Kigali is, as far as I can tell, the cleanest city in Africa.
I feel that I ought to be clear about the limitations of my short and wildly non-comprehensive study. The primary limitation is that I haven’t (yet) been to every city in Africa.
All right, it’s the only limitation. The statement is (likely) wildly hyperbolic.
However, after a day driving around Kigali with Jean-Marie, our tour guide, and Phocus (yes, pronounced ‘focus’), our driver, it doesn’t feel hyperbolic. The streets of Kigali are immaculately clean. There is no garbage. Like, anywhere.
There are no plastic bags, no food wrappers, no discarded sandals, no dead animals. (Walking down the street in Port Loko, Sierra Leone, and seeing gutters dug into the edges of the street, clogged with detritus and the corpses of dead dogs, is a memory that has stayed with me for these past four-and-a-half years.) The garbage is gone, the sidewalks and gutters are swept and tidy.
There was surging infrastructure development everywhere we drove. Skyscrapers, apartment buildings, new houses, new shopping malls, projects financed and managed by Chinese investment firms, the construction sites abuzz with laborers from Rwanda, Uganda, the Congo and throughout eastern Africa – Kigali is a city quite literally on the rise.
The downtown Kigali skyline at sunset.
Claver and Jean-Marie both speak repeatedly about the ‘Master Plan’ that the Rwandan government is working diligently to implement. Claver says the three current and major branches of the plan – under the overarching goals of Infrastructure and Economic Development – are Security, Technology, and Cleanliness, and it shows. Rwanda is wireless and connected; the presence of the visibly armed officers of the Kigali Metropolitan Police is widespread throughout the city.
And then there are those immaculate streets and sidewalks.
Rwanda outlawed non-biodegradable plastic bags back in 2008, and is currently introducing legislation to eliminate single-use plastics throughout the country. I was also recently informed that Tanzania outlawed plastic bags in June of this year. And Ethiopia just broke the world record for largest number of trees planted in a single day. There is a nationwide “Community Cleaning Day” in Rwanda on the last Saturday of every month. Everyone comes out of their homes and literally cleans their community for more than half the day.
But. I am blissfully, environmentally, digressing.
We made a quick stop at the Hotel des Mille Collines, the famous/infamous hotel from the movie “Hotel Rwanda.” It’s a four-star hotel, sleek and modern and luxurious, but with no references anywhere to the fact that more than a thousand people sheltered there during the genocide.
The rest of the morning and early-afternoon tour was positive and uplifting, showcasing a modern, present, growing Kigali and Rwanda. And that was, I think, a deliberately provided counterpoint to the afternoon, as we stepped under the arched main gate of the Kigali Genocide Memorial.
2019 is the 25th anniversary of the genocide. It’s disconcerting to realize how very present it is – I was fourteen years old in April of 1994. More than one million people were slaughtered, and nearly two million displaced as refugees in the aftermath. The Rwandan diaspora, known colloquially as the “sixth province,” is vast and widespread throughout the world, not in small part to those who were able to flee the killings – and the killers who fled afterwards as the Rwandan Patriotic Front wrested back control of the country.
We’d been told on multiple occasions that the tribal/ethnic tensions that led to the genocide no longer exist – promoting genocidal ideology is deeply culturally taboo (and illegal), and “Tutsi” and “Hutu” are not even legal terms anymore; people describe themselves as “Rwandan” – but it became clear to us that even if ethnic distinctions were no longer overtly problematic, the trauma of the genocide itself was still deeply embedded into Rwandan lives and souls.
Claver, Jean-Marie, and Phocus flatly refused to enter the Genocide Memorial. Claver said, simply, “I was alive during the genocide. That was enough.” They waited for us in the parking lot.
The Memorial was beautifully done, accessible, easy to navigate, deeply informative. It was also painfully, viscerally, terrible. They did not hold back when it came to footage of the genocide itself. They did not hold back the words and memories of the survivors, telling their stories on video monitors mounted throughout the exhibit. I have read “Life Laid Bare” and “Machete Season” by Jean Hatzfeld, and so I felt I knew what was coming as the exhibits progressed, but that did not make it easier to bear.
There were visitors who deliberately walked past some of the videos, some of the photographs, almost running past us, unable even to look. There was more than one visitor who wept openly as they slowly, deliberately read every panel, watched every video, tears streaming down their cheeks.
It was nauseating to read that the colonizers from Belgium planted the seed of a genocide that would bloom nearly 75 years later. That they decided to “rank” the Africans they systematically abused and exploited, creating artificial ethnicities based on the bunk science of race biology, shuffling people into one group or another based on their physical features and measurements of their bodies.
And I was deeply unsurprised to learn that the Roman Catholic Church blessed and supported the entire enterprise. Indeed, as the genocide raged across the nation, many Tutsi Catholics fled to their local church, looking for salvation where it had been promised their whole lives. And many Catholic priests filled their churches with the persecuted – and then handed them over to the Hutu Interahamwe. Tens of thousands of Tutsis were slaughtered within the walls of their church as the priests fled.
The audio tour guide told us, at the beginning, that it would take us about an hour to finish the tour.
Two-and-a-half hours later, an apologetic curator gently told us that the museum was closing. It felt like I had only been there for minutes.
One thing I didn’t realize about the Memorial is that it is actually a graveyard. Below the main building of the museum, in four enormous terraces stepped gently down the hillside, are the remains of more than 269,000 victims of the genocide. As victims bodies were discovered and recovered from their homes and villages, they were brought to the site of the memorial and re-interred, with a proper ceremony and rites. They are buried in mass graves under enormous concrete slabs, and single roses are laid at intervals around the edges of these enormous markers.
The mass graves of the victims of the genocide. This view is only of one half of one of the four large terraces.
Bodies of the victims of the genocide are still being found today, throughout the country. And as they are found, many are brought to Kigali and re-buried here, where any family members that may have escaped this terrible violence can visit them, wander amongst the forest and rose garden on site, and mourn.
There is a section of the museum where photographs of many of the victims, donated by their families – or found amongst their remains – are displayed in rows. Amongst many of these photographs we found tiny handwritten notes from Rwandan visitors, nearly all of them displaying the same message: “Ntibizongera ukundi.” Never again.
And as we left the museum, we found Jean-Marie waiting for us in an open courtyard where an enormous sculpture created for the 25th anniversary stood. I pointed to it.
“What does it mean?” I asked.
Jean-Marie was quiet for a moment, and then said, “Kwibuka. Remember.”