Rwanda Reclaimed! by Kwama Thompson

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Landing at about 10pm aboard @FlyRwandair’s direct flight WB220 from Accra to Kigali, I was welcomed by the balmy Kigali breeze once I stepped onto the tarmac, like an embrace of an old friend.

The immigration process was brief and seamless. The officer scanned my travel documents, I answered the few questions mostly about my purpose for visiting and the duration of my stay and was soon off to the luggage collection area, where bags were already on the belt for each traveler to pick theirs.

I took a cart and quickly collected and loaded my luggage and headed out of the airport to begin my eight-day adventure of Rwanda.

This was my first time to visit Rwanda. To be honest, this was the first time I was visiting another African country besides my native Ghana but thanks to the extensive research I had done prior to the visit and the warm engagements I had had with the Rwandan High Commission team in Accra, I felt at ease in this country ranked the safest place for a lone traveler, especially women.

Traveling alone in a new land, this particular global ranking of lone traveler safety was a great relief especially in the knowledge of the many stories of nightmares that fill the internet on terror experiences that some people have had elsewhere.

At the arrivals, many people were waiting and some held placards with names of the expected arrival or an institutional brand for identification.

The most visible of these were branded with “Rwanda Development Board” which I later learnt was the Rwandan agency responsible for marketing the country’s tourism and business potential to attract both local and foreign investments.

After scanning the waiting area, I did not see my name on any signages so I quietly called out, “Bosco!” And there he was smiling broadly. He reached out and shook my hands, then embraced me.
The embrace was a surprise but we had talked and texted each other several times before my flight, so it was okay. It even added to a homely feeling on arrival.

Bosco quickly collected my luggage cart and led me to the car on our way to Kamau Palace Apartments in Kacyiru.
Driving through the first digitalized traffic light, Bosco laughed as he told me about a traffic ticket he got recently, which he said he needed to clear soon before it accrued late-payment fines.

A day prior to my arrival, my Kigali booking at the Kigali Gardens Apartment had for some reason flopped and had it not been for Bosco’s willingness to go above and beyond his assignment as my driver for the stay to help find another rental within my budget, I may have struggled.

Here we were driving the brightly lit and evidently neat Kigali streets, chatting joyfully like close friends.
In the chitchatting, I told Bosco about my love for music and dance to which he beamed in response “I love dancing too”.

With the confessed mutual love for good music, Bosco said he knew a place where a good band would be playing that night and without second thoughts, I obliged to the recommendation to check Fuchsia Bar Lounge on my first evening in Rwanda.

Amazing, polyrhythmic dance music was blaring as Bosco drove just past the entrance to a parking spot. It was about midnight and enough people were milling outside enjoying the music and the cool Kigali breezes.
It had been a while since I had been in the company of such a lively happy people dancing on a Sunday night and minding their business!! Fuchsia was the right stimulus for my first day in Kigali. The place was jam packed with people dancing, laughing, drinking, eating and talking loudly, a full contrast to what I had been told about Rwandans being reserved.

The band on stage was called “The Cool Band” and they were cracking out some good rhythms and sounds and I was thrilled. Bosco eased us into the crowd and a waiter somehow made space by easing a round table and two stools in front of us. I did not sit at all. The music would not let me. It was strong, polyrhythmic Afrikan music, the way I like it! I just danced and drank some black label and danced and danced till we left sometime after two a.m of my first day in Rwanda. It was a magnificent night and I could have danced some more!

Kigali had me hooked. Dancing to the Cool Band’s incredible music on my first night was a perfect start for a soul as mine with my background as a lead artist on a band many years ago. This very first taste of Rwanda elevated my enthusiasm to a new high. It was a great way to begin discovering what of the many good things said about Rwanda is actually true.

After breakfast, Bosco arrived at about nine o’clock for the visit to the Kigali Genocide Memorial. I wanted to go there first, to learn the facts and history and the whys of the heinous events of early 1990s Rwanda which I had heard a lot about.

All I know is that those events interrupted Rwanda’s life cycle and scarred the nation’s soul. Globally, you say Rwanda and people automatically think genocide, as if the word Rwanda is synonymous with only pain, turmoil and trauma. This is not entirely untrue because residual haunting memories still prevail as I would learn.

There were many people at the Genocide Memorial on this particular Monday. My visit fell within the annual 100 days observed in remembrance of the genocide against the Tutsi.

