Kigali: In the Land of a Thousand Hills

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With direct flights by RwandAir from Mumbai to Kigali, Rwanda’s vibrant capital has never seemed so attractive; ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY take a Go Kigali city tour to experience its local sights, markets and cuisine 

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We flew out on Rwand Air and discovered that it takes less time to get to the Rwandan capital Kigali from Mumbai than driving to Ratnagiri. With a direct connection four times a week, more travellers are discovering the wonders of this tiny yet remarkable country in East Africa.

Rwanda is one of the world’s last refuges of the mountain gorilla and the invitation to Kwita Izina 2018, a naming ceremony for baby gorillas born the previous year, was irresistible. We made the most of our time in Kigali before the official program. Jullesse, the Rwandan Development Board representative greeted us warmly at the airport and highlighted the city’s landmarks en route to our hotel.

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“That building decked up in colourful lights is the Kigali Convention Centre, often lit up in the colours of the visiting head of state.” When Indian PM Modi visited Rwanda in July this year, it wore the hues of the Indian tricolour. Modi also donated 200 cows to villagers at Rweru under President Paul Kagame’s Girinka program (literally ‘May you have a cow’ in the local Kinyarwanda dialect) where every poor family receives one cow for sustenance. In a country where cows are held in high regard, this gesture won lots of Rwandan hearts.

We soon reached the swanky Kigali Marriott Hotel, which opened two years ago, one of the first international chains with a presence in Rwanda. Inside the massive executive suite, a personalized note, macaroons and a dry fruit platter awaited us. The view from the balcony was stupendous.

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A ‘no photography’ sign on the glass door was bewildering. The steward quickly explained that the hotel faced the high-security presidential quarters! On the other side were a line of embassies, leaving us chuffed to be staying in the posh diplomatic enclave of Kiyovu in the CBD (Central Business District).

Sauntering downstairs to Soko restaurant (literally ‘market’), we admired the entire wall decorated with traditional woven agasake baskets. Besides a massive spread we were intrigued to find faratas and chickpeas in their dedicated African breakfast corner! Rwanda has many Indian settlers who influenced the local cuisine. We tried the local staple kaunga (steamed corn stew) and matoke (green banana and beef stew).

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It was surprising to learn that Kigali was founded only as recently as 1907 by German explorer and administrator Richard Kandt. His house, now a museum, was just a short walk away. Strolling past the local moto taxi stand (bike taxis like Goa) and the gorilla statue opposite Kigali City Hall, we reached what was the first European-style house in the city.

In the colonial ‘Scramble for Africa’ in late 19th century, Germany established a presence in Rwanda by forming an alliance with King Yuhi V Musinga in 1897. Kandt arrived in 1899 while exploring Lake Kivu in search of the source of the river Nile. In 1907 Germany separated the administration of Rwanda-Burundi and Kandt was appointed the country’s first resident. He moved the administrative headquarters from the King’s Palace in Nyanza to a more central location. Reaching this large hilly tract, he called it Kigali, literally ‘expansive’. The name rang true as we looked at the city stretching around a chain of hills!

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Kandt built the first brick house in town at Nyarugenge, which had great weather and afforded good views. It became a Museum of Natural History but all the exhibits had been moved out except the lone baby crocodile in a pool and a collection of snakes in a small enclosure at the back.

The building presently serves as the Kandt House Museum outlining Rwanda’s colonial history and culture. It was Kandt who first allowed the entry of Indian and Swahili traders into the country in 1908. During this period, Kigali had a population of 2000 with 420 foreigners, mostly Arabs and Indians, besides 9 Germans!

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During World War I, Belgium took control of Rwanda-Burundi in 1916 and it wasn’t until 1962 that Kigali became the capital upon Rwandan independence. In April 1994, President Habyarimana’s plane was shot down near Kigali Airport, triggering the Rwandan genocide, where nearly a million people, mostly Tutsi and moderate Hutus were brutally murdered in premeditated attacks by the interim government.

The Kigali Genocide Memorial is a moving reminder of Rwanda’s tragic past, where locals often come to be reunited with their loved ones. Rwanda celebrates the 25th anniversary of the genocide in 2019 and April 7 is observed by the United Nations as the Day of Remembrance of the victims.

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We stopped by at Kigali’s iconic hotel, Hôtel des Mille Collines, named after the Belgian appellation for Rwanda during colonial rule – ‘Pays des Mille Collines’ (Land of a Thousand Hills). It became famous after 1,268 people took refuge here during the 1994 Rwandan Genocide. The story of the hotel and its manager Paul Rusesabagina (played by Don Cheadle) was immortalized in the film Hotel Rwanda.

