It’s odd that I can be standing in the middle of Africa and yet feel like I am at home in Australia. It’s my olfactory senses that are doing it; it’s the all too familiar smell of eucalyptus trees, the distinctive aroma the timber produces when someone takes to it with an axe or saw. And here, in Kigali, Rwanda, there are eucalyptus trees everywhere you look.
The eucalyptus trees are here because of Rwanda’s long-running national reforestation program. The Australian eucalyptus species has been chosen as they are drought-resistant, fast-growing, and provide a hardwood timber suitable for numerous uses. Many replantation areas, including streets and parks within Kigali, are planted with nothing but Australian species. It’s like they’ve taken a leafy street from western Sydney and transplanted it – pun intended 🙂 – in Rwanda.
Kigali was founded in 1904 when Rwanda was still a part of German East Africa. The city became the capital following Rwanda’s independence in 1962.
Kigali is built upon four prominent ridges, and also occupies, though to a lesser extent, the valleys in between. The Rwandan capital is green, thanks to the reforestation initiatives, and remarkably clean.
And I don’t mean just reasonably clean, or pretty clean; it is really, really, really clean; not a trace of litter to be seen. Every roadside verge and public park is in immaculate condtion. This is partly due to Rwanda’s ban on plastic bags, and partly due to the monthly Umuganda community service day.
Umuganda community service day
On the last Saturday of the month every Rwandan over eighteen years in age is expected to devote four hours of their day ensuring the country looks its finest. That means picking up litter – not that you can find any anyway – but also gardening, weeding, unclogging roadside drains, fixing broken pipes and footpaths, and planting trees..
Attendance is mandatory. Skip too many community days and you may be fined. It’s thought that approximately 80% of eligible participants take part each month.
Some Rwandans I spoke to said they loved the sense of community Umuganda community service day fostered. Others hated it, and likened it to forced labour.
Hôtel des Mille Collines a.k.a Hotel Rwanda
On April 6th 1994 longstanding tensions between the Hutus and Tutsis bubbled over when the plane that Rwandan president Juvénal Habyarimana was travelling in was shot down by unknown aggressors.
In the ensuing three months up to one million Tutsis were slaughtered in a nationwide genocide that was planned and implemented by elite members of the Hutu majority.
During the genocide the manager of Hôtel des Mille Collines, Paul Rusesabagina, turned the premises into a safe-haven for more than one thousand Tutsi refugees.
The story is the basis for the film Hotel Rwanda.
While the genocide tours make for a harrowing experience they are a must-do during your stay in Kigali.
Why are they a must-do? To ensure atrocities like this never occur again.
There are six major genocide memorial sites surrounding Kigali, two of which I list below.
Ntarama Church Genocide Memorial
Ntarama Church Genocide Memorial site was a functioning church at the time of the genocide. Five thousand Tutsis locked themselves inside the church at the outbreak of violence, hoping that the sanctity of the church would protect them. It didn’t.
The Hutu attackers blew holes in the walls and then lobbed grenades into the church. When the Tutsis inside tried to escape they were shot down. Others were hacked to death with machetes.
Nyamata Church Genocide Memorial
More than then ten thousand Tutsi were murdered at the Nyamata Church Genocide Memorial site. Here, if you wish, you may enter the church crypts where the skeletons of 50,000 genocide victims from the local region have been laid to rest. Many of the skeletons, you will notice, have had their skulls caved in by blunt instruments. A visit to the crypts isn’t for the faint hearted,
My guide, a resident of Kigali, broke down in tears in the middle of our tour. We tried to comfort her, but it still took several minutes before her convulsions began to ebb. Eventually she wiped her tears away and went on with her retelling of events.
It’s one thing to force yourself to listen to these tales of atrocity, another thing entirely to have lived through them.
Is Kigali worth a visit?
Yes! Kigali is clean, green, and safe. It makes a pleasant interlude in your exploration of East Africa. If you are planning on travelling around Rwanda then you are almost certain to be passing through Kigali anyway, so may as well make the most of it.
There are several large supermarkets in town for those who are travelling overland and need to stock up on supplies, and there are some decent cafes and restaurants for those who need to indulge in an occasional cappuccino (like me 🙂 ).
Practical information and how to reach Kigali:
Kigali is serviced by its own international airport. Interstate buses leave from Nyabugogo bus station. More transport info here.
Plastic bags are illegal in Rwanda. If these are seen on your person in the airport they will be confiscated.