Security in Rwanda, especially when the big man is around, is tight. It would be easier for me to get into Europe without a visa, than it would be for anyone who is not cleared to get into an event where Kagame is expected. There were all kinds of security personnel, some wearing jungle green and others, black. The ones in black looked badass. They wore black boots, black trousers, black shirts, and black caps. The only colour on their outfit inscribed the letters CTO on the caps and shirts. Some of them had dogs. Huge creatures that instilled the fear of God in me. To be honest, though, ever since my brother was bit in the ass by a dog named Tusker when we were kids, I have always been terrified of dogs.
I badly wanted to talk to one of them. I wanted to ask one of them to let me touch his heat (not like that, hehe, I mean his gun). But those guys do not smile. Even the ones in green who sat at the desk, checking on a computer to see if my name was on the list, did not leave any room for discussion. He looked at my passport, then looked at me, then looked at the computer, then told me to take off my hat, then looked at the computer, then passport, then my hair, then said “you are not on the list.”
“Come again?” I was surprised.
“You are not on the list. Go stand there.” His tongue might have said the words, but the fire in his eyes is what sent the right message.
Look, if this was an event in Nairobi and I was invited and then the security says I was not, I would not budge. At least not immediately. I would say “Check again, Mister…” then I would look at his badge, “Njuguna. Can I call you Njugush? Yes? Or Njugu? My name is Magunga. Not Magoga, or Magungu or Muganga. M-A-G-U-N-G-A. Magunga. Magunga Williams. I was invited by Naomi from Ogilvy. Hebu check.” then I would step aside and call Naomi and ask her what the hell is going on with this embarrassment.
You can’t do that in Rwanda, my friend. Not with an army officer. You cannot bring your University of Nairobi goonship. You cannot ask him to google your blog, or check out your Twitter handle. When he said I should go there, I went in the general direction he pointed, not sure where exactly. No questions asked.
As we waited for clearance, I spoke with this journalist friend of mine based on Rwanda, and he told me, “By the way, if you cause trouble, these guys can just as well put you in a van, straight to your hotel room and then you will be on the next flight home. This is not Nairobi.”
This is not Nairobi. Quite frankly, I did not need this reminder. It is rather evident the moment you step out of the Kigali International Airport that Rwanda and Kenya are chalk and cheese. You know the way you walk into someone else’s house and then you start comparing it with yours? I do it all the time. I covet all the time. Especially bookshelves. I grow green with envy when I visit a house and the host has a cool bookshelf. Same thing with going to a different country. I have heard all kinds of stories about Rwanda and as if to give credence to the lore, everything I’d heard about Rwanda was true and more.
Let’s start with the one everybody loves to talk about. Yes, Rwanda has tall men with square jaws and fair skins, and even taller women with oblong faces and eyes that burn like the sun – strange, terrifying and beautiful – you cannot gaze at them for long without blinking. Eyes that can break your heart without even breaking a drop of sweat.Their vehicles are left handed and they drive on the right side of the road, which is the wrong side. Meaning I spent most of the time on the road, gasping, hoping that we do not ram into oncoming traffic. Their units of measurements are all weird. They use miles to measure distance and centilitres to measure the volume of beer instead of kilometres and millilitres like normal people. So if you are a Kenyan, you have no idea what 40 miles an hour is and you will take a moment to widen your eyes in wonder when you realize just how much 65CL on the big Mutzig beer is. That is 650ml. That is a mzinga of beer! Then, unlike us who name our roads after our politician’s dead relatives, their roads are named in numbers like KG 15th St. and KN 23rd St.
I do not know who counted, but yeah, Rwanda is a land of a thousand hills. Could be more even. I guess that is why I never saw even one fat person. Everyone is fit, trimmed to perfection; a tonic for tired eyes. But how can anyone be overweight in Kigali – a city whose CBD’s downtown is on top of another hill? How they manage to drive sticks in this town – how they manage to balance cars on these steep hills without reversing and sending everyone to hell, is stuff of legend.
