Destination - Kigali
Written by Cody Winn Photography by Jialiang Gao
Rwanda’s mountain forests and rolling hills have always been a picturesque destination. With Qatar Airways launching flights to Kigali, see how the capital city’s modern charms overcome a tragic past.
The first sign you’ll see upon arrival warns that in order to keep the country clean, plastic bags are prohibited. The drive into the city passes over smooth roads following orderly traffic. Pedestrians cross the street only at crosswalks, avoiding well-manicured grass dividers. Plastic bags aren’t the only litter absent – there’s virtually no trash at all.
Welcome to Kigali, a city that belies stereotypes not just of the typical African capital city but also of its shocking past.
It’s undeniable that for many people, Rwanda is primarily associated with the terrible genocide of 1994 – a history that seems impossible to recover from. But in the calm, friendly streets of present-day Kigali, it’s almost inconceivable to imagine the atrocity taking place. Fortunately, while visitors are not directly confronted with signs of the tragic past, it is not swept under the rug either. Remembrance meetings and marches commonly take place around town. The Kigali Genocide Memorial Centre, which offers a powerful tribute to those who were killed, is a must-visit in order to understand the context of the events.
But even as Rwanda remembers its past, it looks forward to the future. Rwanda is a country on the rise, and there’s a palpable feeling of optimism around Kigali. As President Paul Kagame explains: “We will not forget the genocide, but we will not be defined by it either.”
Local artists embody this positive, enterprising spirit of the Rwandan people. Uburanga and Ivuka, two thriving cooperatives of self-taught painters, welcome visitors into their sunny neighbourhood studios. Most of the artists have acquired their skills only within the last few years, but their work is already being featured in galleries from Nairobi to New York. The friendly artists are also happy to talk about their efforts teaching art to less fortunate members of the community.
Kigali is also home to a number of artisan cooperatives and arts-based community organisations, who make decorative objects from everyday materials such as magazine paper and straw. The colourful designs of the uniquely Rwandan crafts transcend their modest origins. Periodically, craft exhibitions feature works from many of these community organisations, and Rwanda Nziza, a new shop near downtown Kigali, offers artisans a space to showcase directly.
You may also notice striking, geometrically patterned paintings on the walls of many Rwandan businesses and homes. These are not typical works of art – take a sniff and you’ll discover why. These traditional paintings are crafted from cow dung by a cooperative in the village of Nyakarimbi. You can arrange a visit to watch the artists at work, or buy the paintings in craft markets around town.
Besides the arts, Kigali offers some interesting neighbourhoods to explore. The downtown area around the glittering new Kigali City Tower is the hub of economic activity, and given the progress of the country, will look even newer by your next visit. Nearby Nyamirambo, a bustling district of West African restaurants, mosques, and shops decorated with bright murals, is a fascinating place to stroll. For a different perspective, drive around Kiyovu or Nyarutarama and admire the leafy neighbourhoods and immaculate houses. Some of Kigali’s nicest restaurants, notably Select and Zen, can be found on these cobblestoned residential streets.
Take a break from the exploration by settling into a café and sampling Rwanda’s primary exports – coffee and tea, some of the best in the world. Bourbon Coffee, Papyrus, and Shokola Lite all serve delicious drinks and pastries, and their hip décor wouldn’t seem out of place in Paris or New York.
While the comforts of Kigali are easy to settle into, the most stunning features of Rwanda lie in the lush rolling hills covering the countryside. The hills are blanketed by a patchwork of terraced plots, with countless green hues interspersed with reddish-brown soil. Well-maintained roads provide a pleasant drive, or even a stunning bike ride for adventurous road cyclists. Rivers and bright green tea plantations snake through the valleys below the road. Every corner turned presents a new photo opportunity. Occasionally towns, often with a hive of colourful activity around the outdoor market, break up the placid scenery.
Tucked away in the northwest of the country, dense mountain forests are home to perhaps the most famous Rwandan inhabitants – the mountain gorillas. For many visitors, the opportunity to observe the endangered gorillas in their natural environment is the motivation for coming to Rwanda, and this awe-inspiring experience lives up to even the loftiest expectations. But as Rwanda continues to march onward, there are plenty of other experiences that can be taken away from this country. Just don’t try to take anything in a plastic bag.
Nyungwe National Park
The source of the Nile River is disputed, but a 2006 expedition claimed to prove that it springs from Nyungwe Forest in southwest Rwanda. This large rainforest has a number of hiking trails that wind through hidden ravines and giant tree canopies to remote waterfalls. Look out for no less than 280 bird species, especially the unforgettable great blue turaco, which is the size of a chicken but a garish blue, green, and yellow colour. Two visitor centres can arrange hikes to track elusive chimpanzees. Nyungwe Forest Lodge, within a tea plantation just outside the park, blends in organically with its surroundings and makes an atmospheric base from which to explore.
The western border of Rwanda is dominated by picturesque Lake Kivu, where forested hills drop down towards calm blue water. Guesthouses near the towns of Gisenyi and Kibuye offer relaxing lakeside getaways, including the luxury Serena Hotel. A number of islands dot the lake and can be explored by boat. Strangely, one small island is home to a family of confused cows that swim back and forth to the mainland.