Kigali, a rapidly changing city and its tragic history

My first impression of Rwanda came over the skies of Uganda, as I flew on the National Carrier, Rwandair.


A brand new Canadian-built aircraft, great flight attendants and a free glass of wine offered on a 35 minute flight. I landed with some wine left!


In all honesty, I had done very little research prior to my trip to Rwanda. As I already mentioned a while ago, my planned travels to complicated regions later this Fall, such as Tibet and North Korea, occupied much of my July break in Ottawa, and I came to East Africa unprepared. I must say, this kind of shopping centre is not what I expected to find in Kigali.


If I had been magically transported here and told I was in a much richer country, such as South Africa, I would have easily believed it. South Africa would have been especially believable since English is fast replacing French as the “Official second language” in Rwanda. French stopped being thought in schools three years ago and all new signage is in English. Throughout the country, I rarely found French useful. They also changed the street names to numbers in Kigali, but this is not yet reflected on Google Maps. So don’t go looking for the corner of Avenue de la Gendarmerie and Rue de la République, like I did. The only signposts you will see will read 4th Avenue and 12th Street.


Modern shopping malls with cinemas and food courts. I must say the Indian restaurant in the middle was quite good. Unlike most food courts in North America, this operates more like a restaurant, with table service and food prepared on order. What you loose in speed you gain in quality, as the food is obviously much better than stuff sitting in a warming bath all day.


Travelling across the country, you do realize that the capital is being developed and maintained a bit as a showcase for visiting officials, businessmen and other delegations. However, as you will see in other posts from the countryside, there is also a concern for order, cleanliness and rules which you do not find in neighbouring countries.


Public toilets, impeccably clean streets, traffic lights with timers and a relative obedience to traffic rules are a welcomed change from Kampala or Nairobi. I saw a large construction site and almost all workers were wearing hard hats. Motorbike taxis are not only required to wear helmets, but they are obliged to have another one for their passengers, who are also obliged to wear them. In my experience, this kind of concern for safety is not at all typical of this part of the world. Not surprisingly however, it’s only skin deep and you can tell some of it is for show. Most of the motorbike taxi helmets I used had broken or unadjustable chin straps, which means that in case of an accident, the odds of your helmet landing at the same place as your head is around 0.000001%.


In NorthAmerica, if an electrical outlet is close to a sink or the bathtub, it needs to be a special, GFCI model (ground-fault circuit interrupter). In Rwanda, it is totally safe to have a regular plug, with 220V current, right inside your shower!


This reminds me of something. Can’t put my finger on it… Oh, yes, it reminds me of this picture I took in Namibia.


No matter what kind of traveller you are, you can’t really visit Kigali and not go to the Genocide Memorial Centre. Built with private UK funding to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the genocide, it includes interpretative gardens, mass graves and exhibits on the timeline of the events leading to 1994, the genocide itself and its consequences, as well as special sections on the impact on children and on other genocides throughout history. The later really deals with large scale mass murders in general, as some tragedies such as the Khmer Rouge regime, as bloody as it was, simply doesn’t fit the UN’s 1948 definition of genocide.


Water flows down from the fountains of one garden to another; the Garden of Unity, the Garden of Division and the Garden of Reconciliation. The visit to the centre is free, but I would never recommend going through it without paying for the expensive, but very well made self-guided audio tour. The monkey on the flowerpot is using a cell phone to tell the world what is happening around him. Statues of elephants signify the events will not be forgotten.

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One does not need extensive training in pathology to realize that people who die of disease and old age do not have holes in their skulls.


In this very touching part of the exhibit, families of victims clipped photos of their deceased relatives.

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The tales of brutality towards children were particularly shocking. If you have crossed the line into murderous insanity and feel an entire ethnic group must be eliminated, I understand why you need to murder the children too. It’s horrible, but obvious. Why you would feel compelled to torture them to death is beyond my understanding.

The simple material life of people in a poor country can also be glimpsed through these pictures, when you read the accompanying stories. Often the picture shows a child of only 6 or 7 years of age, but the victim died at the age of 10 or 12. That was simply the only picture the family had.


Outside, a wall of names is being built. The project is in its very early stages, as there are only two or three thousand names on it.


Three large concrete rows mark the locations of the mass graves. Apart from education and remembrance, the memorial was built to provide a dignified resting place to the victims whose remains were found all over the country in fields, rivers or at the bottom of wells.


The third one is not fully sealed, since more bodies are brought to the site periodically, as remains are occasionally found throughout the country. As of 2013, the remains of 259,000 people are buried at the memorial.

I briefly considered writing a little bit about the events related to the Rwandan Genocide, but quickly abandoned the idea. First, I never intended this travel blog to discuss serious political or historical matters, as I do not want to spend my time on the road writing academic papers in front of a computer. Second, I am not qualified. All I know about the genocide is from a handful of articles I read, Lieutenant-General Romeo Dallaire’s book and my visit to the centre. But from my conversations with a friend who lived in Rwanda for 3 years and with current residents expats, I know the story is more complicated than it seems. Even the memorial centre paints strange versions of some parts of Rwandan history.

There is absolutely no denying the horrors of the 1994 genocide (and all the other massacres of the previous 50 years), but the political context around it is complicated and extremely taboo in Rwanda, from what I can tell. At the risk of sounding arrogant, I will suggest that if you think you have a good understanding of what happened in Rwanda (like I use to), you are either a bit of an expert on the history of the region, or you are wrong.


2 thoughts on “Kigali, a rapidly changing city and its tragic history

  1. Hey there Colin, thanks for that. Fasinateing part of the world. I don’t consider myself a rubbernecker but those genosides shocked & confounded me so much that I read everything I could get my hands on to try to locate some sort of macabre explanation or primitive reasoning for such a heinous act. Needless to say, I’m still perplexed but your observations are thought provoking. Taboo enshrinement, interesting metaphor, no?
    I remember Gile Courtamarch speaking of the diplomacy of that time in his book, Sunday by the Pool in Kigali. He found the Americans ignorant, the Euros arrogant, & the Canadians complacent. That had resonance 😉
    Happy Trails,
    Deb Emslie

    • Hi Deb,

      Did not read the book you mention, but from reading General Dallaire’s book I realized how he was completely unaware of the all the complexities of the political context around him, and probably was being kept that way intentionally. He was getting no support from the UN, and the fact that Burundi happened to hold a Security Council seat at the time meant that not all parties on the ground had a similar awareness of what was happening behind the curtains. From the West’s perspective, we also have to remember this was shortly after Somalia, and the public appetite for Western soldiers being killed on UN mission in Africa was very low.

      Thanks for the good wishes!


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