Coming from typical ‘African’ cities, we had an animated debate on our first day, as we descended the palm-lined and immaculately clean highway from our hotel Chez Lando, in Remera to the Kigali Serena, in Nyarugenge District, the heartland of Kigali City. This was during the Transform Africa Summit at the end of October, 2013. The most skeptical in the team was a Kenyan guy, whose argument was that these people are only cleaning the front, visible highways ; otherwise the ‘small side’ of the town will be a typical Kariyobangi or Dandora in Nairobi.
We therefore, he argued, should not be duped by the ‘front-face’, which any city puts on, especially when expecting such global gatherings as was the Transform Africa Summit ; insisting that a physical spot-check of the ‘small side’ of Kigali would prove him right. As luck would have it, I happen to know practically every nook and corner of this city, right from its ‘Sopetrad’ days. I therefore offered to take those willing on a tour of the ‘small sides’ of Kigali, and the modus agreed was morning jogs, since the Summit days ended late, with everybody real beaten by the marathon activities.
Thanks to the time difference between Kigali and the old EAC, five o’clock is already day-break, so it was normal jogging time. Our maiden sojourn picked the route to Kimironko suburb, via Giporoso, to Kicukiro, joining Gikondo, up Kimihurura and back to Remera. Day two saw us in Kacyiru, descending to join Gatsata, Nyabugogo, via ‘old Kiyovu’, back to Remera. The morning of our departure day was more adventurous, since we had enough time on us : we ventured hill-climbing into Juru and Mburabuturo hills, overlooking the city. Boy, this place is clean. True, you will find ordinary accommodation and kiosks in several pockets, but the entire neighbourhood is clean. Even the ‘michopoo’ areas have evolved. Michopoo are the ‘rural’ places that litter cities and towns, and in Kigali of the late 90s, we had a favourite one between our flats in ‘Kiministiri (ministers’ village) in Kimihurura and Gikondo. My Kenyan neighbour- friend had discovered a ‘delicious’ Congolese dish there and would herd us to this place most Saturday afternoons, ‘to discover town’. These nooks and corners are today real clean.
Kaveera-Free City, Rising Sky-Scrappers
The last day of the Summit gave us a whole free afternoon, which we used to the maximum. Before an early nyamachoma dinner at Car-Wash, the focus of our discovery was the central business district (Quartier Matheus, Quartier Asiatique).
True, the CBD has the typical African city key characteristic, namely choking on imported Asian cheap textiles, imitation electronics, and related merchandise, but it still stands out apart : clean, with no plastic sachets ( kaveera) littering. One added beauty of this kaveera-free city is that drainage systems do function, thus no floods as define Kampala.
Neither will you find our other latest fads of sports betting (read gambling) and street preaching. The recent rising sky-scrappers have dwarfed their pace-setter, Centenary House. Built by the Catholic Church to mark its 100 years in Rwanda, the building became the standard benchmark for any other structure on that street. Since then, the skyline has changed, with buildings such as Pension Towers (owned by the Rwanda Social Security Board), raising the bar even higher. And no building is occupied till its construction is complete.
High-Class City Transport, Scheduled Upcountry PSVs
We capped our city tour on the last day of the Summit with a ride in the city Public Service Vehicles (PSV) matatus. This is another testimony of a city and country going Smart, as the slogan of the new development path goes. The entire city public transport was allocated to three transport companies, each operating its own defined zone. One of the three companies is a federation of transport cooperatives. Thus each taxi is marked with its zone number, namely 1, 2, 0r 3. Within each zone, taxis are colour-banded according to the routes they ply. Thus no need for touts to ‘direct’ people, the Kampala way. Even someone illiterate will know that the bus with the red band goes to his/her home. Moreover, the taxis keep on the routes allocated. With marked stages at intervals, the whole process is very much disciplined. The city centre has no parks, only stages. One bus company, Kigali Bus Service, has free wireless internet on board, from Tigo, one of the telecom companies in the country.
The dominant carriers are the 25-34 seater Toyota buses (imported brand new), as well as the large buses. The large buses are the Chinese-make, similar to Pioneer’s in Kampala, only that the Kigali ones have better seats. The plastic frames have wide cushions on the seats and backrests, unlike the Pioneer ones which are pure plastic bucket seats. The average fare is Rwf200. The ‘full’ distance averages 10-12 kilometres.
Besides organised city PSV, the entire city is road network is systematic and numbered. There are three descending order categories of ‘roads’, namely a road, a street and an avenue. A road is the highway joining two districts within the city or out of the city. A district here is what would correspond to a division in Kampala. A street is the small road branching from the highway, while an avenue is the smallest, leading from a street into a building. A simplified alpha-numeric method was used, with the district names defining a particular location. KN stands for Kigali Nyarugenge, (the CBD) KG stands for Kigali Gasabo, KK is Kigali Kicukiro, et al. Road, street and avenue numbers follow accordingly.
Another defining feature of Rwandan PSV transport is the scheduled PSV service to upcountry towns. Each company has its terminal, with scheduled departures. One can even book their travelling time and seat in advance by telephone. Operated with brand new, comfortable spacious minibuses, besides ordinary PSV, this service has boosted the tourism sector in the country, since budget tourists find it more economical and convenient than conventional tourism vehicles.
Paved Walk-Ways, Flowered Retainer Walls, Digital Traffic Lights
The roads are not European-size, but they have paved pedestrian, cyclist walk-ways. This is reinforced by lines of palm trees, functioning streets lights, punctuated by flower-gardens on islands and roundabouts, the latter accentuated further by living water fountains. As one team member from South Africa remarked, one can land at Kigali International Airport and trot into the city centre…’the whole environment is appetising to walking’. With its hilly terrain, most roads run along slanting slopes, thus necessitating retainer walls. The botanist charged with the beautification of the city shows his genius here. Instead of the standard stones, the retainer walls are made of hollow square blocks, where grass flowers are planted, completing the whole scenic setting.
The traffic lights, besides working normally undisturbed by police, are digitally timed, with count-downs as the mechanism directing traffic.
What Makes this Place Tick ?
The secret behind this country ‘in a hurry’ as one columnist puts it, is leadership and a shared vision. The people have come to believe and share in the vision of the leadership, thus each one strives to make the best of their contribution towards this common national vision. This is visible almost everywhere. The palpating mood at the Summit and its ancillary events... the small talk with individuals… It is all captured in a popular song on RTV emphasising the Agaciro and Ndi Umunyarwanda philosophy, the driving ideology and credo.