Today I think I finally began to get a sense of Kigali.
Due to my horrible sense of direction, it’s taken me a while to begin to understand the pace and layout of the city, but after a day of exploration by foot and moto, I’m starting to settle into the geography of this place.
Our scheduled lecturer for the day had to cancel last minute and head out of the country, leaving us with an extra day of wandering. We met as a class in the morning and checked in with everybody about our living situation and how we’re all doing so far (no complaints, except the fact that the internet connection we were promised only works for about ten minutes a day). Then we pretty much had the rest of the day to ourselves.
I sat around with one of the local students, N., and showed him photos of home: a little apartment in Centretown, Ottawa, complete with a cat named after an art nouveau painter, parents and sister posing in front of the ocean, a bearded boyfriend cradling his guitar, and poutine. N. showed me photos of his campus and classmates, of him with headphones on, sitting in a radio newsroom, his family gathered together, shoulder to shoulder in front of a landscape of huge, green leaves. He was impressed by the “development” of the Vancouver skyline and confused by the allure of fries with gravy and cheese curds. It was a wonderful (and often hilarious) exchange of culture.
After looking at photos, N. and I went for a long walk with another Canadian student, Meag, and a Rwandan student, D. Meag and I brought cameras and the four of us traded them around, photographing the area and each other. The conversation as we strolled is some of the best and most comfortable I’ve had since getting here.
I find I’m learning so much from the local students. They’re smart and they know their city and culture well. And they’re interested in journalism and the world, in history and reconciliation and the future, which makes them fascinating to speak with. They’re also young and funny. They like sports, pop culture, and are interested in the foreign practices that surround dating in and marriage in Canada. In short: they’re great to talk with.
Family is a common topic of discussion. My journalist partner, C., told me that she is one of ten children. Yesterday, N. showed me photos of his mother. A woman I met told me bluntly, “My parents are dead. Genocide.”
I have been asked often by both Canadians and Rwandans about the composition of my own family. My brother died about a year ago and since then I’ve been struggling to navigate the best way to answer the question, “Do you have siblings?” Here, though, so many lives have been lost. So many brothers taken.
It lends some perspective to my own life, and though it does nothing to ease the pain I will always feel about my personal loss (nor does it do anything to give me insight into what it is like to experience genocide), it does take some of the awkwardness out of the question. I feel more comfortable answering honestly, knowing (for tragic reasons) that the person with whom I’m speaking won’t feel surprised and uncomfortable at the honest answer: “Three. My younger sister, an older brother, and my oldest brother died about a year ago.” Nobody asks how. They just nod and say they’re sorry.
After an hour of walking and conversation, N., D., Meag, and I returned to the house just in time for lunch.
After lunch, Meg and I set out to find internet with another Canadian, Simon. We took motos downtown and tried a coffee shop, the Rwandan Starbucks, called Bourbon. No luck with wifi, but we did get “iced African coffee”—espresso with milk, ginger, and a dollop of real whipped cream.
From there, we moto-ed to a local hostel we’d heard had good wifi. Moto-ing is a great way to buzz through the city. It’s cheap and much less terrifying than you’d expect. The breeze is pleasant and it gives you a chance to peek into the little shops you zip by, or look out across valleys and onto the neighbouring hills, crowded with red rooftops.
There is a surplus of hair salons here (though the signs seem to often spell it “saloon”). Many of them have photos of American rappers painted or posted by the doors. Ludacris is a popular hair model.
Unfortunately the power was completely out at the hostel, but we sat and read for a while anyway before going back to the house. The class regrouped at home and we all got dressed to go out for dinner to the Hôtel des Mille Collines, the setting for the famous film Hotel Rwanda.
During the genocide, the Mille Collines was a safe haven for those fleeing violence, a small pocket of relative safety in the centre of the city. The hotel’s manager, a Hutu himself, has been praised far beyond Hollywood for his heroism, but in recent years, he has fallen out of favour with Kagame government. He lives in exile now.
Instead of hiring taxis, Allen somehow managed to rally fifteen motos to take us to the historic hotel. We opened the gate to our compound and were faced with a hilarious row of drivers, waiting for us all to hop on. They seemed to find the situation just as funny as we did. In an impressively coordinated effort, they waited until we were all mounted before taking off into the night in unison, dodging around each other and laughing with us at the spectacle we were all making: fifteen muzungus on motos, riding through the heart of Kigali.
We sat outside by the pool at the Mille Collines and ordered drinks and food to celebrate the birthday of one of our students, Melissa. The conversation grew in volume and hilarity over the course of the meal, so that by the end my eyes were watering from laughter.
Before leaving, Simon and I took a walk around the famous pool, which is shown in both Hotel Rwanda and Sometimes in April. As I’ve felt so many other times about this city, I found it difficult to understand how this ritzy resort, complete with a turquoise swimming pool, would have looked during the spring of 1994, when so many people sought refuge there.
We returned home and sat around for a while, laughing and joking around, teasing the one classmate whose moto took a wrong turn and delivered him to the wrong neighbourhood (he made it home eventually).
As everybody else filed out and headed to bed, I called Ottawa for the first time since getting here. I spoke briefly to my boyfriend for the first time in a week, trying to explain everything I’ve been seeing and doing here but failing to capture it all. It was really nice to hear the voice of a loved one and share some of the thoughts I’ve had since getting here.
I did the math and figured that my parents are still at work, so I’ll call them in the morning and treat myself to the sound of their voices too, and try to explain this place and these people and how I feel like I’m finally beginning to understand my coordinates in this city of hills, friendly people, motos, and hair saloons.