ON AFRICAN UNION ROAD in Kiyovu is a compact-looking office block, Omega House.
But woe unto you looking for Omega House because lately, the address is known to most people as “Sopetrade-Limousine.” The change is on account of the long, black monstrosity of a ride that is to be seen parked in front of this building.
That monster ride is an eight-seater Stretch Limousine from the Lincoln series. If you haven’t yet spotted it pitching camp here, perhaps you have seen it lead a wedding procession through town. Weddings account for most of the limo’s trips across town, and now that we are heading into the annual season for nuptials, expect to see it criss-cross Kigali’s streets more often.
The Limousine espouses exclusivity in its general demeanor, the reason it is the ride of choice for such memorable events as weddings.
It is this sense of exclusivity that accounts for the car’s massive popularity whenever its wheels roll onto Kigali tarmac. On the streets, it causes some kind of mild euphoria, with surging and waving and peeping crowds eager to simply have a feel of the car’s body to their fingers, or try to ogle the passengers. Some taxi moto boys even hoot and try to give chase.
Demystifying the car
One thing that is obvious about this rental ride is that most Kigalians are simply content with the “optical nutrition” that comes with watching it make its elegant slow dance in town. So whenever it shows up, we ogle it, salute it, mob it; even try to have a word with the chauffeur. Once that is done with, we then take to creating mental images of the newlywed couple luxuriating and getting pampered inside.
What most of us “ordinary” people can’t fathom in our wildest dreams is the fact that we could be the Limo’s next client. Yes, the weddings of rich young Rwandans, a.k.a the baby boomers, high profile airport pickups and large corporate events form the bulk of its business, but this does not mean that business is closed to the average individual.
In fact, this ride is for “every body”, just like the readily available Toyota Corollas marked “Condor” for hire. There is just a marginal increase in price, for quite obvious reasons.
What happens is that the Limo owners, Bracknell Executive Services sell packages to potential clients, which can be tailor-made to suit taste and budget.
These packages cater for both long and short-term clients in almost equal measure. Long term usually means a day or two, and is usually sought by wedding organizers and large corporate events.
The short term packages have been deliberately kept low and flexible, in a bid to demystify the Limo even further.
Luxury on wheels
On the breezy Wednesday afternoon when I visited Bracknell Executive Services, and after gathering enough Limo facts from the Chauffer and his superiors, it was agreed that we make a short city tour in the Limo, for purposes of actuality.
The Business Development Manager, James Ngugi was very clear about the duration of the ride: 30 minutes at the very most. Naturally, I was looking forward to a “ride of my life”, and would have preferred it longer. However, drawing from the principle of “half a loaf is better than none,” I joined the chauffer, André Nyirigira, his boss, and two more passengers, ready for our road trip.
Once inside, all I could do was turn on my mental cameras right away, sizing up the plush interiors.
What did I see? First, I noticed that, unlike any other passenger car I have seen, the Lincoln Stretch Limo does not have a co-driver’s seat. It was just flat, empty, carpeted space where the co-driver’s seat should be situated.
Once inside the car, you are either a guest, or the driver. Guests sit at the rear, while the driver mans the controls, all alone.
Plush, black leather sofas set the tone for the passenger section, complemented by decorative liquid lights, AM/FM Radio, MP3 Player, mini TV screens, DVD player, and large ice-coolers.
Even more impressive is the mini bar, which is to be found stocked with chilled complimentary wines and champagne at any given time. We found the leather seats literally melting under the scorching sun, but the a/c unit that kicked into life shortly, quickly put things right. From Kiyovu we drove towards the Tigo Roundabout, through to the Rubangula junction in downtown Kigali, gliding past curious, in some instances even excited onlookers. Andre, our chauffer informs us that we are headed into the hustles and bustles of Nyamirambo.
My two co-passengers sit at the extreme rear and lower their windscreens a bit, while I sit further inside, away from public scrutiny. The result: Sporadic crowds craning their necks to have a glimpse of the action inside. Many in commuter taxis and on taxi motos simply flash V-signs, while others gesture for the chilled drinks in the mini bar.
We are talking about the exclusivity of this ride with James, the business development manager, when he tells me: “Most clients seek our services after all other aspects of the wedding have been organized, at this point we cannot offer much to make their day most memorable, so we just offer them the limo.” He explains that the limo service offers a little more than just the ride.
“For the wedding package, we offer a wedding dress for the bride and free champagne for all guests during the ride,” he says, adding, “so really it’s up to a client to start drinking before or after their wedding.” The company goes further by offering pre and post marital counseling for the newlyweds.
Although I paid no single dime for my 30 minute ride, I emerged from it with a sense of what it would require for me to hire the service for a short fun ride.
For instance, on a very tight budget, as tight say as Rwf100,000, you could still go ahead and spin a birthday surprise on a friend by having them picked up by limo from home to, say, a dinner venue or simply have a party in the limo with cake and drinks. You just have to strictly keep within the stipulated time frame.
“We are very strict on time, because time-management is part of our exceptional customer service. When we offer you this exclusive and executive service, the least one can do is honor the time. Because you will be dealing with the driver alone, he can’t afford to argue with any client,” says James, adding: “he’s not just a driver, but is also trained in client handling. He is a selling point for the company, and if he’s rude to a client, we won’t be in business.”
The older clients take to the limo primarily to lend wedding processions pomp, elegance and exclusivity.
However, their younger compatriots prefer it for their plush birthday parties and, increasingly, the sheer fun of riding in wheels befitting of royalty.
As James put it to me later: “You can hire it just for a fun city ride, because it is not an ordinary ride. We ensure you see Kigali in a different light. What makes it different is that there is some kind of public euphoria whenever the limo is spotted. You, in the span of the hire, will feel as royalty.”
Yet other than transporting you to and from your event venue, this car has been known to act as a bona fide event venue in itself. So while some have paid for it to take them to a birthday party venue, more shrewd clients now hire the car as a venue, what with its decently stocked bar.
So if you wanted to have your 8-year old daughter’s birthday party on expensive wheels, you are going to have these people decorate the Limo, throw in a few balloons here and there, blend some juice, pop corn …and the party on wheels is good to start.
Up-close with ‘Andre, the limo guy’
ANDRE NYIRIGIRA’S work as a Stretch Limo chauffeur has attracted him a few flattering nicknames since he embarked on the job in June. These days he is variously referred to as ‘Limo’, ‘celeb,’ or “Andre the limo guy.”
These names have been given him by his wide legion of fans—people who know and admire him on account of his job. The 27-year old says that he loves his job too much to turn away such flattering names.
Typically, his workday begins at 8:00am, and closes at 6:00pm. Before clinching this job, Andre had been a contractual driver in Kigali, picking clients as they came.
In June this year, he applied for his current job and got it. He attributes his luck to the fact that he had all the requisite papers, and also the fact that he is ever willing to learn even more.
He reckons that driving a Limo calls for more mental concentration for one to successfully negotiate bends and angles. He adds that; “Whichever client I have is a VIP, and you can’t bump a VIP up and down as you drive them.”
He likes the job because, not only is it salaried, unlike the previous one, it’s less taxing physically. Also, “it is respectable because I deal with respectable clients”.