They want to tell you their stories. Their stories are told in a same monotone, almost banal in their sadness. Stories of despair. Stories that left scars in their hearts. I lost my family. I lost all my kids. I am all alone. I lost my arms. I was young. I am HIV positive. My husband left me. I am the only surviving person in my family. Look, those are my two kids; they are all I have. I was widowed. I was orphaned. They killed them as I watched. Many, very many sad stories told by genocide survivors.
We were in Kinyinya, a few kilometres from Kigali, Rwanda, as a group of widows narrated their stories to us.
Different Rotaract groups from Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania and Burundi gathered here for the annual rotaract event dubbed REACT16. Sleeves were folded and 50 kitchen gardens were built. Money exchanged hands as tears were replaced by smiles. The widows, whose hope was washed away by the genocide, smiled joyously as they received gifts, hope, money, hugs, smiles and a couple of selfies from these Rotarians. It was a heart-melting sight. This is the part where you say the irritating ‘awww’. I dropped a tear as one lady narrated her story. “I am the only one who survived in my family. Others were butchered as I watched,” she narrated, tears stinging her eyes. She’s lame, meanwhile; the genocide subjected her to early disability. She limped away to get us hoes and seeds and we dug a small garden for her.
You have no problems, these women have problems.
Slow internet may be giving you sleepless nights (try Africell internet, by the way), but you haven’t tried to sleep on an empty stomach with your two kids and see how that feels. Try it. This woman is used to such. And she isn’t alone. They are many of them in this neighborhood; old women battling HIV with no hope to see the next sunrise. You don’t want to be in their shoes (that’s if they have any shoes with them, anyway).
This event found me in Kigali for my Easter sabbatical.
It came on a Saturday where everyone participated in the Umuganda; this is when business halts as people, everyone, engages in cleaning their neighborhoods in unison. It’s a great initiative. I silently wished the same for our country because this filth (both the visible and the invisible) needs to be scrubbed off, to be cleansed, to be washed away.
Thereafter, I embarked on a journey to find out the fuss that is Kigali. This city is silhouetted in many stereotypes. A city with a thousand hills. Stories have been told about this town. It’s the cleanest city in Africa, they say. It’s one of the fastest growing cities in Africa, they say. It’s one of the most organized cities in the world, they quip. I was out to find out what makes Kigali tick.
Kigali is spotlessly clean. It looks like it takes a bathe every day, like it’s scrubbed and applied with an aftershave. It’s the amazing road network that makes mockery of Kampala’s feeder roads. Roads void of potholes and rusty tarmac. They look like they have been constructed yesterday, all of them. The roads will lead you somewhere. The roads will lead you to another tarmac road. And these roads are named. You won’t get lost. If you do, you shoot your hand up and you will be rescued (use Google Maps, er).
Kigali is East Africa’s Cape Town, I want to think.
There is a building taking shape somewhere, a building with captivating architectural design. The sun rises and Kigali wakes up, slowly, like a giant monster. In fact, things are a bit slow here, except the Motos (the Boda Bodas) that race too fast. This city is a train in transit. It’s growing legs, it’s growing wings, it’s picking itself from the broken past and embracing the future. If you open your eyes, you will see Kigali taking a different shape; slipping into trainers to outrun its contemporaries like Kampala, Nairobi and Dar. It’s a small city with a big vision.
Boda Boda folks are well-mannered. And that’s almost impossible. Kigali makes the impossible seem possible. Yes, the helmet-wearing has been there for yonks, but these Boda Boda folks will take you from point A to B without trying to snatch your bag. I asked someone why they act like that. “It’s the nature of the people,” he said. Learn some Kinyarwanda because most of them hardly make an English sentence. Commuter taxis have WiFi. Free WiFi. And they are spacious. They look neat and the conductors seem like they take a shower every day and use cologne at some point (he he), unlike in Kampala where taxi conductors smell like they last took a bathe the day they were born.
