If I was to summarise Rwanda in three words, they would be: safe, tidy and forward-thinking. According to the World Economic Forum, Rwanda is the 9th safest country in the world – ahead of Austria and New Zealand. And I definitely felt it. Maybe it was the peaceful and level-headed nature of Rwandans. Or maybe it was the reassuring police presence on the streets. I walked about alone at night all around the city, and hailed random motorbike taxis, but there was not once a time when I felt threatened. For a country that was (wrongly) defined to me by the media coverage of the tragic genocide in 1994, the forward-thinking mindset of the nation blew me away. A nation that is ever determined to rebuild itself. A nation that strives to be a leading example to the world.
One of the most forward-thinking countries in Africa
All of Rwanda’s development is spear-headed by the dominant President, Paul Kagame. President Kagame is very popular in Rwanda and evidently is a powerhouse of a leader for having taken Rwanda on such a transformation, but has been accused by human rights groups of political repression and being intolerant of dissent. Largely based on Kagame’s vision for the country, Kigali has become one of the cleanest and tidiest cities in Africa.
• Plastic bags are banned in Rwanda. They are confiscated at all border posts.
• The last Saturday of every month is Umuganda (Public Cleaning) Day. With a countrywide ban on road traffic from 8:00-11:00, the whole country embarks on activities from street cleaning and road works to land clearance. Umuganda, translated to be ‘coming together in common purpose to achieve an outcome’, has been practised nationwide since 1998 in an effort to rebuild Rwandan society post-genocide. It takes its roots from Rwandan culture where people would call upon their family, friends and community to help them complete a difficult task.
• The first parliamentary elections in 2003 after Rwanda’s new constitution saw women take 48.8% of the seats. This made Rwanda the country with the highest proportion of women in parliament – a fact still true today. This in part reflects the belief that women would never allow such atrocities of mass killing which occurred in the past. A past that is deeply tragic, unimaginably painful and haunts thousands to this very day. Rwanda is now one of only two countries in the world to have a female-majority parliament (the other is Bolivia).
“We want to make the kind of progress that will make Rwanda unrecognisable to those who define us by our tragic history. The future we are building is the future Rwandans deserve”President Paul Kagame
Nyamirambo: Kigali’s Muslim quarter
While walking through one of the oldest neighbourhoods in the city, I was reminded of a much calmer version of Pettah in Sri Lanka with an Arabic twist: lots of shops, mostly family run, with an abundance of tailors, jewellers, barbers, second-hand electronics, hardware stores and local Rwandan clothes shops (like Maman African run by Madam Mariam with colourful kitenge dresses). In true Arabic fashion, the shops are open quite late and the streets are buzzing at night. A stark contrast to the rest of quiet Kigali.
My first stop after putting my bags down in the guest house was Resto Bamako – serving food from Mali. Open till midnight, this street-side restaurant is best for a plate of Poulet Yassa (chicken in a lemon-onion sauce) with petits pois (peas), riz pilaf (savoury rice pilau) and feuilles de manioc (manioc leaves), all for 3,000 Rwandan Francs (~$3.3). Not sure if it’ll pass a hygiene inspection, but the food was delicious.
I was surprised to see uniformed policeman with guns stationed on the street, monitoring. They were very friendly and I had a long chat with one of them who reassured me of my safety in the city and even provided me guidance on moto-taxi fares. After visiting the mosque which was busy even at 7pm at night, I stopped at the Camellia Tea House for a latté and warm banana bread. Service was friendly and efficient, but beware of the army of resident mosquitoes: they have many plants indoors.
Who wants to ride a Moto-taxi?
By far the cheapest and most efficient way to zoom about the capital, moto-taxis (or ‘motos’ if you’re in the know) are king in Kigali. Journeys rarely cost more than $0.5-$1 and there’s ALWAYS one the moment you look up at the road. Plus, it makes for adrenaline-pumping sightseeing as you zoom up and down Kigali’s hills. Unlike equivalent moto-taxis in neighbouring countries, the ones here are not reckless, wear safety vests, aren’t trying to constantly fleece you, and always have a helmet. A welcome relief for the weary traveller.
What food/drink can you buy for £5 in Kigali?
If you’re looking at budget options, you can get an unlimited lunch buffet (a ‘melange’) for 2 people at the legendary Fantastic Restaurant (very popular with office workers) followed by a Rwandan coffee & raisin pastry at La Gallete Café for £5. This café, which also make delicious bread amongst other things, has the added bonus of an indoor garden to relax in.
My favourite meal in Kigali
I’d heard lots about exotic Congolese cuisine and couldn’t wait to try it when I reached Kigali. So I headed to the New Cactus Restaurant. Set on a ridge, it’s beautiful at night with panoramic views of the city’s night lights. While it had supposedly delicious pizzas, pastas and French cuisine, my choice was clear: the spicy Congolese dishes.
