Oh Rwanda! I love you so…| Blog 1
Jean Paul hands me over to the driver who will take me back to Kigali. He is not happy, the reason for which I am aware, but I am tired of battling the frost that has settled between us since lunch. It reconfirms my belief in the attitude of locals which I note with sadness nearly always undergoes severe change, bordering on coldness in fact, when the trip comes to an end. This attitude is primarily based on the assumption that no tip is forthcoming.
I match his coldness.
Jean Paul wishes me a cold ‘nice meeting you’ and walks away.
I am happy to be on Rwandan soil. The love affair with this country began a week ago when I first arrived, and I pick up the cold trail of romance that somehow got buried under the stress of being in Goma, DR Congo. The warm air is heavy on my skin but the sweet smell of Rwanda fills my nostrils. For reasons that cannot be described in words, but which roughly is the same feeling one experiences when going home, hits me. I feel at once at peace and altogether safe, something that I did not in Congo. It is unfair to draw this comparison, but I can’t help it. I suppose I am guilty of breaking a cardinal rule that applies to all travelers, but I’ll be truthful.
I am tired; I have no specific type of fatigue to speak of, in fact it is more psychological than real – the kind experienced in countries where being watchful all the time takes a toll on your bearings. The extra vigilance, the watching-over-my-shoulders – it has taken a toll.
The very same driver, who first brought me to Congo a week ago, is driving me back to Kigali. I recognize him by his half right ear.
“Hello, good to see you. How have you been?
“Bien. Très bien, merci mon dieu.”
We sail smoothly over the fine roads of Rwanda and the images of roads in Congo come to mind. I force myself to push DRC to the back of my mind because I really want to know about the half-ear. When said like that I am sure I sound ghoulish, but you’ll understand that I am still a journalist with a law degree.
I make a casual enquiry, knowing the answer all too well.
“I was a young boy when it happened. La guerre était terrible.”
The calm with which he says this shakes me up. It is time I come to terms with the fact that this is Rwanda and I am going to be seeing or meeting people who have lived through hell and survived. It is a chilling thought and not completely welcome, but it the reality of Rwanada that I come to see.
I arrive at my living quarters in Kimironko, Kigali rather late, but relieved to be – home.
October 18, 2017
Today is my first real day in Rwanda, not counting my arrival and driving through. When said like that I am almost convinced that the few hours I have spent driving to and from Goma over different days were a bonus. Today, I am going to give Kigali a bird’s eyes view and get down to the real thing tomorrow. I have the liberty of time. I can linger on in Rwanda for as long as my visa remains valid, which is for a month and extendable. I want to feel the city before deciding on the course of action to take.
The guesthouse I am staying at, the Tea House B&B, once the home of an affluent businessman of Indian origin, is beautiful. Locally made wooden furniture match the wall, the curtains and tablecloth are sourced locally, and the crockery is very elegantly African.
The coffee is satisfactory. The breakfast toast and eggs are just right. Passion fruit and pineapple accompany this spread and tastes better with Rwanda’s favourite chili-oil, the Akabanga, a killer of oil packed in an eye-dropper size bottle. Considering the flavor of local cuisine, it is hard to believe that Rwandese love this tear-inducing oil, which is similar to Congolese piri-piri but elegantly presented.
An idea suggests itself, but that is largely because somewhere lurking inside me is the instinct of a travel journalist looking for an interesting story to write about. My curiosity is peaked and the instinct of a travel journalist in me smells out a good story in this oil, but first I must get an overview of the city of Kigali.
I hurry outside the Tea House B&B to get a move on things. It is easy to slip into a state of idleness in the absence of time constraints and agenda.
The morning is fine. The reddish-orange of the unpaved road outside the guesthouse is in sharp contrast to the blueness of the sky, which at the moment is bereft of clouds. A gentle breeze carries with it the smells of the soil and flowers.
It is a beautiful Rwandan morning. School children in pretty uniforms are laughing and talking their way to school in every way. Moto-taxis are going up and down the hill, like in Congo or Uganda or Kenya, with one difference – moto drivers are wearing orange helmets and a TIGO-branded reflector jacket. A short walk uphill brings me to a street corner where motos are parked in neat rows. Small shops line the street around the moto-bay. There is a large park on the opposite side of the road with its walls painted yellow, a landmark I hope to remember considering my poor memory of names of places.
“Errr, hello, do you speak English?”
“Très peu. Very little.”
