A Chinese road in Rwanda

Rwanda’s roads are generally good. This brand spanking new one in central Kigali is a prime example. It’s in Kiyovu, a quiet, leafy suburb of the capital. A place the well-to-do, the President, a number of NGO offices and a smattering of expats call home. Work finished on the cul-de-sac and drainage ditches about a week ago. It was built by the Chinese with Rwandan labourers. It took roughly three weeks to complete from start to finish. I say “complete”. The road didn’t quite technically “complete”. At least not to the very end.

The shiny new tarmac stops right outside a large white house. The gold plated sign nailed to the entrance of the house reads “Chinese Ambassador’s Residence”.

The Chinese led team of labourers are now back resurfacing roads in the funky, but poor, neighbourhood of Nyamirambo. So, for the time being, and quite possibly some considerable time after that, the five houses at the end of this cul-de-sac in Kiyovu will have to make do with the section of old style Rwandan road pictured above.

On a side note, China’s involvement in Africa is often slated by western media or at least seen as “suspicious”. Here are a couple of arguments against that common line of thought. Journalist and Africa-hand, Rob Crilly notes in his review of On The Dragon’s Gift: The Real Story of China in Africa By Deborah Brautigam,

Brautigam’s analysis recasts China’s role with detailed evidence and interviews, and presents a damning portrait of western aid. China’s role as a donor is based on China’s own history as an aid recipient, she argues, giving Beijing a powerful insight into what may and may not help Africa. According to this analysis, it is western governments that are pursuing a neocolonial agenda. link

Rwandan President Paul Kagame sang a similar refrain during an interview with a German newspaper in November, 2009,

“The Chinese bring what Africa needs: investment and money for governments and companies,” he told business newspaper Handelsblatt. “China is investing in infrastructure and building roads,” he said, adding that European and American involvement “has not brought Africa forward”. “Western firms have to a large extent polluted Africa and they are still doing it,” Mr Kagame said. link

And China isn’t just interested in road building in Rwanda. It’s got eyes on the proposed regional rail network too,

“The idea that Rwanda, Burundi and Tanzania are planning a regional railway has excited me and I believe it will bring political and socioeconomic benefits. We want to be one of the contractors for this project,” [President of the China Civil Engineering Construction Corporation (CCECC), Yuan Li] said. “We were also the contractors for the Tanzania-Zambia railway in 1960 and we have railway projects in Nigeria, Algeria and Libya and the Middle East, so we know that we can contribute our knowhow and investment in this.” link

Photos taken from the Kigali Wire Flickr account.

4 Responses to “A Chinese road in Rwanda”

  1. Peter Moore says:

    Two interesting subjects here, African roads and the role of the Chinese in Africa: both of them worthy topics of an hour or so in a bar.

    Until you’ve lived without one, I suppose it’s difficult to appreciate the value of a good road. Burkina Faso, for example, which is relatively poor has great ones and we travelled from one end of it to another in little more than a day. You have to imagine that such a road network is going to have positive implications, allowing the population to move around, trade efficiently and that.

    But running into notorious roads elsewhere is still pretty common. There were some bits of Nigeria and Cameroon where driving three miles between two villages could only be simulated in the UK by putting a washing machine on top of a bouncy castle and then strapping yourself on top of it.

    The Mamfe Ekok road, for one, at the Cameroon/Nigeria border is supposed to be one of the worst on the continent and it developed after a German road building project was abandoned in the 1960s. The road is so bad that a whole industry has sprung up about it: guides, specialist truckers and so on. We only got down it on the back on an orange lorry. Basically, people that live in Ekok can’t move for seven months a year.

    Funnily enough though, if you travel just past Mamfe on towards Bamenda in northern Cameroon, you’ll bump into the Chinese. Project managers holding clipboards and wearing pointed hats. They’re building a new tarmac road which will knit up that part of Cameroon – something that the local population has been hoping for for a generation.

    Just why they’re there I can’t say. We were told that that road was part of a bigger agreement with the local government. Maybe there’s some minerals to be had, I’d be surprised if there wasn’t. But at the very least, the Cameroonians are going to end up with a very nice road.

    And this is what Mamfe/Ekok looks like at the moment:

    http://farm4.static.flickr.com/3597/3468895371_1d01a9cbe1_o.jpg

  2. “On a side note, China’s involvement in Africa is often slated by western media or at least seen as “suspicious”.”

    I think that is very much the old attitude. I think, as you go on, to point out there are plenty of those who have the opposite view. Possibly even more pro-China than against. No?

    As for China in Africa generally. Well one thing that struck me while in Cameroon was the quality of Chinese products. We’re not just talking cheap products for poor people – these are pretty much scams. If a food mixer does a single turn and then blows up its not a low cost product – it’s a con.

    http://ourmanincameroon.com/2008/09/30/nothing-works/

    And this stuff was everywhere in Cameroon. People preferred second hand goods because even if it was 20 years old it was better than a brand new Chinese product.

    In the west we have no concept of just how bad this stuff is. Absolutely totally and utterly unusable and yet it still floods in. Deemed only good enough for Africa and yet totally unusable. Why is it allowed in?

    Beyond that – for me – the reason why China is welcomed is because their motive is understood. Or rather no one expects anything other than an ulterior motive. An ulterior motive is better than aid perhaps. A far better two-way trade that doesn’t create a similar dependency. Africa is being used but maybe that’s better than being patronised, pitied or spoiled.

    As regards Cameroon and its awful roads. The country has terrible infrastructure in general because the second Paul Biya was elected the money flowed away from such projects. The answer to the question: “when was this road last fixed?” is invariably the same as – “when did Biya come into power?”

    As for the Chinese building roads in Cameroon I can only assume that there is a deal and an ulterior motive. Let’s face it – that is the only way roads are going to get built.

    There are plenty people fleecing Cameroon at least with a road you can point to something tangible in return.

  3. kigaliwire says:

    All of which, Peter, made me buy this book when I was in the UK recently,

    http://www.noodlepie.com/2009/12/china-in-africa.html

    I do sometimes wonder about the “knowledge transfer” or lack of it that goes on with these road building projects. But, in a landlocked country like Rwanda it’s not just knowledge transfer that’s the issue, there’s accessibility to and cost of raw material, lack of railways or ports and wotnot.

    On a road sidenote, the Kigali-Gatuna road through to Uganda is an absolute delight to drive. Smooth, quiet and spectacular scenery.

    Ditto on the Chinese products Steve. I should really start a list of the shit we have bought that has failed. Even the most innocuous Chinese made stuff is bollocks; a plastic bucket (the bottom fell out), metal teapot (lid fell off), water filter (leaks), metal beaker (just collapsed into pieces).

    In Vietnam there was a phrase the Vietnamese used – never buy anything Russian or Chinese. A French org once donated a Fire Engine to the Vietnamese govt. They inspected it and said, thanks very much, but can you replace all the Chinese parts and then give it back to us :)

    Beyond cheeky, but ever pragmatic. The NGO told them to stuff it, of course…

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