The captain’s voice came over the loudspeaker. “Ladies and gentlemen, it is forbidden to bring plastic bags into Rwanda,” he said, before instructing us to transfer whatever contents we might be harboring in the offending receptacles and ditching them before our plane touched down.
It was just after 7 p.m. as we approached Kigali, the capital of the tiny East African country, and the announcement was as surprising as the view outside my window: Descending into the “Land of a Thousand Hills” felt like being lowered into a dark cauldron illuminated by a trillion tiny fireflies. I can’t remember a more enchanting arrival on any continent. Rwanda may have the misfortune of being known for a single horrific event—the 1994 genocide still hangs over everything here—but braided into the ambient heartbreak is a disarming charm and a singular determination unlike anything I’ve seen. Not only is the country’s president, Paul Kagame, forward-thinking in terms of the environment, but he has reimagined, and realized, Kigali as a global showpiece.
The city of 1.2 million is all shiny glass towers and perfectly spaced palm trees dotting neat grass medians that divide the pothole-free streets. The place is so clean and efficient you’d think you were in Geneva. And the boutiques, bistros, coffee shops, and galleries nestled into the endless rolling hills are buzzy with the pent-up energy of a generation raised across the border as refugees and hell-bent on building back the country of their dreams.
These are people like Solange Katarebe, regal in a turban and cat-eye glasses, who holds court at downtown’s Repub Lounge, where East African food and cocktails draw a steady crowd of locals and expats. She and her brother Doudou opened the place in 2004, leaving behind a refugee childhood in Kenya. Then there’s 29-year-old Matthew Rugamba, who attended college in Oregon but returned home to found House of Tayo, where he combines Western and African influences in menswear with serious attitude. Sporting an Afro and crimson lips, Joselyne Umutoniwase, the force behind Rwanda Clothing, invited me into her busy workshop, where three dozen laborers stitched made-to-order dresses and suits.
Perhaps more than any other place, Inema Arts Center, opened seven years ago by a pair of artist brothers in a rambling two-story house overlooking the hills, epitomizes the city’s creative whir. The guys (also former refugees) are there at the door to welcome you with a beer or a cup of tea, and they’ll graciously steer you around their impressive and remarkably varied work—from Emmanuel Nkuranga’s six-foot-tall gorilla crafted from old computer parts to Denis Nkotanyi’s Pop Arty portraits, a Rwandan take on Warhol’s Marilyn and Mao. With ambition to spare, the siblings also run women’s programs and offer art and dance classes for kids. Inema’s happy hour is the place to be on a Thursday night.
The Nyamirambo Women’s Center, started in 2007 by a group of women looking to address gender-based violence, inequality, and discrimination, also speaks to the country’s resilience. Located in one of the city’s liveliest neighborhoods, the center includes a delightful shop selling all manner of handiwork, from kitenge-cloth place mats and bags to belts, beaded jewelry, and fragrant soaps. But my favorite part of the visit was the walking tour, involving a recent high-school grad who led me along the cobblestoned streets of the Muslim quarter and into the local hair salon, cassava grinder’s, and other mom-and-pop establishments, offering a fascinating peek into Kigali daily life. (The center also offers authentic cooking and basket-weaving experiences.)
Braided into the ambient heartbreak is a disarming charm unlike anything I’ve ever seen.
Of course, amid this energy, the past cannot help but linger. On my first day in Kigali, my driver, who I’d arranged through my hotel, told me about how he’d lost both his parents and four of his five siblings. I met a woman named Alice who quietly explained, detail by detail, how she’d come to have a machete-gash scar across her left cheek and a stump where her right hand should have been.
That pain has its roots in the country’s colonial past. (When he came to power in 1994, Kagame, who was reared in a refugee camp in English-speaking Uganda, changed the country’s national language from French to English, in part because he faults France for complicity in the genocide.) To appreciate that context, start by visiting the Kandt House Museum, set in the home of the German who served as colonial administrator to Rwanda beginning in the early 1900s. Room after room of black-and-white photos trace the experience of the local people beginning in 1884, the year European leaders met in Berlin to draw lines on maps and dole out African countries like cookies. (Rwanda would be passed on to the French after World War I.)
