A country girl who built wood and stone paradise in Gisenyi

Before the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi, Odette Nyiramongi lived on her family’s property in Rubona village, 7 km outside Gisenyi town.
One of the cottages. (Moses Opobo)
One of the cottages. (Moses Opobo)

Before the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi, Odette Nyiramongi lived on her family’s property in Rubona village, 7 km outside Gisenyi town.

During the genocide, she fled the country for dear life, returning to ruins of the family property in 1996. She did not return to mourn her loss, however, but to rebuild from scratch. Her tireless efforts resulted in what today is among the leading hospitality service providers in the town, let alone the country –the Paradis Malahide Resort. 

What’s in a name?

“Malahide is a place in the northern part of Dublin where my mother lived for a while after the genocide, and that gave her great inspiration and serious positive impact,” says her son Mucyo. 

“To remind her of that experience, she decided to name this place Paradis Malahide. She just wanted to remember that part of her life when people helped her and inspired her as well, even though they didn’t really have to.” 

Odette lived abroad, including in Malahide, until the close of 1996, when she decided to brave the journey back home, and with big ambitions. Unknown to her at the time, the heart-warming reception and hospitality she received in Malahide would not only inspire her to value life again, but also equip her with the courage to return to her motherland, though troubled it still was at the time. 

Basically, it was a very hard time for her, having lost a few family members in the genocide. Mentally, she had touched her very lowest ebb.

Back to square one

Her resolve to rebuild the place seemed not only dare-devil-ish, it bordered on the reckless, at least according to casual observers, who were also yet to recover from the events at the time. 

Nobody seemed to understand the motive behind her zeal to rebuild in the middle of such chaos. Her son offers some insight: “She was in that little town in Ireland right after the genocide, and basically what the people there did for her, helped her get back on her feet emotionally.”

According to him, the town’s people “brought back a little bit of life into her; they were so kind, so nice, so supportive, that she rediscovered a little bit of happiness in her. Coming back here to Gisenyi, to her, was happiness despite all what had happened.” 

In all, she wanted to bring this place back to life. To her, it was the best way to honor the people who helped her get back on her feet and rediscover her lost confidence; people who saw something special in her and who went out of their way to give her back the joy she had lost. 

It was this confidence she brought back to build a little nest in the middle of ruin, a place where people could go and actually forget all the problems that surrounded them, and to find hope, joy and meaning in life again. 

About 1994 Genocide 

“Ours is the same story as that of several other people who had to flee their own country and try to rebuild a new future somewhere else,” says Mucyo, adding; “and yes …that was a very tough challenge.”

He describes his mother as “a woman with a lot of strength, determination and a unique sense of vision. “She’s never going to take “no” for an answer. She will definitely battle against all odds to make things happen, and for her the most important thing was that there’s a life after such tragedy; that you have to go beyond such hopelessness. In order to go beyond it, you have to create something positive, inspire other people, and the community as well.”

Odette’s return to her birthplace could be described as a lesson in courage –unwavering courage. 

According to her, the area was back then “very, very dangerous, some kind of red zone. There were still elements of the Interahamwe roaming the villages and randomly killing innocent people. Gisenyi, close to Goma, was very chaotic and very insecure, with people still dying every day.”

Returning to the town, she was all alone, with only her vision in mind.

“People told her you’re crazy, you’ll be killed, but she had this unbreakable determination already, and she was very much focused on this,” her son interjects.  

Getting down to work, the first structure she erected was a small, two-roomed structure for her own accommodation.  Her son describes it as “that little place you build real quickly before putting up the main house.”  

Today, it has been kept for posterity, with a small but cozy living room and an equally small bed room in which she still sleeps. “She refused to leave it for a bigger place because it is a reminder to her that she started from below the bottom,” explains her son.   

On hospitality

The question is; how did a humble country girl without any formal education, let alone hospitality background even conceive such an ambitious venture? She explains her own version of the concept of hospitality, in French, which her son translates to me:

“She does not have any background in the hospitality world, but those are just classes where you study set courses. She understood something better than that, and this is the main lesson she made me to learn –that business is about people. It’s not about the money.”

Mucyo further contends that true hospitality is rooted in the ideal of unconditional love. 

“If you want to take care of people, all you need is love. You just bring a piece of your heart and your soul in what you’re doing, and people will just feel it.” 

Yet, there was an even higher love on which her energy was anchored –that for country:  

“You really have to love your country first, otherwise you can’t find the confidence to return to a country that was basically ruined. I had since the beginning a huge love for my country, Rwanda. I loved the country and the people as well. Even after the events of 1994, I never lost the love I had for everybody.”

She just did what she loves to do –flowers, and construction.

Today, her personal touch permeates the whole establishment –right from the lavish flower gardens, the interior art décor, right down to the architecture. 

“The garden is one of her passions because she loves flowers,” Mucyo explains, adding: “Flowers give her happiness. She believes that by putting a lot of flowers in the garden, you also bring happiness to the people. It’s a way to transmit her good spirit.” 

Back to the roots: 

The resort is what you would call a natural haven of wood, volcanic stone, and blossoming flower gardens. 

Particularly, wood and stone define the entire architectural set up and interior décor. From the rustic furniture, down to the plates, forks, knives, and serving trays, it is all wood. The seating in the lounge comes by way of canoe-shaped wooden sofas derived from roughly chopped wood. Actually, the bar counter too is made in the shape of a traditional fishing boat. 

The art décor is distinctly Rwandan traditional, as is the music policy, where strictly traditional folk songs are played. Come evenings, a traditional music troupe descends around the bon fire in the lounge to entertain guests. 

Venturing further into the guest facility, one notices that all rooms and cottages are made of wood and volcanic stone. 

Basically, the resort presents a mix of traditional cultural elements and artifacts you can find anywhere in Rwanda, that basically symbolize the country’s ancient culture. Same applies to the kitchen, which relies strictly on charcoal ovens as opposed to gas and micro wave technology. Mucyo explains why:

“You can go to a five star anywhere in the world, but you will find the same standard food and amenities. That’s the difference.” To him, coming to Paradis is “almost like coming back to the roots. That touches tourists because that’s the part of Rwanda they want to see. They want to come to a place with a lot of vegetation, a profound soul, traditional dancers performing for them, while eating food on wooden platters, and authentic Rwandan food, like sombe, ubugali and sambaza/tilapia fish.

All the wait staff come clad in African fabrics with fish patterns on them. 

The resort’s clientele is well-balanced, with locals, tourists, expats from Kigali, Embassy officials, UN staff, honeymooners …, name it. 

Facilities

In all, the facility boasts ten rooms, six bungalows, and four apartments made of wood and volcanic rock. 

As a bonus, there are over sixty different bird species on site, thanks to the tranquility and thick natural green cover.

The resort further boasts a private beach island, about a five minute boat ride from the main facility. Named Akeza –the beautiful one, the island was bare rock when the resort opened, but is now as green and blossoming with flowers as Paradis Malahide proper.

 

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