Kigali is like Singapore.
Clean and green streets. Well-developed and modern. Good food (especially in contrast to the rest of Rwanda, where it’s usually cold buffets full of starch), with plenty of international variety. Pretty, great to live in but not so much to do as a visitor. Odd rules (no plastic bags in Rwanda; no chewing gum in Singapore) that keep the cleanliness. Easy, comfortable, cheap (but expensive compared to surrounding cities/countries), convenient. This is probably the first place in Africa I’ve been where I wouldn’t hesitate to say I could live here comfortably. But there’s something slightly below the surface politically. Like in Singapore, most people feel fine to just live with it, but for some others, it causes unease.
Nevertheless, it’s undeniable how effective the government has been in the whole country, building it again in just two decades and surpassing all of its neighbours. It’s absolutely impossible to imagine this as the city where bodies were strewn all over the thousand hills, covered in blood for years. That city has been virtually replaced, save for the topography. Given all they’ve been through, it’s no wonder the populace seems to have little to complain about.
It’s Saturday morning and everything is closed. And boy, am I hungry.
No cars on the road. No moto-taxis. No buses. A scant few people around, but I had to walk for awhile outside of downtown Huye/Butare to see what was going on: umuganda, the mandatory day of community service that happens on the last Saturday each month. High school students took turns with machetes, chopping grass and trimming hedges; university students cleaned up their genocide memorial in preparation for April, the month of remembrance; people of all ages helped out at a church’s garden, preparing soil and fertiliser. All were cheery, despite moments of heavy rain on an abnormally cold morning. Then just around noon, it was all over (and I could finally find some food).
The spirit of cooperation.
Lake Kivu, Rwanda
Crossing the border from Uganda, the difference isn’t immediate but it’s soon apparent: this is a much more prosperous country. The poorest village homes I’ve seen all have corrugated steel sheet roofs instead of thatch, and the middle class have shingles. There are actual sidewalks in the cities. With few exceptions, there’s no litter around and the streets are pristine. Vehicles don’t look like they’re going to fall apart. Development seems visibly rapid. It also seems like a far more orderly country: all boda-boda drivers wear helmets and carry one for their passengers, many of the buses run on a schedule instead of when full, and traffic is a smidgeon less dangerous and speedy.
The order can get a little bit ridiculous though. In Kibuye, a town with wide roads and relatively little traffic, there seems to be even a bit of overregulation — traffic only goes one way. And in the whole country, it seems like every notable town except Kigali has been renamed, with both names commonly used and a frequent source of confusion for visitors. There are now three official languages: Kinyarwanda, French, and the recently-added English, in order of prominence, along with some who speak Swahili. Other than Kinyarwanda, it’s a complete tossup as to what any given person speaks or understands. I feel obligated to start every interaction the way airport workers in Canada do, in hopes of being understood: “Hello/bonjour!” — and sometimes even that doesn’t work. (But hilariously, it seems like practically everyone knows “ni hao”, even in rural areas, and at least four people have greeted me with some sage-like fist-in-hand bow that they probably saw in a kung-fu movie. A high school-aged girl also completely schooled me in a conversation in Mandarin, which she initiated.)
Life moves normally. And normally, I wouldn’t give that a second glance. But this is Rwanda, and with its notorious recent history, I can’t help but look at everything with… well, what’s the opposite of rose-coloured glasses?
Set at the base of some seven giant volcanoes (most of them dormant… but not all) that more than tower over everything else, Kisoro’s a beautiful sight. Climb up the hill to the north and you get an expansive view of Lake Mutanda, another crater lake, and even some volcanoes situated in Rwanda and DR Congo, both of whose borders are a mere 12 km away. The town itself — small and relatively benign — is a stepping stone for both those countries. So why did I stay for three days?
Well, mountain gorilla tracking. Of course.
Fort Portal and Lake Bunyonyi, Uganda
Uganda feels like a mix of both East and West Africa. Unlike in Kenya (let alone Somaliland or Ethiopia, which are entirely different from the rest of East Africa), many people wear colourful, loud prints and traditional clothing. And while Kenyans do it sometimes, Ugandans pepper their speech with the West African-signature high-pitched “ahhh!”, exclaimed approximately whenever we would normally use “wow” or “really?” to express incredulity. It’s addictive. And far more than in Kenya, boda-boda (motorcycle taxi) journeys seem to be the only means to get to some places in a timely manner, and also vastly outnumber cars — not unlike the zemidjans of Togo and Benin. Add on some dusty roads, plus my dusttrap hair, and long boda-boda rides are guaranteed to turn me reddish-brown from head to toe. No use washing my clothes if I have to repeat the journey again the next day…
Inter-town transport is a beast in and of itself, topping West Africa in both the over-the-top and hazardous departments. I was on a bus where a sex scandal (to use the term fellow passengers were calling it) emerged: a man and woman met for the first time, started flirting, and then she asked about his sexual history in front of all the passengers. The bus erupted into raucous laughter and made fun of the duo for hours after. The bus, speeding like all the other ones, also sideswiped a semi speeding on a twisty mountain curve, breaking a window near the back. And to top it all off, I had the most uncomfortable ride of my life, topping the one I had in Togo: in a sedan meant for five, we stuffed in *nine*: five in the back, two in the passenger’s seat, and two in the driver’s seat. (At least the driver-side passenger didn’t have to share driving duties like the one in Togo had to; the original driver just reached over the passenger’s legs to shift gears.) I sat on a seatbelt buckle for two hours. At least the view was nice, but I couldn’t even free my camera from my bag. No leg room, and no arm room either. Hooray for being alive, but I’ve grown so used to these standards that I’ve stopped being surprised or scared for my life. Just another day.
