Kigali: suite et fin
I took this trip almost exactly two months ago (Sept. 24), and wrote most of this post on the flight to Paris (Oct. 2). It’s been sitting in my notebook since then…enjoy!
After the usual CouchSurfing communication difficulties which always sort themselves out, I met up with Sarah as night fell and we hiked up to her flat. Sarah is a Kenyan from Nairobi and worked in Kigali for a Kenyan bank. The bank bought a luxurious block of condos on a ridge overlooking the lights of the city—which shine more often than not because the Kigali city authorities appear to have mastered this whole electricity provision thing and there is no power rota. Everything about Sarah’s flat was big and beautiful and luxurious. We talked late into the night, mostly about her passion for CouchSurfing and Rwanda. The CS community in Bujumbura is minuscule, mostly because internet connections are so terrible. Kigali, however, has fiberoptic cables (we have been promised them for next year) so the connection is faster and many more machines can be on the network at once. Consequently, more surfers!
The next morning Sarah and I hid out until 11 a.m. Like Bujumbura, Kigali has “travaux communautaires” on Saturday mornings, and apparently if you are seen out of your house between eight and 11 a.m., you can be stopped by the cops and made to pick up litter or pay a fine. As an obvious tourist, I would likely be spared, but Sarah says you can’t be sure. So instead of picking up litter we linger over breakfast and—WAIT! I forgot the most incredible bit. I turned on the shower that morning in Sarah’s washroom and—I had a feeling it was coming but that does not make it any less delightful—HOT WATER CAME OUT. I don’t know if there is any sensation that can compare to having your first hot shower in over a month.
Especially when I compare it to the bucket shower I had only the week before at Antoine’s mom’s house in Ngozi. There, the running water is as capricious as the electricity. There was a bathtub with a symbolic faucet, some soap and two metal cooking pots—one with water as cold as ice, the other hot enough to boil pasta in, expressly warmed up for the eccentric foreigner. I had not been expecting this and got teary-eyed with gratitude. A mug bobbed in one of the pots. I hesitantly splashed myself with first one and then the other, giving myself a sort of mini-Russian sauna while trying not to get water all over Maman Antoine’s (for that was what Pierre and Christelle called her) washroom. When my wrists got tired I got out and got dressed—it didn’t take long. I told the others the story in the car that morning and they had a good laugh; silly city girl doesn’t know how to take a bucket shower!
How good it felt to stand there in Kigali and do nothing while hot water flowed down my back! It only lasted eight or ten minutes, but the best chocolate would not have made a better treat.
For the rest of the morning I helped Sarah pack. The bank is moving her back to Kenya and she is not happy about it. She loves Kigali.
At the stroke of eleven, Sarah drew me a map and I headed down to the bus stop, hoping to see as much of the Kigali Jeff, Cameron and Dallaire saw as I could. I figured a good place to start would be the Hotel Mille Collines.
Anyone who has seen Hotel Rwanda knows that the Hotel Mille Collines is the place where several hundred Tutsis and moderates waited out the genocide, drinking the pool water and not knowing whether they would survive from one hour to the next. The Hutu hotel manager held off the génocidaires largely by bribing them with liquor. The place was in a state of siege.
You can still see a few bullet holes in the walls. But inside the lobby, the place looks like any upper-middle-range hotel and conference centre in the Western world. The liveried, gold-nametagged staff speak perfect French and English (Rwanda is proudly trilingual and the education system places all the emphasis on English), the lobby is spotlessly clean, white marble is everywhere and dozens of bazungu stare into their laptops. The ‘business centre’ has computers and fax machines and the restaurant serves ‘business lunch’ daily. There is no plaque, or any sign acknowledging the role the hotel played in the war.
I picked up a free map at the Mille Collines and went to check out the city centre. Stoplights! Zebra crossings! ATMs! Chain coffee shops with wifi! A three-story shopping mall! I wouldn’t quite call this a first-world city centre, but it compares favourably with a lot of places I’ve seen in Russia.
Even the red dirt streets and tin roofs of the working-class quarter I walked through give off a different vibe than in Bujumbura—cleaner, more confident. Rwandans look straight at you and smile, hold their heads high. There is little begging here and no inferiority complex.
From the shopping centre I took a moto out to the Amahoro football stadium, where Dallaire’s troops stayed with hundreds of refugees at the height of the crisis. It is a beautiful building, painted in soft sky blues, greens and yellows. Looking out at the manicured football pitch, it is hard to imagine that it too once held hundreds of starving, terrified refugees.
Not far from the stadium is a resto-bar called Chez Lando, which figures in Dallaire’s book. Lando, the founder, was a moderate politician and entrepreneur married to a white Québécoise. Both of them were killed during the first days of the genocide, by militiamen who broke into their house as she spoke with the UN on the telephone. The restaurant, according to the book, was one of the first places to reopen in Kigali after the war.
I didn’t go in, but it’s a beautiful building, a two-story restaurant with a balcony terrasse, and the parking lot was full. Looked like any North American steakhouse. I wonder if Dallaire’s been here since the war. I think he has.
I caught a random bus back into town and stopped at the nature museum, which is built in the house of the first German colonial governor. The 1885 Berlin Conference , which divided the whole of Africa into European spheres of influence (and in a lot of cases colonies) without consulting a single African , made Rwanda German territory, and the French-speaking Belgians took over after the First World War. The museum, full of rather underwhelming geology and zoology displays, must have been built with German money because the signs are in German and Kinyarwanda. Not much help to the French- and English-speaking tourists who wander in here.
