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.