While I may lust over Kigali’s clean safe streets, fetching beauty and the 10 minute traffic jams that they find insufferable (how cute!), there is one thing I do not envy. Something that stands in the middle of the city, that I would never wish on Kenya; the Kigali Genocide Memorial Center – a tunnel of memories that Rwandans would rather forget. It was upsetting that I visited this place in the morning after that man from Gatundu South was caught on camera calling for the killing of CORD party leader, and the tribal shitfest that ensued. It broke my heart because it is in this center that over 250,000 of the 800,000 people who died between April and June 1994 are buried.
Perhaps we joke about ethnic strife because we do not know what it really means. We talk about death so casually because we do not know what it is. We tasted it in 2007, perhaps, but right now we cannot recognize the stench of post election violence even if it was cooked as a meal and put on our tables. That is why there is all this ethnic snafu every other day. What many Kenyans may not realize is that what we saw during PEV, the targeted killing of 1000 people, that is just but what happened in a typically slow morning at the height of the Rwandan Genocide. Just do the math.
Rwanda has been dead before. In this memorial, as you walk through, you cannot help but feel a golf ball block your throat as you read about colonialists who convinced a group of peaceful people that their own kind was their enemy. You will weep at the way these people believed them. You will be gutted while watching the pain of survivors relive the last moments of their loved ones, retelling stories of betrayal from people who, until a few days before, had been their husbands, neighbors and friends. How did it happen? Newspaper articles and radio announcements spilling bile like;
“We say to the Inyenzi [cockroaches]that if they lift up their heads again, it will no longer be necessary to go fight the enemy in the bush. We will..start by eliminating the internal enemy…they will disappear.”
-Hassan Ngeze, Kangura, Janvier 1994
Does such talk ring a bell, Nairobians? Does it remind you of something somebody said? Something you said? Something you Retweeted, Liked or Celebrated? Something you scrolled past and ignored? And then you sit there, entertained by such talk, soaked in your foolishness, mistaking the absence of war for peace.
I do not wish we had a memorial center like this. We do not need a subway of lessons to teach us something we should already know. But we Kenyans are a dangerous bunch, because we are fools with poor memory. Fools who look at each other’s origins and see fault.
It has been 22 years since Rwanda was dead. But those of us who understand the old teachings of the Drowned God from the Iron Islands, we know the words “What is dead may never die, but rise again. Harder and stronger.” And for the past two decades Rwanda has been working very hard at shedding off the long shadow that the genocide cast over them. They are rebuilding. However, they cannot do it alone. They need catalysts. They need help, if they are to get back to their feet. And the chaps at Coca-Cola must have sat down and said, you know what, let’s help these guys. We already have about 100 Ekocenters in Kenya, South Africa, Tanzania, Ethiopia, and Ghana…So why not Rwanda, eh?
So they did. They built 34 of them across the country. And then the other day they found a neat spot atop a hill in Ruhunda and built another one.
An Ekocenter is generally a provision store that Coca-Cola builds across this rock to enhance social enterprise. Meaning, they do not go around giving handouts, rather, they empower you to make a living for yourself. And since women are the most hardworking people in the planet (sorry fellas, facts are stubborn things) the centres are run mostly by women.
The Ruhunda Ekocenter is not like the one in Kenya though. It is a one of a kind. While the one in Oloitokitok focuses on providing clean water, the Ruhunda Ekocenter project does way more. Sure, there is the issue of unavailability of clean water. Take for instance the Alice Mukeshimana (pictured above) who runs the water kiosk, whose story is somewhat familiar to many people. She was unemployed before she got that gig. Before the water kiosk, she had to go kitu one kilometer downhill to fetch water from the stream below and then start the long walk back. Meaning, she had to make several trips for that water. But then, Rwanda is a hilly country, when it rains, all kinds of stuff are washed into the stream, making it unsafe for direct consumption. The Water project is a spring of purified relief. Because what then happened what that the Coca-Cola chaps called in Pentair to operates two water purification units providing up to 20,000 liters of safe drinking water daily.