Here the softspoken guide offered me a brochure on the National Museums of Rwanda, and I learned that the crash site—the area where Habyarimana’s plane came down the night the genocide began, literally in his own backyard—is a preserved historic site. So is his house. My one tiny Kigali regret is that I did not get a chance to go there.
I finished the day the best way I know how—biting into a juicy beef brochette with a side of plantain fries at a nameless restaurant on the top of a ridge, watching the sun set over the tin roofs of Kigali.
I grabbed another moto and went to meet Sarah. She had found our three other CouchSurfers—a grumpy Israeli who had been traveling for 22 hours straight and two delightfully vulgar Dutch guys on vacation from a work placement in Tanzania. They wanted to go to this posh Irish bar but there was a wedding reception there. We actually talked our way partway in before realizing that there was no way four dirty, dusty white backpackers could blend in at a Rwandan wedding reception.
We ended up at a nice beer-and-brochette joint with an outdoor terrasse. It was so Western—as many bazungu as Rwandans, burgers on the menu, European beer, pictures of Jimi Hendrix and Elvis on the walls inside—that only the occasional whiff of grilled goat reminded you that you were in Africa. That and the Kenyan music that alternated with the Rihanna songs. We drank Tusker Lager, delicious Kenyan beer, and danced until two. It was nice to hang out with Westerners who at the same time were familiar with Africa.
I would not have minded staying out later except I knew I had to get up at dawn and I was low on money. The Israeli was nearly falling asleep at the table. We took a taxi back to Sarah’s. The Israeli took the couch, the Dutch delegation took the guest bedroom and I slept, fully clothed for departure, on one side of the big double bed next to Sarah. Getting out of that warm cocoon at five the next morning was difficult. But the alarm rang. I gave Sarah a quick thank-you hug, threw my bag over my shoulder, said ‘Mwaramutsé’ (good morning) to the security guard and headed off down the road. I found a moto quicker than I expected, and the stinging cold morning air on my face woke me up as we sped in darkness through the city.
I made the bus in plenty of time, but it left an hour and a half after the scheduled six a.m. departure. No problem man, this is Africa!
This was not a huge overland coach but a city bus with jumpseats. Luckily, they had the sense to sell a number of tickets more or less proportional to the number of seats, so unlike on an actual bus we weren’t squished to the point of suffocation. That would have been very difficult for seven hours.
For the first little while, the women in back of me are having a highly public conversation in Swahili, shrieking with laughter. I share my breakfast waffle with a heartbreakingly beautiful, silent Rwandan girl with huge brown eyes. We stop in a small town; some passengers get off, including the beautiful girl, and some get on. Street food sellers show up, materializing from nowhere with huge buckets of still-steaming goodies. We fill our bags with hot samboussas and chapattis. I have no idea how Indian street food got to this Rwandan village, but they sure know how to do it right. We trundle down the main street of Butaré, Rwanda’s second city, a quiet university town. Not long after is the border crossing. We get off the bus, queue to present our papers and then walk across the bridge, over the Akanyaru River (a pretty little creek) and re-enter Burundi. Immediately three or four beggars hurry toward me. That’s the end of my remaining chapattis. That’s probably how those old men and women live every hour of every day, hoping someone will come along with some extra chapattis or a few coins…
After the border a tired silence descends over the bus. It lasts for an hour or two. I break the spell. Not on purpose. I look out the window and notice a couple of kids staring intently at a spot just above a low wall. I follow their gaze and…
“A monkey! That’s a monkey!”
My seatmate, a middle-aged Burundian man, bursts out laughing.
“A monkey isn’t something you see every day in Canada,” I explain. “In fact, that was the only time I’ve ever seen a monkey outside of the zoo.”
“Well, have you ever seen snow, outside of books?”
“Of course not.”
“Canada is a nice country, a big country. I’m writing a book and there’s a priest from Canada who is helping me. Where are you from in Canada, Montreal?”
Faustin, I learn, is from Bujumbura, a car mechanic by profession. He writes in his spare time, mostly about the greatness of God. I successfully stickhandle the discussion around that prickly subject. We somehow get to talking about political science, hegemonic theory. He thinks the USA’s superpower status is a force for good in the wotld. I have my doubts. He says someone has to dominate and it might as well be the Americans.
Céline Dion comes on the radio and the silence reimposes itself, only to be broken when we notice that the curving mountain roads are going inexorably down. We see the lake below us and stretching back from it are the glinting tin roofs of the city, baking in the sun. The people around us start shuffling in their seats, repacking their bags, talking to one another. “De retour au four,” I quip, “Back to the oven.”
Faustin laughs. We pull into the bus station and file off and he tells me to have a nice day.
Unlike the Kigali bus station, which has four bureaux de change, the Bujumbura one doesn’t have any. There are none within walking distance. No one knows of any that are closer than downtown. I sit for nearly an hour in a bus that is supposed to go downtown at some point but never moves. The bureaux de change are in the moto no-go zone in the city centre, and they don’t understand when I say, in French, “Take me as close as you can.”
So I have to take a full-price taxi. I ask him to wait while I go exchange the money, but I forget to memorize what he looks like, and when I reemerge there are three cabbies demanding ‘their’ money. I fling the 2000 francs at the guy who most closely resembles the one who drove me and then walk to a spot about two feet outside the no-go zone to catch a moto back to Mutanga. It may be three times the price (85 cents instead of 25) but I’ve had enough buses for today.
When I get back, the power is of course out. Usual Bujumbura crap, I catch myself thinking. But hey, it’s home! Athanase and Silent Man, who greet me with big smiles and handshakes and pats on the back, would never let me forget that.