“My friend,” I tell him slowly. “I want to see your city. Go anywhere, show me everything. I want to feel Kigali.”
He nods again. Then he hands me a helmet, turns on his moto-meter, and kicks his motor to life.
“Oui, bien sûr.”
The wide, jacaranda lined streets of Kigali shine in the morning light. Jacaranda trees are in full bloom; their light-purple flowers give the city gentleness hard to associate with Africa. The roads and buildings give the impression of being in a first world country, an impression cemented by the appearance of the Convention Centre right in front of us. Even through the helmet it looks imposing. It is easy to imagine being on the continent of Europe or America. The infrastructure and order is first class.
Understanding the geography of Kigali is not easy, a task made difficult sitting astride on a motorbike wearing a helmet, but even through the back of a moto-bike, it is enough to know that third world is hardly the word suitable to describe the city.
The ride is mostly uphill or downhill with short stretches of flat ground, but every kilometer sufficiently doubles my wonderment.
The streets and buildings are clearly marked with numbered plates, and with breathtaking cleanliness and organization. It’s total shock! Kigali does not confuse you with the “…when you reach the jacaranda tree, turn left, and then you move down, you will see a big garbage heap. Then you give me a call and I will pick you up…’ that is so common in rest of the east African countries I am familiar with.
This is Rwanda, the country which lost nearly a million of its population in the genocide twenty- three years ago? A country I had been warned against visiting?
My basic French comes in handy. I take off my helmet and scream at the helmet infront of me.
“Je veux du café.”
The helmet nods affirmative and performs a series of deft maneuvers and we circle back towards the City Centre to arrive at Kigali Heights on KG 7 Avenue in the Kimihurura area.
“Java House good. I wait here.”
“Oh, come with me. A coffee never hurt anyone.”
He turns off his moto-meter, fastens the helmets to the handle and follows me into the huge shopping complex. The security guard greets us warmly as we walk through the scanner.
“Good morning miss, how are you?”
We make our way through the wide passages. Shops are only just stirring to life but Java House is a hive of activity. Smartly dressed waitresses are bustling about. The smell of coffee is in the air. We find a place on the terrace overlooking the Kigali Convention Centre, one of the most expensive buildings on the continent of Africa built at a whopping $300m.
Kigali appears as an ultra-modern, well-maintained city. Traffic is disciplined and not even a piece of paper or cigarette stub ruins the perfection of this city.
A smart waitress arrives with a menu card.
“Bonjour. Comment allez-vous?”
I am embarrassed that my basic French isn’t good enough to answer that simple greeting.
“I am fine, thank you. Merci.” She smiles meaningfully.
“Café Américain” I tell her slowly, deliberately. “You know, just a regular long black.”
“I am studying English in University,” she replies pleasantly. “I speak a little English. I will bring your coffee now. Would you like to eat something?”
I am a tourist whose mission here is nothing but to understand a little more about Rwanda through its people, food and post-genocide development. Everything so far has served to please, including the coffee. There is a certain charisma in the city, something that makes it different from other African countries and it is my quest to understand that difference. It cannot be just the buildings and clean streets; there is more to Rwanda’s industry and organization that I must seek. It is important that I speak with people, hear their stories, ask questions, and understand their lives. I want to know everything, to see if I can get some nuance to what I am seeing.
Learning French on the go has become an absolute necessity, a task, I hope can be attended to through google translate for Kinyarwanda, the national language of Rwanda is beyond me. I am nervous, given what I know about this country and I want to bust that myth from my mind. Will they laugh at my botched attempt at speaking French? I do have one thing going for me – I am a tourist and that automatically means curiosity and eagerness. I can get away with that. I turn to Google translate. It’s a good place to start.
It is time to begin my French lessons.
The Java House coffee produced locally is fantastic. Its delicate flavours with a hint of citrus and sweet caramelly aroma slowly grows on me. There is no reason why Rwandan coffee should not equal Kenyan or Tanzanian or Ethiopian coffee in demand and taste. The white porcelain cup I hold contains pure coffee bliss and it is unfair that any coffee other than Kenyan or Ethiopian is referred to as Alternative Africas and deemed less intense than the Famous Two, but I am in favour of Rwandan coffee. It is less dramatic than its famous neighbours but is real in taste and suits the mood.
We enjoy the breeze on the wide terrace that is slowly filling up with people from offices nearby. Everyone is talking. There is a feeling of contentment in the air. The sun is getting warmer as it climbs higher into the cloudless sky. The busy streets stare back at us.
