As a journalist one covers lots and lots of stories every now and then. Some of them are way too boring to be remembered. The ones where there is barely a ‘so what’ angle to them since you are reporting the obvious like a government official doing what he/she is paid to do.
Others on the other hand can be so insightful that they live a deep mark on your thinking and life in general. I am not an aviation reporter/writer of any measure and neither am I the kind of guy you are likely to find on a plane the next time you fly a bus is more like it for me and others in my social class.
However, I have done a few stories related to aviation in Rwanda and picked interesting lessons along the way about Rwanda. One of the best lines I have ever heard from Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame was “we are a small country but we are not small people.” I always try to look at what this country has gone through and where it is headed in view of that statement that the president made a few years back.
In 2008, Rwandair (Rwanda’s national carrier) had barely found its wings. It went by the name Rwandair Express and was not recognised as an airline by the international air body, IATA. It did not even own any planes worth mentioning only leasing old jets from a Kenyan company.
When one of the leased jets crashed into the airport’s terminal a year later, Rwandans said enough was enough and decided to start buying their own aircraft and build a new fleet. When the first aircraft arrived at Kigali international airport, I was one of the few journalists allowed on the tarmac to view it and interview the people responsible for this new strategy.
Over the years they have grown their fleet to seven with plans of getting more maturing by the day. Although the airline is yet to become profitable, it has stamped its mark on the region as a reliable player in a very shaky industry.
So while Rwanda may appear small geographically, it is a giant in the skies thanks to Rwandair. I noticed a Ugandan journalist go through the pain of deciding how to get to Nairobi now that Air Uganda is out of business. His only options were to pay more with Kenyan Airways or settle for Rwandair but that flying through Kigali first or Ethiopian Airways which also would take him to Addis first.
Both of the cheaper options stretch what was supposed to be a 45 minute flight to about 3-4 hours. But the key thing is that while Ugandans are now bearing the brunt of not having a national carrier, Rwandans continue to enjoy the services of Rwandair that continues to grow each day.
Rwandair has a female pilot among its crew (Esther Mbabazi). I have been blessed to meet her not on one of the few times I have been a passenger on Rwandair but at a school where she was one of the successful women who had made time to inspire young girls into joining the world of technology. She has no idea how many young girls she inspires in this country.
On another day, I was in the cockpit of an SN Brussels plane at Kigali airport with a young secondary school girl who was there to see for herself what it looked like in there and get to talk to pilots about her ambition of becoming a pilot one day. A professor at Carnegie Mellon University (Rwanda) had arranged it all after hearing about her ambitions.
Now last week Carnegie Mellon University (Rwanda) held its first graduation where 22 students were awarded IT related Masters Degrees. Again we see a ‘small’ country with world class education in its backyard.
Last year I was lucky to win a free one hour flight on a helicopter belonging to Akagera Aviation (thanks to my tweeting skills) and while on this flight I learnt so much from the amiable pilot who taught me so much about Rwanda’s tourism ambitions as we flew above Akagera National Park.
All these encounters have taught me that Rwanda may look small on the map but if you interact with people in the air transport sector you can be blown away by the size of its ambitions.