Whoever first coined the term ‘the Dark Continent’ to describe Africa was either wearing very powerful sunglasses, or was nocturnal. The Rwandan sun is enthusiastic, its light is sharp and sunrise is rapid – the sun doesn’t drag itself up; it skyrockets in a steep trajectory and by the start of my commute at 7.30am it would already be high. The citizens of Kigali would have been up for hours; the boys in the street kicking a banana-leaf ball; old ladies sitting under roadside awnings, pedalling dusty sewing machines, stitching shirts and dresses in colourful fabrics; even the dogs in the street sniffing scents around bushes – all this before the sun even has a chance of achieving a skin-prickle.
(This is part of a serialised post called Letters from the Heart of Africa and can be read as a stand-alone piece of narrative or in sequence, as part of the series).
Some dozy men would usually be sitting on crates outside an old shack some metres from my front gate; they wouldn’t be up to much, lounging around, yawning, listening to a crackling transistor radio.
As I’d pass them, they would suddenly stop talking and stare at me with expressionless poker faces. An uncomfortable silence would prevail as I walked past them staring down at the ground in front of my feet. This awkward situation filled me with speculation. Did they want to meet me? Did they want to sell me something? Did they want to mug me?
One morning, when I passed them, I said amakuru? (how are you?). A few of them replied nimesa (fine thanks); others flashed broad smiles; some continued dozing. And that became our daily ritual – I realised their stares were stares of genuine curiosity, not the stares of aggression or superiority and behind them lay latent smiles ready to reach out for connection.
I would have to walk down two alleyways to arrive at the main road in Remera. In western cities, alleyways are often dark, urine-smelling chasms, potential crime scenes or places for clandestine drunken acts. In Kigali they are simply passageways between two buildings, functional short-cuts used by one and all. The segment of light at the end of the alley opened up in to a 360 view of activity, bustle of traffic, buses, bikes and pedestrians.
Crossing the central reservation of Boulevard de l’Umuganda demanded care. There were designated crossing points so that pedestrians wouldn’t damage the carefully manicured blades of grass and shrubs that the municipality tended to so meticulously.
The Kigali police guarded the foliage of the central reservations with an eagle-eyed diligence. They were only too ready to dish out on-the-spot fines or a few hours of incarceration in a cell for jaywalkers.
Kigali was the cleanest city I’d ever lived in; not even a cigarette butt or sweet wrapper fluttered in its centre. Its bans (on litter, owning plastic bags and even going barefoot) were rules to imposed order, a reaction to Rwanda’s dark and lawless past. The city pleasantly shattered my preconception of many other developing country cities whose markets, public areas and drains are clogged up with litter.
If I was late, I would call for a motorbike taxi. The acceptable way to do this is to make a sound by pushing the tip of your tongue to just behind your front teeth, making an air pocket and pushing the air behind your front teeth. As the air escapes along the length of the front teeth it makes a sound –
The sound travels well, sometimes over 50 metres, its high frequency surfs above the deeper frequencies of rubber tyres beating the road, voices and engine rumbles. It also takes remarkably less energy than shouting or even raising an arm. To western sensibilities this sound might appear rude but here is used to attract attention from roadside peanut vendors to waiters in fancy restaurants.
Usually though, I’d wait with lines of people ready to rush and board the buses outside Chez Lando at the crossroads of Remera. The buses of Kigali are 18 seater minivans, called matatus, and in the mornings they cruise in speedily, the conductor clinging on to the sliding door with one hand, the other holding a bunch of Rwandan francs.
He’d shout the destinations, intoxicating, evocative names: Nyamirambo, Kimironko, Nyabagogu, Mumuji and Gisozi would roll off his tongue.
The bus wouldn’t move until every seat was filled, which in the mornings was a matter of seconds. If there was a spare seat he’d slam the top of the bus and tell people about it. People would barge and clamber for it, elbowing others out of the way. Sometimes athletic young lads would open the hatchback and acrobatically dive in headfirst. The people inside didn’t seem to mind the cheeky bravado.
Inside the bus the atmosphere was nearly always quiet and contemplative. Rwandans are understated, modest people, who tend to avoid loud mannerisms and wild gesticulations. There’s no closer way to be with Rwandans, cramped seats jam thighs and buttocks together, passengers sit overlapping like a hand of poker cards, armpit to shoulder. We seemed to dovetail in to each other like jigsaw pieces. There was a noticeable lack of passive-aggression, only an expectation that at the next stop people might get off and proper breathing could recommence.
The twin pillars of Rwandan passion are Christianity and English Premier League Football. Their colourful designs dominate windscreens, doors and mudguards of the minivan buses – images of Didier Drogba, Jesus Christ, Wayne Rooney, Bible verses, Steven Gerard all have a place on the buses to attract fares. Malcolm X and Bob Marley also might make appearances.
As we got closer to the valley of Gisozi, I’d tap on the metal insides of the bus with a coin; the conductor would tell the driver to stop; I would hand over my 100 franc note and the aisle seats would be flipped up, making an aisle, as I would peel myself away from my fellow commuters. I disembarked, my shirt sleeves would air once more, my lungs would fill deeply once again.
Then, by the petrol station, boys selling mobile phone cards and newspapers might run towards me barging each other in the race. Many of Kigali’s child street-vendors are genocide orphans who, for many years, lived off scraps, often getting in to trouble with the police and living vulnerably on the streets. Then, in 2005, the Kigali Newspaper Sellers and Communication Association was formed to organise them in to trained groups across the city to pool their profits and support each other. Rwanda is filled with post-1994 stories of hope and resilience like this and in my six months there I would hear many.
The final walk to the Genocide Memorial Centre would take me across a small stream, past a parade of small shops and up a one kilometre slope with a hairpin bend
By the bridge an old man would usually be holding a plastic basin full of peanuts wrapped tightly in cellophane cones. Under the bridge by the banks of the stream, beside clumps of reeds, a long line of women with yellow jerry cans would snake its way towards a public water tap.
Each would fill a can or two, tightly screwing on the red cap, and lift them on to a small cloth on their heads. These lines of women would then cut across the bend in the road to trudge up a steep and muddy embankment in rubber sandals.
A litre of water weighs a kilogram so some of them would be carrying ten kilograms of spine compressing, skull thumping dead-weight up that muddy cliff.
This activity was, for them, a mundane, daily chore performed without complaint or deliberation. And then as they cut across me, to climb another embankment I might notice that some of the women, carrying up to 10 kilograms of water up a muddy, slippery embankment have babies wrapped to their backs, wide-eyed, unconcerned, waiting for mum to make breakfast.
Seeing those women in the mornings with their morning water routine was a regular reminder to me: don’t complain about the lack of running water at the bungalow. You have a tap just outside.
After the hairpin bend, the road would rise past a parade of shops selling stacks of green bananas and vegetables. An entourage of school children might stare as they passed me, the braver ones would ask: ey muzungu donne moi cent francs.
The front gates of the memorial centre, with the policemen guarding its white walled entrance, would herald the end of my morning journey to work. Always curious, never dull.
(A table of contents for ‘Letters from the Heart of Africa’ can be found here)