Then it’s on to the Kigali Genocide Memorial, where the remains of some 250,000 Rwandans lie under a somber park designed for quiet contemplation. Leading me through the museum’s extensive exhibits, my guide, a soft-spoken 31-year-old named D’Artagnan Habintwali, told me about how he’d been hidden by a local Hutu woman as the rest of his family sought shelter in a nearby church. He never saw any of them again. “No one is inoculated against this,” Habintwali said sadly when I told him about the then-recent slaughter of 11 Jews in a Pennsylvania synagogue. Some Rwandans are said to pay tribute at the memorial as often as once a week.
Devastating as the site is, I also recommend hiring a car and guide (your hotel can help) and driving 45 minutes out of town to the Nyamata church, where thousands more Rwandans lost their lives. Displayed inside: rows of human skulls and benches mounded with the tattered clothing of the dead. The day I visited, birds were chirping and women’s voices rose in beautiful harmony from a new church constructed some hundred yards away.
In the 25 years since the genocide, tourism has emerged as Rwanda’s number-one foreign exchange earner, with much of that cash driven by visitors heading north to track mountain gorillas in Volcanoes National Park. The experience will run you $1,500 for the permit alone, so you might opt instead for a day visit ($40)—and full-on safari experience—at Akagera National Park, a two-hour drive south of the city. In 2017, 20 eastern black rhinos were introduced to the park, and these days they cavort happily among its lions, elephants, leopards, and buffalo, not to mention nearly 500 species of birds.
Before traveling to Rwanda, I had read about its history and about Kagame himself. He has been criticized for funding some of the militias plundering the minerals of eastern Congo, and for clamping down on journalists and political opponents. I’ll admit that my take was less than positive, but after a few days on the ground, I changed my tune. The country works better than any place I’ve visited in Africa. Its health care is universal and its education mandatory. The last Saturday of every month sees every Rwandan adult putting in a few hours of unpaid community service. There wasn’t a single person I spoke to who didn’t want Kagame to remain in power indefinitely. With good reason, they fear what could happen if—well, when—he goes.
Want to plan your own four-day trip to Kigali? Here’s what you need to know.
Where to Stay
On the lushly landscaped compound that houses Heaven Hotel and its fancier sister, The Retreat, you’ll find two saltwater pools, a spa, rooms done up in local art and mosquito netting, and fantastic food (from $130 and $345). The year-old Radisson Blu, located downtown, is less romantic but offers light-drenched rooms and killer buffet breakfasts (from $202).
Where to Eat
Repub Lounge serves dishes from across the continent and live jazz on Thursdays. Poivre Noir specializes in French/Belgian fare like salmon brandade, Nile perch with capers, and the city’s best burger. With its swimming pool, fried snacks, and pounding beat, Pili Pili is all about the party.
Don’t Leave Without…
…Grabbing lunch at the Hôtel des Mille Collines, setting for the 2004 film Hotel Rwanda, and sunset cocktails-with-a-view on the roof of the Ubumwe Grande Hotel.
…Sipping brewed-at-your table tea and homemade muffins at the Inzora Rooftop Cafe, set inside a world-class bookshop; and mastering the art of joe in a class at Question Coffee Café, run by a women’s co-op.
…Dipping into some of Kigali’s wondrous boutiques, including Abraham Konga, where upcycled padlocks become necklaces and bracelets; House of Tayo, for exuberant menswear and accessories; Haute Baso, stocked with made-in- Rwanda dresses, beaded earrings, and cow-dung wall hangings; and Rwanda Clothing, where a tailor will take your measurements and deliver an Africa- inspired shirt, dress, or jumpsuit within a couple of days.
Before You Go
Read Philip Gourevitch’s We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families and Stephen Kinzer’s A Thousand Hills: Rwanda’s Rebirth and the Man Who Dreamed It. Watch Hotel Rwanda and 2017’s Birds Are Singing in Kigali. And pack tissues.