And that’s just with water. To make it even more impactful, they built a Copa Coca-Cola stadium for the local team, then liaised with Philips to light up the stadium with floodlights, surrounding areas, including the health center. Because this is the 21st century, they also called Ericsson to build a new mobile phone tower to provide connectivity, while TIGO connected Ruhunda with free Wi-Fi. And then to add cherry to the cake, Medshare equipped the Ruhunda Clinic with medicine and equipment.
The result of this coporate potluck is an improved socio-economic ecosystem. A new gold standard for progress that shows what’s truly possible when people of good will work together. Not my words. Muhtar Kent’s. The Coca-Cola CEO.
That is why the launch of this project was such a big deal that Mr. President had to show up himself, Muhtarr Kent flew over from Atlanta and Reverend Jesse Louis Jackson (Google him) also made an appearance. The launch itself was awash with high ranking government officials and other luminaries from Coca-Cola. Little wonder the residents of Ruhunda shut their doors and sat at the stadium, singing and dancing, waiting with an overflowing sense of patient expectation for the big man to cut the ribbon.
Considering the kind of company we kept at Ruhunda on that day, do you think the security measures at the beginning of this story were so indelicate? I really cannot complain, reprobate as I am.
The highlight of my trip, however, was not even marvelling at how tall Kagame is, or even his overpowering presence – oh and believe me, when this guy is around you, you cannot help but be moved by him. It is almost involuntary for your senses to diminish. But that is what jazzed me the most. What amazed me were these dancers who came into the stadium to entertain guests during the launch. The men were in white and the ladies in red. Two men beat tall drums with big sticks. The dancers wore shingles on their feet and stomped the earth so hard that it tremored from beneath out feet. It is a flamboyant dance, where they spread their hands like proud eagles floating on a calm sky. They smiled with their eyes, and for the longest time I wished I could feel whatever they felt when they danced. It’s like they were possessed by a spirit, such that for that moment they were on stage, they were removed from this world. They were lost in the dance and into themselves as they moved to the drumbeats.
I wished I could join them in that nirvana. I could not. I did not want to be one to interrupt something that beauteous. I waited till they were done, approached one of them to ask whether the dance had any meaning. He said, “Dance we immediately finish we call Garukurebe Dance. We dance for cows because Ankole cows have big horns.” English is new on their tongues.
I know right? Cows? Of all the things this sublime dance could imitate, it had to imitate a cow? In my head, I’d thought of a bird. A peacock, or a dove, or an eagle, or anything a bit more, uhm, majestic than a cow. Apparently, the dance imitates the Ankole cow’s horns and grace when it ambles along.
“What does Garukurebe mean?” I asked.
“Come again and see,” the dancer said in a hurry to catch his breath, his face sparkling from the way beads of sweat bounced off the sun’s light from his skin.
I will be back to Rwanda for sure. I will be back to see Rwanda because she has a lot and so much of it. I will be back to see Ruhunda, to see how much their lives have changed since the last time I was there. I will be back to see Kigali. It is the place you go to if you ever find yourself in need of decompression, when you want to get away from the heavy breathing pace of Kenya. No teargas. No boom! twaff! matatus. No tricks to rush to your car window when you stop at night. Nobody with the temerity to grab your phone in traffic. Blissful to a fault.
And if you ever want to see Rwanda in her full splendour, then you need to drive around Kigali after dark. You will see the Kigali Convention Center – a spectacular dome adorned with running lights portraying the country’s national colours. It will make you feel bad because our own convention centre has been converted into a national billboard.
Do not stop at the convention center. Wind about the twisting roads of Kigali and then park in front of Papyrus on KG 674 St. Go upstairs and find a spot on the balcony that overlooks this small, purring city winking off to sleep. Something slow will be leaking from the speakers. Diamond FM, perhaps. And with a cold drink in hand, look into Kigali’s eyes. You will agree with me that they are the only Christmas lights that deserve to be lit all year long.