I asked someone where the heartbeat of Kigali is located and he labored to point a finger at a particular place. Maybe he was not qualified enough to know where the party is, but still, Kigali is not a noisy city. It hasn’t embraced the party life; it’s still behind the mirror, shyly applying makeup as its contemporaries rub and dub and twerk on the floor. It’s hard to know where the party is boiling from, because when you put your ear on the ground, you will only hear the sound of your own heartbeat.
When the sun goes to sleep, Kigali walks off the stage, removes its earrings and goes to bed.
It’s discreet. The bars are soundproofed. Music blares slowly, almost silent, as though the battery is dying out. I took a walk to the supermarkets to see where Kigali’s middleclass shop from. I was at Simba and Nakumatt Supermarkets. Blankets & Wine has no girls, people, these places teem of beautiful girls. These girls are everywhere you turn. They are seated, taking burgers, pouring themselves coffee. They are at the coffee shop scrolling down their smartphones and posting pictures on Instagram for Ugandan men to lust over. They are chatting away, in Kinyarwanda laced with French and very little English, in the corner of the restaurant as they wait for their order. They are tall and beautiful. And curvy. God, they are so curvy, you want to think it is photoshop, but Rwanda hasn’t embraced photoshop; everything is raw and natural. Eritrea will take a seat in the Horn of Africa and shush, because Rwanda took, and will forever, take its place as the country with the most beautiful women in Africa (I did that research in case you are wondering).
I took a stroll to Bourbon Café to have breakfast. The waitress (she makes Kampala’s Instagram brigade look like a bunch of ugly maids) sauntered by, grinned and asked me what I felt like having that morning. I was admiringly staring at the mural of art in the café, lost in thought. I ordered for spiced coffee. She sashayed away, her hips following her like her poodle. When she came back, I asked her what makes Kigali beautiful. “It’s our beautiful women,” she said, and I nodded in agreement, sipping on my coffee and pretending that I was hearing this for the first time.
Kigali has leafy neighborhoods that make Naguru look like a ghetto. Well, their rich neighborhoods are not many, but the few they have are well-planned. But it’s expensive to stay in this city. The rent will break your toes. Food is expensive compared to Kampala. A Shrewd businessman can easily make a buck in this city, as someone explained to me. I was curious and, privately, delighted by this insight. I have this business idea that I am cooking and this made me revise and rethink where I should plant it. Kigali at night is well-lit, like a hooker with sparkling varnish. Speaking of hookers, they have hookers, too. Good looking hookers that can easily make those of Speke Hotel change their profession.
Kigali is like the emirate, like Dubai. A few years ago, Dubai was sand and camels, but it has transformed into an irresistible, almost fictitious metropolis, sprouting in the middle of the desert. And Kigali, too, was a shanty town years ago. Kigali is what happens when fire meets dried grass. It’s the bullet leaving the barrel. It has grown, in leaps and bounds, in shape and beauty, at a speed akin to a shuttle shooting to Mars. It’s evident because when you tilt your head, you will see a building on its toes like a deer about to take off. Tall. Glassy. Huge.
International companies are opening shop here. Indians are wheeling their business trickery and garlic into this town. Chinese are opening their eyes to see opportunity in this city. Ugandans are crossing Gatuna to make Francs. Americans are seated behind their Mac Books, sipping coffee, planning for their next investments and thanking ‘Gaaad’ for the great weather. Expatriates are aboard RwandaAir crossing oceans to Kigali. President Paul Kagame, as someone told me, is its biggest PR machinery; he is on international media speaking fondly of this city, guarding it the way you would your own child.
The media, here, is not big compared to Uganda and Kenya. Popular TV stations are RTV, TV10 and TV1, as I gathered. The arts culture is still in the backseat, as someone told me. MTN, TIGO and Airtel lead the telecommunications pack. A dream is being chased and caught in this city. Roads, clean as they are, are littered with expensive cars driving on the ‘wrong side’ of the road. The laws in Kigali, stringent as they are, might discourage you, but when you submit to their advances, blend in, get used to them, Kigali becomes a home away from home.
You would love it here. I did.