A peek into the Kigali of yore

Kigali 1950. Not many of us have a clue on how it looked like. Some of us were not yet born; some of us were not on our beloved Rwandan soil. After some searching Martin Bishop found for the Sunday Times an old man to guide him on a sentimental journey.
L-R : Hotel Diplomate ; old Post Offfice
L-R : Hotel Diplomate ; old Post Offfice

Kigali 1950. Not many of us have a clue on how it looked like. Some of us were not yet born; some of us were not on our beloved Rwandan soil. After some searching Martin Bishop found for the Sunday Times an old man to guide him on a sentimental journey.

Mzee Isaac Sembe is in his late 70s and has few pleasures left in life. One of them is his passion for story telling. Anyone at his age would have a hazy mind, punctuated with poor memory. But Isaac’s mind is so much alive and kicking. He is a living encyclopaedia on Kigali. 

“We had no benches or desks in primary school. We sat on the dusty floor or would bring a stone to sit on. The classrooms were grass thatched,” he recalls.

Mzee Sembe was born in Kimisagara (then commune Kiyovu) where he went to Kamuhoza primary school. Later he joined St. Andre which was then owned by the Catholic Church. It was one the first secondary schools in Muganza which was renamed ‘Kigali’ by King Rwogera rwa Gahindiro.

 Mzee and I started our trek from Biryogo. “In the 50s, this was the only place you could find a house for rent,” tells my guide.

In these house’s lived workers employed by Arabs and Asians who lived in the City of Kigali.

 The staff used to stay with their bosses, but a time came when their masters were no longer comfortable staying with them, so it was decided they get them a place where they can reside. That was how Biryogo was born. It was then called ‘Camp Swahili’ because most of them spoke Swahili. The Linga Franca from east and central Africa, today Swahili is still widely spoken in Biryogo and its neighbourhoods.

 Another small township that was famed back then was Sodoma in Gikondo.

“In the 60s, truck drivers from Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania started to use it as a resting place. Locals used to throng to Sodoma to sell whatever was needed by these drivers before they hit the road again to Magerwa,” Sembe narrated.

Up to today, Sodoma is still a beehive of activity.

 On the contrary a place like Gakinjiro once a place where things were happening lost its spark. It used to be the main Market of Kigali where people from all corners of the country came to buy goods especially second hand clothes.
“This place saved and is still saving many lives,” praised the old man as we leisurely walked by Kigali Central Hospital (CHK). He recalls how the hospital back then was run by Belgians, all doctors and nurses were white.

“People would travel for days to come here for treatment.”

 We continued to the present Serena hotel. “This place holds special memories for me,” he says drifting back to the yesteryears. 

But this place is only a few years old, I counter.

“Yes, I know, but this ground was once occupied by ‘Cercle sportif’ during colonial times. White people used to play tennis and other games. I used to carry their bags from their cars to the play ground.”

After independence the white sports lovers were given a piece of land in Rugunga where the present Cercle Sportif is located. Then the plot where the present Serena is was split. On one part Café Impala was built and on the other Hotel Diplomate.

The latter was built mainly to accommodate Sabena Airlines pilots.

Years later, in 1976 when Air France came to Rwanda, the French airline rented the Libyan owned Meridiene. The Hotel was used by their pilots as a stop over place, and later became Novotel, now Laico Umubano.

Next stop, Orinfor offices. “Opposite here stands a building that once housed one of Rwanda’s first banks. This was around 1964,” the Mzee (old man) recalls. This structure still stands but it’s vacant.

A few meters from it, stood the first multi-storey building of the country, the great Post Telecommunication and Transport building (PTT). However, it was recently, should one add, unfortunately, demolished. It gave way to the construction of a shopping centre.

A few of the remaining old buildings in our capital are Kigali Central Prison commonly known as (1930)                                                     and Bwahilimba Catholic Church which later was renamed   St. Famille. My guide and I hoped that these historical treasures will survive the wave of modernization.


“Night life then wasn’t as hot as it is today. We had joints like La Sierra where we could go and share a bottle or two. It was owned by a Belgian man called Debouch Graave popularly known by the locals as ‘Rugarave. And then there was another popular bar called ‘Splandeur’ which I frequented,” confessed Mzee Sembe.

How about your outfit? What did you guys wear? “Well, the rich would go to the tailors to get their clothes made. For the rest of us ‘Sirwa’ was the rescuer.”

 “Sirwa?”  Mzee Sembe explains that Sirwa was the leading wholesaler of second hand clothes. Dealers would come from all regions to buy the merchandise. “They would park their Peugeot pickups and fill them to the brim!”

Talking about vehicles, which brands of cars governed the roads in your days? And where did they come from?
“There were four main car importers. There was La Rwandaise, which later became Akagera motors, dealing in Mercedes Benz and Toyota. It used to operate its business in the same building where they are today, opposite the Union Trade Centre,” Mzee Sembe revealed..

‘The Old East’ imported Volkswagens and Volvo. They are no longer in business. Rwanda Motor dealt in Renault and Mazda, while NAHV brought Peugeot on the market.”

As we unhurriedly strolled back to Biryogo, I turn to him with a smile and say that I will share how the Kigali City Tower stands where the main Car Park used to be. The City Plaza house was once the tallest building in the country.