Wednesday, 22 July 2009

Motel Rwanda

[This post is a couple of days delayed. I'm writing from a hilltop in Kigali, the capital of Rwanda.]

Got to Kigali this morning. A few observations about Rwanda and about Kigali in particular.

1. Safety and Cleanliness
Kigali is a very well-ordered and clean city. This, apparently, is the work of Paul Kagame, Rwanda's President and a man who has worked very hard to keep the place very safe and nice to visit. There is very little garbage on the streets compared to other cities, and certainly compared to other African capitals. I saw a lady sweeping up fallen leaves just outside my guesthouse yesterday. That would be unthinkable elsewhere on the continent, where garbage is left to collect in open sewers or else burned at night (ahem, Dar).

My parents, if they read this, can take comfort in the fact that every single one of the city's moto-taxis carries a spare helmet for his passenger's use. The idea was comforting to me at first, until I noticed that the visor of the helmet I had been given looked like it had been shattered and re-fused two or three times -- not exactly a positive sign of the driver's safety record. Still, I've taken a few moto-taxis so far and they have been affordable, pleasant and safe journeys. Plus, wearing a visor makes me feel like I'm in an action movie, which has got to be worth something.

2. Unfrancophones
Rwanda is supposed to be a francophone country. When I arrived at the border town of Gatuna I was expecting some sort of language shift. Maybe I expected that the moment I stepped across the threshold into Rwanda, the touts and guards would suddenly start speaking in French. Not so.

In fact, I've been surprised to find that French has proven kinda useless, in Kigali at least. I had a long meeting yesterday with a potential business partner for TechnoServe -- that was all in French, simply because the other folks were educated Rwandans. But in the streets, almost no one seems inclined to speak French. Most of the young people speak English reasonably well (better than Tanzanians, but worse than Ugandans). And almost everyone speaks a pretty fair amount of Swahili, which is what I've been using to get around here. I've been impressed that people here speak two other languages well in addition to the national language (Kinyarwanda) and whatever other tongues they happen to know (often Lingala and Kirundi).

Kagame recently changed the official language of schooling in Rwanda from French to English. I wonder if the non-francophone thing is a reaction to the predominantly English-speaking aid community that has helped Rwanda in the post-genocide reconstruction period. Another factor is likely the fact that Rwanda and France severed political relations some time ago -- France assisted the genocidaires during the war and is currently trying to bring trumped-up criminal charges against Kagame for war crimes in French court.

3. Motel Rwanda
Perhaps it's the fact that my ethnic stock is 100% Scottish, but I have been known to cut corners (budgetarily, at least) when I'm traveling. Unfortunately, Kigali is not a cheap place by regional standards, mostly because the presence of the UN, World Bank and NGOs here has driven up prices drastically for any accommodation that might be remotely acceptable to foreigners. This leaves the Scottish-spirited corner-cutter with few options. I got to Kigali today and checked into a little motel called the 'New and Modern Guesthouse,' noted by my travel guide as one of the cheapest joints in the capital ($9 per night per room).

I can safely say that the New and Modern is probably the worst accommodation I've had in Africa. The room itself was OK, as far as unventilated cement rooms without mosquito nets go. The bathrooms, however, were something else -- to keep out non-paying people, the owner keeps the bathrooms locked at all times, so you have to track him down on the street outside if you want to use the facilities. And he waits outside the door until you're finished so he can lock up! I guess it gives a whole new meaning to 'bathroom attendant.'

But even once you get in to the old WC, it's not great -- very dirty squat toilets that made me feel like I was incarcerated in Gabon. Not that I've ever gone to Gabon (or jail, for that matter) but you get the point. They had (equally gross) shower stalls that were more cosmetic than functional, since there was never any water the whole time I stayed. I asked for water the day I was leaving and he owner pointed me to a bucket of soapy water that a boy was using to wash clothes; "this is your washing water," he said. When he saw I was unimpressed, he pointed out that the water was a plus because it already had detergent added so I would get clean more quickly. I was quite happy to check out the following morning.

Those were my initial thoughts on the city. Up next: a day spent exploring Kigali's dark past.

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