Note to Reader :: Writing of this article began on 25-Mar in Kigali, Rwanda and finished in Washington, DC...yep, I've been slackin.
I’ve never spent 23 nights straight in a hotel before coming to Rwanda. I think the previous record for me was somewhere around 10 days, which seemed like quite a while at the time. It’s one thing to stay in a hotel for several weeks, it’s another to spend that much time in one of the most famous (or infamous depending on how you look at it) hotels in the world – Hotel des Mille Collines in Kigali, Rwanda. That name may not immediately ring any bells, but another might: ”Hotel Rwanda.”
Let me start off by saying that if Lori and I had been backpacking through Rwanda (one of our future goals as Lori still has not been to the continent I’ve been in and out of over the last decade), we would not have been able to afford one night here, let alone 23; we generally travel on a very tight budget. But for the last three weeks or so, the Mille Collines has been my home, my office, my dining room and my living room and I feel very fortunate to have had the opportunity to stay here at all.
I arrived in early March as part of a team conducting a research study for the World Bank. I’ve been in and out of half a dozen other African countries over the years, and even came within a stone’s throw once to Rwanda, but hadn’t actually been to Rwanda before this work trip. I have to say, it’s a lovely little place to visit and to work, and if I had to make a shortlist of best places in Africa to keep long hours coordinating projects, analyzing data and writing reports, Kigali would most certainly make the cut — a nice offering of restaurants and cafes, clean and relatively safe streets, good climate, and beautiful surroundings without a lot of distractions like sandy beaches or lots of historical sites.
If you’ve seen Hotel Rwanda you might have noticed that the hotel in the photos above bears very little resemblance to the hotel in the movie (below). Both hotels have pools and are located on the African continent, but the similarities end there. In fact, the movie Hotel Rwanda was filmed in Johannesburg, South Africa using an old colonial stalwart as the shooting location. The real Hotel des Mille Collines only dates to 1973, made very apparent by the swingin’ 1970s international style architecture.
Above is a still frame from the movie Hotel Rwanda and below is a photo of the real Hotel des Mille Collines in Kigali. The difference is hardly noticeable…uh..right.
By using such a drastically different looking hotel for the movie the filmmakers do a disservice to the real story of “Hotel Rwanda,” in my opinion. This is not a hotel seemingly on the edge of town in a forested area as depicted in the film. The Mille Collines resides in the heart of central Kigali, in a bustling commercial area.
The real hotel is also set on a hillside (also not conveyed in the film). At the time of the Genocide many of the rooms had a commanding view of a city being terrorized and under siege. During those dark days, rooms averaged around 10 occupants and hallways were filled to capacity for nearly three months. That may not have been so significant in a smaller hotel, but in the Mille Collines — a six story, 112 room concrete complex — it presented some major challenges, to say the least.
It’s also important to note that, unlike the hotel used in the film, the real Mille Collines in 1994 was (and still is) a fairly swanky and modern hotel with many amenities, which make its transformation to refugee camp overnight all the more dramatic.
The Mille Collines was well known in Rwanda long before the 2004 film. Many Rwandans were aware of the hotel from the 2,268 people who took refuge in its rooms and hallways in 1994 during the Rwandan Genocide. Many more knew of it as a Belgian-owned and operated four star hotel known for hosting tourists and business people and entertaining Kigali’s privileged.
For the first two weeks of my stay, the weather was gorgeous. Every morning I woke up to an ethereal haze hanging over the city that, like clock-work, would clear out by noon revealing a clear blue sky and perfect tropical temperatures. On every other evening, it seemed, we’d get a thrilling thunderstorm. The pattern continued until the real rainy season arrived later in the month, which brought lingering dreary darkness from dusk til dawn.
Kigali Genocide Memorial Centre
I realize that I titled this post “my March in Hotel Rwanda,” but I’m including my trip to the Kigali Genocide Memorial Centre because I think it’s fitting.
Staying at the Hotel des Mille Collines, you won’t find a single indication of what took place here — no plaque, memorial or scrap of paper alluding to that darkest of periods in the compound’s past. The ownership and management of Mille Collines have gone to great lengths to erase all remnants of those dark days — a move which seems by and large to have made good business sense, but which has also created an incredibly surreal atmosphere, particularly if one sits in the lobby a while and allows their mind to wander for more than a few moments.
