Monday January 6, 2020
I was sitting on the terrace of La Brioche, a popular bakery-cafe in Kigali’s Gacuriro neighbourhood. It was twilight – the streetlights were coming on, and the first hint of cool wafted through the air after a sweltering autumn day. As I sat with my cappuccino and demi-baguette reading a collection of short stories by celebrated Rwandan writer Beata Umubyeyi Mairesse that I’d just found at Kigali’s best literary bookshop, Ikirezi Books, I noticed my phone was running low.
I asked the young man at the next table, whom I’d overheard speaking English earlier (most people do in this trilingual city, but it’s good to check), if he had a charger. He did not. He went back to his MacBook, I to my short story, and then, about a minute later, he turned back to me.
“I’m leaving in a couple of minutes for an opening at a new photo gallery nearby,” he said. “It should be fun. Do you want to come?”
I called a car on Move, the local ride-share app populated exclusively with Volkswagens assembled at a new plant nearby, and we arrived early at the Kigali Center for Photography. Theo, 23, the man from the terrace, seemed to know everyone, and introduced me around. Josephat’s studying film at Kigali Film and Television School.
Rodriguez has a show on local radio station 103.6 HOT FM. Niza is the founder of one organisation that teaches under-employed women traditional basket-weaving, and another that gives at-risk youth space and materials to paint. Jacques is the gallery director, and Winny owns Sweet Ibanga, a mixology company that’s working the party. “I know what you like,” she beamed at Theo as she muddled him up a mojito.
Kigali is a city that has had more to come back from than practically any other on the continent, including some like Mogadishu in Somalia and Juba in South Sudan that have yet to pull it together. But over the past 25 years, and specifically over the last decade, Kigali has been transformed – by president Paul Kagame, by new laws and policies, and primarily by the people who live there – into what may be the most inviting city in Africa.
And though there are many factors that have led to its solid infrastructure and its booming development, one thing stands out as the organising principle: umuganda.
On the last Saturday of every month, between 08:00 and 11:00, at least one person between the ages of 18 and 65 in every Rwandan household must get outside and clean, fix or do maintenance work. Umuganda, a Kinyarwanda word that can be roughly translated as “community service”, is part of Rwanda’s heritage; it became an officially encouraged practice as early as 1998 and a law 10 years ago. And though you can now be fined for repeatedly skipping your umuganda duties without a reason, everyone I spoke to about it is in favour of the nation-wide ritual of pitching in.
“For me, I don’t know anything else,” said Esperance Igihozo, 27. “I was a baby when it started.”
Sitting in local chain Bourbon Coffee (there are branches in Washington, DC, and Cambridge, MA, as well), Esperance, who runs a guest house and cultural education service for visiting students and tourists, explained how – and why – it works.
“Everyone knows now what to do,” she said. “I live in Kichikuru [a neighbourhood near the airport]. "We have what we call ‘cells’ of 10 houses or so. Each cell has a WhatsApp group to organise and keep in touch. You meet. They say, ‘You go and sweep, and you cut the bushes.’ It’s always clean in Kigali now, but you keep cleaning. Umuganda is to socialise, too.”
I’d noticed on my way in from the airport that Kigali is remarkably clean. Plastic bags have been outlawed here for years (in fact, a government-mandated announcement on my flight instructed me to go through my belongings and leave any plastic bags on the plane). But it’s that last bit, about the socialising, that may have the deeper effects.
It’s been 26 years since the 100 days when the nation fell into the most brutal civil war of the 20th Century, pitting one colonially defined group against another and resulting in about 800,000 deaths. Though even casual mention of those groups is now outlawed – Esperence told me that though I as a tourist was perfectly free to talk and ask questions, if she was overheard talking to other Rwandans and referring to people as Tutsis or Hutus, she could be arrested – the fundamental discord in this nation has been profound. Umuganda is another practice that seeks to reinforce the official notion that there are no more groups; that everyone in Rwanda is simply Rwandan.
