Kigali is often looked up to in Africa as a shining star of progress, and it’s easy to see why. Just 20 years after a devastating genocide took place here, the city has advanced far beyond its neighbours. There are paved roads, ATMs, a ban on plastic bags and even motorbike taxis who are registered, have well maintained bikes, don’t overload and carry passenger helmets.
As soon as we crossed the border from Uganda the differences were clear. It wasn’t just a lack of litter, but an air of organisation. The mud huts were well constructed, parallel to the road, with straight lined dirt paths to their doors, touts all had registration numbers printed on their backs and were polite even when you said no and the roads were in excellent condition.
As ever in this part of the world, the journey to Kigali was eventful. It consisted of a horrific 4 hour share taxi ride, where we stubbornly refused to put our packs in the back, paranoid after our encounter with thieves in Kampala. It was a cramped, nerve wracking trip, during which the over loaded mini van regularly reached speeds of 130km/hr. We stopped the night in a town called Mbarara. This uni town absolutely went off. In fact, several establishments around our hotel went until dawn, pumping bass, giving our hotel a distinctly Glastonbury-esque feel.
Then it was a 7 hour bus down to Kigali. Our Trinity bus ride was fairly easy going, except for waiting for the road to be cleared after a truck lost its container. Our bus had no less than 9 staff members on board, who made sure things ran smoothly and people got off as necessary. That is until about an hour out of Kigali when they starting drinking whisky. The guy telling the driver when to stop passed out and a glance at Leckie’s phone told us they had driven straight through Kigali and out the other side. Leckie finally managed to get them to stop and we got motorbikes back to the city.
We’ve filled our time in Kigali in the usual way. You can’t get past the genocide and most options for tourists are to do with this. I’m nowhere near the first person to remark on this, but it really is a strange feeling to wander the streets of Rwanda and know that majority of the people you see have experienced trauma and many have committed heinous acts on their neighbours, friends and families.
The Rwandan Genocide Museum is really well put together and has a really great section in genocides from across time, which it aims to educate with. In each case, it started with the government or some other power convincing the majority that a minority group pose a threat to them. Either that they are denying them something or will ruin their current lifestyle somehow. Fear easily becomes hatred, which feeds itself and can lead to people as a group committing atrocities the like of which we would never consider alone. It all sounds unsettlingly familiar…
We also visited two churches that were sites of massacres during the genocide. I have to say that I felt that these were set up in a way that was intended to shock and repulse, rather than educate and didn’t feel that this was particularly respectful for the victims. We had gone along to hear the stories, learn a little more and see the damage to the building’s exteriors. We did get this, but also we were paraded through rooms of sculls and poorly sealed, and thus horrifically smelly, coffins.
One poor woman had died and a most horrific way and I felt as though the guide enjoyed telling us her full name and every detail of her death. Even worse, it’s only recently that they actually put her into a coffin. Until then she had been left, in a strangely non-decomposed state, in a side room of the church for all to come and gawk at. As it were, when we were in the room with her coffin, just as the guide finished her story, the power went out. My heart definitely skipped a beat. The guide’s justification on this, which he gave without us asking for one, was that there are genocide denyers and showing her is proof. I’m not of this culture, so I can’t say for sure how appropriate this is, but had that been me, I know that I would not want to be remembered that way.
On to slightly lighter matters, we were delighted to find time to visit the Hotel des Mille Colline, even though we could only afford one drink in their pool bar. We also located the Rwandan Parliament building, which still has serious damage from the fighting.
We had been told that we would struggle in Rwanda because the official language is French. However we got yet another surprise to find that a large portion on people in Kigali speak English. The government is now pushing towards English in an effort to better integrate with their ex-British colony neighbours. I have found that the only French I need is, “I don’t speak French.”
Dining has also been a shock. Just within walking distance from our hostel, Mamba Club, there are Japanese, Lebanese, Ethiopian, Greek, French and African restaurants. Even more astounding is that these restaurants seem to be able to serve food within an hour. I must say though, that Kigali is the first place where I’ve seen a stressed African. I thought our poor waiter one night was going to have a melt down because he took 2 minutes to bring us or bill – “I’m sorry, I’m so sorry!” Poor guy!
Kigali had not at all been what we’ve expected and definitely not what you envision when you think of an African city. However, scratch the surface, see the rutted dirt roads, the shanty towns beneath the highways, the rain water tanks everywhere; and you will soon see, this is still Africa.