Bill Frist, MD
The drive to Saint John the Baptist-Cathedral in Ruhengeri is about 2 hours. It is a windy, but beautiful, road. Rwanda is known as the Land of a Thousand Hills, and this journey explains why. The hills are green, and the trees are even a darker green, separated by roughly plowed hillsides; every inch of land is used. It’s lush. The worn, dusty brown walking paths switch back like big “Z’s” painted on the sides of steep, steep hills, climbing to the sky. Every mile seems more picturesque than the previous.
Bishop John gave the service. He recognized all of the visitors and preached about self-sufficiency, entrepreneurship, and service. He is an icon, not just here, but around the world. He has followers throughout the United States that adhere to his more traditional Anglican message. He probably has a church in your area. He is close friends with President Kagame. Our delegation loved the singing, the play put on by the young children on the Book of Job, and the sermon which seemed to be directed right at us. Bishop John came to dinner later that night with us as well. He is a holy man. And of his many abilities, the most unique is his uncanny gift to identify from the pulpit men and women who he thinks, that if give the opportunity, could significantly help Rwanda’s future. The people he has introduced to Rwanda and gotten to know well is impressive. Think Joe Ritchie and Rick Warren.
When he came back to Rwanda from Uganda in 1997 (remember that the genocide was just 3 years earlier), he came home to 400,000 orphans. At the church Bishop John established Sonrise School for orphans, with money mainly from the U.S. He published a book, The Bishop of Rwanda just last year; it’s a great read. If the Bishop meets people at his church who are wiling to invest in Rwanda, he calls his good friend President Kagame, and the three have lunch together and another new business comes to town or a new water project is undertaken. The Bishop serves not only the soul of Rwanda, but he is also the eyes and ears for economic development to lift the people out of poverty.
In the afternoon we traveled to the new, up-scale Sabyinyo Silverback Lodge to meet with the leaders of the tourism industry of Rwanda. The lodge itself is owned by a Rwandese community trust that focuses on not only the growing tourism sector but also on land and water conservation and socioeconomic development, The U.S. government has contributed $40,000 to construct the lodge and another $159,000 to the surrounding community. Why? Because this has become a centerpiece that is attracting tourists who spend money, and this development is becoming a source of employment and education for the entire region. Tourism is the cornerstone of development.
Rosette Rugamba is an old friend who hosted Karyn and me on our last trip to Rwanda; she oversees tourism in Rwanda. She is articulate and friendly and represents Rwanda with grace and charm and infectious enthusiasm.
The story of tourism is remarkable. It started with a vision and a strategy. A Tourism program in Rwanda did not begin until 2003. President Kagame declared that tourism would be the national industry of Rwanda. It would focus on the country’s most unique and precious natural resource: the primates, specifically the gorillas, the mountain gorillas, in the Virunga Mountains. In 1999, the first paid trip to see the gorillas took place, and in that year, there were a total of twenty tourists recorded to see the gorillas. Apparently a New York Times reporter happened to be one of the first to go on a gorilla trek and after his story, the single tour operator was flooded with requests for information. But there were no lodges or hotels to house the visitors. In 2004 the first lodge was built so people could stay near the gorilla launching point – the now famed Gorilla’s Nest. What was missing was the basic infrastructure to support the dream. Now, gorilla trekking is a huge industry, costing $500 per person for a trek and a one hour visit with the gorillas. Unfortunately, there is still a dearth of lodges.
A Dubai investment company announced just last month that it is investing huge amounts into upgrading the gorilla facilities and local lodges. It will bring world class facilities to the Virunga Mountains, Kibu and Akagera Park where Karyn and I once were with the President for a strategy planning retreat with his cabinet. The gorilla tourism caters to a high-end market, and this new investment will accelerate the growth.
By giving monetary value to the gorillas, all sorts of conservation occur. The park is now policed to stop the rampant poaching that, just until recently, characterized the region. No longer is bush meat harvested for the international black markets. The land is protected. The community benefits with economic growth. The gorilla permits generated about $7 million this year. In 2000 only 3,700 tourist totals visited Rwanda; by 2008, over 39,000 visited generating over $42 million (2007).
If you want to come see the primates, I recommend the tour company operated by John Kayihura or Joseph Birori. They are both top notch and have been at it since 1999. Both are friends.
MOUNTAIN GORILLLA VETERINARY PROJECT
The Mountain Gorilla Veterinary Project oversees the care of the mountain gorillas who have been orphaned by their families or who have been snared and injured by poachers who will sell them or use them as bush b=meat to be sent around the world (huge market).
