Kigali at first sight – a visitor’s impressions

My first view of Kigali was from the air. As we prepared to land, the plane banked, the left wing dipping towards the ground, offering me a full view of the sprawling city through my tiny square window.

My first view of Kigali was from the air. As we prepared to land, the plane banked, the left wing dipping towards the ground, offering me a full view of the sprawling city through my tiny square window.

Set against the backdrop of the hazy green hills, the busy patchwork of iron roofs and dusty streets looked somewhat incongruous, yet picturesque at the same time. A mix of excitement and anxiety seized my chest.

Once out of the airport, my nerves were instantly settled by the relaxed and friendly manner of everyone I met. Coming from London, I am no stranger to traffic and noise and great throngs of people, all rushing about and jostling one another, and in this respect, Kigali is no different.

But what struck me straight away as I walked the streets, was the complete lack of antagonism. Everyone has their own agenda, their own things to do, but unlike in my home city, this does not come at the expense of a consideration for others. People show courtesy and kindness to their fellow inhabitants, a far cry from the hostility which one encounters daily on the streets of London.

Sure, my appearance has elicited some rather surprised and uncertain glances from passers-by – something that may take some getting used to – but I have experienced no unpleasantness from the people here since I arrived.

My early impression is that the city itself seems to move to a rhythm of its own – hectic, chaotic, but infectious. As the sun goes down, the air becomes charged with an electric buzz; a cacophony of music blaring out of shop-fronts, fervent discussion and revving engines fills the ears.

Even on a short walk after dark through the streets of Kigali, all the senses are engaged – the vibrant colours and intense, appealing smells are, for me, all new and intoxicating.

The late-evening cram for the buses out of town is a perfect illustration of the animated chaos which gives this city such an immediate charm.

Something else which immediately strikes a visitor to the city is the amount of new development going on in Kigali. Whether it’s the shiny new office blocks or the concrete skeleton of the soon-to-be multi-storey car park, the indicators are clear: Rwanda is moving in the right direction.

And the figures speak for themselves. The Ministry of Finance recently released its figures on the economy for the year 2008, which put GDP growth at 11.2 percent - the first time Rwanda has experienced double-digit growth in five years.

Even more telling was the growth in the construction industry, which soared to 25.9 percent last year, a vindication of the government’s positive attitude towards investment and free enterprise. One gets a strong sense that the Rwandan people are optimistic and forward-looking.

As Rwanda can certainly look forward to a bright future, there is no shying away from the darkness of the past. The Kigali Memorial Centre (KMC) stands as a monument of the victims to the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi. I visited the Centre on my second day, a deeply moving experience.

The exhibition is set up very well to be both informative and incredibly heartrending; one room, for instance, is dedicated solely to hundreds upon hundreds of photos of victims. When you consider that this represents only a fraction of all the victims of the genocide, the effect is very powerful.

Opened in 2004, on the tenth anniversary of the atrocities, the Centre is a symbol for the way Rwanda has confronted its recent history. The money raised by the Aegis Trust, which in coordination with Kigali City Council set up the Centre, goes towards helping those who were left most vulnerable after the genocide.

It also seeks to ensure against the reoccurrence of genocide. One of the key ways in which it tries to achieve this is through educating the younger generation of Rwandans, some of whom may not have lived through the genocide, but whose lives are undoubtedly affected by it.

Education such as this is the most important task for the KMC, as a clear and universal understanding of the past is the key to preventing this kind of atrocity from happening again.

In so much of what I have seen in Kigali, the past and the future seem intrinsically united. But no other building in the city reflects so pertinently this co-existence than the Parliament Building.

From its position on the crest of one of Kigali’s numerous hills, it is visible from virtually everywhere across the city. Up-close, you can see the external walls still bear the scars of the violence and brutality of 1994, deep holes cut into the mortar by shells and bullets.

And yet, within those walls lies the future of Rwanda in the form of a dynamic and forward-thinking government, intent on bringing the nation out of the shadows of its past.

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