Breakfast at the Soko Restaurant of the Marriott Hotel in the Nyarugenge District of Kigali on that June morning was a feast. Apart from the vibrant and airy environment of the atrium style restaurant, the large array of African and Continental dishes on display was a gastronomic delight. Having missed dinner the previous night due to my late arrival in Kigali from Lagos, I was terribly famished and was rearing to do justice to the buffet style breakfast.
And as I tucked into the pancake, bacon and omelette breakfast, I noticed that the restaurant was filled with a large assembly of guests of different nationalities who judging from the identity tags on their necks, had come to attend different conferences. It was remarkable that Rwanda had now become a hub for international conferences and decision making meetings 25 years after its horrendous past. Apart from playing host to many important conferences and meetings, I was also informed that Rwanda has successfully put behind her ugly past of genocide to become an international tourism destination. From the little, clean and cozy capital city of Kigali to its thousand lush green rolling hills and the accompanying rattling plains teeming with abundant wildlife mostly mountain gorillas, the country is now a sought after tourism and cultural haven.
For many people, Rwanda is synonymous with the horrors of the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi, a horrific event that claimed the lives of hundreds of thousands of people. Thankfully today, Rwanda has a new story to tell about a country of hope offering one of the best investment climates in Africa, beautiful place for tourists to visit and most importantly, exciting prospects and new opportunities for its people.
I had come to Rwanda – The Land of a Thousand Hills- to attend the African Union/NEPAD Agency Training Workshop on African Union Model Law on Medical Products Regulation. The three-day workshop which was designed to leverage the roles of parliamentarians, civil society organisations and the media on Medical Products Regulation in the continent involved 40 participants drawn from the 5 African Union regions of West, East, Central, North and Southern Africa. In addition to the highly cerebral and educative workshop, I also took the opportunity of my visit to learn about contemporary Rwanda and its famous ‘come back’ story.
As the story went, on 6 April 1994, a plane carrying President Juvénal Habyarimana, a Hutu, was shot down. Following that incident, the genocide began. Hutu extremists belonging to the Interahamwe militia launched plans to destroy the entire Tutsi civilian population. Tutsi and people suspected of being Tutsi were killed in their homes and as they tried to flee the country. It is estimated that 500,000-1,000,000 Tutsi and politically moderate Hutu were killed in well-planned attacks on the orders of the interim government. After a long war of attrition, normalcy was finally restored on 4 July, a date now commemorated as the Liberation Day national holiday.
Located in Central and East Africa and bounded by Uganda, Tanzania, Burundi, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Rwanda with a population of 11,262,564 is one of the smallest countries on the African mainland. Kigali, its capital city with a population of 1.2 million, lies between the two mountains of Mount Kigali and Mount Jali. Kigali was made the capital upon independence in 1962.
Twilight was setting in Kigali from the encircling Kigali mountain when I joined some of the other workshop delegates on a visit to the Kimironko market in the Kigali neighbourhood of Remera one sunny day. Having been cloistered in the hotel for the duration of the workshop, the delegates who wanted to purchase some souvenirs before going back home the following day poured into the bustling and claustrophobic market with its narrow alleys and eye popping colourful overhanging merchandise. And so, for the next hour or so, various types of colourful and well produced Rwandan handicrafts and clothing were purchased as currencies changed hands. ( The local currency is the Rwandan Franc with an exchange rate to the United States Dollar of RWF 905.00 to US$ 1.00). So intense was the Kimironko visit that long after leaving the market, the cheerful din of the traders and haggling buyers continued to ring in my ears.
I thought that the best way to learn about Rwanda’s story was to interact more with the people and also visit some historical sites and museums in the country. Therefore, while most of the other conference delegates returned to their various destinations, I decided to stay back in Kigali for some sightseeing.
Even though Kigali’s public transport included buses (Matatus) as well as white and orange painted taxis, I was more fascinated by the colourful and solid looking commercial motorbikes (taxi moto) with their helmeted riders. The motorbike thereafter became my favourite form of transportation for the rest of my stay. Perched on a ‘taxi moto’ gliding across Kigali’s undulating and well swept roads, the wind on my face and the cheerful din of auto horns in my ears, I felt free and happy like a butterfly!
