Another Side of Kigali

When I leave my site and head to Rwanda’s capital city of Kigali, it’s a rare chance to catch up with fellow Volunteers, enjoy Western food, stock up on things I can’t get in other places, and frequent muzungu hang-outs where I can be somewhat anonymous.  As such, most of my time in Kigali has been spent in the wealthier neighborhoods.  But, I recently had an opportunity to see another side of the capital, and it was fascinating.

While waiting for my boyfriend, who was coming from the States to visit (and whose two-day journey from Montana to Kigali became a five-day one), I was staying alone at a small budget hotel on the edge of downtown Kigali.  Walking from downtown to the hotel, it was clear that this area was worlds away from Union Trade Center, the muzungu hub housing both Bourbon (the Rwandan version of Starbucks) and Nakumatt (the East African equivalent of Safeway) in downtown Kigali.

So, after checking-in at the hotel, I decided to do a little exploring.  Continuing past the hotel and away from downtown, I came upon a seemingly-poor residential area, dotted with hole-in-the-wall boutiques (small stores or kiosks that sell an incredibly random assortment of things), tiny restaurants (usually with a curtain hanging in the doorway), and blue bars (the outside of many Rwandan bars is painted bright blue, matching the label of Primus, Rwanda’s most popular local beer).  Each mud-brick house nearly touched the next, families sat on the ground outside, women washed clothes in basins and cooked over charcoal stoves, children played on the narrow paths.  Free of anything that would attract a tourist or ex-pat, it felt more like “real Africa” (whatever that means) than anywhere else I’ve been in Kigali.

During my walk, I unexpectedly befriended a Rwandan girl around my age named Amélie who lived in the neighborhood.  As Rwandans often do, she immediately invited me to visit her home.  The brief visit was really the quintessential Rwandan experience.

As we climbed up the hill from the main road and squeezed between the small houses, she greeted and introduced me to nearly every person we passed.  “Mwiriwe!  Amakuru?  Dufite umushitsi!” – “Good afternoon!  How are you?  We have a visitor!”  When we reached her house, three members of her family were cooking outside.  She led me into the cramped living room and pointed me to the couch.  Before I had even sat down, she asked if I’d like a Fanta, which flavor, and whether I preferred warm or cold.  I requested a cold Fanta Orange, and she dashed out of the house, returning a minute later with a bottle of Fanta.  After popping the cap off, she looked at the bottle, frowned, and told me that bottle was not good.  She left again and returned almost immediately with a new bottle.  After opening the new bottle and determining that it was good, she turned on the TV and put on a DVD of Rwandan music videos.  As I took my first sip of Fanta, she informed me that she was going to go bathe.  In Rwanda, that’s a pretty normal thing to do when you have a visitor.  She went into another room and returned a second later, topless.  Again, not entirely out of the ordinary here.

So, I sat in their living room alone for a few minutes, drinking Fanta, and watching music videos of Rwandan stars like Tom Close and the Urban Boys.  After returning from the shower, she asked if I’d like another Fanta, but I told her I needed to get going, as it was already dark.  (I don’t typically walk around by myself after dark.  But, I knew that, as I was her visitor, she would walk at least part of the way back with me, so I wasn’t worried.)  Both Amélie and her brother walked me through their neighborhood to the main road, and, as expected, she continued with me almost the entire way back to the hotel.  It really was the quintessential visit in every way, and was evidence that the random experiences and contact with local culture that Peace Corps Volunteers crave is even possible in Kigali.

While Kigali is certainly more developed and more Western than any other part of Rwanda, it was interesting to see, and I think it’s important to recognize, that there is a lot more to the city than the areas where bazungu spend most of their time.

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“Sunset at the Railroad” by PCV Nicholas Baylor Hall. Namibia, 2011.