The evolution of Kigali’s night time economy

Mariya Yohana during a past performance. Courtesy.

Rudy Ghirini had been visiting Rwanda from Burundi periodically even before the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi unfolded.

Every once or twice a year, he travelled to Rwanda from Bujumbura, mostly to visit the Akagera National Park.

Ghirini was among the first crop of people to venture into Rwanda right after the Genocide, visiting in July 1994. At the time, it was to do some small contract work with Medecins Sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders), which was trying to address one of the most serious problems in Rwanda at the time; an acute water shortage.

Yvan Buravan entertains revellers at a past show. Courtesy.

“We were drinking beer to quench thirst, even to brush teeth. In fact, the only liquid entering here at the time was the beer from Burundi –Primus,” recounts Ghirini, who owns the popular Pili Pili Bar and Restaurant in Kibagabaga, a city suburb. In Burundi, he had been running the popular Bora Bora Beach Club in Bujumbura.

In Rwanda, his work with Medecins Sans Frontiers involved ferrying safe spring water and distributing it to the most critically affected communities:

“Much of the water distribution system had been destroyed during the genocide and besides, you couldn’t touch the water, as there were a lot of microbes in it. It was absolutely prohibited to touch the water.”

Besides water, food and electricity were also in very short supply.

Ghirini worked in Rwanda for two months - July and August (it was his school vacation) before returning to Europe to resume school.

“It was business and helping at the same time,” he notes, adding: “I kept returning to Rwanda on short visits.”

In 1996, he visited again, this time to participate in a local motor rally championship. His observation at the time:

“It was still a post-war ambiance.” That time, he was staying at a friend’s house in Kiyovu.

“On some nights we would hear explosions –it was landmines exploding after being trampled upon by animals or human beings. At day time it was the army that would come to detonate the landmines.”

About the motor rally for which he came, Ghirini says:

“The entire rally was on dirt roads, the departure point was Gishushu, at the exact spot where the Rwanda Development Board complex stands today. There was nothing on that plot at that time. Even Kibagabaga was a big bush with many wild pigs which people used to hunt for food.”

The same year, 1996, the country hosted the late South African reggae icon Lucky Dube at Kigali Stadium. Ghirini describes the concert, which he attended, as “the first big entertainment event in Rwanda, post genocide.”

Remmy Nsanga, of People Night Club, describes Kigali as a ‘no man’s land’ when he arrived from Belgium in 1995.

“I came with a positive mind, knowing this is a country where I belong, where I can enjoy my creativity. It was like a clean slate. Everything you gonna do, if you do it well, it will work.”

His idea then was to ‘invest long term and make a living in this country. Making a living was also creating a social life, as social life was very small by then. We had to struggle with post genocide trauma, and I think because of that people also were coming together. Some had lost their families, others were returning from abroad, they needed support, and TV was not an option. Sitting home and watching TV was the most useless thing to do. Maybe it would entertain you for a certain time, but people needed to connect with people.”

“I think everyone was in the same mood of; let’s have a social life, because we’re not meant to stay in the house. There was nothing good in the house, just a roof … our life was more outside of the house. We had a more busy life outside the house, because first, business was created by connecting with people outside the house.

With telephone communication near-impossible by then, meeting friends was largely by chance. If your car broke down on the road, you couldn’t just call up a mechanic. You had to just walk to the middle of the road and try your luck.

When La Sierra opened as the first coffee shop in the country, Nsanga recalls that, “you would pass by three times a day to ask; ‘do you have a coffee’, just so you could connect with someone. That was the only way to see people because we had no phones. There were very few places you could have food or a drink at night. Everybody that used to go out knew each other because we had only two-three places we could hang out.

Many players in Kigali’s night time economy were of the view that things started to look really up around 2002, in the run up to presidential elections the following year. Held on August 25 2003, these were the first direct presidential elections to be held in Rwanda after the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi. It was also the first ever multiparty presidential election in Rwanda’s history.

Paul Kagame, the RPF party flag bearer, took the day with an emphatic 95% of the vote.