I understand the need to forget and move on. And in fact I feel in many ways that [we] Americans spend too much time memorializing the atrocities of the past and not enough time learning from them — not dwelling on them, not reliving them, but learning from them; as a result it seems we have a propensity for denial and repetition. But I digress…
In many ways, the Genocide, the Mille Collines, and all the rest of it was as much of a Rwandan tragedy as it was an American tragedy. We seem to have a hard time coming to grips with it, even though are all connected now. That’s not some kum ba yah hippie BS, it’s absolutely true. Where are your electronic gadgets and clothing made? Where do the bananas you eat come from? How about the car you drive or the gasoline you consume? We do not and cannot live in isolation. Yet, when certain events happen, policy and agendas seem to conveniently find a way out…always. But Rwanda, that’s ancient history, right? How about Darfur or Congo? How about all of the other genocides you’ve never even heard about. Not mass killings, genocides.
So, here we are at the Rwanda Genocide Memorial Centre. Above and below, you are looking at a concrete crypt, 3 meters deep and filled, width and breadth, floor to ceiling with coffins.
Each coffin, however, does not necessarily contain the remains of just one deceased individual (this is rarely the case) — no, in fact, each coffin may contain the remains of up to 50 different individuals.
So now, looking at the size of this space, do the math. There are ten more crypts just like this one on this quiet hillside overlooking the nation’s capital. And yet, this accounts for but a fraction of the remains of the victims of the genocide. The final resting place of many others might not be so dignified.
Above is the Wall of Names, which will serve as the permanent memorial for the victims of the Genocide. The wall currently contains 940 names — few in comparison to the estimated 250,000 victims buried on the grounds.
The Wall of Names is an ongoing project, to say the least. The idea may seem a lot like the Vietnam War Veterans Memorial in Washington, DC. Unlike that site, however, very few of these names are associated with a grave stone in a cemetery somewhere. The hope is that, for loved ones of the victims, it will serve a purpose akin to a grave site and head stone. There are just over 58,000 names on the Vietnam memorial wall. When this wall is finished, it could easily contain 10 times that number. Needless to say it will be an immense task and a long journey yet to come.
The project is currently stalled for lack of funding to purchase an engraving machine and for other associated costs. If you would like to help, click here to find out how.
Caplaki Market, Samosas and Farewell
I thought about leaving the post at that, but then thought better of it. I don’t want to leave the impression that Rwanda is a dark and depressing place to visit these days because it most certainly is not.
However, the Genocide Memorial is certainly worth visiting and also has a very well done museum that leads you up to, through, and beyond the events of 1994. The whole thing is really a must for anyone visiting Rwanda for the first time. It’s impossible to really understand this place without understanding the Genocide. This was not a situation where one group of people woke up one morning and decided they were going to violently murder an entire “race’ of people — as with any mass atrocity, it was far, far more complicated than that. While, yes, those who committed these acts were some pretty bad and ruthless dudes and should be held accountable for their actions, it would be incredibly naive to say that the Tutsis were the good guys and the Hutus were the bad guys.
With that said, I can’t stress the importance of looking beyond the Genocide and engaging with Rwandans themselves.
The few guidebooks out there on Rwanda are about a quarter of an inch thick and focus on three things: The Genocide, Silverback Gorillas, and Lake Kivu. But there is so much more to this place than those three things. True, there aren’t a lot of “sites” in Rwanda, but like so many places in Africa, the people are why you go (or perhaps why you should, in my opinion).
I see so many tourists who whisk into some place like Rwanda, take a private hire from the airport to their swanky hotel, hire a Landcruiser to go see some animals, maybe stay in an eco-resort in the jungle or the bush, watch some people dance, buy some handicrafts and call it a trip. I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with that, but I also think it’s unfortunate. Talk to some people, even the vendors on the street, don’t be shy. Talk to your cabbie, even if they don’t speak English, they’ll know a little and teach you some words of theirs too. Get up the courage to go into the commercial center of town (like the old part of Kigali) and wander through the local bodegas and markets. Eat some local food. It doesn’t have to be street food (although some of the best food in Africa can be bought on the street!). There’s absolutely nothing wrong with safaris or animals, natural wonders or UNESCO sites, I love them all. But there is so much more to Africa, and it deserves your attention.
Stepping off my soapbox for a moment, Caplaki Market is a fun place to go in Kigali if you want to pick up some handicrafts. For first-timers to Africa, it’s totally fine to buy what catches your eye or go after those quintessential souvenirs. But, if you’ve already got your requisite masks, bitiks, drums, oil paintings and beaded necklaces, you may be searching for something unique to Rwanda. I have it on good authority that these are the things to get in Rwanda:
wood-carved mask – traditional tribal Rwandan masks (see above) are the narrow, long ones with large eyelids (as opposed to the rounder Congolese masks which are all over);
imigongo – painted wall decorations made of dung, often black and white (see below);
paper bead necklaces (see second photo below);
Rwandan coffee – some of the best in the world. Starbucks imports a lot of it, but the good stuff rarely makes it to the U.S.