Security was tight at the entrance and a certain somberness permeated throughout the complex. The genocide victims’ testimonial video weighed on my heart. In the main building, were pictures and stories of Rwandan families, mothers and fathers, sisters, brothers, relatives and friends; they had all been mercilessly slaughtered by their own. I could not fathom such deep hatred that would cause adults to murder even innocent children; those children would have been thirty or forty years old today. Looking at their smiling faces in the pictures brought burning tears to my eyes and my head started pounding. I needed some fresh air, so I told Bosco we should leave the building. He said we could return on another day and I agreed, though I knew I would not.

I could not stop imagining the pain of the survivors of the genocide, who, unlike myself who was only seeing facts of history, had lived through those horrific 100 days and carried the burden of that history along. I said a short prayer words of which I cannot recall as we left.

My next stop was a tour of the Campaign Against Genocide Museum. A willing tour guide gave me a very comprehensive personal tour.

The museum is located in Rwanda’s Parliament which had been seriously bomb shelled during the genocide despite negotiations to stop the destruction of Rwanda’s humanity and spirit that had been ongoing.

My guide explained the strategies employed by the Rwandese Patriotic Army led by the now Rwandan President Mr. Paul Kagame to stop the carnage and devastation, and the rescue missions that helped salvage what was left of Rwanda’s humanity, soul and future. We even went on the roof for 360-degree views of Kigali and her many hills. I received a clearer understanding of the tragedy suffered by our Rwandan kins.

As I listened and closely observed, I became aware of the extent to which Rwanda’s soul was deeply scarred, but also of the Rwandan people’s resolve to rebuild themselves with a new mindset, to overcome their gruesome past and rise above the low expectations the world would have for a place with such a history.

Getting close to this story and seeing the land of a thousand hills hardly thirty years after this near total destruction with all the great strides they have made, my spirit leaped for joy; I felt a new energy surge in my soul and I knew in that moment that I had made a connection to this land and people which would last for the rest of my life.

With very little to brag about in terms of natural advantages in minerals and geography, Rwanda has made the impossible possible; turning its ruins into results of unmissable widespread transformation.
For dinner, Bosco recommended Chez Guiness, locally known as Kwa Guiness in Remera.

With the privilege of making the dinner order directly to the chef whom Bosco asked for as soon as we found seats, our dinner of roasted captain fish topped with thick spicy oniony gravy, served with well roasted irish potatoes and a big salad was as sumptuous as it sounds.

What a feast! Every mouthful was absolutely heavenly!
We stayed a while and discussed broadly on life in Rwanda then finally sought out Chef and complimented him with a generous tip. I still remember his happy face.

Tuesday came fast. We took a drive around town and the suburbs of Kigali meandering through Nyarutarama and Gacuriro, and Vision City. I marveled at the neatness of the areas and the mansions displaying incredible affluence. Everywhere was clean, even the gutters.

Hedges were being trimmed and roads and pavements weeded and swept. That is when I noticed mostly grown women were doing the street cleaning. Bosco explained that it was a government program for needy widows to keep busy while earning an income. Very good program.

We drove through Kicukiro. Kagarama, Nyamirambo. I even went to a farmer’s market type store and bought oranges, apples, and local honey and three tree tomatoes to try. In Nyarugenge, police stopped cars to allow the first family to pass through on their way somewhere. Bosco then drove us to Gasabo District. It was a big contrast and I saw some rough and unpaved roads, yet still, everywhere was clean.

We parked under a young shady tree in a small park area and I tried one of the tree tomatoes. The skin and flesh were thicker than of a regular tomato and the juice quite tart but it had seeds and tasted just like a tomato. We later went to eat at Hotel Chez Lando in Remera. I selected and feasted on the assorted vegetarian platter which came with a bowl of thick, chunky mushroom soup. Bosco enjoyed spicy chicken with rice which meals we washed down with ginger black tea and Afrikan tea, which were now our respective regulars.

I saw for myself that Rwanda’s clean culture is a serious matter; it is clearly a Rwanda mindset! It takes every day maintenance to keep such pristine and clean environs. There were no sachets, or rubbish or trash anywhere I went in town or the little countryside I managed to see in the eight days. Plastic bags are banished from the land. No explanations and it is non-negotiable.

Rwanda’s climate is warm and breezy, and the thousand hills display specular views at every turn whether moving on foot, by bike, moto taxi, car or bus. I enjoyed the beauty, peace and love, respect and security of the nation and also noticed that Rwanda is a no-nonsense country, police is visual and watchful, so don’t bring wahala.
As I wrote this, I reminisced about the recent great music, dancing and food I had enjoyed and thanked the Universe and my ancestors. One quick tip for you, is you will need to wait patiently for your food to arrive; but in my case, I found that it was always worth the wait.

