Rwanda is a tiny nation in the heart of Africa with a brutal and violent past. It’s been 21 years since the genocide and Rwanda is now a peaceful, sleepy nation nestled amongst green rolling hills and the smell of eucalyptus trees burning for cooking fires. It is a country that has done a remarkable job with healing its wounds and has taught me more about the power of forgiveness than I ever thought possible.
I fell in love with this country the moment I stepped off the plane in March 2011, the humid air felt heavy on my skin and the sweet smell of the tropics filled my nostrils. For reasons I can’t explain this place felt like home to me.The local language spoken is Kinyarwanda, and it would be useful to pick up a few key phrases. English is widely spoken in Kigali but outside of the capital you are faced with either French or Kinyarwanda. In my experience the people in Rwanda have been nothing but kind. I have been going back to Rwanda every year since and I have been treated like family and have made life long friends.
Rwanda is easily the safest country in East Africa. There is a sense of calm in the country that is unshakable and that you don’t experience in the surrounding area. The streets of Rwanda are mostly paved and spotless.
Kigali is a lively city with a lot to offer. A few of my favourite places in Kigali include:
- K lab – K lab is a social innovation hub for entrepreneurs that focuses on tech. Entrepreneurs apply to Klab with their ideas and if they are approved they are given space to work, a mentor and the resources to help them succeed. I had the chance to teach a 2 day coding workshop there. I got the know the staff and they are wonderful, helpful and kind. If you want to be inspired, use the internet, hang out in a cool place for a few hours and enjoy a cup of coffee you need to check out Klab.
- The Kigali Public Library – I know what you are thinking, ew the library, how boring. The Kigali public library is the opposite of boring. There are so many cool programs and activities that happen in this beautiful space. More specifically the innovation village and cafe shakola on top of the library. It’s a space to come and do some work. It has a co working space and an art gallery. On Wednesday nights they show free movies in the theatre area and give out free popcorn. There is a wonderful view of the city and you can sit with a hot cup of coffee and watch the storms roll in in the rainy season. This may be my ultimate favourite place in Kigali.
- The Bowling Alley – The Mamba club, don’t worry if you forget the name. Just ask for the bowling alley there is only one. It’s an outdoor bowling alley and with tunes, food and drinks it’s always so much fun. A great place to spend a Friday night with friends or meet other expats. It’s located in the Kimihurura neighbourhood of kigali which is lined with cobblestone streets, great restaurants and a lot of NGO offices.
- The Mille Collines – The infamous Hotel Rwanda is a beautiful luxury hotel owned by a Belgian company. Sundays at the Mille Collines are a real treat. They have an all you can eat buffet and for around 15000rwf (about $25) you can spend the day eating and swimming in the lovely pool. It’s not something I do all the time while I’m in Kigali but once in awhile you need to treat yourself.
- Mt. Kigali – Mt. Kigali is located in Nyamirambo. I can’t think of a better way to start your day then hiking to the top of a mountain that overlooks the whole city. It’s a great workout and you feel as though you are on top of the world. It takes about 2 hours to hike to the top, so get up early and watch the sunrise over the city.
- The Market at Kimironko – The market at Kimironko is huge, and insanely busy. This is where I prefer to buy all of my groceries when I am in Kigali. If you want to practice some of your Kinyarwanda skills make a stop at this market. Chat with the vendors and bargain for the best prices. If it’s available in Kigali, chances are you can find it at Kimironko market.
- Cafe Brioche – If you want a little taste of Paris in Kigali go to cafe Brioche. The bread, the espresso and the chocolate eclairs are a wonderful treat. It’s located across from the top tower hotel, with lots of embassies and offices around sometimes getting a seat can be tricky but the atmosphere is lovely and the internet connection is good. Treat yourself to a pastry. They make some of the best in Kigali, and buy a loaf of bread to go.
- Simba across from the RDB – This little cafe which is part of Simba super market is always busy. It has a great patio and good coffee and snacks. A great place to spend a Sunday to people watch or get caught up on work. It’s also a great place for a business meeting.
- Sole Luna – Sometimes you crave a good pizza. Sole Luna in my opinion has the best pizza in Kigali. When you walk down the steps from the road into the restaurant you walk into a garden of flowers and plants. The restaurant is basically a huge wooden patio overlooking the city. It’s a beautiful spot especially at night. The service is good, the food is great , the atmosphere is dreamy and the view is stunning.
- Nyamirambo – In my opinion this is the neighbourhood in Kigali with the most culture and life. Marked by the big green and white mosque at the fork in the road. Unlike the quiet, tree lined streets of most Kigali neighbourhoods Nyamirambo is bustling with life. The streets are rarely quiet or treelined. This is also the neighbourhood with the best food. Street food in Kigali is hard to find but in Nyamirambo you can get amazing chappati or eat a traditional buffet for less than 1000 rwf (about $2). Nyamirambo also has a lot of nightlife. The streets are filled with bars playing different types of music with karaoke and lip syncing. If you want a good nights sleep I would not recommend staying in Nyamirambo where the music is often blasting until the call of prayer starts in the early hours of the morning.
Kigali is a great city but if you really want to get to know Rwanda you need to leave the capital. The country isn’t very big and the bus system is great so it’s pretty easy to explore. If you go east to Butare the University town you can spend a weekend exploring the beautiful landscape, and checking out the trendy cafes and restaurants that keep popping up. You will most likely see monkeys in Butare, they are everywhere in the east but if you want to do some hiking or chimpanzee trekking, keep heading east to Nyungwe forest. Nyungwe is a vast untouched tropical rainforest in a high altitude with a dense canopy. There are numerous hiking trails and you could spend up to a week exploring this beautiful park. Bring rainy clothes and a sweater, it’s very cold at night. If you’ve been brave so far and stayed in hotels with no hot water now is the time to splurge. You will want hot water here to shower off the mud after a cold rainy hike through the beautiful trails. You can also find the source of the nile river in Nyungwe.
If you have heard of Rwanda, I’m sure you’ve heard of the mountain Gorillas. Rwanda is one of the few places in the world where you can observe these beautiful creatures in their natural habitat. They live in the Virunga mountains that border Rwanda, the DRC and Uganda. If you head west from Kigali to Musanze, formerly Ruhengeri you can stay for a night or two and trek to see the mountain Gorillas, Again make sure you pack some warm clothing. But, The mountain Gorilla’s aren’t the only thing to see in Musanze.
After you’ve spend some time in Musanze jump back on the bus and head west for another two hours to Gisenyi, the sleepy beach town on the shores of Lake Kivu. Gisenyi sits on the border of Goma, DRC but it is an entirely different world. Gisenyi quiet calm town and you can spend an enjoyable weekend there checking out coffee and tea plantations, or local co-operatives such as No. 41. No. 41 is an organization empowering young women by providing them with skills and employment. They produce beautiful bags and homewares. If you spend a night in Gisenyi, you will see one breathtaking site besides the beautiful stars. Mt. Nyiragongo is located just across the border in DRC. It’s an active volcano that glows a beautiful red at night. Sit on your porch, enjoy a cup of tea and take in the stunning landscape.
Rwanda is a beautiful country and I could go on and on but picture and words will never do it justice. You really need to go and see it for yourself.