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When I arrive in Kigali late on a Saturday night, the immaculate streets are empty–not only free from cars and people but litter, too. “Today was Umuganda Day,” says my driver, referring to the 4th Saturday of each month, when Rwandese band together to do community work like street cleaning and litter removal. Many outsiders have been surprised at how far the country has come since the devastating 1994 genocide. “In Rwanda, people are proud, and they don’t want you to feel sorry for them. There are success stories everywhere,” says Denis Dernault, General Manager of the Radisson Blu Hotel and Convention Centre. The Centre, opened in July 2016, is the biggest of its kind in East Africa and has already hosted over 470 local and international events.
These are just a few of the new developments to come to this thriving city. It seems that no Kigali is no longer merely a gateway to the gorillas, but a destination unto itself.
“The city has changed so much, every week or month there seems to be a new building or a new road,” says Julie Greene, co-founder of the Women’s Bakery, a socially-minded pastry spot aimed at empowering local women, which has its flagship in Kigali. The bright new eatery, lined with modernist chairs and patterned cushions, has a cabinet laden with freshly baked goods: honey bread, muffins, sugar-dusted pretzels. Here, visitors can sit on the spacious outdoor patio and sink their teeth into a banana nut or beetroot muffin knowing that their afternoon treat is directly supporting a good cause.
The Women’s Bakery is just one of many successful businesses in Kigali with social uplift as a backbone. Question Coffee, a Kigali-based roastery, and cafe that supports local female coffee farmers and only roasts expert beans that have a precise origin. “That’s why it’s called Question Coffee. Do you ever question where your coffee comes from?” asks Sylvere Mwizerwa, the general manager. Despite Rwanda's high rates of coffee production, local consumption is incredibly low. “Before we opened, people weren’t interested in drinking specialty coffee–they only drank Nescafé. But after three years of existence, consumption in Kigali has risen from around zero percent to two percent,” says Mwizerwa. Here, the growing crop of caffeine-fiends can take a coffee masterclass to learn about the coffee supply chain or merely drink a fresh brew on the outside deck overlooking the lush garden.
Owners of Kigali’s much-loved Heaven Restaurant, Josh and Alissa Ruxin, have also been, and are still on, a mission to support local initiatives. The restaurant, built by local craftspeople, features a menu loaded with Rwandan-inspired dishes prepared with produce from nearby farms and the on-site veggie and herb garden. On Saturdays and Sundays, the restaurant opens for brunch, where tables scattered with freshly-made salads, loaves of bread, and homemade jams await. On the property, there’s also the small Niyo Arts Gallery as well as Azizi Life Studio, which sells fair trade crafts. Heaven Tours, also run by the Ruxins, offers a specialty half-day fashion and art tour, which provides visitors with access to markets and hidden fashion and design boutiques across the city, and can be inquired about through the restaurant. “Travelers would often ask me where I got my items of clothes from,” says Alissa Ruxin, pointing to her brightly patterned Rwandan skirt. "The tour is an opportunity for visitors to purchase local goods and gain insight into an emerging art and craft scene, which might be hard to find on their own."
Also worth visiting is Poivre Noire, a sophisticated French-style bistro, that whips up classic fare made from local produce, like steak and frites or crispy duck salad with pine nuts, rucola, and a zesty citrus dressing).
Unsurprisingly, like many African cities, Kigali is bursting with colorful textiles, crafts, and art. The Made-in-Rwanda campaign, a government initiative promoting local goods, has encouraged Rwandans to become entrepreneurs and helped give existing brands a leg-up.
The Inema Arts Centre, a gallery owned and run by superbly hip brothers and artists Emmanuel Nkuranga and Innocent Nkuranziza, showcases artworks by established and emerging Rwandese artists. The idea behind the gallery isn’t simply to sell works but to lift up the entire emerging Rwandan contemporary art scene. The gallery’s social initiative, Art With a Mission, supported by a percentage of gallery sales, offers orphans the chance to discover their artistic side through various workshops. The gallery has many components: including a room dedicated to the children’s art, café, and a small shop selling clothes, jewelry, and accessories. They also have performances showcasing traditional dance styles.
After the workshop I attend, a beginner painting class, I catch sight of a group of kids effortlessly dancing in the traditional style to a circle of drummers. They laugh and smile as they move their bodies through familiar routines with ease. When they’re finished, Nkuranga affectionately pats the kids on their backs, then gives them the local handshake. The dance doesn’t feel like a display for foreigners, but rather a symbol of strength and unity for the community–a strength and unity which have propelled Kigali into the successful city it is today.