The Netherlands: Exploring the land of bicycles and fresh bread

When the invite to travel to the Netherlands was made to me about a month or so ago, I promptly accepted. The proposal was that I would join more than one hundred other journalists from all over the world to travel across the country and find out how agriculture is done and compare notes with back home.

As a journalist who does not particularly cover agriculture, I did not know what to expect but I was curious. After all, not many female journalists cover this particular area.

The flight to Amsterdam was generally a pleasant one except for the big really warm bread that we were served for dinner. I am not a fan of bread so I was disappointed but I think this is their cheeky way of preparing you for what awaits you.

The first and main venue for the Congress was at Wageningen University, a 100 year old university which trains specialists (BSc, MSc and PhD) and is considered world-class in the field of life sciences, agricultural and environmental science.

According to the Times Higher Education World University Rankings it’s the best university in the Netherlands and the best worldwide, in agriculture and forestry according to the 2017 on the QS World University Rankings charts. The university has about 12,000 students from over 100 countries.

We had several tours to make in the countryside where we saw how farmers used technology to run their business, some which have been running in their families for centuries but that is a story for another day.

Friendly Dutch

There is something great about going to a place that you don’t know with an open mind. I won’t pretend that I am a vast traveler but I have had an opportunity to travel some parts of Europe and the US and I have often wondered if it’s lack of interest in the rest of the world or utter ignorance about current affairs for one to not only be unaware of the existence of African countries except South Africa and very rarely Zimbabwe and Ghana, but to also not know the continent on which they fall.

I was in Germany in June last year but I didn’t feel any warmth from Germans for the one week I was in their country but the warmth of the Dutch was hard to ignore. They are genuinely interested in you, where you come from and what it’s like back home. I was very surprised and I particularly found it refreshing to find out that a number of the Dutch people I met in cities and even out in the fields in the rest of the country had heard of Rwanda beyond the usual story of the genocide against the Tutsi.

The food

The Dutch love bread the way the Italians love spaghetti. That’s the best way to put it. I don’t think that I have ever seen so much bread in one week the way I did in the Netherlands. We tried sandwiches, we tried burgers, we tried brown bread, white, croissants, fermented, soft, hard, and I think anything in the family of bread that at some point, I started feeling like I was a walking loaf!

I was bloated and I started craving for Irish potatoes. I was having ‘African food withdrawal symptoms’ but if I thought that I was alone, my fellow African journalists at the congress, especially the Nigerians, could not stop exclaiming how there was need for rice to the amusement of most Europeans. Interestingly though, the bread is really soft, usually warm, fresh and really delicious.

Farming experts

Almost two decades ago, the Dutch made a national commitment to sustainable agriculture under the rallying cry “Twice as much food using half as many resources.” Since 2000, most farmers in the Netherlands have almost completely eliminated the use of chemical pesticides on plants in greenhouses, and since 2009 Dutch poultry and livestock producers have cut their use of antibiotics by as much as 60 percent.

The Netherlands is a small, densely populated country but it’s the world’s number two exporter of food as measured by value after the United States which is 270 times its size.

Cycling

The Dutch love their bicycles. It doesn’t matter how young or old one is, cycling is their preferred mode of transport. I was amused by the sight of young mothers who cycled around the small towns with children strapped on smaller child friendly bicycles as they run their errands, students with school bags going or leaving school, or men and women in business suits who preferred to ride to their office.

Green spaces

The Dutch are big on the environment which partly explains their love for bicycles instead of cars. It was refreshing to find a bench near the road, a park within walking distance where one can sit, read a book and unwind and also enjoy the fresh air.

Humour

One of the things that endeared me to the Dutch was that they were surprisingly funny. There is no farmer, no bus driver, and no waiter who I met who did not mind throwing a joke my side. I have never been interested in living in Europe but if I had to choose, I would definitely choose the Netherlands. Nothing beats being around people who are not uptight.

No black faces

I openly asked about the scarcity of black faces in the towns we went to. Most Dutch people told me that most black people prefer the hustle and bustle of Rotterdam and Amsterdam and would never be interested in venturing any further out there.

On most of our trips, there seemed to be curiosity about black people and one very interesting man told me that it was not uncommon to spend years without seeing a black person in their neighborhood.

Strawberry farm

I had said that I would talk about farming another day but I cannot end this piece without talking about going to a modern strawberry farm. I have never been mesmerized by so many strawberries and interestingly, the owners of this farm run a shop where they offer food and drinks and everything has a strawberry connected to it. I have heard of giant candy stores but give me a ripe strawberry farm any day.

Would I go back to the Netherlands? Absolutely.

editorial@newtimes.co.rw

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