And so far, it’s working.
The Kigali I’m shown by Desirée Izere, a guide with Go Kigali Tours, is not only clean and safe (the US Overseas Security Advisory Council gives Kigali a level 1 security assessment, the same as Vancouver), but overtly friendly. People regularly wave at me as we stroll through Nyamirambo, a bustling, largely Muslim neighbourhood known for its pan-African restaurants, bars, cafes and couture shops, where you can get clothes made with as little as a day’s turnaround.
As we walk through the four-level Kimisagara market, Izere tells me how she thinks a tourist should best explore her city.
“First, you go to the Genocide Memorial,” she said, as we weave our way through this un-touristy market where dried beans, used clothing and bananas by the dozen are the standard wares. “It gives you an idea of what Kigali’s about, how it came to be what it is, and what happened here. But after that, I’d say go to bars at night and go eat some brochettes [small, well-seasoned skewers of mostly goat meat].” That, she says, is what Kigali is about now: daily life, simple food, peaceable people; not history, not conflict, not genocide.
According to Izere, Rwanda doesn’t have a diverse traditional cuisine. She says the most common traditional dish is sweet potatoes boiled with beans. There's also dodo, an amaranth leaf that tastes and looks like a cross between spinach and collard greens – and brochettes, of course.
She recommended half a dozen bars and cafes, and I visited every single one. At Repub Lounge, former interior designer and Toronto resident, Doudou, who came back in 1994 to fight against the genocide, presides over a lively night spot where local embassy employees bring their foreign colleagues.
The Ubumwe Grand, a hotel with a rooftop bar in the centre of town, has a view that can make a date with anyone a good time, Izere told me. “It’s where guys bring girls to tell them they’re sorry,” she said.
She also recommended the Inema Art Center for its Thursday night happy hour that regularly draws 400 people to its two-storey space and has become known as one of the cynosures of Kigali’s LGBTQ+ scene. Founder Innocent Nkurunziza explained to me that the local art scene is apparently flourishing, with half a dozen galleries opening in the wake of the Inema’s success. Nkurunziza’s own work – currently consisting of large-scale oil paintings on stitched-together ficus bark that looks like skin – is about to have its international debut at a New York City gallery and is already part of the personal collections of Laurene Powell Jobs (the wife of Steve Jobs) and others.
“One of the things we want to achieve is to sell Rwanda through its art,” he said, talking about the year-old government marketing campaign called Made in Rwanda. “When you think of Rwanda, you think of the genocide, and gorillas. But what about the art?”
And fashion. Moses Turahirwa’s Moshions is the new kid on the new-but-already-densely-populated block, and his men’s and women’s collections blend traditional black-and-white and geometric patterns with beading, embroidery and splashes of paint. He says that though he admires European designers like Balmain’s Olivier Rousteing, he gets most of his inspiration from local forerunners like Dadi de Maximo, who now lives in Estonia, and from other Kigali designers.
“We are focusing on luxury,” he said, as he shows me distinctive (and gorgeous) beaded walking sticks based on the staffs once used by Rwandan royals. “We sell to government officials, CEOs, bankers – that sort of thing.” His best-selling item – he says he sells about 35 a month – is a unisex wool cardigan with hundreds of black and white beads sewn into an elegantly slim shawl lapel. Just four years old, the brand has already had pop-ups in Europe and is looking to break into the US market.
I’d come to the Moshions boutique with Niza, from Theo’s picture party, the one who has founded two development organisations. He’s 23. Turahirwa’s 28. Izere is 24, Esperance is 27. Rodriguez, the radio host, is 28. The oldest of the lot is Inema Art Center’s Nkurunziza at 33. There’s a trend here: 26 years after a national trauma, it’s people too young to have borne the brunt of it – people who grew up spending one morning a month cleaning, fixing and communing – are helping pull Rwanda up and out into the world. This bodes all kinds of well for the next 26 years.