by Laila Le Guen
There’s nothing wrong with looking a little crazy on a trip. In fact, it can be a fun way to make friends. I know, I know, crazy is probably not what you’re going for. You’ve researched the weather and fashion trends, packed adequately and learnt three words of Kinyarwanda. You’ll totally blend in. Except…
Take it from me, looking crazy doesn’t happen on purpose and preparedness has little to do with it. There’s just a sort of disinhibition that happens when you smell the air of a new place that makes you giddy and you may sometimes act in ways locals consider eccentric, whether they let it on or not.
There’s plenty of places online where you can find tips on where to stay, what to do, what to eat in Kigali. This is a different – though equally thorough – type of guide on quirky things to do and say in Kigali.
Enquire about safety
It only takes a year or two of living in Nairobi (or Lagos, I’m sure) for safety concerns to become second nature. I’ve learnt to never ride in a car without first checking if the doors are locked and I would not dream of walking around by myself after nightfall in an unknown neighbourhood, nor would I board a random taxi if I could help it. These habits die hard, even when you know that Kigali is generally very safe.
So here I am, on a weekday night at Sundowner in Kimihurura, enjoying a lasagna dish and pretending to read while in fact I’m distracted by the lights, the music and the hum of conversations coming from every corner of the pub. I had strolled to Sundowner before nightfall and found myself in a bind: should I walk back in the dark or take a cab to cover just 500m?
After requesting the bill, I debated whether to ask the waiter. I didn’t want to cede to fear but I also wasn’t going to take unnecessary risks in a city where I knew nobody. I figured there was no harm in asking, only the threat of awkwardness.
Awkwardness did occur when the waiter gently laughed at my incongruous question and assured me it was safe. So I walked back feeling tense the whole way, even though the most threatening presence was a bunch of barking dogs behind a closed gate.
When in Kigali, you can afford to chill. And that’s great, if you actually manage to put aside old habits and actually chill. I’m not saying muggings don’t happen, but your guard doesn’t need to be up all the time. Feel free to take a holiday from your high alert default mode, was the message Kigali residents kept reiterating.
Get on the bus
Thanks to consistent signage and well-organised bus terminals, public transport routes are really easy to navigate in Kigali and I tried to use them as much as possible. I find the slow rhythm of the ride an occasion to breathe, to wander, to observe the movement of the city.
A visitor to Kigali, much like Kampala, won’t really need to use buses, as motorcycle taxis (moto) are inexpensive and so numerous that you’ll never wait long before catching one. So when I asked for information about bus routes to strangers at the bus stop and to my host, they inevitably looked bewildered. Why would I choose to take the bus and “waste” half an hour, when I could just hail a moto and have virtually no chance of getting lost?
I could see how it sounded weird and irrational. For me, the joy of riding the bus is in the figuring out of the paths through the city, in the conversations you strike up with strangers, in the languages you overhear. And how else would I have experienced the prepaid “Tap&Go” card system used on many routes in the Rwandan capital?
For three days, I explored parts of the hilly capital on foot and I did so with my eyes to my feet. Not to avoid potholes or puddles but because I couldn’t stop staring at the beautiful Kigali pavements. Just the fact of their existence in every part of the city filled me with joy.
I might have raved about them to every person who would humour me…
Pedestrians in Nairobi get the short end of the stick since pavements – where they even exist – are seen as a space open for dumping stones and rubble when they are not used as a parking lot extension. Most of the time, you’re walking on the roadside.
Kigali residents, I’ll say it again: your pavements are wonderful.
How much hadi la gare?
Since I could never guess which language someone would prefer speaking and Kinyarwanda was not an option for me, I tried English, Kiswahili and French successively (not necessarily in this order). While this linguistic trio makes for strange multilingual introductions, it proved to be a winning strategy in everyday communication.
For moto rides, knowing basic round numbers in French is very helpful (you’ll be counting in hundreds, potentially up to a thousand). Even when we initially spoke English, the driver would often quote a price in French.
Kiswahili is also a good language to have in your toolkit. Many Kigali residents speak it and you’re likely to come across swahiliphone Congolese people as well, so do try it: reactions were always very warm and I found it quite easy to engage with strangers in Kiswahili.
Most of the time, the situation called for a mix of English, French and Swahili because things like ‘sauce provençale’ don’t really translate. Not to worry though: even if your only available option in this context is English, you’ll still be able to get by just fine.
It took me all of two days to be able to pronounce the name of the nearest landmark to my guesthouse.
I had one of those retrospectively hilarious moments where it’s late at night and you’re trying to explain to the moto driver where you stay but, this time of all times, you have no language in common and the words that come out of your mouth don’t seem to find any resonance.
I kept repeating different versions of the name ‘Rojugire’ but the look of recognition never came. On top of that, we were both getting soaked under the pouring rain!
I ended up walking back with a kind stranger from the pub who happened to know the neighbourhood like the back of his hand because he had grown up there. While we huddled under his umbrella, he told me about the time he got mugged in Nairobi. It sounded like a variation on the universal East African travel story: I went to Nairobi and I got my phone stolen. We made nervous jokes about how unwise it would be to have a stranger walk you home at 11pm in Nairobi.
This trip was about contrast and wonder. Three days in Kigali is enough time to be charmed by perfect pavements and enjoy views over hill after hill, but not enough to to start noticing the flaws that would likely drive one mad after a year.
Do you feel like unleashing your own brand of crazy on Kigali yet? I sure hope so.
Laila Le Guen is a 2016 aKoma Amplify fellow based in Nairobi. Growing up in France, her dreams of getting to know the world outside her small town were nourished by books from the public library. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Brainstorm, Aerodrome, Afrolivresque and Saraba.