I recently travelled from London to Lusaka via Kigali on RwandAir (read my review here) and was thrilled to have a 19hr layover in Rwanda’s capital on my return leg, which gave me the perfect opportunity to explore Africa’s cleanest city for the first time. After arriving in Kigali from Lusaka at 5am, I spent two hours waiting in the Pearl Lounge at Kigali Airport for a RwandAir ground staff member to escort me out of the airport. I cleared immigration at 7.30am and was grateful that Rwanda offers visa on arrival for up to 30 days to Commonwealth, African Union, and La Francophonie citizens. My two-day old PCR certificate from the Zambian Ministry of Health, which cost me $85, was deemed irrelevant and I had to take another test which cost $60. After taking the test and showing proof that I was fully vaccinated, I was finally free to go. Both the immigration and Covid procedures took less than 10 minutes. Talk about efficiency!
I got a taste of local hospitality when the person my Singapore-based Rwandese friend had arranged to show me around finally arrived – morning traffic in Kigali is busy but not as bad as Nairobi or Lagos. I had mistakenly thought he was a tour guide, but he was just a family friend with a car and driver who was just happy to show a visitor around his hometown till “2 or 3pm” – we ended up hanging out till 8.30pm and I had the best time.
The first place we visited was the Kigali Genocide Memorial which is a 30-minute drive from the airport in Kanombe. The memorial was opened in 2004 to commemorate the tenth anniversary of the 1994 genocide against the Tutsis and is the final resting place for 250,000 of the estimated 800,000 – 1,000,000 million people who lost their lives during those three months of unimaginable terror. Prepare to spend at least two hours exploring the site. It is worth getting an audio guide for $16, which also gets you a Ubumuntu Humanity pin and a rose to place at the gravesite. The education centre contains photos, videos and a rich narrative that explains in detail the history of Rwanda from pre-colonial times when the distinction between Tutsi, Hutu and Twa was based on the number of cows not race until the period after the genocide. The survivor testimonies are haunting and seeing the faces of babies and children who were shot or hacked is a sobering reminder of what this small and mighty country has had to overcome. It is so informative and must not be missed!
Our next stop was the Museum for Campaign Against Genocide which is located at the National Parliament building. It does not normally feature on most guides for Kigali and yet provides an important piece of the puzzle: just how did the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) stop the genocide? The museum tells the story of the 600 soldiers who were sent to protect the 39 politicians tasked with negotiating the Arusha Accord with the Hutu government and spent four days defending the building from government forces while at the same time rescuing 5,000 people stranded at Amahoro stadium who had been abandoned by the UN forces. Our tour guide, Faustin, really brought the story to life. It no wonder that The 600 has been turned into a movie available on Amazon Prime. After walking through the ground floor display, we took the elevator to the rooftop to enjoy the best view of Kigali.
We had a late lunch at Ubumwe Grande Hotel rooftop which is located next to the famous Hotel Des Mille Collines that inspired the movie, Hotel Rwanda. We watched the sunset in the sky and saw how Kigali transforms itself from green, clean, and beautiful by day to bright lights at night. Like other Francophone-speaking countries in Africa, Rwanda comes alive after dark. A stroll along the pedestrian-only palm tree-lined near Bank of Kigali, where President Paul Kagame and the RPF were photographed walking after they freed Kigali in July 1994, completed the tour. The shops are open late so I would recommend buying souvenirs in downtown Kigali rather than at the airport. On the way back to the airport, we drove past Kigali Convention Centre which is bathed in a kaleidoscope of colours. I was back at Kigali International Airport by 9pm and eager to return to the land of a thousand hills soon and this time for much longer. Thank you for the warm hospitality!