My first port of call was the Nigerian High Commission at 56, KG 13 Avenue, Nyarutarame, Gasabo District where I was warmly received by the High Commissioner, His Excellency Adamu Onoze Shuaibu and the Deputy Head of Mission, Mr Sunday Edem. Ambassador Shuaibu informed me that the Embassy was only opened in 2013. Before then, Nigeria was represented in Rwanda by the Ugandan Embassy. In view of the relatively young age of the Nigerian Embassy in Kigali, the offices and residential quarters are all rented while the office is run on a shoe string budget. I was also made to understand that Nigerians are very few in Rwanda. Apart from teachers who are on the Technical Assistance Corp project on the request of the Rwandan government, other Nigerians are students and visitors. In addition, some rich Nigerians also come to Kigali for ‘destination birthday parties and weddings’ which usually last all week long.
From the Nigerian Embassy, my ‘taxi moto’ groaned up the sharp incline of the Nyarugene Hill and took me to the central business district (CBD) of Kigali where several of Rwanda’s highest buildings, including the 20-storey Kigali City Tower as well as the headquarters of the country’s largest banks and businesses are located. The CBD, am told was sited towards the eastern edge of Kigali since the terrain in that part of the city was more suitable for expansion than the high slopes of Mount Kigali to the west.
Nyarugene Hill was also the site of the original city founded by Richard Kandt in 1907. Richard Kandt was the first colonial governor of Rwanda, on behalf of Germany, until the early 1900s. I decided to visit the house that Kandt lived in which is now a museum. The Kandt House Museum is one of the eight museums that make up the Institute of National Museums of Rwanda.
After paying an entry fee of 6,000 RWF, I was taken round the museum by Irembo, the tour guide assigned to me. I was well educated about Rwandan history through pictures, relics and monographs at the Kandt House Museum which was divided into three main parts. The first part presented Rwandan life in all its aspects – social, economic, and political – before the colonial period while the second part traced the experience of the Rwandan people during the colonial period. Following the Berlin Conference in 1884, the Germans ruled Rwanda until 1916, when the Belgians took over under the League of Nations Mandate after World War I. Richard Kandt’s life and deeds in Rwanda were covered here. The third part covered the history of Kigali, before, during and after the colonial era.
From my vantage position at the Kandt House Museum, I had a panoramic view of Kigali City as Irembo pointed out some important landmarks, including the beautiful and towering Mount Kigali from where the city took its name. ‘’Over there, are other important places such as the upmarket Serena, Marriott Hotel, the Genocide Memorial, Mille Collines hotels, the Kigali Convention Centre, the University Teaching Hospital of Kigali and the National University’s College of Science and Technology’’ Irembo said as I took my leave of the Museum.
Although I had been warned by friends who had previously visited Kigali to be emotionally prepared for my visit to the famous Kigali Genocide Memorial, I still had to fight back tears as I went through the heart rending and horrific sights at the Memorial. Located on KG 14 Avenue in Gisozi, the Memorial which commemorates the 1994 Rwandan genocide was opened in 1999 and is home to the remains of over 250,000 victims of the horrific event.
The remains of the victims of the genocide I was informed were brought to the Memorial from all over the capital after they had been left in the street or thrown in the river. They are buried together in lots of 100,000. Apart from being a permanent memorial to those who fell victim to the genocide, the centre also serves as a place in which the bereaved could bury their family and friends. The Kigali Genocide Memorial includes three permanent exhibitions, the largest of which documents the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi. The Education Centre, Gardens, and Genocide Archive of Rwanda form part of a meaningful tribute to those who perished, and provide a powerful educational tool for visitors and an exhibition on the history of genocide violence around the world.
The real tear jerker for me was the children’s memorial section where photographs of the victims, ranging from 2 months to 5 years were displayed. While some of the victims were butchered in their mother’s wombs, others had their heads smashed against the wall or were shot or decapitated with machete or clubbed to death.
On the day of my visit, I chanced on groups of visitors who had come to pay homage to their departed ones. As one of the survivors of the genocide, Theoneste Karenzi observed; ‘’The Kigali Genocide Memorial is like home. It is where I go to be with my relatives. You feel happy being close to your loved ones. But then it becomes a place of grief because they are gone. I go home after visiting the memorial and leave them there.’’