Wednesday morning came and Bosco came to drive us to my scheduled visit with Dr. Kennesha and her family in Kibagabaga. Dr. Kennesha is the lady who responded on one platform I belong to my request to meet and greet when I come to Rwanda. What a godsend! She had recommended Bosco and texted me his number and the rest is history.
Dr. Kennesha and her mother and grandson are a warm, strong, loving family unit with quite a unique story. They prefer Rwanda as a home base because of some of the qualities I mentioned earlier like the clean environment, peace and safe paved roads and the serene living. We shared many stories, and I even played ball on the terrace with Kayden before returning to Kacyiru five hours later.

On Thursday, we went to Rwanda Development Board, the one-stop-shop for business information. I received good advice, some land and house prices, and was encouraged to return to Rwanda, to visit, do business and even to stay. We found a great book on Rwanda at a nearby bookstore and then went searching for Rwanda maps. We returned Kwa Guiness for some more of that incredible roasted captain fish, roasted irish potatoes and cool crisp salad. Chef! He outdid himself again! I recommend Kwa Guiness wherever they are located in Rwanda, every time.

We wanted to dance off our full bellies, so Bosco called a friend, and we tried several clubs before ending up in a nightclub full of young revelers where the DJ plays a bit of the song then changes to another then another! I am old school and can dance to a full-length song. Seriously, I tried really hard, but it felt too much like hard work. Bosco and his friend just stood back mostly drinking and watching girls go by. We lasted barely an hour.

We went souvenir shopping in the city on Friday morning. Kigali City is like a smaller version of any city downtown; tall buildings, parking lots, moto taxis, tourists, vendors, shoppers and forex bureaus busy exchanging currency. We entered one of the tall buildings and went to the second floor. Come and see souvenirs everywhere! The shop was crammed in every nook and cranny from ceiling down to the tops and sides of tables all full with amazing assortments of souvenirs. The vendors jostled for my attention till I somehow selected items like T-shirts, keyholders, and fabric bags with Rwandan designs. We later found Rwanda maps and Bosco bought me a small book that translates Kinyarwanda to Swahili to French to English. My favorite words are Murakoze and Amakuru. Thank you and how are you? We enjoyed delicious samosas on the way home.

Friday evening found us dancing at Fuschia yet again. The dance floor was fully packed and Cool Band was drenching the place with their special sauce. It was a phenomenal evening and l danced till my spirit was fully satiated. On return to my room, I discovered my luggage keys were missing. Did I drop them in town, in the Fuschia bathroom or in the car? Instead of worrying, I decided to cut the locks off if I did not find the keys. We returned to the city on Saturday morning for more souvenirs, I bought some more Rwandan francs, the currency there, and we headed to Fuschia to find my luggage keys. The keys were not there.

I got antsy and Bosco tried to calm my worry, but only irritated me. I told him to please just drive to a hardware store, and we bought the hacksaw and new locks and drove back to my room. Bosco made himself useful and patiently sawed away at the TSA lock on my big suitcase until it snapped off. I unzipped the big suitcase. “There it is!” I shouted, and right there, on top of my carry-on bag, was the little sheer pink pouch with my luggage keys. Bosco stopped, said something in Kinyarwanda and burst out laughing. He put down the hacksaw, went and washed his hands and still laughing, said his goodnight and left.

We set off early next morning through Kabuga towards Rwanda’s Eastern Province. Beautiful countryside and landscapes of sugarcane farms and lakes and houses on sloping hillsides whizzed by. Coaches flew by carrying folks to Tanzania, whose border I learnt was only three hours away by road.

We arrived at Umusambi Village in about an hour and turned off the main road, almost immediately into this very serene area. We signed in at the entrance gate to the Umusambi Village wetland reserve and had to wash the outside off our sandals before entering. There was a large Umusambi Village sign and a Murakaza Neza sign below, featuring a large picture of a beautiful Grey Crowned Crane. Around the picture of the crane, was the description and unique features of Umusambi Village in English and Kinyarwanda.

A young lady attendant gave an introduction and orientation about the wetland and led us to an entrance showing more pictures of the grey crowned cranes and even bats, which also inhabit the reserve. She pointed out the maps of trails and walks such as Umusambi Trail and Crane Island Walk, Acacia Trail and Crane Lookout, then advised us to snap a picture of the maps to facilitate our tour. I wondered which bird lived in the round tightly woven nests perched on the water reeds. Bosco continued walking when I turned left into the symphony of song area where a sign had pictures of twelve different birds; I identified the singing and trilling of some of the birds and found this nature quite fascinating.

