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conventional headache

For the second time during our tour, Kigali this week played host to a large gathering of international leaders as they succeeded in hammering out a significant accord.

A few months after we had arrived in Rwanda, more than 170 countries signed an ambitious amendment to the Montreal Protocol, committing to phase out heat-trapping chemicals to slow the rise of global temperatures. Our Secretary of State had come for the conference, and the Embassy spent months preparing for and supporting the negotiations.

This time, we were mere observers as the leaders of 44 African nations reached an agreement to create the African Continental Free Trade Area – the biggest free trade accord since the establishment of the World Trade Organization. The drive to create a single African market holds the promise of significantly boosting intra-African trade and expanding economies throughout the continent.

Gauging Rwandans’ reaction will take time, especially since the agreement will need to be ratified by at least 22 countries before it officially goes into force. The only immediate effect that was felt in Kigali was the city’s partial paralysis, as security forces blocked off most major roadways in the capital’s center to facilitate the dignitaries’ unfettered travel.

Kigali, spread over a multitude of densely populated hills and valleys, is not built for traffic. The roads are well maintained but few in number and, with only a few exceptions, allow just one lane of traffic in each direction. Once the police began erecting barricades in the heart of the city, traffic immediately came to a dead halt. One colleague spent five hours one evening getting home for what is normally a 15-minute commute. Another gave up on taking her kids to school after sitting in standstill traffic for several hours.

After spending 45 minutes Monday morning just to leave our neighborhood, which occupies a small hill far from the convention center hosting the conference, we explored and learned several new routes to get to work. One of these alternative routes between our house and the Embassy was mostly clear the whole week, but we also had to get Munchkin to school on the other side of town, which proved decidedly more challenging.

D bore the brunt of the school drop-offs, which afforded plenty of opportunities to deploy the non-conventional driving skills he had honed in Kenya. The police manning the barricades, D discovered, would let government- and diplomatic-plated vehicles through even as they halted all other traffic. The challenge lay in reaching the barricades, as drivers would quickly occupy not just their lane but also the one for oncoming traffic, rendering passage impossible.

One morning, D attempted three separate routes and took about 90 minutes to drop the kids off at school. Munchkin nearly broke down in his car seat during the commute because he had to use the bathroom. D wound up using a portion of the sidewalk on a side street to skirt the stalled cars occupying the roadway in order to reach the barricades blocking off the main intersection. Once he got through, it was a snap to reach the school as the normally congested streets were completely devoid of motorists. The return trip to the Embassy required some more creative, aggressive maneuvering and a tense discussion with a heavily armed security officer who at first appeared unmoved when D played the dip card.

Like most of Kigali’s roadways, this street should have had one lane of traffic in each direction. Instead there were two lanes of stalled vehicles all trying futilely to make progress in the same direction.

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