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Here’s why East Africa’s Rwanda should be on your bucket list

Rwanda’s capital, Kigali, boasts a rich history, nightlife, local cuisine, shopping and an amazing local city tour.

travel Updated: Nov 05, 2018 13:36 IST
Kigali,East Africa,Rwanda
Panoramic view of Lake Kivu, which lies on the border between the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Rwanda. (Shutterstock)

We flew out to Rwanda, only to discover that it takes less time to get to the Rwandan capital Kigali than a drive from Mumbai to Ratnagiri. With a direct connection four times a week, more travellers are discovering the wonders of this tiny yet remarkable country in East Africa. Rwanda is one of the world’s last refuges of the mountain gorilla and the invitation to Kwita Izina 2018, a naming ceremony for baby gorillas born the previous year, was irresistible. We made the most of our time in Kigali before the official programme.

En route to our hotel, Jullesse, the Rwandan Development Board representative highlighted the city’s landmarks. “That building decked up in colourful lights is the Kigali Convention Centre, often lit up in the colours of the visiting head of state,” he said. When Indian PM Narendra Modi visited Rwanda, earlier this year, it wore the hues of the Indian tricolour.

Gaddafi Mosque was home to the Islamic Centre and a place of refuge during the genocide. (Photo: Anurag Mallick And Priya Ganapathy)

We soon reached our hotel, which opened two years ago, one of the first international chains with a presence in Rwanda. Sauntering downstairs to the restaurant, we admired the wall decorated with traditional woven agaseke baskets. Besides a massive spread, we were intrigued to find Faratas and Chickpeas in their dedicated African breakfast corner. We tried the local staple Kaunga (steamed corn stew) and Matoke (green banana and beef stew).

It was surprising to learn that Kigali was founded only as recently as 1907 by German explorer and administrator Richard Kandt. His house, now a museum, was just a short walk away. Strolling past the local moto taxi stand (bike taxis like in Goa) and the gorilla statue opposite Kigali City Hall, we reached what was the first European-style house in the city.

Local beans shop at Kimironko market. (Photo: Anurag Mallick And Priya Ganapathy)

In the colonial scramble for Africa in late 19th century, Germany established a presence in Rwanda by forming an alliance with King Yuhi V Musinga in 1897. Kandt arrived in 1899 while exploring Lake Kivu in search of the source of the river Nile. In 1907, Germany separated the administration of Rwanda-Burundi and Kandt was appointed the country’s first President. He moved the administrative headquarters from the King’s Palace in Nyanza to a more central location. Reaching this large hilly tract, he called it Kigali, literally expansive. The name rang true as we looked at the city stretching around a chain of hills. It was Kandt who first allowed the entry of Indian and Swahili traders into the country in 1908.

During World War I, Belgium took control of Rwanda-Burundi in 1916 and it wasn’t until 1962 that Kigali became the capital upon Rwandan independence. In April 1994, President Habyarimana’s plane was shot down near Kigali Airport, triggering the Rwandan genocide. The Kigali Genocide Memorial is a reminder of Rwanda’s tragic past.

Fried Sambaza (local fish) sourced from Lake Kivu. (Photo: Anurag Mallick And Priya Ganapathy)

We stopped by at Kigali’s iconic hotel, Hôtel des Mille Collines, named after the Belgian appellation for Rwanda during colonial rule – ‘Pays des Mille Collines’ (Land of a Thousand Hills). It became famous after 1,268 people took refuge here during the 1994 Rwandan Genocide. The story of the hotel and its manager Paul Rusesabagina (played by Don Cheadle) was immortalised in the film Hotel Rwanda (2004).

Today, Rwanda is one of the cleanest countries in Africa. The last Saturday of every month is dedicated to community service work called Umuganda when the whole society comes together to clean or rebuild. Back at our hotel, we grabbed some Question Coffee and also tried the Fried Sambaza (local fish) sourced from Lake Kivu and brochettes (skewered meat cubes with roasted Ibirayi or Irish potatoes). Interestingly, German soldiers and Belgian missionaries brought the potato to Rwanda in the early 20th century and Ibirayi is derived from Uburayi meaning ‘that which comes from Europe’.

Must Do
  • Take a city tour with local tours that cost around $60/person.
  • Pay your respects at Kigali Genocide Memorial.
  • Try the local Question Coffee and Rwandan Tea, besides local beers like Mutzig, Primus and Virunga.
  • Feast on Rwandan cuisine at Tamu Tamu restaurant.
  • Shop for agaseke and souvenirs at Ikaze and Kimironko Market.
  • Go clubbing at Riders, Fuchsia, Coco Bean, Envy, K Club and Bougainvilla
  • Go for gorilla trekking


Our next stop was the Gaddafi Mosque, home to the Islamic Centre and a place of refuge during the genocide. Libyan leader Col. Muammar Gaddafi was a popular figure here and roads, mosques and bakeries were named after him. The suburb of Nyamirambo was the second part of the city to be settled. Belgian colonists established it in the 1920s for civil servants and Muslim Swahili traders. Though most of the country follows Christianity, Nyamirambo is the Muslim Quarter. Masjid al-Fatah, better known as the Green Mosque, is the oldest mosque in town, dating back to the 1930s.

We ended our tour with a traditional meal at Tamu Tamu — Ugali (cassava porridge), Stewed Cassava Leaves, Goat Curry, Fish and Aubergine Curry. That evening, we dropped by at Ikaze, a boutique for traditional Rwandan handicrafts and discovered little treasures to take home. We bought some agaseke peace baskets; symbolic of this tiny nation driven by the philosophy of ubumuntu or ‘greatness of heart’, teaching the world about the values of forgiveness, humanity and compassion.

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First Published: Nov 05, 2018 13:34 IST