We leave Lake Bunyonyi and Uganda in the rain. As soon as we set off on the back of a boda the heavens open; we chug our way up a hill beneath huge, dripping trees and along red roads that smell rich with soil. The boda drivers seem to think that we’re getting too wet so they stop their bikes and we sit in a little shelter with a couple of other guys for three-quarters of an hour until the rain stops. Our existence is a source of entertainment for the other guys who eye us and our bags, mutter a few words and burst out laughing at us. A couple of motorbikes pass with homemade umbrellas over driver and passenger and with plastic tarpaulin over the front to stop the spray and our drivers eye them enviously: Moz nudges our driver and suggests they should get one’ “Yes, an under-brella” he replies. We make it to Kabale and squeeze into a shared car and drive the half hour to the border. There’s a young man with a huge sack of popcorn who sings along tunelessly to the songs on his phone regardless of the radio playing from the front.
The border is a muddle of mud and moneychangers; we get our passports stamped out of Uganda and cross no-man’s-land passed parked lorries and wooden huts where I go back later to change our shillings into francs. It’s wet and I jump over puddles hoping I don’t slip and serve as another cause of hilarity.
Another shared car takes us on our way to Kigali, through rolling hills and tea plantations. Kids carry bundles of wood on their heads and two teenagers on bikes hold onto the back of a lorry, hitching a lift up a long uphill drag. We reach the capital and climb on the back of bodas; I’m encouraged by this new phenomenon that we haven’t yet encountered on our motorcycle diaries: a helmet! The better roads and the more powerful bikes means before we know it, we’re zipping between traffic and I close my eyes and hold on tight; Moz tells me afterwards that he squeezes his legs in tights as his guy overtakes a car into the path of an oncoming bus. (Perhaps don’t dwell too much on this bit, Mums).
The rain is back and the boda drivers stop at a little bar where we take shelter. The old men sitting there fuss around is bringing us chairs and a table; we buy a beer and a drink for the drivers and sit for a while waiting for the heavy rain to pass. When we finally reach our hostel, we find a big living room, squashy sofas and a receptionist who brings us African tea (masala tea boiled with milk, cardomon and ginger) to warm us up. We tuck our feet under us and sip the boiling tea, looking out over rain soaked Kigali.
The next morning thankfully dawns dry and bright and we sit out with more tea and a huge breakfast – the best we’ve had on our travels. Julia, a Dutch Masters student who has just landed from the Netherlands, sits with us and we chat a while then catch a ride into town and invite Julia along with us for the day. We’re dropped off in the old town, streets of tailors and hair salons and little shops, and walk to Nyamarimbo Women’s Centre which trains over 50 local women to become seamstresses and works to tackle gender inequality and poverty in the city. We wave to the ladies behind the sewing machines and browse their beautiful shop, promise to return to following day to buy some bits and pieces. If I could I’d buy the whole shop!
First impressions of the city are that it’s totally different to any African city I’ve been in: wide boulevards, green and very clean. The city, which witnessed the worst of the horrors of the genocide, seems a million miles from the accounts of the brutalities that we’d read about. It’s modern and really calm and so different from crazy Nairobi or steamy Mombasa. I was excited to explore more.
Next on our itinerary was Camp Kigali, the memorial to the 10 UN Belgian peacekeepers who were murdered on the 7th April 1994, triggering the start of the genocide. The peacekeepers had been deployed to protect the prime minister but were captured and brought to the Camp, then killed. As a result, the Belgian government then withdrew its presence which opened the floodgates for the Rwandan army and the Interahamwe (“those who stand together”) militia to begin the killing. What remains today is the bullet-sprayed building and 10 stone pillars which act as memorials, each carved with the peacekeepers’ initials and notched with their respective ages. I wandered past the building, touching the bulletholes and feeling the notches in the pillars; I can’t quite place the horrors of 1994 with the clean, smart and friendly city I’ve been walking in outside.
Next we walk along the boulevards, past embassies and fancy hotels, to reach the unassuming Hotel des Mille Collines. This hotel was the inspiration for the film Hotel Rwanda, based on the true story of the hotel manager Paul Rusesabagina who allowed refuge to Tutsis and moderate Hutus who were fleeing the city. He bribed the Interahamwe with alcohol and money in exchange for food and water and was later evacuated by the UN when the militia seized the hotel. Today its concrete and glass exterior tells nothing of the past and we paused in the car park to take a look, then walked on to find a coffee shop and rest our feet. It was nice to chat to Julia, and to find out more about her research: a month-long study on tourism in the Volcano National Park. The park recently doubled the cost of its gorilla permits to an eye-watering $1500 per person and she’ll be investigating the impact this change is having on local communities.
After a coffee we headed to a craft market, bought some more pieces, and then jumped on a boda to the east of the city to Inema Art Centre, a cultural space set up by two brothers and acting as a studio, dance space, events area and bar. We’re lucky as it’s Thursday – happy hour night – and we browse the galley, chat to some of the artists who are all really nice, and watch local kids from the area get involved in a dance rehearsal. Hungry after our day exploring, we go to a flashy sports bar and gobble down some pizza, duck out of going to a club with a guy who is trying to persuade us (though he does drag Moz up to dance for a bit) and make our way back to the hostel for bed. It’s been a brilliant day, seeing so many different sides to Kigali and I’m already a big fan of the city.
The last day in Kigali we are in a different hotel, partly so we can experience staying in downtown but mainly so Moz can watch the Manchester derby. It’s very odd when we leave our hostel in the south of the city and head into town; we’ve learnt that it’s Genocide Memorial Day and the whole country will spend the day inside and the following week in solemn mourning. The city is totally deserted and the streets empty as we ride through; it feels eerie and sad and, ironically, I can begin to imagine what the city was like during those days of madness – deserted and like a ghost town. We can’t do anything so spend the day relaxing, playing cards, I catch up on blogs and we call my Mum and Dad. The game kicks off and City start well then throw it all away; Moz is not happy. By evening, shops and restaurants have opened up and we go out for a conciliatory curry and beer which thankfully goes some way to cheering Moz up.
Tomorrow we’ll be heading off west to explore more of Rwanda but we promise Kigali we’ll be back in a few days time.