Over and over, I had heard, “Rwanda is the safest, cleanest country in Africa”. Skeptical, I often thought to myself, how big of a difference could there be from where I have traveled around the continent? Turns out I was spectacularly wrong.

A work trip brought me to Kigali, which was immediately a much chillier city than I had expected due to its high elevation. As I traveled towards my hotel, I couldn’t take my eyes off the remarkably clean, wide streets with well-paved roads and sidewalks. Traffic lights at all the major intersections counted down the number for traffic, and I shook my head in disbelief at the motorcyclists and drivers who all slowed down far in advance for crossing pedestrians. It was all true – the reign of Paul Kagame had indeed turned the country around from its dark history in the mid-90s, and the result was palpable.

The Contemporary Capital

On my first full day around the city, I found the Rwandans in the center of town to be well-educated and all semi-fluent in English, stunningly so considering it was a relatively recently declared official language of the country. The downtown dome-shaped convention center and its surrounding blocks were filled with art galleries and artisanal shops packed with handcrafted soap where I was asked, more than once, if I wanted to paint (and then keep) my own imigongo art, a relief of bright, geometric colors that were traditionally shaped with 3D ridges made of cow dung. Luckily, there was no smell which gave away the secret ingredient.

My eyes couldn’t take it all in quickly enough. The myriad of multi-level modern shopping centers, quaint bookstores, and ubiquitous cafes were complete with Wifi and electric plugs, attesting to the technological community of digital nomads and a robust middle class. As a taxi driver proudly told me, even the occasional car taxis and public bus stations had open Wifi!

Pakistani, Korean, Nigerian and Western restaurants beckoned me with the range of options for food, but I was regularly too full, having filled my belly with fresh fruit smoothies at the many vendors along the roads. One of the cashiers introduced me to tree tomatoes, an oval-shaped fruit that grows on trees and tastes like a combination of a sweet tomato with tangy passion fruit. Although initially surprising my taste buds with a kick at the end, it soon grew on me and I found myself ordering the tree tomato juice several more times throughout my trip.

The next day, I hailed a moto-taxi, which responsibly carried extra helmets for passengers in line with the strict Rwandan safety laws uncommon in other parts of the continent. As we zoomed up and down the windy roads of the hilly city, I marveled at the number of workers in the streets, sweeping leaves, in the gutters, and cutting grass to an immaculately identical length on the slopes. Construction workers wore full protective equipment, and at least twice, I glimpsed city employees diligently repainting warning signs, concrete protective blocks in the mountains, and lane dividing lines, despite the original colors still being quite vibrant and visible.

A Walk Down The Country’s Memory Lane

Along the way to the Genocide Memorial, we passed by the Mille Collines hotel, most famously known as the place of refuge for over 1,000 Tutsis as depicted in the movie “Hotel Rwanda”. Although I knew of its history, from what I gathered, it was now a high-end hotel and we zipped by its high walls and glassy exterior without stopping. At the memorial, as well as around town, I walked past several signs which read “kwibuka 29”. The banners invoke the local Kinyarwandan word meaning “to remember” along with the 29th anniversary of the genocide against the Tutsis and moderate Hutus. As a tour guide commented, the lingering legacy extended to the heavy stigma in present-day Rwanda attached to asking questions about someone’s ethnicity. It didn’t matter now, he said – everyone was Rwandan.

An eternal flame was lit by the amphitheater for events, and I followed a group of European tourists through a multi-room exhibit detailing the history of the country, pre- and post-genocide. The most heartbreaking display was without a doubt the final rooms, which contained photographs and information on some of the children who were murdered, their hobbies, favorite toys and the methods in which they were killed. It became clear why one of the room attendants carried a box of tissues around with her in the main room.

The next stop on my historical tour was the Kandt house museum. As I strolled down a dirt road and waved back at some schoolgirls shouting out, “Muzungu! Hi!”I found the black gated entrance and paid 6,000 RWF (approximately $5.50 USD) to take the tour. A guide escorted me to the one-story structure where she told me about Richard Kandt, a German man who was the first colonial governor of Rwanda, and his home, which hosts a timeline, photos, and artifacts from the country’s history.

The most unexpected part was the reptile house in the backyard, complete with several cages of snakes and a live crocodile floating in a tiny pool! The guide chuckled at my bewilderment at the seemingly unconnected displays, and she explained that the museum technically fell under the Natural History branch of the government’s museums.

Rubavu, a border town to the DRC

The next day, I went to the bus station where many stalls sold tickets for a range of destinations, and with the help of eager assistants, I got a front seat on the bus to Rubavu to meet a friend who lives there. Along the way, my neighbor on the bus pointed out the bricks being made on the side of the roads. Hundreds of identical blocks whizzed by, drying out in the warm but cloudy day, and I spotted a few fields of carrots being emptied alongside dozens of families tying bright orange stacks taller than some children.

In Rubavu, my friend and I wandered along Lake Kivu, taking in the incredibly serene view stretching to Goma, a city right across the border of Rwanda in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The close proximity, I knew from the bus journey, is also what led to many nearby refugee camps for the Congolese fleeing the violence in their country.

Whenever I looked towards the backdrop of the dark green Virunga mountains, capped with a wispy layer of fog, I imagined the 600 or so gorillas living in the lush, protected area, wishing I had more time to take one of the many tours to see them. After all, not only did VisitRwanda posters featuring the primate stretch around several central parts of Kigali but I knew that Rubavu’s economy was dependent on wildlife tourism.

The sounds of local music rang out from loudspeakers and I pulled my friend towards the noise to find massive white tents and fairy lights strung out over a grassy field. The open space had been rented for a wedding, and I grinned, watching the preparations of the traditional dancers and their props. Fleets of sleek cars pulled up with pairs of well-dressed Rwandans stepping out, and noticing my admiration at their clothing, one woman said that I could rent a local outfit for a special event. Most importantly, it would cost just 2,000 RWF (about $1.80 USD) for a day!

I immediately set out that evening to find such a rental shop, and naturally, there were a half dozen of them in a row. The group of women inside giggled at me trying to pick out just one pattern from the swaths of cloth crammed into the tiny space. Then, it was my friend’s turn to suppress her laughter as the four women took turns spinning me around, pinching and pinning the bottom wrap and the top drape to get it to fit properly. I couldn’t help but think to myself, smiling inside and out, if I dress Rwandan, does this mean I could stay in this wonderful country forever?

Written by: Annie Elle

 Annie Elle picture Annie is originally from Los Angeles, although she’s been working and living abroad continuously since 2011. Currently living in Cameroon, she’s traveled to over 110 countries and enjoys playing volleyball when she can.

Follow Annie on: Instagram: instagram.com/chennanigans01


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