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?