Musanze has fast become one of Rwanda’s most vibrant cities. Here, the ethos is, make money and enjoy life to the fullest!
This tourism city is abuzz with business activity. Arguably Rwanda’s second largest city, musanze operates twenty-four hours a day with people trying to make the most of its strategic location.
Located in the shadow of the imposing volcanic mountains, Muhabura and Sabyinyo, Musanze is an integral part of a region that’s breathtaking in so many aspects. The area is home to most of the last mountain gorillas on earth. The city is teeming with tourists, both local and international, as well as people en route to or from neighbouring countries.
Tourist spending helps make Musanze one of the wealthiest cities in the country. But Musanze also has a rich farming tradition making it one of the country’s breadbaskets. The soils here are particularly conducive for Irish potatoes and the district produces thousands of tonnes of potatoes.
Farmers in Musanze also grow sorghum and pyrethrum on a large scale. The district supplies foodstuff to Kigali and other parts of the country, while it also exports to mainly neighbouring DR Congo.
Over the last fifteen years or so, Musanze has not only been a magnet for tourists from around the world but investors as well. Hotels, nightspots and spas have sprung up at a very high rate, everyone keen to cash in on the growing numbers of holidaymakers. The corporate world too has not been left behind, with banks, telecom firms and insurance companies all setting up a footprint.
In many ways, Musanze epitomises Rwanda’s story.
You bump into tourists in almost every corner of this town. Silvia Streischer and Tonchi Cindric are from Stuttgart in Germany. They are having coffee at Hotel Muhabura. “I just love Rwanda,” says Cindric, who adds that he’s been coming here for the past ten years. “I love the nice weather of Ruhengeri (Musanze) and I love going to see the lakes up the hills, and I love that I do all this in the knowledge that I am completely safe”.
The 2017 Travel and Tourism Competitiveness Report ranked Rwanda ninth in the world in people’s safety and security.
To appreciate what this means one only needs to look back a little over 20 years ago when Musanze, or Rwanda for that matter, was one of the most dangerous places in the world. The country lost more than a million people in a state-orchestrated genocide in 1994 and it took several years to pacify the country, particularly Musanze (then Ruhengeri) and other northwestern parts of the country. The insurgency that followed the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi was caused by remnants of the defeated government forces and extremist militia groups that were bent on exterminating the Tutsi and overthrowing the RPF government that brought an end to the Genocide.
The insurgency was defeated in late 90s, paving the way for reconstruction, healing and development efforts, thereby giving the people of Rwanda a chance to turn a new page.
Unlike Cindric, this was Silvia’s first time in Rwanda. ‘I was struck by how friendly people here are,” she says. “There is hospitality everywhere you turn, tidiness, clean roads.”
Ugandan tourists Sheila Nakibirige and Esther Sambuka are in the company of a Rwandan friend enjoying a late lunch at another spot. “We only came to see friends and relax and have a holiday here and I can tell you we will be back,” Nakibirige tells us, before her friend chips in: “There is just so much to enjoy here and it is the perfect place to come to.”
Gorilla trekking tops the to-do list for most foreign tourists here. Tour operators work hand in hand with government agencies like Rwanda Development Board (RDB) to transport tourists to their destinations in Volcanoes National Park. The park is 125 square kilometers of pristine beauty and it’s rare for its lush vegetation, and its chief inhabitant – the silverback and his family (there are several gorilla families in the park).
A fully-grown male gorilla is about three times the size of an average man, but despite their intimidating size and appearance, they are calm, humbling creatures. For many a tourist gorilla trekking is the most memorable wildlife experience anyone can have.
Driving into town, one easily notices the change that’s going on. Even if you were last here only six months ago, you are amazed at how fast new buildings have sprung up and the new paved roads.
One building that will catch your attention is Goico (Gorilla Investment Company), an imposing complex in the heart of this densely populated urban setting. Goica sits on the site that used to host the district’s largest market. Today, it is a gleaming arcade, complete with shops, food courts, banks, telecom service centres and the like.
One of the investors behind this venture, Alex Murera, said Musanze’s first shopping arcade cost Rwf8 billion.
It was President Kagame that first floated the idea, said Murera, who now serves as the director-general of Goica.
It was during a meeting here, he recalled, that the President said ‘why don’t you come together, pool resources and build something bigger that will also be more profitable?’.
“At first, we were only 20 businessmen and women but soon we convinced others to come onboard and raised enough capital to convince our bank to provide the loan we needed (70 per cent of the total capital of Rwf8 billion),” he says from his office on the second floor of the complex.
Today, this modern shopping centre employs well over 3000 people.
Both residents and tourists hail the security organs over the peace and security that Musanze enjoys.
How has this come about? Superintendent of Police Aphrodis Gashumba, the District Police Commander of Musanze, attributes this to good collaboration between the security organs and the people.
“Policing involves cooperation with all the stakeholders; the local government, right from the grassroots leaders, community policing committees, youth volunteers (mostly under Community Policing Organization) and other players,” said Supt. Gashumba.
With all the stakeholders playing their part, we are able to combat crime effectively, he says.
“Of course, we still have a few problems, especially with domestic violence, kanyanga (illegally distilled and dangerous local gin), cannabis,” he says. “But even these crimes are kept at a minimum level.”
He added: “Other than that, anyone in Musanze, residents, visitors or tourists can all be guaranteed of security wherever they will be.”
Thanks to a sense of safety and security, Musanze’s streets are bustling even during the night.
Nightlife here is busy. People, including young ladies, walk out of karaoke spots and bars well beyond midnight by themselves, freely taking selfies with their smart phones with no fear for their safety or even theft.
“Everyone here knows that they are safe,” says CIP Hamdun Twizeyimana, the northern region police spokesperson.
We hopped from one nightclub to another and everyone there was peacefully having fun, not even the kind of drunken brawls or petty thefts that are common in such places were witnessed. At Super Coupe, Pasadena and Monica, revelers were partying hard well into the wee hours of the morning.
The nightlife of Musanze caters for different tastes and preferences. And different wallet sizes too.
After our nightlife experience which was complete with contemporary music and golden oldies, we paid a visit to El. Hajj Habib Barore, a resident of Musanze since he was born in 1956.
He says over the years he has witnessed the good, the bad and the ugly of Musanze. “I saw Musanze in its time of need and I have seen it in its glory days,” he says.
“I saw Kayibanda’s government when to be a Tutsi was a crime that was punishable with death and I saw the same under Habyarimana”
“In all my years, I have never seen Muhoza (his home area) or the whole of Musanze as safe as it is today,” says Barore, who runs a grocery shop in the heart of Musanze town.
He adds: “It’s only under the government of today that I have seen the kind of peace that we enjoy. It doesn’t matter whether you are a Umuhutu, Umututsi, or Umutwa.”
“We are all happy and looking forward to an even brighter tomorrow,” he says.