Touring the familiar: A walk through Nyamirambo

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A tourist pounding isombe.

It’s said that no visit to Kigali is complete without a foray into the bustling, multi-cultural hub of Nyamirambo. A visit to this noisy neighbourhood exposes a first time visitor to the typical African flair; one of hustle and bustle, color and pungent smells that is somewhat absent in the rest of Kigali. 

That said, and especially for tourists, no visit to Nyamirambo is worth writing home about if it does not involve a guided community-based tour of the locale.

Nyamirambo on foot

Dubbed the ‘Daily Life Nayamirambo Walking Tour’, the package is owned and managed by the Nyamirambo Women’s Center, a self-help group of about twenty women based in the Biryogo area. Most of the members are between 18-40 years of age, and all come from under-privileged backgrounds.

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Walking in Nyamirambo.

A good number of them are widows while others are single mothers. The others, who have sponsors, have gone back to school and about three of the women are university graduates. Most of the women in the group operate small businesses like hair dressing, while others vend food in the market.

Basically, what these women do is take your hand and lead you down to the places where they live and earn their livelihood, modest as they are. Among others, you are likely to experience the Muslim quarter and its Arabic influences, the Biryogo market, the famed West African and Congolese tailors, the thriving street-side businesses–anything that contributes to Nyamirambo’s well-deserved reputation.

The highlight of this two-hour tour is when one of the women hosts visitors to a traditional Rwandan lunch over light banter.

The tour begins at the women’s center, situated opposite the Biryogo market in the heart of Nyamirambo.

I arrived at the center at 10:00am, just in time to join a tourist group before it embarked on the tour. Typically, this is the prime set-off time for the two-hour walking adventure, designed in a way that tourists can have their lunch in time.

The tourists were here courtesy of New Dawn Associates, a local tour company with close links to the project.

Henry, the guide from NDA introduced us to a cheerful and chatty young man –Jean De Dieu, who, we were informed, would be our guide for the day. Jadot, as he is popularly known in Nyamirambo, was born and raised in the area. I later learnt that he is a son to a group member.

Jadot started off by procuring some homemade chapatti for us, perhaps as a preliminary local culinary treat ahead of the main one that was to come over lunch. Then we embarked on the expedition.

Our first stop was at a women’s hair salon, down the street from the center. Here, tourists were introduced to a wide array of popular African hairstyles. Jadot made it a point to stress the importance that Rwandan (and African) ladies attach to their hair.

We moved on, in the direction of the market. The walk was very leisurely, as Jadot made it a point to explain everything.

For instance he explained why there were many stone roads in the area: It was a government response to the persistent problem of flooding in the area whenever it rained.

As we moved past people’s vegetable gardens, he identified the different vegetables and trees in the garden by name. Jado knew exactly which spots to take tourists to view far off landmarks like the Kigali Convention Centre, all the way in Kimihurura. There is a spot where he took us, and from which we could see the Kigali International Airport, complete with planes, all the way in Kanombe.

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Time for food.

He informed us that the dome-shaped design of the convention center replicates the traditional mode of construction of grass-thatched huts in traditional Rwandan society.

As we moved on, it soon became apparent that he is a local celebrity of sorts. People know him as Jadot, the homeboy who takes curious tourists around the ‘hood.’

Some of the young men standing at street corners frequently taunted him to “say hi” to the visitors, while a few haughty ones asked him to tell the tourists to get them some cigarettes.

We delved into the Muslim area, and our guide shed some light on the heavy Muslim influence in the area –particularly the informal nature of businesses and the rather communal way of living.

We learnt that the historical marginalization, dating back to the colonial era, was responsible for the low Muslim enrolment in schools. At the time, he explained, most of the schools were Catholic-founded, and access to Muslim students was only permissible after a complicated process.

With a tinge of pride, he explained that people from Nyamirambo were a communal lot, very flexible and “can easily live with all kinds of people.”

Henry, the guide from NDA complimented Jado’s local narrative with more general touristy information on the country.

As we approached the market, we branched off into an enclosure where several women were at work, pounding quietly away at cassava plant leaves (Isombe). We were informed that this was Isombe processing cottage industry: people bring here their cassava leaves and it is pounded for them for a small fee.

We visited the famed tailoring section, meeting busy old men and women, some from as far as Nigeria, working their sewing machines. Some had been at the trade for more than three decades and had become part of the local legend.

In the used clothes section, tourists came face to face with the cut-throat competition to sell.

Here, hordes of young men jostle for space and for customers, and amidst the loud bustle, announce the prices of their used jeans at the top of their voices, in a bid to attract the highest bidder.

After about two hours crisscrossing Nyamirambo’s intricate corridors and backstreets, it was eventually time for the crowning moment of the trip, the food.

We arrived at the modest home of Aminata, our host after negotiating some narrow corridors.

We found her waiting for us, the food already cooked and on table. Beans, Isombe, dodo, potatoes and bananas on the menu, and indeed, the food tasted as homely as it looked.

Her simple three-roomed house soon became the center of animated conversation as tourists dug in.

Aminata speaks both English and French quite fluently, a fact that came in handy whenever a tourist wanted to know more about a particular food, its nutritive value and mode of preparation.

She lives in a homestead of about four families, so as we went about eating, a few of the neighbour’s boys came in and joined us. One of them went and brought us sodas.

Going by the size of the tip I saw the tourists slip into her palm once lunch was over, it was obvious that this was lucrative.

Jadot packed and carried some of the food that was left to the women at the center, before we called it a day.

About Nyamirambo Women’s Center

According to its president, Marie Aimée Umugeni, the cooperative started in 2007, as a group of women who simply wanted “to exchange ideas, work together, and help each other.”

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Basket weaving generates income for the center.

“In 2008, two researchers from Slovenia came to Rwanda to research about women development in this country. They met one of our group members, who told them about our activities. They picked interest in us and they came and we talked. Together, we came up with the idea to help the women to read and write, since most of them were illiterate,” Umugeni explains.

A literary class was launched, and the two benefactors helped with some funding and materials.

“With time we managed to introduce other things like sewing and computer classes. We also held workshops where we taught the women about gender-based violence and culture of saving,” Umugeni adds.

In 2009, the women came up with the idea of initiating income-generating activities, after realizing that the Slovenian women could not help the cause forever.

“We started this as a community-based walking tour of this neighborhood. At first it was just the idea, but we did not have the skills and experience to implement it. So we started by agreeing that everyone who could speak some English would be a tour guide whenever we got visitors.”

In 2013 the women met Monica, a volunteer who had come to Rwanda as an accompanying spouse to her husband, and who was happy to help them train some guides.

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Umugeni, the president.

“She found someone qualified in the job to train our people. Today, we have 10 trained guides.

After the training the guides wrote a manual detailing the history of this place, and possible tourism activities. We were able to print some brochures and take them to different places. We were doing it as an income-generating activity to be able to support our voluntary projects like the language, sewing, and adult literacy classes.”

After training the first twelve women in tailoring, a cooperative was put in place for them. Today, the cooperative has 25 women. They sell their products both to tourists visiting the center, and to local residents.

When the two researchers from Slovenia came to the center in 2008, Umugeni was in her form six vacation. Luckily for her, they agreed to sponsor her university education, and she enrolled at the Independent University of Kigali (ULK) to study Management, graduating in 2010.

“When our first president moved to Uganda in 2011, I was elected to replace her, since I’d had a chance to go to university.”