This place told a lot about Rwanda’s conservation legacy of a country that attaches great value to nature and the environment. One accolade on Rwanda’s list is that the country is home to the most flourishing population of the silverback mountain gorillas, a species that was fast going into extinction.

Annually, Rwanda celebrates the Kwita Izina Festival, an event that brings the world to the country’s misty northern side to celebrate nature and reignite global commitment to conservation. That is how much Rwanda has become a big deal in many different ways.

Back along the trail, there was a small bamboo forest picnic area where I found Bosco fast asleep on a bench. I left him and went to watch some grey crowned cranes preening themselves and feeding their young. Obviously, Umusambi Village is a perfect sanctuary for these injured cranes, and birds and wildlife. They are rehabilitated and nurtured back to health here; they are protected in this natural habitat so they can thrive again.

After searching a little, I found Bosco in the car fast asleep, his side doors wide open for breeze. I woke him up and we started our return trip. We stopped somewhere on the way to buy some water and when I returned Bosco had gone, probably to stretch a little.

Seating there opening my water, two very tall and lean men draped in orange and red cloth appeared and were walking past right in front of the car. Their skins were well oiled and shiny black, and they moved with grace and beauty in synchronized steps. I knew immediately they were Masai people! I wanted to meet them and take pictures, but hesitated and just like that, they disappeared from my sight, as if I had never seen them. Bosco confirmed that some Masai from neighboring Tanzania do cross the border to trade and that it was likely who I saw.
We were stopped in town by traffic police and Bosco reluctantly paid the two traffic tickets he had accrued, dropped me off and went home. I wanted some different food and Oreste, the front desk manager at Kamau’s suggested a nearby place. We went there, but nothing enticed me, so I ate a specially prepared salad with everything veggie. Oreste thoroughly enjoyed a house fried chicken meal.

Bosco called later and suggested we go enjoy the Cool Band at Fuschia one last time. I did not resist even though my flight back to Ghana was at 8:25a.m. I again danced non-stop while watching the time and returned to my room just after two. I finished packing and preparing and Oreste collected my suitcases at 4:55am. We waited for Bosco till 5:20am then I asked Oreste to call for another taxi. Bosco drove into the reception area at five-twenty-five just as the taxi arrived behind him. I paid the taxi driver for his trouble.

There was little conversation on the way to the airport. Bosco apologized and explained a lot. I also apologized and explained some things, paid and hugged him and promised to call. I bought a couple of duty-frees and pondered our unhappy parting at the airport. I analyzed and reflected and relaxed my mind.

I called Bosco on my return and we discussed our friendship over my eight days in Rwanda and agreed on a different strategy on my next visit. We are still friends and talk every now and then.

As I look back at the this first visit to Rwanda, which I am certain will not be the last, I am reminded that Afrikan leaders who perform their duty with care and compassion are rare.

It is refreshing to witness that the Rwandan government has been one of the few on our continent who have cared enough to do whatever necessary to develop their countries over the last couple of decades despite the bad cards they were dealt.

As I reflect on my visit, I am proud of Rwanda’s achievements in the land and with her people. I respect Rwanda’s assurance and confidence about women’s importance in government. I love Rwanda for her beauty, peace, love and security and qualities and standards.

The Rwandan government is reclaiming Rwanda for Rwandans and I am confident to say, even for Africans.
Such a concept if emulated, would usher in a developed sub-Saharan Afrika and Afrikans will proudly stay in Afrika instead of clamoring and dying to find greener pastures abroad. I am so glad to have personally experienced an Afrikan people and nation obviously loved by their leader.

In my life, I lived in many places especially outside Africa and I longed to return home. When I did come back for good to settle in my motherland Ghana five years ago, I wished for an opportunity to contribute the little I had learnt and I have done exactly that.

Visiting Rwanda rekindled my spirit and made me realise that there was so much more to do and today, I can proudly say that I am not just in Ghana but also in Rwanda too and I am excitedly looking forward to my next visit, to stay probably a little longer and hopefully find more meaningful ways to contribute to this story of Afrikan rebirth and excellence.

It rekindles my vision and conviction that a stronger sub-Saharan Afrika can develop to her fullest potential for us and future generations. I am prouder to be an Afrikan because of Rwanda. All I have heard and read about Rwanda is true.

In my opinion, Rwanda actually does not make as much publicity of its great achievements as it should!
I am already packing my bags for a return visit. Murakoze! Asante Sana!

Naa Kwama is a Ghanaian-British national who is retired after a long career that spanned the performing arts, administration and academia in Africa, Britain, Japan and the United States of America, who is passionately panAfrican, lives in Accra and has recently fallen in love with Rwanda, which she now calls her second home.

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