It’s dark within the covered Kimironko Market despite the warm, sunny day in Rwanda. Seamstresses using pedal-operated sewing machines sit lining the outer perimeter of the market. They’re positioned to take advantage of the natural light pouring through the gaps in the metal bars around the building.
Inside the market, rows of stalls sell second-hand clothing and shoes. Piles of gently worn tee shirts boasting the names of American cities and sports teams are neatly folded, and used, or Chinese copies of popular sneakers line entire walls. It’s a place where locals shop, except for the dozen or so traders at the front who attract tourists with jewelry and woodcarvings. Brightly woven baskets, all one of a kind, in varying colours and designs are unique to Rwanda, unlike many handcrafts imported from Kenya and Uganda.
Kigali is known for it’s conservative culture, but any notion that the city is quiet or boring, is mythical. On a Tuesday night, in Kimihurura, a neighbourhood popular for its nightclubs, restaurant and bar Ogopogo is packed. Locals and expats drink banana beer, and eat pizzas from the wood-fired oven. Set on one of the many hills that earn Rwanda its moniker “Land of a Thousand Hills,” the lights of downtown Kigali twinkle in the distance. Exposed brick walls, a coffee bar, bakery, and lounge lit in hues of green and pink feels like a slice of New York’s Soho, rather than Kigali. After the supper crowd heads home, Ogopogo turns into a dance hall, with live music and popular hits from East Africa, Nigeria and America.
To take advantage of out of town excursions, and the chance to get up close and personal with Rwanda’s past through it’s orphans, I enlist Patrick Kwizera of Uberluxe Safari’s. He and his crew are my unofficial fixers, organizing and fulfilling my non-traditional requests, like a visit to Agahozo Shalom Village. Usually, Uberluxe spend their time planning itineraries to track gorillas at Volcanoes National Park. But, I’m more interested in people than apes on this trip.
An hour outside of Kigali, set within 143-acres of rural land, is a peaceful place to hear personal stories, first-hand, from those affected by the genocide. Agahozo-Shalom Village, which means peace, is a residential high school established to provide a loving home and education to orphans and underprivileged teens. Here, young adults gain the confidence and poise to dream big and enjoy sharing their tales of their troubled past as well as their future ambitions. Many aspire to become leaders. Touching stories, with positive outcomes provide an experience and insight that makes the village so special. Half or full day visits are easily arranged with options to have lunch with students, or stay overnight with a “family” of 16 youths and a Mother, some of whom have lost their own children.
The Kigali Memorial Centre brilliantly documents history through images and an engaging timeline. If you have time for just one thing in Kigali, make it this. Afterwards, take a short moto-taxi ride to the fabric market in the center of Kigali’s commercial quarter for an uplifting juxtaposition of Rwanda’s past and thriving present. Young designers and others come here to shop for metres of kitenge, a waxed fabric produced in Africa for decades. The trick is choosing prints and colours that translate well into different garments.
There are women around the market who can make simple skirts and dresses, but it’s a better idea to have things made at home, since it may take a few fittings.
Local designer Sonia Mugabo sources her fabric here for day to night dresses. Mugabo is one of a burgeoning creative community in Kigali that has risen over the last few years as Rwanda has rebuilt after the atrocities of the 1990s.
Many of Mugabo’s clients are career women, and some can be found by the pool, spa, gym of the Serena Hotel, Kigali’s only five-star hotel. The Serena has legendary status with many returning business and leisure guests who see it almost as a second home. The rooms are large and quiet and the breakfast is a treat for vegetarians, gluten-free and the healthy-minded. Detox drinks and tomato tree juice, a sweet and tart local favourite, are among the daily juice bar choices.
Fresh produce indigenous to Rwanda goes into the massive veggie and meat burritos at Meze Fresh. Mexican classics like guacamole are made with sweet avocadoes, tomatoes and onions – all grown locally and beans are a Rwandan staple. A Californian opened the restaurant, now run by Kigalians. The quality is high and service American style, served with a smile.
Evidence of Kigali’s creative community can be found in some of the coolest cafes around town. The 4G and strawberry shortcake, among other tasty baked goods and savouries at RZ Manna attracts young Kigalians working remotely, or gathering in a private meeting room. Located in the affluent suburban hills of Kigali, the café is open til 10pm – late by Rwandan standards. It’s a social enterprise supported by the governments of South Korea and Rwanda. Kigalians are being trained to staff it, under Korean management. The Korean chef fills a vast, bountiful table with creations from home, including sausage in a cinnamon doughnut twist, and a cream-filled brioche bread. RZ Manna, with its views of the lush hills surrounding it, it’s mix of local and foreign food, and people, makes a sweet place to wrap up a trip to Rwanda.