I went for the Muamba nsusu – a chicken, peanut and palm oil stew. Rich and delicious, with a hearty palm oil foundation (the basis of several West African dishes). This came with Pondu or ‘saka saka’ (manioc/cassava leaves); a staple dish in West Africa made to a paste-like consistency. Together with rice and fried plantain, and finished with bananas and pineapple, it was undoubtedly one of the most delicious meals I had in the city.
The flavours had such an effect on me, that I managed to find a recipe for it (a big step for someone whose cooking is limited to making basic salads). It’s on the hit list for the day I decide to make Congolose food and invite people over.
Hunting for Kitenge fabric at Kimironko Market
One of the liveliest places I went to in Kigali, Kimironko market is where people come to buy anything from fruit and vegetables to meat and household goods, from clothes to shoes. But it’s renowned for its expansive collection of vibrant kitenge fabric and seamstresses who deftly transform sheets of fabric into exotic creations while simultaneously bargaining with itinerant fruit vendors. The fabric can vary in price but on average was ~15,000 RFW ($16.5) for 6 metres of cloth.
Here I met Jean, who owns one of the fabric stalls. Jean taught me that this thick, colourful African fabric, kitenge, is made by imprinting a pattern of melted wax before adding dye, with each fabric pattern usually having a meaning.
Originally Rwandans were associated with 18 different clans. Hutu, Tutsi and Twa were socio-economic classifications which could change with personal circumstances. Under colonial rule, the distinctions were made racial, especially with identity card introduction in 1932-33. In creating these distinctions, the colonial rulers (Germany and later Belgium) – passionate about classification – created quite an ordeal with a whole horde of paraphernalia to measure and record. Where they struggled to use physical characteristics to determine ethnicity, they identified anyone with 10 or more cows in 1932 as Tutsi (the minority) and those with less as Hutu (the majority) – a classification that applied to descendents as well. With this, the divide between the groups began.
While these cards may have certainly played an important role in the genocide, demographic differences, pre-colonial history and pre-existing ethnic tensions that had been simmering for decades, all contributed to the massacre of close to a million individuals in 100 days, of whom 250,000 are buried at the Genocide Memorial in Kigali in mass graves.
President Habyarimana’s party was responsible for establishing the Interahamwe, a Hutu youth milita that gained enormous popularity. Advocating ‘Hutu Power’ at the expense of Tutsi lives, their message was reinforced and spread by an extremist media. In December 1990, one of the leading propaganda papers (Kangura) published the ‘Ten Hutu Commandments’ – which stated that any Hutu who associated with Tutsi neighbours and friends was a traitor. The waves of persecution began to intensify: Tutsi men and women were being jailed and tortured. An alarming set of events signalling an impending explosion of sorts went largely unnoticed by the outside world.
It even got to the point where a former member of the president’s security guard brought forward valuable intel to a UN colonel that 1700 Interahamwe had been trained in army camps and were identifying all the Tutsi in the capital for a large-scale extermination. Apparently, he was willing to warn and inform in exchange for security but the UN wasn’t able to get protection. The man disappeared.
In April 1994, then Rwandan President Habyarimana and the Burundi President were on a plane that was shot on approach to Kigali. The consequences were catastrophic. Extemist Hutu leaders immediately blamed Tutsis for killing the President. Messages went out to all Hutu civilians that it was their duty to wipe out the Tutsis. By 9pm that night, roadblocks had been constructed throughout Kigali. The army and Interahamwe went on a rampage. Houses were being searched; looted. Shooting was heard within an hour. The death lists were already prepared. Orders passed down like lightning from préfecture to cellule. The gist was always the same: ‘These are the enemy. Kill.’
The UN Security Council passed a resolution stating it was appalled at the scale of violence in Rwanda. In the same meeting, they voted to reduce the UN Assistance Mission in Rwanda (UNAMIR) force to just a few hundred volunteer personnel and limit its mandate (a decision that was only reversed weeks later). In a sense, the world withdrew and watched as almost a million people were mercilessly slaughtered. Mostly by hand, and mostly with pangas – machete-like weapons.
A group called the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), led by Paul Kagame and comprising of Tutsi refugees in Uganda, mobilised and fought against the Rwandan Army and the Interahamwe after several attempts at a ceasefire by the UN were unsuccessful. Finally, in July, the RPF captured Kigali. The government fell apart and the RPF declared a cessation of hostilities, ending the genocide. The RPF formed a new government with Pasteur Bizimungu as President and Paul Kagame as Vice President, who later took over as President in 2000. He remains in power to date, focused on policies to transform Rwanda into a middle income country that is also a regional technology hub.
Over the next decade, more then a million cases were tried in over 12,000 community-based courts in a system that the government started after much deliberation in 2002, to try and clear the backlog. The most serious crimes were still tried in higher courts. Gacaca was a community justice system with locally chosen judges, often taking place under a tree or in a marketplace, which evolved from a mix of traditional and modern approaches. Despite difficulties and mixed reviews, this post-conflict justice programme provided important opportunities for truth telling and healing. Many survivors learnt of what happened to their loved ones, located their remains and reburied them with dignity. In fostering restitution between survivors and families of their perpetrators, Gacaca played an important role in laying the foundations of peace and forgiveness in Rwanda.