Are these the streets where Tutsis were openly maimed and killed just twenty three years ago?
We walk back through the mall now gearing up for the mid-morning break crowd and pass the security gates. The guards wave us on cheerfully.
The moto driver exclaims – “Je vais maintenant prendre un autre chemin afin que vous puissiez voir des endroits vraiment sympas.”
Google translates it to – “I will now take another route so you can see some really nice places.”
With immense pride, he drives me around the presidential palace, the police HQ, the HQs of a number of ministries, telling me which one is which. He is very excited and cannot stop talking and narrates how these places were, a few years ago, just forêt. Judged by its setting, Kigali is one of the most beautiful cities on Earth, ringed by mountains; hilly as bubble-wrap and overgrown with trees. Views across its valleys are best glimpsed from the back of one of the motorbike-taxis that swoop along streets and congregate in buzzing gangs at each corner.
It is getting warmer now and I wish I can get this helmet off somehow. I am taking in everything I see, filing it away to use later. I will be here for a few days or more if I wish for now I have no reason to leave on a specific day. I am free to explore this city at will.
My moto-meter stands at 8,000Rwf (about $8). I add two dollars to the total.
From MTN tower, I walk the distance to UTC Mall.
This follows something in French but the delay in getting to my translator becomes the bummer. I know he means well.
Bourbon Coffee located in the UTC Mall is where I fetch up for lunch. A delightful spot with fantastic views, it served equally fantastic meal. A serving of grilled chicken and beef fillet with fries and salad set me back RWF 7500 or roughly eight dollars. There is something in the air of Rwanda that is doing wonders for my appetite because I am hungry.
The waitress comes over for a chat and suggestion for coffee to which I nod agreement. Her English is good and she is keen on practicing it on me.
“You come from where?” India?”
“Yes and no. I don’t live in India.”
“You are visiting Rwanda? I hope you like my country.”
I tell her about my Congo visit and she is surprised if not mildly shocked.
“You went to Congo? It is not very safe in Congo. Gorilla? But in Rwanda also we have gorillas but very expensive to go. Are you a student?”
“Err, no. I am a writer of sorts, you know, but a student, definitely not. Say, do you speak French?”
“Yes. But now we try to learn English. I am learning English and tourism in University. All the young people in Rwanda work and study. Our President has a plan for the country with many goals for 2020. We want to reach the goals of our country. So we work hard and study.”
Things have come a long way since 1994 and the community as a whole seems proud of that. They are happy just to be surging ahead. President Kagame’s Vision 20/20 is going to be a success. Little does her faith surprise me, for last night at the guesthouse, the receptionist had said something similar when he checked me in.
“Did you visit the genocide memorial centre? There are many in Rwanda you must visit. Our people are buried there. Sure, you are not a student?” she continues cheerfully.
“Oh, don’t go by my looks, I am not a student.”
“Enjoy your stay in Rwanda. If you are a student, you can even get a discount here.”
A shudder passes through me. She says it so easily and without emotion. Her face does not convey any emotion or her ethnicity. Is she a Hutu or Tutsi? Common sense tells me that if her people are buried there, it would make her a Tutsi but I am not sure if it is wise to conclude something I know little about, so abruptly. One million people had been killed in 1994, roughly one in seven. Considering how crowded the streets are today, it was clearly a large number. A group of older men arrive and seat themselves down a table away. What stories did they have?
I want to understand a little more of the country and let the first impressions of Kigali prepare me for the time I am going to spend here. I will dig a little deeper than the tourist-surface. First, I must get over associating everything with genocide and see Rwanda for what it is but despite all the reasoning, my thoughts go back to Genocide. It is hard to imagine that some of the people outside this café at one point were killing their fellow countrymen with crude machetes and everyone older than twenty-four years of age today, have witnessed the massacre, lost family, hands, arms, feet. One million killed in three months – the thought of all that red blood on the lush green land – what rich macabre fertilizer.
Briefly, I picture myself in the midst of the bloody civil war with machete wielding Hutus and child-soldiers hacking away at their country-men. Would I have been spared the evil machete? Would a mzungu have been spared? Were any mzungus killed? It is an uncomfortable thought and just for one moment I hear the cries of pain…
Two cups of coffee later, I hail a moto outside the mall. The indescribable chaos caused by boda bodas in Kampala and Nairobi is missing here.