After a short layover in Nairobi airport, the great African plains appeared below us, followed by Lake Victoria, its shoreline edged in pink flamingoes between jealous, grey clouds.
(This is part of a series of posts called Letters from the Heart of Africa and a table of contents and background can be found here. This is a self-contained post but can be read as part of the series.)
The plane seemed to lose altitude, but it was actually the land that was rising – soon, Rwanda rose like a mountain fortress out of the great African plains.
She rose up like a fairytale kingdom, beautifully defined by nature, as if fashioned by a giant landscape gardener with epic and vain ambitions; laboriously stitching the velvet fields together, pinning them down with groves of bamboo and eucalyptus, ornamenting them with smouldering volcanoes, and sprinkling glitter to make her shimmering lakes.
She was mother earth at the height of her green, matchless beauty, her mantle a felt blanket draped across a thousand bulbous hills, each patched with freshly ploughed fields of red-orange earth like spilt cocoa.
We landed and as the engines roared to slow us down, the windows cried with horizontal tears. The runway at Kigali International glistened. This was the first of Rwanda’s two rainy seasons, but the rain is unselfish, never crowding out the flecks of blue in the sky for too long.
Walking across that tarmac, taking my first breaths of Africa, a mix of chlorophyl and sweet jet fuel, that feeling of anxiety, that deep flutter in the chest that makes me inhale and had followed me for months before, came back. What am I doing here? I’m in a country a know so little of. I know no one here. I’m so far away, so remote, from anything I know. My one comfort was VSO the volunteering organisation which offered me this 6 month voluntary stint. At least that would provide me with a safety blanket.
Getting rid of the contraband
In the brand new terminal building a young customs officer stopped me and asked me to open my suitcase. He rifled around for a while and pulled out two plastic bags full of soup packets .
– C’est inderdit monsieur… I am sorry these are forbidden to take in to Rwanda.
At first I thought he was referring to the soup packets, but then realised it was the plastic bags he was confiscating as he emptied them, folded them and flattened them out on the table. He explained that the Rwandan government had just banned all plastic bags in the country because of environmental concerns.
Outside the airport taxi drivers milled around waiting for a hire. They didn’t look like they needed work badly, there was no elbow-jousting jostle that characterises most African transport hubs. The atmosphere felt sleepy like a provincial outpost. At the central roundabout pedestrians walked with slow strides, not the fast shuffle characteristic of large metropolises, the calculated amble of hill people, keen to conserve energy with surefooted steps. It all felt quite chilled out.
My first impressions:
- Kigali is spotless. It smashed one of my pre-conceptions of some developing countries: that they have a litter problem. The streets, the grass verges are devoid of even a cigarette butt or the flutter of a sweet wrapper. The roundabouts are well landscaped and the central reservations are lined with manicured grass and trimmed plants. The plastic ban, it seems, works.
- Rwandans are beautiful (especially the women). They are tall and willowy with high angular cheekbones, jade black eyes and rich Bourneville skin. On street corners they chat together, some with flowery umbrellas, clutching stylish handbags, wearing low-slung jeans that hug their slim waists. Shoppers carry bags, paper ones, brimful of groceries to their 4x4s. Suited businessmen speak animatedly in to mobile phones. Youths in baseball caps and baggy jeans walk around listening to music from their phones, their “gangsta” look complemented with faux jewellery as if straight from MTV. The upper-middle classes of Kigali exude style.
From behind that taxi’s windscreen with the wipers waving, it’s fair to say my first five minutes in Kigali had already impressed me. I felt like a child, wide-eyed and taking things in as we drove through wide boulevards and roads that disappeared up the city’s hills and down valleys. It was going to be a fascinating six months.