Inside the Kigali Genocide Memorial
The Aegis Trust and the Kigali Genocide Memorial are doing a tremendous job of educating people and promoting peace to ensure the past doesn’t repeat itself. Reading and listening to vivid, harrowing accounts of what happened in 1994 made for an experience I’d never forget.
“My baby brothers were thrown down into deep latrines, still alive. They threw rocks in one at a time until their screams subsided into silence.”
“A group of schoolgirls were ordered to separate into Tutsi and Hutu, with the implication that the Tutsi would die. They refused, saying they were all Rwandans. So they were all killed together.”
“2000 congregants were sheltering in the church when Father Seromba gave the order to bulldoze the church buildings. He murdered his own congregants in his own church.”
“They cut both my dad’s limbs off using a machete, just because they thought milk would come out, not blood.”
There were also stories of great bravery where Hutu neighbours rose to protect their Tutsi friends, taking great risks along the way. Sadly some of these courageous Hutus also faced an untimely death, as did many others who refused to do the Interahamwe’s bidding.
“If you don’t forgive those who did wrong and you seek revenge, your country will never move forward. People will still keep killing each other. The cycle will never end. I want Rwanda to set a leading example not just to Africa but to the world, of how we can heal and live together in peace as one nation. We are all Rwandan.”Oliver, Genocide survivor
For someone who brutally lost his family in the massacre in 1994, this sentiment is so inspiring, and is being passed on to children in the younger generations. The world has much to learn from Rwanda.
This is the famous Hôtel des Mille Collines, featured in the movie Hotel Rwanda, where over 1200 people took refuge during the genocide in 1994. According to the movie, the manager Paul Rusesabagina bribes the Hutu Army with money and alcohol to protect those inside. This pool, which today is the source of merriment and relaxation, had a vital use during the genocide. It was apparently the only source of water for refugees in the hotel. There is however some controversy surrounding this story, as some survivors who stayed in the hotel say that Rusesabagina was a bully and used to extort money from refugees who stayed in the hotel, threatening to kick them out if they didn’t pay.
Fancy a game of Igisoro?
The Mancala family of games is one of the oldest 2-player strategy board games in the world. Originating in ancient Egypt pre-1000BC, the game has a certain number of rows of holes and small round objects (seeds, marbles, cowrie shells) per player. The objective is to capture some or all of the opponent’s pieces. I only realised how widespread this game was after seeing some guys playing ‘Igisoro’ on the street in Kigali and then discovering that a similar game – Pallanguzhi – exists in Southern India. There are more than 800 of these traditional Mancala games from Philippines to India, Maldives to Central Asia, Africa to North America, with distribution being linked to migration routes going back several hundred years. Turns out we have a lot more in common with people from faraway lands than we think!
Inema Arts Centre
Inema introduced new horizons to me: I saw coffee grounds being used as the foundation material in a painting for the first time! Founded in 2012 by two brothers and self-taught painters, Emmanuel Nkuranga and Innocent Nkurunziza, the Inema Arts Centre encourages creativity for personal, social and economic growth. The centre currently has 10 resident artists and allows them to explore their artistic talent and showcase their work. They’ve got a laid-back cafe and a beautiful garden to gaze over Kigali with a smoothie, beer or delicious mango juice. I heard happy hour is great fun but decided to run away to a bookshop instead.
The Land of a Thousand Hills
Rwanda is widely known as the Land of a Thousand Hills, so spots with sweeping views across the city aren’t too difficult to come by. One place with great views at dusk is the Kandt House Museum – the oldest house in Kigali. This is where the first German colonial governor of Rwanda – Richard Kandt – stayed (Germany was the first colonial power to rule Rwanda, followed by Belgium in 1916). Cynthia, who worked there, was kind enough to show me around and point out Mount Kigali. She was most amused at my adamant refusal to go near the live reptiles in the museum – crocodiles and snakes.
The Inzora Rooftop Cafe was my other favourite place to perch. You can either sit inside near the Ikirezi bookshop or head up to the shady rooftop terrace and sip coffee, while reading a book with the afternoon breeze blowing and the sun slowly setting over the hills of Kigali.
I flew on standby tickets to Kigali via Doha on Qatar Airways. From the airport, I hopped on a motorcycle taxi to the guest house I was staying at, with both my backpacks in tow. Several moto-taxis hang about just as you exit the airport carpark and walk towards the roundabout. Kigali is quite spread out over several hills, so moto-taxis became my best friend. Most journeys averaged about 500-1000 Rwandan Francs ($0.5-$1). I stayed in a basic but comfortable guest house, which was fairly central and had 5-8 rooms with shared bathrooms. This came to $10 per night including breakfast.