As I laid in bed that evening in my hotel room, my mind kept going back to the pictures, sounds and scenes of the genocide that had been played to me during my visit to the Memorial. And as the distant voices of the victims of the genocide came to me, my mind went back to my country, Nigeria. I recalled the poignant ‘WhatsApp’ message sent to me by my friend, Chris Ekong, a Professor of Geography at the University Of Uyo just before my arrival in Rwanda a few days earlier.
As Chris put it; ‘’ Wale, as you walk the streets of Kigali today, I remember the pains, death tolls, turmoil, and conflagration these humble but courageous Africans went through occasioned by the inducement of a small percentage of the population (greedy politicians, ethnic jingoists, and religious bigots) who would use anything including God’s name and the blood of fellow countrymen to gain power, which is just vanity. I wish Nigerians can know this history or even the history of their civil war. Today devilish politicians and religious leaders are using God’s name and ethnic and religious interests to put the country on fire. The major groups are being manipulated by the politicians to show their strength and damn the consequence and cries of the minority. The minorities are being encouraged by the same politicians to fight back even illegally with arms to establish their existence. The religious leaders who have parked their private jets and waiting to get out immediately the country is set on fire are urging on their members to start confrontations. Nigeria must not go through the Rwanda genocide way: the civil war experience must and should not be repeated’’
The emotion created by my visit to the Genocide Memorial will remain indelible in my mind forever. I will encourage those who have the chance to visit the Memorial to do so in order to learn how deep hatred can lead to unpleasant events of horrendous dimensions if not stemmed as early as possible. In addition, it is also important to see that the beauty of Rwanda and the rapid economic and social progress that was made in the last 25 years since the Genocide was not by chance. It was driven by the commitment of the Rwanda people and their government to eradicating poverty.
For example, over the last 14 years, Rwanda has had the 15th fastest growing economy in the world within Africa. If we remove countries from the sample, Rwanda has been the second fastest growing economy in Africa after Ethiopia. This is in spite of being 1,500km from the ocean, lacking rich minerals or a highly skilled population. Rwanda has expanded opportunities for education and health, agricultural extension services and information technology to the farthest reaches of the country. These facts are the conscious efforts of a people committed to building a better society, and not just gifts of nature.
The following day, just before dawn, I decided to go for a walk on African Union Avenue, the main artery of the Kigali suburb where my new hotel, Hill View Hotel, was located. As I walked along the undulating street with its very steep incline and sharp sloping grade, other keep fit buffs like me emerged from the early morning mist like ghosts from a Shakespearean play while policemen in their dark fatigues could be seen stationed at several sections of the road. Minutes later, I chanced upon a young school teacher, Emmanuel Irankunda, on his way to work. Emmanuel informed me that he had his elementary education in his village in the Western District before going to the College Of Education in Kigali to study Mathematics and Physics which he now teaches in a secondary school in Kigali. When I asked Emmanuel whether he is a Tutsi or Hutu, he replied that he is a Rwandan because it is now illegal for any Rwandan citizen to see him or herself as either a Tutsi or Hutu. Then lowering his voice he said; ‘’before now I was a Hutu, but now, I am a Rwandan’’.
After breakfast, I visited another historic Rwandan site, the Hotel des Mille Collines – The Hotel of a Thousand Hills- which is the setting for the famous and award winning film, Hotel Rwanda, which depicted some aspects of the Rwanda Genocide story. Since the hotel was a stone throw to my own hotel, all I did was to walk up the very sharp incline of the street behind my hotel, the Hill View Hotel and then trot down another sharp depression to the gate of the Mille Collines Hotel.
At the hotel entrance was a memorial flame in memory of some of the hotel staff who died during the inferno that engulfed the hotel which has been refurbished since that incident. According to the hotel manager, a new reception and an additional wing had been added to the hotel.
I was soon back on my ‘moto taxi’ on a visit to downtown Kigali where ‘matatus’ and private vehicles competed for space along well paved and clean undulating streets against a background of a hearty but orderly crowd of pedestrians.
On my last evening in Kigali, I had a late dinner of barbecued chicken, rice, spinach and fresh mango juice. It was a good meal. As I cracked the succulent chicken bones and licked the remains of the well spiced and tangy spinach sauce, I watched the ‘Friday Night Jam’’ on Rwandan Television where Nigerian musical superstar P Square and a number of other African musicians were featured. Dinner over, I moved to the hotel’s balcony and took a final look at the starry Kigali night.