On Monday I travelled to Huye town (I still find it strange to call it that, instead of Butare) to visit my old alma mater and finally collect the degree that I’d slaved for almost half a decade. As the bus approached the town I felt quite giddy with anticipation. Mind you, I hadn’t been there for almost three years.
Alighting off the bus, I headed straight to the oldest hotel in Rwanda, Hotel Faucon to wash my hands, drink some water and take stock. The hotel, which was infamous for being off-limits for black people (other than King Rudahigwa), has always had a certain rustic charm to it and I was extremely happy to recognise some of the staff after all these years.
After the refreshments I started the gentle walk to the NUR campus, walking past probably the finest example of colonial architecture and old world charm in the Southern Province, Hotel Ibis. But wait. Something was very wrong. The entire hotel’s historical front and patio had been razed to the ground and in its stead rose a three-storey building instead. This was scandalous!
The second oldest hotel in the country (it was built in 1942) has had a storied past. It was first used a cinema hall before it was converted into a hotel. In 1949, it housed the cast of the Oscar award winning King’s Solomon’s Mines, a movie that starred Andrew Marton, Deborah Kerr and Stewart Granger. The movie was shot in vicinity of Nyanza.
Seeing the beautiful historic building being turned into just another storied building hurt me to my core. When I asked what had happened, a Huye resident told me that he’d heard that the hotel’s owner had been pressured by the city authorities to ‘modernise’ the place. In place of monument will stand a banal piece of architecture that means nothing and stands for nothing.
A few weeks back, I read a story that would have been cause for scandal almost anywhere in the world. On February 22, this paper reported that Kigali Central Prison would be converted into a heritage hotel. All which is fine and good. However, in the same report, the Culture Minister, Protais Mitali, admitted that the house owned by the last King of Rwanda, Kigeli V Ndahindurwa, in Nyanza was sold to an investor to convert to a parking lot. A parking lot!
I can only imagine the furor in the United Kingdom if a castle belonging to Queen Victoria was sold to build a mall. There would be demonstrations on the street.
I am not going to lay all the blame on the Ministry simply because it would be too easy to. One has to wonder, couldn’t the Nyanza authorities figure out that converting a King’s home into a parking lot wasn’t a good idea? And couldn’t the Huye people keep their grubby hands off a cultural site? One doesn’t have to be a rocket scientist to understand that our cultural and historical heritage isn’t just for us to enjoy. Our children and grandchildren are also owed this.
In our rush for modernity and Vision 2020, we must be careful and ensure that a balance is reached.
I suggest that the Ministry of Culture, working in conjunction with all the district authorities in the country, locate and preserve all the cultural and heritage sites in the country.
They should become no-go areas for bulldozers. Let us not throw away the baby along with the bathwater. If we do, don’t be shocked if the coming generations put us to task.