For a long time my understanding of Rwanda was limited to just Kigali and its environs. Outside Kigali I could only recognise the road to Gatuna border post for quite obvious reasons. Then I ventured into new work environments that allowed me to travel a bit and see more of this beautiful country. I travelled to Bugesera and Musanze first. Soon after that, I found myself in Rubavu, then Karongi, and even going as far as Rusizi.
The kind of work I do has helped me travel to many places, learn new things and meet new people. Huye was one of those places that I took a long time to get to. Then one time an American journalist friend was doing a story about an Ice Cream shop there and she needed a fixer/translator. I got a chance to spend less than a day in this interesting southern district formerly called Butare. I didn’t see much of it then.
About two years ago, I found myself back in Huye for another work assignment. After it was done, I had some time to walk around and sniff a bit of the town’s soul. This is a district that is home to the country’s oldest university, National University of Rwanda as well as the National Museum. It generally has that old rich history that has been frozen in time. However this history is also endangered in a way.
New buildings keep coming up not just in new spots but mainly as replacements of the old ones. Slowly by slowly the old is replaced by the new. Some noises are made by some who care, calling for the preservation of the area as well as the country’s heritage. I mean this is a place with hotels that have stories. It is here that you find hotels (Faucon and Ibis) that used to be for whites only, until the day King Rudahigwa literally put his foot down in this place.
Development in the form of renovations has often meant that the town’s history kept being eroded brick by brick giving way to the contemporary glass and steel that lacks any visible architectural character. Huye’s soul has also suffered from the movement of some of the university population off to the city of Kigali. This clearly messed up the economy of the place.
The impending ‘renovation’ of the famous Hotel Faucon has some people worried that it will not survive. And that the district in general will die off. I believe it is not too late to save this great part of the country. Many led by Nelson Gashagaza cried out online for the hotel to be saved even if just for educational purposes if not commercial. I agree too. If Huye is to rise again it has to rise with its known identity as a place of history, culture and education.
I am not an expert in these things but I believe it is important to preserve the district’s historical hue and market it as a tourism stop for those who want to see the side of Rwanda.
Many countries have towns that keep that old vibe going and attract many visitors while at it. It is sad that the town’s Arabic heritage is already gone but we can save the rest of it. And tell stories to future generations while having something to point at.
As a centre of education, the idea of moving faculties of the university to Kigali needs to be thought through. This place provides the kind of environment one needs to focus on their education undisturbed by the hustle and bustle of Kigali. I read somewhere that some of the faculties that had been moved to capital are to be taken back to Butare. This in my view is a welcome step.
We need to understand that development is not just in the form of new shinny glass buildings but also in the preservation of what we attach value to. If indeed no value is attached then we have to reflect on our understanding of development and value. Butare in particular, doesn’t have to look like other Rwandan towns. It can just look like itself but in a nice way. If we can have a modern conventional centre inspired by old Rwandan architecture then we can surely have an old Butare that smells of new paint holding old stories of Rwanda’s heritage and education.
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