Three days in Kigali

Last night I got back to Uganda after the aforementioned roadtrip to Kigali. I’ve got a few reactions to share. Caveats: This is neither scientific nor comprehensive. I didn’t see the whole city (though I walked around a lot of it) or poll a significant sample of Rwandese. These are just some things that struck me as interesting. If someone wants to chime in with more thoughts, please do.

My first impression is that Kigali is a very clean, nice looking city. The paved roads alone make it a treat compared to Kampala (where activists recently celebrated National Pothole Day). There was ongoing construction, with many of the remaining dirt roads being paved. There was also less traffic than in Ugandan cities: fewer cars, fewer motorcycle taxis, and fewer people crowding on the streets. The comparative population density explains part of it: Kampala is 1.4 million people in 176 sq km, while Kigali is 1 million people in 730 sq km. Strikingly, there were very few people selling things on the sidewalk.

Saturday morning was especially interesting. The last Saturday of every month is umuganda (“contribution”) in Rwanda. All businesses are closed as people take part in communal cleaning and public works projects. It was kind of eerie to walk around the empty streets.

I walked to the cafe where I planned to have breakfast, intending to just sit outside until it opened. I ended up chatting for the better part of an hour with the security guard who worked at the forex next door. He is in his mid- to late-20s, and I never caught his name, so let’s just call him “Jimmy”. He explained that security guards still go to work during umuganda.

Jimmy asked me where I was from. I told him that I was from the United States, but that I’d been in Uganda for the past month. He said that he was born in Uganda. I happen to know a few things about Rwanda’s history, so his age and the fact that he was born in Uganda made me wonder if he’d been part of the Tutsi refugee population living there prior to the early 1990s. I asked how long he’d been in Kigali, and he replied that he had been in Kigali for 6 or 7 years, but that he’d been in Rwanda for 16 years. He told me this it with a look that said, “You and I both know what happened 16 years ago.” I quickly learned that his parents had fled Rwanda in the 1960s, and had lived in Uganda until the Rwandan Patriotic Front drove the genocidaires out and took power in 1994.

We didn’t talk much about the genocide itself. In fact, he likened Rwanda post-genocide to Japan post-atomic bomb drop: Rwanda’s best path forward is to rebuild and develop without focusing too much on the tragedy that happened. Despite the “moving on” ethos, he was unabashed about identifying as Tutsi. He feels that having tribes isn’t necessarily bad. After all, there are tribes everywhere in the world, including the United States. It’s okay to be Tutsi or Hutu as long as that is not the identity — the identity must be Rwandese.

Of course, we talked about Kagame as well. Jimmy recognizes that African presidents stay around too long, but “African nations lack democracy” so maybe some stability is better. 20 or 25 years with Kagame as president would be okay with him.

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I haven’t got much in-depth political analysis for you. I still don’t know the country well enough to say anything worthwhile. I did read an issue of the New Times, which had such glowingly positive stories about Kagame’s government that it makes Uganda’s New Vision look almost dissident (it’s not).

If you want perspective, you should read this week’s Economist article on the recent shooting of a dissident Rwandan officer after he fled to South Africa. I also highly recommend Texas in Africa’s commentary on Rwanda: e.g., see here for analysis and background on the shooting of Lieutenant-General Nyamwasa, here on the recent release of American lawyer Paul Erlinder, and here for discussion on America’s reactions to Kagame’s more autocratic tendencies.