It’s with these methods of transport that I’ve been visiting the volcanic lakes of Uganda, and it’s totally worth the trouble.
Two hours from Kampala, and two hours from the western city of Fort Portal, and in between the towns of Mityana (30 km away) and Mubende (over 40 km away), there’s an unmarked, narrow and bumpy dirt road off the main road. You’d never know it was there if you weren’t looking for it. If you followed it, chances are you would have lost interest before reaching the first house over 2 km down the road.
And I would have never found myself there if it wasn’t for Belinda, who was introduced to me remotely by my friend Carla (who I met in Antarctica four years ago!). She owns a farm here, and it happens to be next to a village. While she spends most of her life in Kampala, farming is a shared passion of her and her husband (who was out of the country while I was there), and they had to look far from Kampala for land.
Sipi Falls and Kampala, Uganda
Strangers are getting into heated discussions in the matatus (confusingly called taxis) here. All around, there are banners, flags, blaring horns from rallies, and of course, hundreds and hundreds of posters from competing parties pasted over each other and over “No Posters Here” signs: it’s election season, with the big day two weeks away. Given the way things go in Ethiopia and Kenya whenever there’s an election, I’m a little bit nervous to be here, and also a little ashamed that I only found out the moment I got to Uganda.
The tiny village of Sipi is magnificently situated across from its namesake falls, two of them clearly visible and the third somewhat hidden behind a hill. I spent practically an entire day sitting outside at my hillside accommodation, chatting with the family that owns the place, and staring at the first (and largest) waterfall, watching it as the light changed from afternoon to evening before heading up to a viewpoint for sunset. But even away from the city, it’s impossible to get away from it all, as we could see and hear rallies in the distance.
Thika to Nakuru, Kenya
Good, clean, and fair food for all. Little by little, this lesson is being taught in an increasing number of schools throughout Kenya, thanks to the initiatives of Slow Food International (also here) and their 10000 Gardens in Africa (also here) project. Food is a necessity, so why not also make it something accessible that enables people?
Again through my sister, I was connected to her friend and school colleague Samson, who happened to be working in the Thika area this past week, setting up new gardens. Since he was busy the first few days, he handed me off to his friend and slow food affiliate, Faith.
Mombasa and Nairobi, Kenya
Having had some amount of rain and clouds every day so far in Kenya, I made an unplanned detour east to get some sun on the coast. After two days doing nothing on the beaches south of Mombasa, I felt a bit antsy and returned to the city, Kenya’s second-largest. It’s the antithesis to Nairobi: laconic and laid-back, a great deal safer in terms of street crime, and hardly congested in the city center. But it’s also the biggest port city in East Africa, playing host to freighters and cruise ships, as well as a significant Kenyan Indian and Arab population. Most people are Muslim rather than Christian, and outwardly dressed as such. And forget nyama choma (barbecued meat) and fried chicken: the most common dishes around are biryani and pilau — sound familiar? — and coconut-based curries. In other words, it’s Kenya but it’s a world away from the rest of Kenya.
Maasai Mara NR and Hell’s Gate NP, Kenya
There’s one pretty obvious thing people come to Kenya for.
Nairobi’s not the safest place out there, which made wandering around difficult especially come evening time, and its suburban sprawl makes it even more difficult to get to know. Despite the sea of brightly-painted matatus (minivans plying a few hundred routes around Nairobi and beyond), the city feels like America in some ways. Outward religiosity (in the form of garish matatus and buses covered in Christian slogans) flying right in the face of an in-your-face sexualised pop culture (in the form of urban music with explicit lyrics being blared by those same buses, plus restaurants playing some pretty racy music videos) is one thing, along with big western shopping malls far from the city center, fast food restaurants (they love their fried chicken and fries), skyscrapers, businessmen in suits everywhere, and heavy traffic, but the biggest similarity I see is how everyone seems busy and has somewhere to go. Several Kenyans I talked to outside Nairobi mentioned that last sticking point, and some compared it to America as well. Few if any people paid any mind to me, which was a jarring but somewhat nice change from the constant attention in Ethiopia and Somaliland, but at the same time, it made them hard to get to know. While still developing and doing so quite rapidly, Nairobi is getting up there with the likes of other cosmopolitan multicultural world cities, for better or for worse.
So instead, I spent most of my time in Nairobi looking at animals, and prepping a trip to look at more animals. Naturally.