Writer, traveler, maker


Travel updates and occasional commentary

Kigali day 2: 'The Singapore of Africa'

My last day in Rwanda last August turned out to be the day of President Paul Kagame's inauguration to another term (of seven years, I believe), so many businesses were closed for the holiday.

Since the genocide memorial remained open, I took a car taxi there after lunch. It was the only such place I had time to visit, but Kigali had many other sites from the mass murder of spring 1994, including several churches where leaders shamefully admitted the Hutsis, letting them in to kill the hundreds or even thousands (?) of Tutsis who'd sought refuge.

Not all Christians did so, but the day before, my guide, Sheba, told me Islam gained converts after the war because of how some Muslims helped shelter Tutsis. (Before the genocide, Muslims had more of an outsider status and probably faced some discrimination.)

It took me at least two hours to go through the memorial, which included a short film, exhibits, background on the European colonizers' role in creating the racial categories used to distinguish Tutsis and Hutsis, articles found on the bodies of those put in mass graves, and even some of the skulls of those killed. Outside, in the gardens, a large burial ground provides a place for loved ones to come and visit their relatives' remains, though many bodies may never be recovered.

When I finally returned to my taxi driver, who had waited for me, I was grateful to have someone I could talk to, though we didn't discuss the memorial much and his English proved rather limited.

Soon, the immediate problem of traffic consumed us. Police had closed some roads due to the inauguration, so traffic barely moved in places. After several minutes crawling up one hill, I realized I would be late for a 6 p.m. coffee appointment with a physician friend -- and we hadn't even reached our planned ATM stop yet! People could walk up a short stretch of road we needed to take, but police had closed it to cars.

Finally, I had my driver stop, gave him a $10 bill and most of my remaining Rwandan money and hoofed it up to the traffic circle, where I caught a moto-taxi. I made it to the coffee shop near the convention center just in time -- and shortly before it started to rain.

Once inside the shopping center's ubiquitous security check, Alex greeted me warmly. I'd met him through a story I wrote for my employer last year, but meeting now on his home soil, we were fast friends. Over tea and the sound of the rain, he told me more about Kagame's presidency, from the plastic-bag ban to a public health policy that's reduced infections related to going barefoot. Some people describe Kagame as a benevolent dictator, but Alex had much praise for his reforms.

At one point, his description of the restrictions reminded me of Singapore, and I said so. Alex became animated. "Yes! In fact, some people call us 'the Singapore of Africa.'" Googling more later, I learned that Kagame himself aspires to this, even working with Singaporeans on certain development programs and actively learning how they've solved some of the same problems Rwanda has (small country, few natural resources, etc.)

After our drinks, Alex accompanied me on two final errands: to a bookstore and the supermarket. Shopping for souvenirs underscored some of the economic challenges we'd discussed earlier. At the grocery store, I found coffee, tea, banana wine and ground nuts from Rwanda, but nearly all manufactured goods were imported from the Middle East or China. I could not find candy, soap, housewares or toys made in Africa.

Bearing my paper bags home, I said goodbye to Alex and repacked for the final time that trip.