“Ok, so what are the first words that come to mind when you hear Rwanda?” asked Marie, our cultural director. As we sat in our comfy chairs in a nice air conditioned classroom, it was a little hard to cough up our honest answers. If you think about Rwanda, what do you think? For most of us, only one word comes to mind: Genocide.
Even writing the word gives me the chills, and makes me shudder, thinking of the one million people who were killed within months in 1994 as the rest of the world stood by. For most of my generation, what is most shocking is not that people were killed, but rather we were alive, and somehow it feels more recent, as we somehow watched it happen through our televisions. Of course it was not the first, and certainly has not been the last situation.
You can imagine my shock when I arrived in Kigali after an enjoyable overnight stay in the baggage claim in Nairobi (note sarcasm). It was like a different world. Where Nairobi had been, as predicted slightly worn around the edges, and of course, messy floors, plenty of people pestering me because well, I must have looked rather strange sitting in a corner with my luggage struggling over a Sudoku puzzle half awake. And then, to arrive in a daze to sunny Kigali, where the airport floors were so clean I could have eaten my lunch off of them. Better I accidentally walked passed passport control, and only when back when I realized I hadn’t gotten my visa yet. I could tell this country was going to be very friendly, especially when I walked outside, preparing myself for a stampede of taxi drivers demanding for my attention, only to find…nobody. Eventually I found a driver, who casually asked if I wanted a ride, and then proceeded to offer me the correct price to get to the hostel.
If you ever went to Kigali, you would probably have different words. The streets are clean, almost sterile, as everyone walks politely, waiting at crosswalks for the traffic light. Green gardens are predominant, surrounded by hotels and buildings that are going up at a hectic pace. As you wander through the town, people smile, and wave, but never push or demand. Rather if you get lost they will walk with you to wherever you need to go, and then promptly say goodbye and go on their merry way. All of this was almost….eerie if you will. How can a place with such a gruesome past have such a clean, perfect present, just 20 years later? And yet somehow, despite the odds, Rwanda has done just that. Things are not perfect, as I have learn since my first days in Kigali, but still, I have never felt so safe before, not even in some places in the U.S. All of this I could have accepted easily, until I decided to get my first ride by “moto taxi” (motorcycles that will take you wherever you want to go). As I easily negotiated with my driver and hopped on ready to go, he turned back: “don’t forget your helmet,” he smiled. MY WHAT? As he handed me a spare helmet, that I was required to wear (and grateful for too, because you never know) I had found new words for Rwanda: Not Africa. And it has stuck with me since.