People ask why I ever began this relationship with gorillas, both in the states and in Rwanda.
Since we didn’t have time to take a full day out for a trek to see the gorillas, we opted instead to visit the orphanage for gorillas at Kinigi, near Ruhengeri, which currently cares for four mountain gorilla and six Grauers gorillas. We went over to visit the orphan gorillas with the Mountain Gorilla Veterinary Project, on whose board I serve. I started taking care of the gorillas (lowland) at the National Zoo in the late 1990s and early 2000s in Washington. Lucy Spelman, the former director of the National Zoo, is in the states this week so we missed her, but we received an excellent briefing from a student veterinarian who introduced Cindy McCain , John Podesta, Judy Black, and John and Karen Kasich to 9 orphan gorillas. All the gorillas in the zoos are lowland gorillas; they are not the upland or mountain gorillas in the mountains in Rwanda and Congo. My work at the National Zoo began because of my surgical expertise in the heart. The transplants I do in humans are for cardiomyopathy; gorillas also can develop cardiomyopathy and suffer from premature death.
The mountain gorillas were popularized by the 1988 film “Gorillas in the Mist,” a story about the life of Dian Fossey, an American zoologist who dedicated her life to the protection and study of mountain gorillas, She began in 1967 and continued until her murder in 1985 at her research station in the Virunga Mountains. Then there were 250 gorillas; today there are 750. Of the 750, about half are visited by tourists and the other half are kept totally separate with no visits by humans. This natural, “controlled” trial comparing the two groups will likely someday help us better understand the impact of human interaction with the primates (and the impact of such eco-tourism).
OneHealth is a new discipline that combines the health interests of animals, humans, and the land. I have been a strong advocate for this emerging field because of my initial experience with anthrax back in 2001. The biological organism which causes this disease, relatively common in the veterinary world of animals, was used to terrorize the nation, close down the offices for more than 50 senators for months, and kill innocent postal workers. Avian flu comes from birds, and HIV from animals. For naturally occurring and emerging new diseases, an understanding of the interaction between animal and human disease is imperative. The gorilla and the human have 98% the same genes! That is where my interest comes from.
DINNER: TRADE AND INVESTMENT
We loaded up our bus to go to the Bourbon Coffee shop/restaurant.owned by Arthur Karuletwa. The restaurant is built around coffee, and even though Rwandans don’t typically drink coffee, Karulrtwa has been able to capture the equivalent wave of Starbucks and he is doing fantastically.
It was my task to be “Oprah Winfrey” for the meeting, as the entire purpose was to hear from all the Rwandese about what is working and what more is needed to make the “pie” of the economy grow larger (growing a respectable 7% since 1996). As I darted around the large table of 25 speakers, I posed follow-up questions of my own to make sure each person reflected their thoughts. We learned the particular success of specialty coffee: production, high-end tourism, construction services and food processing. We heard that President Kagame had emphasized the importance of a strong banking and financing community. Exports include coffee, tea, tin and coltan (tantalum). Imports are consumer goods, machinery and petroleum products.
In 1998 while on the Foreign Relations committee in the Senate, I was chairman of the African subcommittee. We worked hard on AGOA (The African Growth and Opportunity Act) which opened access to the U.S. markets. Using this Act, over $4 million in tungstem jewelry, baskets, apparel and semiprecious stones were exported. Key trading partners include China, Germany, and the United States; exports totaled more than $167 million. American Joe Richie is a member of the Presidential Advisory Committee. He has both a formal and an informal network of friends focused on Rwanda, heart and soul. He is a generous man, and he has an even more caring daughter who joins him and his wife in Rwanda.
Dr. Vincent Karega, state minster in charge of investment and export promotion, was our kickoff speaker/discussant. Bishop John Rucyahana of the Shyira District (serves 2 million and is the largest) is peripherally active in the banking community and as I said earlier doesn’t hesitate to teach economic prosperity from the pulpit.
My friend Michael Porter, who spoke at my development course I taught at Princeton last year, joined us. He was in town for the Presidential Advisory Committee, and he spoke to us about the comparative competitive strategy underway; he too has a daughter at Princeton, who is a favorite of mine.
So at the end of the day, our heads were swirling on these economic and growth issues. What is apparent is that there is a willingness and real interest in making the economic pie bigger with the hopes of combating poverty. To do this as a country, you begin with your strengths and build upon them. The Rwandan strengths at present are the tourism industry with gorillas as a focus and the coffee industry. Both are helping grow the economic pie to lift people out of poverty.
Off to bed. It was a full day. Some pretty remarkable stories.