Thanks to my (mostly) amazing job, I took two 2-week trips to Kigali, Rwanda in 2015. I am a bit ashamed to admit that at the time I wouldn’t have ever voluntarily chosen Rwanda as a travel destination. In fact, the whole continent scared me a little bit (or a lot). And I also knew nothing about it. But, alas, work twisted my arm, and BAM, I was in Kigali, and in Africa, for the first time!
My experience there was made pretty carefree due to the business nature of the trips. I got to stay in very nice hotels, use a trusty driver to take me around, and eat at some of the poshest Kigali restaurants. I was accompanied by a colleague on the first trip who showed me the ropes, so on my second trip I felt a lot more confident in navigating daily life in Kigali by myself.
Although my exposure to realities of Rwandan life was relatively limited, this country left an unforgettable impression on me. A year and half later I still think about it.
Here are 9 things from my Rwanda trip that stood out:
1. Friendliness of people
I know, I knooow, this is so typical to say about a place. But this actually really struck me. It began quite unexpectedly with the two guys at passport control. They flashed big smiles at me, asked why I was coming to Rwanda, and slyly suggested that the next time I come should be for a vacation rather than for work (I agreed!). Their relaxed approach was really timely, and they immediately eased some of the tension I was feeling about arriving into a very new environment. And yes, almost every person I interacted with was absolutely lovely and helpful and kind. I’m not sure this has any scientific significance, though, since obviously I’m a foreigner, and people are curious and want to chat. But what I’m trying to convey is beyond this – it was almost a feeling or a vibe you get from being in a place and taking it in. Openness, friendliness, cooperation and order are the words that describe it best – they were implied in the way people interacted with one another on the streets, the way women strolled together down the street, in how clean the streets were, the exchange of glances between people, and how everyone was dressed. It almost reminded me of a small town in the 50s (although I’ve never been to a small town in the 50s.) Anyway, there is a vibe to Kigali that felt so very particular.
2. Curious village children
A highlight of both trips was (sort of) interacting with the children. These kids are curious and are expert at spotting a foreigner (even when in a car!) from a good distance away and yelling ‘Muzungu! Muzungu!’ to alert the other children, who then join in, and start running after the car in a mob and yelling ‘Muzungu! Muzungu!’ (It’s the Kinyarwanda term for ‘white person’). When I joined a local hiking group on the weekend (so lucky to get invited by my driver!) to hike through the hills and some local villages, the kids would run out and say “good morning!” – they ALL seem to know that phrase in English.
Also, some of them were very obviously not used to seeing people who look so different. I was in the habit of waving at many of the kids as we passed through the villages. One of my waves came out a little awkward and sudden, as I’d had my hand in my pocket – and it scared a little girl! She literally flinched! I felt very bad. But it makes sense that a sudden movement from a very strange person would be a bit scary, especially when you’re about three years old.
At some point, a group of little boys decided to be a bit rebellious, and as we were passing they yelled out “you’re stupid!” in English! They must have been about 8-10 years old, so very forgivable. What impressed me is that my driver, a local guy, immediately grabbed them, took them aside, and gave them a lecture on how to treat people. It does takes a village.
3. Seeing Burundi refugee camps
On one of our drives we passed pretty close to the southern border, towards Burundi, and a UN refugee camp appeared and disappeared before my eyes. This was back in May 2015 when some unrest and violence was just ramping up in Burundi. That was about it. But just driving by this and seeing it with my own eyes made a huge impression.
4. ‘Massage’ road
I now have full appreciation for paved roads! I spent quite a bit of time in the car, traveling from site to site, including to some pretty remote locations. Once we got off one of the central (paved) roads things got very shaky. VERY, VERY SHAKY! My driver said the road leading to his house is called ‘massage’ road due to its shaky qualities.
5. How clean everything was
The city was very clean. And many things seemed newly built and attractive. My driver mentioned that every so often they have sort of a mandatory community service day, where everyone comes out and helps do random upkeep, including cleaning.
Rwanda has also banned plastic bags, and supposedly sometimes when you just arrive in the country they will check your luggage to make sure you’re not sneaking them in! I was a rebel and definitely had plastic bags with me (I use them to organise my stuff in my suitcase!), and I know the hotel cleaning staff could see them – I wonder if they thought I was a bad person? (kidding). But things got interesting when I needed to get my laundry done by the hotel. They brought a big wicker basket for me to throw my dirty clothes in, rather than following the usual protocol of a plastic laundry bag.
6. The beauty of the hills
Some of the views you see when just driving around the city are gorgeous! Rwanda is the country of a thousand hills (mille collines), and after having visited it I understand why. They don’t FEEL that pretty, though, when you’re trying to hike them and start to get altitude sickness!
7. The weirdness of feeling on display
Rwanda and Dubai are probably the only places, so far that I’ve been to, where I was very obviously a foreigner in a mass of locals and everyone stared at me the ENTIRE time. It’s a weird feeling. At first it’s uncomfortable, but eventually you have to learn to deal with it, and so you just sort of get used to constantly feeling like all attention is on you. It’s impossible to be invisible. Is this what Ryan Gosling’s life is like? It started with the waving children in villages, which felt pretty harmless. But then I decided to go out solo in the centre of Kigali – to walk about 2 miles from my hotel to a local gym. And that took a bit of guts. Every passer-by stared, the centre was a bit chaotic and I didn’t know where I was going very well – but was trying to do my best to not look lost – it felt a little scary! But nothing happened, and I’m glad I got to experience a bit of independent time in the city (without the driver or colleagues).
8. The contrast between Kigali and village life
The difference was stark. I was very fortunate to be invited to my driver’s house for lunch one day and to meet some of his family members. This was my only experience inside a real Kigali family home! The house was beautiful and modern, it had running water, electricity, and all the basic necessities I am used to. He had house help who prepared lunch for us. Of course, even city dwellers are not immune to power outages. These happened once or twice per night at the hotel and during dinner.
Walking through villages, though, just a few minutes’ drive out of the city, you begin to witness women and children carrying water from a source to their house in those plastic yellow containers. I’m pretty sure I saw a few huts made out of wooden sticks and leaves. There were children running around barefoot, and women harvesting plants in nearby fields. In sum, people were working very hard to obtain the basic necessities we all take for granted. I’ll save the ‘we are so privileged’ speech. But, still, it was very worthwhile to get to witness this first hand.
9. Watching Chinese TV shows with French sub-titles
One thing I found very unique was the selection of TV channels and their contents. In the evenings I got used to watching Chinese movies and shows either dubbed or sub-titled in French. This might become my tradition every time I come back to Kigali!