The Cosmopolitan Heart of Africa

Kigali, Rwanda has the seventh nicest regional airport on the African continent. This I learned as I watched a uniformed man with exceptional customer service stamp my $30 tourist visa. Certainly the efficiency of Kigali’s immigration system factored into this respectable ranking, gleaned from a 2014 survey by Skytrax and, of course, touted in Rwanda’s leading (and only) daily, the New Times.

The Kigali airport is also home to what I affectionately call “Rwandan Starbucks.” Bourbon Coffee retains nearly every defining feature of its American counterpart: overpriced coffee, slightly less overpriced baked goods, and, of course, free Wi-Fi (complete with casual Wi-Fi patrons seemingly immersed in work-related emails and term papers).

Perhaps most fascinating about the serenity of the Kigali airport is that it betrays the serenity of its namesake city. It is illegal to touch or sit on landscaped grass in Kigali. “Moto” (motorcycle taxi) drivers carry passenger helmets out of legal obligation. Haggling with taxi drivers and in the city’s large Kimironko market remains a tame affair, and even foreigners reasonably expect to escape such encounters with pride and wallets intact. Police officers and military personnel establish a noticeable but not overbearing presence throughout the city, with crisp uniforms sure to challenge the “Dress Blues” of star-studded generals at the Pentagon. As the sun rises (at 6 a.m. daily), Rwandan men and women walk and bus to work in near-silent unison. Rwandan children and youth echo the silence of their elders on their way to schools and universities, schoolbooks dutifully open for sidewalk study sessions. The silent morning march appears as a meticulously crafted communal talent, much like the hill-scaling feats of high-healed Rwandan businesswomen or extended phone conversations held atop motorcycle taxis. Joggers greet the sunrise with a disciplined fervor, marching lock step in unison to the rhythms of Rwanda’s rolling hills. Traffic lights in Kigali put those of the American capital to shame—the green “walk” signal comes complete with a comically mobile figurine.

Kigali Up, an annual music festival, features the best of East African musical pioneers, and numerous music and film festivals, trade fairs, and sporting tournaments crowd the city’s tidy billboards. Weekends mean live concerts and art exhibitions at local, up-and-coming studios. “Living in Kigali” and “Eating in Kigali” serve as internet-based platforms to crowdsource citywide recommendations. Threads inform readers of Kinyarwanda tutoring sessions, hiking groups, recreational soccer leagues, the best hotel pools with bars and live music (Hotel Mille Collines and Manor Hotel are favorites), and places of worship for all faiths.

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The mobile app HelloFood continues to revolutionize the restaurant scene in Kigali. Intrepid customers can order anything from local favorites like brochette (barbequed meet on a stick) and matoke (grilled or fried green banana) to crepes, pizza, and falafel with a few clicks of a keypad and a 1,000 Francs (about $1.50 US) delivery fee. Culinary opportunities abound and the intrepid eater may find him or herself in India, Belgium, Kenya, the DRC, China, the United States, or Japan, complete with a dinner-hour view of star-studded hillscapes.

Public transit likewise functions as a point of pride for Kigali and greater Rwanda. The country’s small size conceals an abundance of easily accessible natural landmarks: Musanze and Volcanoes National Park in the Northwest (think mountains, craters, caves, and gorillas), the waves of Lake Kivu greeting Gisenyi (now Rubavu) and Kibuye in the West, Nyungwe forest and primate tracking in the Southwest, and safari destination Akagera National Park in the East. Nyungwe Forest, which punctuates the hilly journey from Kigali to the Rwandan border town of Cyangugu, also houses the Congo Nile Trail, a 227km trail from Rubavu in the North to Rusizi in the South. Bikers and hikers alike seek out the Congo Nile as an indie East African escape and the genesis for long-term bragging rights. From Kigali, bus trips to the country’s outer environs average between two and four hours and 3 to 10 USD round-trip. Ticketed buses leave at scheduled times and traverse steep but well-manicured highways, lulling passengers into oblivion with an eclectic combination of French love songs, Nigerian pop music, and American country hits.

Kigali no doubt bears similarity to its regional neighbors in east Africa. Meticulously manicured highways give way to red-dirt paths to rural environs, enveloping travelers in dust during the dry season. Roadside shops tempt pedestrians with frivolities such as chapatti and samosas and staple items like eggs, salt, flour, and sugar. Bars serve Primus beer and serve as gathering places to rally behind Premier League allegiances or nurse loyalties to African teams. Football pitches rarely remain vacant during the afternoon hours and on weekends.

Kigali, however, is not Kampala. It is not Nairobi. As French and Belgian influences give way to English (and decidedly EAC) standardization, Rwandans converse effortlessly in Kinyarwanda. Banking tycoons and tech innovators cluster in the city’s center, eager to make good on Rwanda’s promised evolution into the “East African Singapore,” while at the city’s edge women grow, transport, and sell bananas, avocado, and beans. Kigali merges old new in a distinctly cosmopolitan construction of the “Heart of Africa.”