“In the 25 years I have been here, I can tell you that there was a very slow change, till 2002, but from then on it went to a different scale. Before 2002, I could have met you two or three times a week if you were that person who enjoyed going out. Now it’s impossible without an appointment. There are bars at every street corner,” explained one nightclub owner who preferred anonymity.

Between 1994 and up to about 2000, most of the night time action took place in Downtown Kigali, down the Tigo roundabout. The area around the Post Office building was the busiest street in town, more like the Gisimenti hangout zone of the time. A slew of bars, nightclubs, restaurants, pool tables, live band music could all be found here. People sat on beverage crates in the absence of chairs, and sipped their drinks over light banter.

Several people interviewed about this particular phase of the country’s history concurred that nightlife at the time was a little strange, as people did not go out much, with the exception of a cluster of expatriates.

Popular karaoke host Carolyn Nderitu has seen Kigali’s nighttime economy evolve from near-nothing to where it is today.

A Kenyan native, Nderitu first came to Kigali in 1999 with her late husband Joe Mwenda, a popular Kenyan musician who had been invited to entertain on the eve of the transition to the new millennium. The concert was at Novotel (the current Marasa Umubano Hotel, in Kacyiru), and Nderitu joined her husband on stage.

After the performance, it was time to explore the town.

“We went to a club in Downtown Kigali that used to be where Ecobank now stands. I remember the line as people waited to pay for entrance, and my surprise as handguns were removed, cartridges and bullets marked and placed in a locker, and the owner of the firearm would get a tag –similar to what we now do with our personal items as we walk into the supermarkets today.”

Nderitu recalls that this was one of the four nightspot options available to Kigalians at the time. The others were; Cadillac, Car Wash, and Sky Hotel in Nyamirambo. With more people daring to venture into nightclub business, more clubs gradually opened their doors to the public, beginning with the then B-Club (later K-Club, and now Voltage Club).

Nderitu adds, “Having come from a much larger city myself, Kigali was quite small. Most roads were untarmarcked, and the biggest buildings then were Novotel. Hotel des Mille Collines, and the National Bank of Rwanda (BNR). There really wasn’t much to do at night, so what people did was gather around at their ‘home pubs’ and create their own evenings listening to some music from a small sound system and enjoy their drink and conversation. Security was an issue and even these self-created nights would rarely go past midnight.”

In 2000, she returned to Nairobi, where she stayed until 2006 when she landed another job in Kigali.

“I was pleasantly surprised when I arrived. There were more nightspots than I’d left, more roads, and tall buildings in town like City Plaza.

Cadillac Night Club and Eugene Habimana, aka Cobra, are two names that will always be synonymous with Kigali’s nightlife – post-Genocide.

Cobra was the first person to venture into the nightclub business right after the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi. He had earlier opened Cadillac in Bujumbura, where he lived as a refugee, in 1989.

A few months after the Genocide in 1994, he returned to Rwanda, and immediately set up a nightclub called Umutekano (Kinyarwanda for ‘security’), in Kimironko.

After about two months, he opened Cadillac Night Club, relocating to new premises. He vividly recalls two things then: There was no electricity, and for this reason, Cadillac Night Club operated on generators from inception till a few years later. The other thing he recalls was the ubiquitous presence of menacing bands of stray dogs roaming Kigali’s residential suburbs in the night.

Some of the earliest expatriates to return to the country after the genocide would wait for nightfall, before hitting the town in a desperate attempt to try and locate their lost pet dogs.

For Cobra who was into nightclub business, “getting the right manpower locally was very difficult, so I started off with my DJs from Bujumbura.”

Today, 25 years on, many patrons now find it hard to choose from the array of nightly options.

“Now there are countless spots to choose from, both in town and in the suburbs. For one to party these days and you live in Kimironko, you’re spoilt for choice. Same applies for Remera, Kabeza, Nyamirambo, Kicukiro, Gikondo, Nyamata, Bugesera the list is endless. It isn’t just about clubbing anymore. There are live bands, karaoke shows, poetry evenings, and monthly events like the Kigali Jazz Junction and the rise of local event promoters that have given a lot of hope to the young generation.”

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