Not quite what it says on the tin

Not quite what it says on the tin
12-05-2010

The other day I found myself on the taxi-bus up front with the driver. There are two seats, one beside the door, the other on top of the gear box, just nicely placed to go through the windscreen when the bus hits a motorcycle as happens not infrequently. The seats behind were full. I was on the gear box.

As we drove along, I noticed that the driver’s watch had stopped. It reminded me of one that I used to have thirty years ago, except that mine worked. It set me thinking as well that this was typical of the Rwanda we have come to know. At first glance Kigali is a modern, busy city with banks, supermarkets and lots of traffic. But closer inspection suggests that everything isn’t quite as it seems.

The banks are a prime example. We have already told the story about the lost errand boy and our efforts to transfer money to one of our projects (Cash back with every transfer). A while back I met with the managing director of one of the other banks who proudly told me that his customers could deposit money in one branch and draw it out at another! To balance things a little, MTN the mobile telecoms provider, will transmit money between phones which is a neat trick that could usefully be adopted at home.

As well as providing mobile phone coverage, MTN also offers an internet service. On billboards there are advertisements promising the fastest line speeds around. I don’t think there is a Trades Descriptions Act in Rwanda and it may well be that even if there was, MTN would still be in bounds. They may be the fastest but it still takes a minute and a half to load a web page. If the page isn’t too big, it will load before the line is dropped. Otherwise you have to start again from the beginning and hope that this time MTN really is the fastest.

There are plenty of cars on the Kigali roads but one of the reasons that there are so many accidents is that only half of them have brakes. The other half don’t drive fast enough to hit anything anyway. The cost of items like car spares is astronomic here and from what I can gather, features like brakes and windscreen wipers are treated as optional extras.

We shouldn’t mock. Rwanda does a surprising amount with very little. It just takes some time to get used to not expecting quite what it says on the tin. There is a lot here that is just for show, like the electronic billboards or the spotlight that plays across the night sky from the city centre. Or like the driver’s watch. Everybody needs to have a watch, even if it doesn’t tell the time.