Updated: Feb 10, 2021
It was back in early 2019 B.C. (before Covid) on an overcast day on a dirt road somewhere near Rubavu, Rwanda. My travel partner at the time was a quiet German lady I had befriended the week before when we crossed paths at the rooftop restaurant at the Umbumwe Grand Hotel in Kigali. It turns out Monica was a journalist from Frankfort and had arrived in Africa the day before on a flight into Nairobi, Kenya (NBO). She was able to board her connecting flight into Kigali (KGL) and was checked into her first Rwanda hotel before dinner time. This was good planning on Monica’s part. She not only picked dependable airlines to fly her to her destination in Africa, but she had also sourced one of the best hotels in the Capital to decompress and rest up for the remainder of her African travels which were absolutely unplanned, and unscheduled.
I had been traveling with Monica for six days when we had finally found ourselves in the North West area of Rwanda. We also shared the expense of a small rental vehicle that appeared to be reliable and not a gas hound. We were using maps that were purchased on the street in Kigali and also an older map that the car rental person had given us. So, there we were motoring happily down a red dirt road in a rural area when we happened upon a moderately sized open market. It was Saturday and there were many people crowding all sides of the large shed that covered the produce stalls. We would not let this opportunity pass us by. We parked the car on the side of the road and strolled into the market to see what we could find. Monica was not shy about taking photos and her subjects were all smiles. When I tried to snap a few picks there was some resistance from the shopkeepers. This was largely the case everywhere we traveled in this amazing Country. Female photographers certainly had the edge. No worries, I got my shots in, but had to work a bit harder than Monica to do so.
We were impressed with the variety of fresh produce on sale. There were many fruit and vegetables we had never seen. After many hand gestures and communication failures, we managed to purchase some very beautiful mangoes and a stalk of very yellow figs. Before leaving the market, Monica was intent on finding clean water to wash our produce. This was not easy and initially I was thinking that this requirement was more of a Deutschland thing, but after being lectured by my more experienced travel partner, I realized what a savvy trekker she was. Monica also related a fairly sad story about getting seriously ill on a Moroccan backpacking trip she survived in her late teens.
So, what is the skinny on fresh produce and survival hygiene? Well, as a visitor (in this case Rwanda) we would be exposed to a variety of new bacteria and pathogen. Most people traveling to Africa are probably more concerned about malaria, but a more likely path to a bad experience travels from our hands to our mouths. If you are unlucky this could result in a horrible case of diarrhea, and even irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). Not nice. The goal is to keep our stomachs happy and healthy. Since access to clean water will be an ongoing issue in rural areas, fruit and vegetables must be approached with caution. If you must indulge, pick the best items that you can find. Try to stick with produce that can be peeled. Even if the fruit was washed, it could have been washed with contaminated water. And do not forget to keep washing your hands as well. Salads are risky and cooked options might be a better idea. To be honest, I have enjoyed many spectacular and healthy salads throughout my travel in Rwanda. I am particularly keen to sample Rwandan cuisine. The cooking style and sauces are incredibly delicious. Also remember that fresh produce in a Country like Rwanda is mostly organic. The colors may not be as bright as the GMO stuff you are accustomed to. I suspect if you arrived in Rwanda last year, by now you would have lost many pounds just from consuming higher quality foods. Many of the people in this proud African Nation might be poor, but they are mostly healthier than the average American or European. There are no factory farms in Rwanda; none that I have seen. So, the hotter the meal the better. The garnishments on the side of your plate may be the riskier bet.
For liquids, stick with bottled water. In a pinch you can even use gassed or sparkling water. Can’t find Perrier? No worries. Stick to beer. In Rwanda you have many fine beers to choose from. My personal favorites are Virunga Beer and Mutzig Beer. These are fine beverages indeed. My travel partner Monica also had an impressive assortment of medications and ointments in her kit (her Sister is a Doctor). Forget Probiotics and pack Pepto-Bismol instead. If you have access to a writing Doctor like Ms. Monica, obtain a supply of antibiotics such as Ciprofloxacin and Rifaximin. Rwanda has many pharmacies. You will not have any trouble finding one. Though these pharmacies may be a far cry from the controlled and licensed enterprises in the United States and Europe, many of these small businesses stock the essentials. In many cases, no prescription is needed, but seek out an attendant that is knowledgeable. My explorations with Monica were an enjoyable sojourn through Rwanda. She was game to hike up some of the steepest slopes we encountered. She was mostly a very soft-spoken and quiet person. It was clear to me she was out in the world attempting to get her head right. After a couple of weeks in Africa, I have no doubt that she did. The message here is simple. Do not miss the Rwandan market and culinary experience. Use much caution and have a Plan B. Better living through chemicals, and organic foods! And taking these thoughts a little further, if you find the time and opportunity, do take a cooking class in Kigali. This is the stuff of another blog but having the opportunity to see how some of the marvelous local produce is prepared and cooked will enrich your life in immeasurable ways.