Sights and Sounds of Kigali’s Finest

Last Tuesday I flew to Kigali on the early evening flight and landed into a warm, balmy city. As we deplaned and walked to the terminal, I saw a long line of passengers walking from across the tarmac having just disembarked from a KLM flight. I hightailed it down the escalators in the terminal building as I knew the lines at immigration would be insane. They ended up being insane. But I didn’t mind as it gave me time to observe the immigration hall inside the Kigali International Airport. The modern hall is purpose built, with high ceilings and an almost clinical white décor. Illumination from the bright lights bounced off the sterile white walls and onto the clean-shaven, smart and well-spoken immigration officers. They sat on high stools and were easily accessible due to the absence of the ubiquitous thick glass barrier found in many immigration counters.

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To the far right of the immigration hall were two channels of passage with a large welcoming sign above that said “E-Gates Nationals Only”. There were clear instructions pasted on the side on how to use the 21st century contraption: Walk to the reader, scan the bio data page of your passport, wait for the beep to signify transaction complete and voila, heaven’s gates would open and you, Citizen Rwanda will gladly step back home. I stood and stared for a long time as the only other airport I had seen this was London’s Heathrow. The only pity was that the bulk of the passengers from the two flights were non-Rwandese and so I only observed two citizens triumphantly sail through.

I was picked up by an extremely chatty driver named Tresor, who spoke fluent Swahili as he was born in Bujumbura where he said Swahili is more widely spoken due to proximity to, and large trade with, the DRC. Since I couldn’t get a word in edgewise past his excitable monologue I sat back to listen but I noticed a glowing orb in the far distance as we drove past the gates of the airport. It was a beautiful sight against the clear night sky and something that I had certainly never seen in my past Kigali visits. I parked that question for later. Tresor had much to say about how the city was now full of Chinese who had come to build infrastructure in Rwanda. I puckered my brow in reflection as I had observed massive buildings being put up in Sandton, Johannesburg by Chinese as well as critical arterial roads in Kampala not to mention our very own Kenyan railway and highways. Historians will more likely document the not so subtle Chinese infiltration of Africa, when the effects of this economic colonization shall be obvious. Within 15 minutes my curiosity about the glowing orb was assuaged as we approached the Kigali Convention Centre (KCC).

The Kigali Convention Centre
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In my past visits to this beautiful, serene city, I had driven past the construction of the $300 million KCC without paying much attention to the distinct spherical framework of the emerging building. The Rwandese government has constructed an iconic building that will become to Kigali what the Sydney Opera House, London’s Tower Bridge and Nairobi’s KICC have done in terms of being globally recognized city trade marks. Its curved silhouette, whose inspiration is the traditional Rwandese hut, is sheathed with luminous lighting that projects the ethereal glow I saw all the way from the airport. With a capacity for up to 5,000 delegates, the KCC has been built with the aim of making Kigali the premier conference destination site in the region. Together with the refurbished airport and a growing number of new hotels, the Rwandan government aims to use meetings and conferences as a key growth pillar for the economy. Next to the conference centre is a brand spanking new 292- room Radisson Blu Convention Centre Hotel which was opened just in time for the World Economic Forum in Africa (WEF) meeting in May 2016. I don’t think it was accidental that Kigali was chosen as the location for this annual meeting as the conference theme, Connecting Africa’s Resources Through Digital Transformation, was undertaken against a backdrop of free high speed wifi in most of the hotels and 4G free wifi provided in the public transport system.
Actually a Rwandese acquaintance reminisced with us the following day about the rapid growth of 5 star hotels in Rwanda. He spoke with bemusement as he recollected how the Kigali Marriott Hotel had been under construction for a long time and had literally been completed and furnished a month to the WEF conference. The government organizers were keen to ensure that WEF delegates had access to 5 star accommodations and couldn’t understand why the Marriott management was not ready to avail the premises for this momentous event. “The hotel is not up to global Marriott standards in its current form,” was the alleged response from the owners, “We need another three months before we can open the hotel.”

The government promptly bussed in experienced hotel staff from Kenya and Uganda, slapped a new banner at the front of the hotel calling it “Century Hotel” and sewed the same name on top of the Marriot name on the staff uniforms. By the time WEF delegates landed in May, the hotel was open for (temporary) business faster than you could say kusema na kutenda. Of course this is anecdotal but is illustrative of the can-do attitude that’s widely prevalent within Rwandese government circles.

A benchmarking visit to Rwanda is critical to any African that wants to see what urban planning, good road infrastructure (I didn’t feel or see a single pothole as I crisscrossed the city), extremely clean streets and excellent security looks like. On one of the nights we went out for dinner, we found women walking completely alone at half past nine, brazenly carrying handbags and visibly comfortable about personal well being. To paraphrase the Kenyan author Binyavanga Wainaina: One day we shall write about this place.
Twitter: @carolmusyoka