Standing shoulder-to-shoulder with the best, and with only a little effort

If you have not been in some backstreets of Kigali, where disorder may still be waging a battle to keep residents in ‘garbage bondage’, you’ve started to take cleanliness in other streets for granted.

Sure, you may be telling yourself that if there is still any battle at all, it’s a losing one.

Even then, what you may not know is that even as those streets lose that ‘back’, where you think you’ve seen the pinnacle of cleanliness, soon it may be a thing of the past.

So unrelenting is the continuum of change. In this land, no top seems to be high enough.

Maybe you’ve watched these two videos that have been doing the rounds on social media. If you haven’t, you should. They both show the city-centre—airport street, one in 2004 and the other, mid this year.

The green medians, tiled sidewalks and leafy roadsides that did not exist in 2004, despite concerted cleaning and greening, what a world of a difference!

So, what beauty was I crooning about in 2004? Which tells you this: as you celebrate, always be mindful that this country may not yet be done, springing surprises.

As we talk, the Kigali landscape is graced with Kigali Convention Centre and Radisson Blu, Kigali Heights, Marriot Hotel, Ubumwe Hotel, new housing estates and individual residential houses, etc, that mid-year Kigali may not have reckoned were in the works.

As to the new green roundabouts, greening being my arch interest, I add, once again, my plea for outer ring roads. Concentric rings that will hold those roundabouts, concretes, gardens, etc, in their embrace with the last one hugging the city, for highways to feed into.

And to that plea, I add another for artificial lakes to enhance the beauty of these untamed swamps.

It’s all doable. After all, who would have guessed that that ugly rocky wall at Sopetrad would have leafy plants clinging onto it today? Not to mention the ubiquitous wonder bricks, on sloping roadsides, from which spring plants that regularly break out into joyous flowers.

For, is foreigners’ admiration of Rwanda’s beauty over glass or concrete constructions? Nay, such eyesores are myriad in other places and what charms them is an orderly, clean, green and healthy environment, when we are a country of modest means. They are fascinated by these lines of flowers that decorate the whole road network of the country.

Interestingly, the 12-year space between those youtubes is donkey years, going by the speed of this beautification. The transformation in some areas, especially Kigali, is at such a dizzying speed that there are areas you will not recognise if you’ve not visited for a week.

Take me, self-confessed connoisseur of everything green and outdoor, always seized, as I am, in a strong urge to check out the Kigali landscape every few days and that of the countryside every few months, for I pride myself in being up to the minute in keeping tabs on any positive change.

Yet even I was caught flat-footed when recently I visited the ‘1930 Prison’ side of Kigali, only to find a breezy city, called Down-Town, where the other day there was savannah-land that was home to ramshackle ‘uniport’ shacks housing our “gendarmerie” (police).

In place of those ‘uniports’ has sprouted a spacious centre that brings to mind Johannesburg’s suburban city of Santon and its outlying estates.

The shopping centres of those estates in Santon and their extensive, verdant parking areas are a feast for the eyes. But, alas, considering the direction South Africa seems to be headed, that order and its heavenly cities may not be here for long.

South Africa wouldn’t be the first to see its top-notch cities crumble. Next door, in Zimbabwe, when Mugabe took over the reins of power, he unleashed a destructive machine that has all but ground Zimbabwe to a halt.

Harare, once a crown jewel among African cities, today is in a steep plunge-into-hell effort the reversal of which will prove a complex puzzle to his unfortunate heir.

Nearer home, the beautiful lakeside city of Burundi’s Bujumbura seems to be quickly drowning in filthy Lake Tanganyika, on whose formerly sandy shores it sits.

To the north, D.R. Congo’s capital, Kinshasa, once a sparkling star, and Bukavu nearer to our west that was known as ‘Petite City of Colours’, may soon give up on pretensions of being cities.

In their glorious days, their beauty was only surpassed by Côte d’Ivoire’s Abidjan, known then as African capital of art and fashion. But for it, too, that was then. Today it scrapes by, but just.

To our east, we all remember how in the 1970s our craving of a lifetime was visiting the mystic Green City in the Sun, Nairobi, and the City of Lights, Kampala.

A few years ago, when I revisited Nairobi and looked at how Kenya’s disorderly construction craze was threatening to swallow up its city’s spaces, my heart sank.

And a few weeks ago a walk on Kampala Road during Carnival Day threw me back to 1979, when bullets whizzed over our heads as we chanted “Twagala Lule oba tufa tufe!” Today’s bedlam of litter, roasting meat, muddy water, disorderly constructions, eardrum-splitting music…

But, being resilient, the two cities may be down but never will they be out.

Down or not, though, is it impossible to at least maintain, if not improve on, what the colonialist left?

Thank you, researcher Bernard Sabiti, for showing me that Rwanda, despite starting from scratch, is leading the way in demonstrating this: we can stand shoulder to shoulder with the best.

As President Kagame has put it, “To clean our compounds, do we need donors’ assistance?”

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