The special thing about most of these items is not only will chances be good that they were made in Rwanda, but they also hold a level of cultural significance, cause that should be important, right? Afterall, buying a Nigerian type of mask or woven bowl in Rwanda is sort of akin to buying fresh maple syrup or a hockey puck in Texas, or a surf board to commemorate your recent trip to Montreal — North America’s all the same, right? You smell what I’m cookin.
In a place like this with so many vendors selling much of the same stuff, it can be difficult to decide who to buy from. Yes, price is a factor (though it can be a bit of a cartel) but friendliness is a huge factor too.
While it’s easy to approach getting gifts for people back home as an errand that must be checked off the list, I like to allow myself plenty of time to try and enjoy the experience. Don’t be afraid to be firm and stick to your guns on something, but always be polite and courteous. And don’t forget to have fun. After all, the bargaining and banter is a big part of the fun of buying things in Africa (even if you don’t speak the language, but these guys always do), and if you’re lucky you’ll walk away wiser and more knowledgable on a country and its people than when you entered the market.
Modern ruin (above) across the street from Kigali’s famed Mexican restaurant, that’s right…Mexican. Meze Fresh is alright, but I can certainly see how it would taste like heaven to any American (or Mexican, but rare) expat who has been away from the homeland for too long. Heck, after two weeks of eating the same thing, we welcomed the chance for something different. It’s run by an American couple and has a nice rooftop open-air dining area. While it does seem to attract mostly expats, I was pleasantly surprised to see a good number of Rwandans enjoying la comida sabrosa.
Local food gets repetitive, hotel food gets expensive, and expat food is often far away (and expensive). So what is a consultant to do when they are staying at the Mille Collines for a month? They eat samosas. Tasty samosas. Lots of samosas. Simply put, samosas are Mother Nature’s way of proving you can have it all – taste, price and all of the food groups (as least all of the important ones) in one tight little package. Yes, samosas are indigenous to India. But lucky for us, Indians get around.
Now, if you find yourself in central Kigali, for say, a couple of weeks, and you’re into samosa (like I am), there are a couple of places near to the Mille Collines for getting your samosa on. Samosas can be found in the bakery section of the Nakumatt supermarket next to the hotel (though don’t misconstrue “next” with a hop-skip-and-a-jump, as eventhough the two are only meters apart, there are some security features of both the hotel and supermarket that ensure you take the most circuitous route possible to enjoy samosas). Alternatively, you can head up the street to one of Kigali’s best kept secrets.
– LA SIERRA –
This place is awesome. Originally introduced to us by our boss (who’s been coming here for years and years), La Sierra (on Boulevard de la Revolution in the city center) doesn’t look like much on the outside, but trust me, it’s a beautiful thing.
As you enter, take stock of the various seating options (you’re going to want to sit in one of the fantastically comfy 1970s pleather chairs on the left — forget the plastic and aluminum tables and chairs on the right, unless you consider yourself a dandy, that is). At lunch time, they serve a buffet that I hear is quite good but have never tried. If you continue further into the belly of the beast you’ll come upon the small supermarket. To your right is a long counter with one amiable looking gentleman and one or two permanently grumpy-looking ones. To your left are a series of cases of tantalizing baked goods from cookies, to beef rolls to…yes samosas. Stop everything. Go no farther. This is what you came for.
The cookies are good, but for savory treats, go directly to the samosas. I’ve tried nearly everything in this case (that’s right, nearly EVERYTHING). Not only are the samosas the tastiest, they are usually the freshest (because of their tastiness — high turnover). A little over a buck per samosa with two types to choose from: meat-filled and veggie. I usually get a mix. The friendlier dude behind the counter will offer to heat them up and ask for here or takeaway. If for “here,” and if you are purchasing a beverage, don’t be alarmed when he hands you a small piece of paper with something scribbled on it. You’re not being robbed. Just head out to your comfy chair and hand it to the friendly young lady when she comes by. Less than a minute later she’ll return with your ice cold beverage. If you do a cookie, be warned, the ginger cookies are extremely gingery.
Eating in a 1970s pleather comfy chair watching and listening to Boulevard de la Revolution is nice, but sometimes after a hard day of white-knuckled taxi rides, dodging MTN phone credit vendors and chasing down ATMs that actually were designed to dispense money, you just want samosas and beer in the comfort of your own swingin’ world-infamous hotel room, with a random French airline mag and an excruciatingly off-key live rendition of “We Are the World” playing outside your window.
You can have all of it and more in Kigali, Rwanda.
All of it…and more.