Day 1: Flight to Kigali + Check in at Pili Pili
There were three of us so we eschewed a traditional hotel in favor of a bed and breakfast-type accommodation. Pili Pili was perfectly delightful – although as a popular restaurant/club, it was also quite loud on some nights. Still, we appreciated the amenities and it was convenient to pop in for breakfast or a snack when we were too pressed for time to go anywhere else.
We settled in and had dinner at Poivre Noir, a Belgian/French restaurant with a great wine selection.
- Living in Kigali’s review of Poivre Noir
Day 2: Art + Heaven
For a country that was devastated by political turmoil and genocide less than 30 years ago, Rwanda’s capital is remarkably well-maintained. The roads are clean, the people are friendly, and the city is so safe that you might even call it boring. The vibe almost reminded me of another capital city that is so safe and clean that my love for the absurd and peculiar felt like a stain against a sterile backdrop; so maybe Kigali is the Ottawa of Africa (speaking as someone who has been to precisely two African countries).
It’s not to say that the merits of creative expression are lost on Rwandans. Our first stop was at Inema Arts Center, a gallery and workspace founded by two brothers and self-taught painters. It’s a beautiful space full of contemporary art and even garnered enough interest to warrant coverage by the New York Times.
As a compulsive shopper living in an increasingly overflowing box that I call home, the purchase of souvenirs is out of the question, but I allow myself a painting here and a sculpture there while travelling. This was one of the many times in Rwanda that I wished my suitcase was infinitely larger so that I could bring a few pieces back with me.
Lunch was at Heaven, a restaurant and boutique hotel opened by an American couple who wanted to create a business that also provided vocational training and employment for young adults in Rwanda. There’s a lot of social enterprise in Kigali – it was my reason for being there too.
Day 3: Genocide Memorial
Due to scheduling quirks, I ended up visiting the Genocide Memorial twice. There’s a lot to take in so I don’t think this was a misuse of time. The initial part of the (audioguide) tour covers the state of the country before the genocide. Then it moves onto the thick of mass murders, including quite graphic imagery and videos, and finally, the aftermath is described.
As a Canadian, I learned the absolute bare minimum about the genocide in school but there at the memorial was a larger-than-life photo of Romeo Dallaire, the French-Canadian lieutenant who served as Force Commander of the UN peacekeeping force for Rwanda. The mission failed, obviously, but he was a hero. He tried to seize the arms that an informant said would be used to attack the Tutsis but the action fell beyond the UN’s peacekeeping mandate. I won’t get into the intricacies and complexities of international law here but it is heartbreaking to acknowledge, in hindsight, all the things that could have been done to prevent the deaths of a million people. Imagine ten thousand sentences that all start with “if only”.
A decade later, Dallaire was appointed to the Canadian Senate. Nearly a decade after that, I read in the local paper that a black BMW hit a lamppost by Parliament Hill because its driver had suddenly became unconscious. Dallaire never got over the horrors of the genocide and struggled with post-traumatic stress disorder his whole life. He had trouble sleeping and literally fell asleep at the wheel that day.
(There were no casualties from the accident, by the way. His airbag deployed, saving his life, and Ottawa’s low population density meant no pedestrians or other cars were close enough to be struck.)
The Memorial also covered other genocides around the world – the Holocaust, Pol Pot’s reign of terror in Cambodia. There was also a room full of bones and skulls – victims of the genocide. I’ve been in enough Italian churches that skeletal remains don’t usually faze me but something about the recency of those body parts – it was only two and a half decades ago that these people were alive – sent me running out of the room after a couple minutes.
That evening, we went to Repub Lounge, a restaurant/club serving traditional Rwandan cuisine. They have live music on some nights. We were entertained by a fellow New Yorker in the form of a singer-songwriter named Koojo.
Day 4: City Tour + Mount Kigali
I’m one of those embarrassing people that take the double-decker bus tours because sometimes I just want to sit down and be spoonfed the sights. This is typically done after a late night out. I did that in Berlin, I did that in Havana and I wanted to do that in Kigali. Double-decker bus tours aren’t really a thing in Kigali so we found the next best thing: the Go Kigali City Tour. Now, I have my gripes about this tour but all-in-all, it was a good way to see the city and get a taste (literally and figuratively) of the local culture.
My favorite part was going up Mount Kigali. I’ve never equated serenity with monkeys before yet both were present at the peak. Rwanda is called the land of a thousand hills and it’s exceedingly evident why.