donated to the Rwandan government.

It was depressing. But in Kigali, we heard more encouraging talk. This morning (6/12) we had coffee with the weathered British expat (long married to a Rwandan woman) who for almost 10 years has been working as the government’s chief advisor on science and technology. (A business associate of Steve’s had set up our meeting with him.) Mike ticked off one exciting development after another: the network of high-speed fiber-optic cable that now connects every region in the country, Carnegie-Mellon’s opening of a Kigali campus last August, MIT’s interest in establishing a climate-research station on top of the highest mountain in Rwanda, and the talk of building a cable car to get up to it, one which also might serve tourists. He spoke almost reverentially of President Kagame’s goal of transforming Rwanda into a knowledge/information economy, and the 5-year plans for achieving that.

Steve and I tend to be skeptical about grandiose industrial policies imposed by authoritarian governments. The sensibility of this one seems to us particularly dubious. It’s hard for us to imagine tiny Rwanda, still in need of basic things like decent roads and widespread access to clean water, competing successfully with the likes of China and India. But, as weird as it sounds, I can also imagine factors like the genocide and Rwanda’s current status as one of the cooler countries in Africa being wild cards that may affect how things play out, perhaps in unexpected ways.

Our meeting yesterday morning with the team at Gasabo 3D was much more solidly reassuring. Gasabo was founded 5 years ago when a Rwandan engineer named John Rugamba began collaborating with Solidworks (one of America’s biggest CAD companies). Steve always harbored doubts about kthe original business plan (which had to do with converting drawings from 2D to 3D), and indeed it never amounted to much. But Gasabo’s still in business. They’ve evolved into doing architectural design and project management, plus they’ve also gotten some cool mechanical projects: designing components to make it easier to use biogas (generated principally from livestock excrement); creating a machine to crush Rwandan peat into pellets for heating. They’re still the only native mechanical design firm in the whole country, and they’re obviously not coining money. The crew of 10 was crammed into a room that’s not much bigger than my living room. But they have a vision and some forward momentum; we could imagine them surviving and eventually prospering.

Kigali, too, impressed us, living up to its reputation as the cleanest capital in Africa. People seemed honest, and no one hassled us. We felt safe strolling around. As we walked, I thought of something that Paul Theroux says in his latest travel book, The Last Train to Zona Verde: My Ultimate African Safari. He argues that one reason to travel, a good one, is to see how things have changed.

I’m almost tempted to return to Rwanda somewhere down the line, to see how it all works out. But now we’ve left it behind. Our flights from Kigali through Nairobi, then on to Tanzania landed early (both of them), and we glimpsed the legendary snows of Kilimanjaro in the soft light of sunset. Our bags were not lost; our prearranged driver showed up. We’re installed in our cheap hotel in Moshi, where dinner was delicious and cost $18 for to. Tomorrow we return to the Nature portion of the program.