It was unbelievable that the country had emerged from the Dark Ages in the late-90s into what is its Golden Age of development. It is a gritty story of healing, forgiveness and coming to terms with their past to build a better future. Today, Rwanda is one of the cleanest countries in Africa and Kigali is so clean, you could literally eat off the wide pavement-lined avenues!

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The last Saturday of every month is dedicated to community service work called Umuganda when the whole society comes together to clean or rebuild. Rwanda is also the safest country in Africa for women and the ease of doing business has been streamlined by merging all nodal agencies into RDB (Rwanda Development Board). You can open a business within 24 hours of landing here!

Back at Kigali Marriott we grabbed some ‘Question Coffee’ from a women’s co-operative at the Iriba Bar & Terrace and fried sambaza (local fish) sourced from Lake Kivu and brochettes (skewered meat cubes with roasted ibirayi or Irish potatoes). Interestingly, German soldiers and Belgian missionaries brought the potato to Rwanda in early 20th century and ibirayi is derived from uburayi meaning ‘that which comes from Europe’! After a relaxing Dead Sea mud therapy at the spa we whiled away the evening happy hours at the posh Executive Lounge.

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The hotel has special Indian, Asian and African theme nights, besides wine tastings and live jazz but we savoured some gnocchi and baked captain fish at their Italian restaurant Cucina. Our friend from an earlier trip to Zambia, Davidson Mugisha of Wildlife Tours Rwanda dropped by to show us a bit of Kigali’s legendary nightlife, as we barhopped from Riders at Kigali Heights to Fuchsia Lounge.

Kigali Marriott has an outlet of Go Kigali, which organizes local city tours and we set off on a half-day excursion the next day. The small boutique also stocks lovely handmade products sourced from all over Africa. Led by our friendly guide Colombe, we headed to Mount Kigali for a panoramic view over town. The pine forests were serene except for a troupe of furtive blue-balled Vervet monkeys.

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Our next stop was the Gaddafi Mosque, home to the Islamic Centre and a place of refuge during the genocide. Libyan leader Col Muammar Gaddafi was a popular figure here and roads, mosques and bakeries were named after him. Southwest of CBD, the suburb of Nyamirambo was the second part of the city to be settled. Belgian colonists established it in the 1920s for civil servants and Muslim Swahili traders.

Though most of the country follows Christianity, Nyamirambo is the Muslim Quarter. Masjid al-Fatah, better known as the Green Mosque, is the oldest mosque in town, dating back to the 1930s. With its busy nightlife and hip hangouts, Nyamirambo is hailed as the coolest neighbourhood in Kigali.

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We trawled local milk bars, cafes, mural walks and markets like Kimironko where Colombe taught us how to eat tree tomato and passion fruit like locals as we marveled at the rows of baskets heaped with rainbow-hued beans. We ended our tour with a traditional meal at Tamu Tamu – ugali (cassava porridge), stewed cassava leaves, goat curry, fish and aubergine curry, beef pilao, avocado and beans.

That evening we dropped by at Ikaze, a boutique for traditional Rwandan handicrafts and discovered little treasures to take home. We bought some more agasake peace baskets; symbolic of this tiny nation driven by the philosophy of ubumuntu or ‘greatness of heart’, teaching the world about the values of forgiveness, humanity and compassion.

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FACT FILE 

Getting there
The national carrier Rwand Air flies direct from Mumbai to Kigali in 7 hrs four times a week (Mon, Wed, Fri, Sat). www.rwandair.com

Where to Stay
Kigali Marriott Hotel www.marriott.com
Kigali Serena Hotel www.serenahotels.com
Hôtel des Milles Collines www.millecollines.rw/
Ubumwe Grande Hotel www.ubumwegrandehotel.com/

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Must Do
City tour with Go Kigali Tours, $60/person 9:30am-1pm, 2-6pm
Pay your respect at Kigali Genocide Memorial
Try the local ‘Question’ Coffee and Rwandan tea, besides local beers like Mutzig, Primus and Virunga
Feast on Rwandan cuisine at Tamu Tamu restaurant
Shop for agasake and souvenirs at Ikaze & Kimironko Market
Clubbing at Riders, Fuchsia, Coco Bean, Envy, K Club, Bougainvilla
Gorilla trekking with Wildlife Tours Rwanda www.wildlifetours-rwanda.com

For more info, www.visitrwanda.com

Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This is the unabridged version of the article that appeared on 3 Nov, 2018 in HT City, Hindustan Times newspaper.  

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