Over Christmas break I had the opportunity to spend a month in Rwanda. Having never before visited the country, and with little experience traveling in east Africa, I was both excited and laden with trepidation. Rwanda is a tiny, land-locked country roughly the size of Haiti, wedged between Uganda, Burundi, Tanzania and the volatile Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). It boasts a population of a little over 12 million, about a million of which live in the cosmopolitan capital of Kigali.
Kigali is an extremely developed city and is the cultural, economic and political centre of Rwanda. As one of the safest and cleanest cities in Africa, it is quite popular with long-term expats, and you are likely to meet many if you spend more than a couple days there. The city provides a litany of exotic restaurants and a bustling nightlife, with a wide variety of clubs in nearly every district. I was able to go out several times with some expat friends I made while there, most memorably on New Year’s Eve, when a massive party was thrown at the five-star Serena hotel and the festivities lasted until well into the morning. Though for the majority of the trip I was largely based in Kigali, I also had the opportunity to explore Akagera, a national park in eastern Rwanda, and Gisenyi, a resort town on Lake Kivu. Akagera was an eclectic blend of lush forest and savannah, with a plethora of wildlife. I was fortunate enough to see zebras, giraffes, baboons, and topi, a variety of east African antelope. Gisenyi was also beautiful, though much less developed than its city counterpart.
The main point of interest there is swimming in the expansive Lake Kivu, which straddles the border between Rwanda and DRC, and is about 2,700 square kilometres, making it the sixth largest lake in Africa. The most coveted residential option is undeniably the Serena Kivu branch, which overlooks its own private beach and is surrounded by tropical gardens. Bikini Tam-Tam, a local bar, is definitely a highlight, set literally on the water and offering a spectacular view. Gisenyi is also known for its proximity to Goma, being merely 8km from the DRC border. I was able to actually walk up and touch the border crossing, though of course as an American citizen I was unable to pass without a visa. Midway through my time in Rwanda I managed to acquire an internship with a Rwandan daily, The New Times, as well as pen a new blog.
During my two-week stint working for the company, I had the opportunity to interview the president of AZMJ (a micro finance consultancy firm), an American anthropologist studying the Batwa, and a Rwandese rapper named Diplomate. I had hoped to make a weekend trip to a neighbouring city such as Kampala or Bujumbura, but time constraints prevented me rom doing so. Fortunately I’ll be interning with The New Times again this summer, so hopefully I’ll have the chance to explore the region further. In this role I hope to write a piece on Congolese sapeurs (a sartorial subculture) and with the per permission of my managing editor, I may be able to make a short trip to DRC in June.
Rwanda’s political situation is remarkably stable, with Transparency International ranking it the least corrupt nation in the region. This is in marked contrast to Museveni’s corrupt administration in nearby Uganda and Salva Kiir’s dictatorial behaviour in South Sudan. Additionally, Rwanda is a surprisingly progressive community, as the only country with a female majority in the national parliament. Though its well-deserved moniker ‘The Switzerland of Africa’ makes Rwanda by far the most expensive country in east Africa, the cost of living is still significantly lower than in a European city like London or even Edinburgh. Many of the associations commonly made with Rwanda are tied up in the 1994 genocide, and with the 20th anniversary fast approaching on 6 April, many articles and discussions revolve around the ramifications of this tragedy for both the people and the international community. Kagame’s administration strongly enforces a ‘unified Rwanda’, and using ethnic delineations like Hutu and Tutsi is strongly discouraged. As a leader who played an instrumental role in ending the genocide, Kagame is one of the most popular presidents on the continent, having been re-elected in 2010 by an overwhelming 93 per cent majority.
Rwanda is a small but fascinating country and an emerging nation of increasingly global significance, boasting an 8 per cent annual GDP growth and providing UN peacekeeping missions to both Central African Republic and South Sudan. With a rich culture that extends far beyond the genocide, and remarkably hospitable people, Rwanda provides both a welcome escape and a culturally immersive experience.
The author’s blog can be found online at nothingtodeclarekigaliedition.blogspot.com.