Are Rwandans in Kigali finally turning into urbanites?

My, how time flies! Whoever coined this phrase didn’t know the half of it.

Tell me, isn’t 1994 only the other day, when some of us were emerging from a 35-year hibernation of exile and gingerly treading onto this place that was called La Ville de Kigali? And, at the hearing of which, you looked around and saw nothing ‘ville’ (city) about a scattering of villages?

Whereupon you concluded: in this corner of the earth, a ‘city’ is defined by many hills dotted with few, solitary buildings.

Because, remember, on the many hills, as you see today, were buildings like the incomplete Kwa Kabuga, which still stands today, albeit with a massive haul-over. Then there was Hôtel des Mille Collines whose facelift hasn’t been much in the way of ‘lifting’.

There was the Central Bank, BNR, today more or less in its original form, and Telecom House, both buildings holding their own as good architectural pieces.
Unfortunately, the bizarre leadership of the day was such that the architect of the latter two sole buildings that were reasonably good was hunted down like a common criminal and killed simply for being who he was. But shank the barbarous leadership!

There were hotels Diplomate (now gone), Merdien (current Umubano), Chez Lando (hauled over) and that was about all, save for motley heaps of brick-and-iron semblances of buildings housing government offices and a post office.

If you’ve seen a 1918 photo of Quartier Comerciale (a misnomer for Kigali’s business district), where loin-clothed ‘Kigalois’ tended herds of goats in between attending to their grass-and-wattle ‘shops’, you’ll admit time seemed not to have budged an inch between then and 1994, as opposed to after.

However, if the hills of Kigali showed that they were villages, the residents went beyond that to conduct themselves in ways only attributable to villagers of the Stone Age. This was most demonstrably evident during your journeys around ‘town’, especially in the few minibus commuter-taxis that rattled on dust roads as they plied the area.

Say you are sitting at the window to catch some fresh air and, inevitably, some dust, from the many avocado trees along the roadsides……..

Those trees. You’ll remember that they were ostensibly planted to ‘feed’ residents while they roasted in the sun or drenched in the rain, waiting to cheer the then country’s president on his triumphal journeys out of, or back into, Kigali.

“Triumphal” because those days all business, including schools, came to a standstill as everybody was out to line along the road whenever the country’s head travelled.

On such occasions when avocados were in season, people happily munched and chanted as they waited for the “Omnipotent who had defied all gnawers” (Ikinani cyananiye abagugunnyi) to pass. Moving on the road alone was headline news, not the quiet affair of today. As for jostling for a lane with him on the road, blasphemy of blasphemies! But we digress……..

We were talking about you, ensconced in the back at the window in the commuter taxi, with no apparent vacant space next to you. Even then, woe betide thee if you were not a smoker, for a passenger was literally ‘grafted’ onto you and the passenger next to you. And this new loudmouthed arrival did not think twice about blowing all of their reeking traditional smoking-pipe fumes in your face, as he puffed away.

The loudmouth would have entered with a younger, more ‘civilized’ cigarette-smoking friend, who would be ‘folded in two’ , standing at the front, all the seats having been taken.

After briefly breaking their chattering with “Mwaramutse/Mwiriwe” they’d resume their conversation, raising their voices to hear each other over the din already in the taxi: “…So, like Rukuba, you remember how yesterday the man had zoned off part of his food so that nobody could touch it…”

At that point the whole taxi went dead silent, as everybody picked interest in the story. And the story-teller would warm up to that, clear his phlegm and spit through the window, narrowly missing you, then ceremoniously resume: “…When he came back to see that his food had been touched, it was the first and second world wars both combined. Hahaha!”

Poor you, everybody joined him in his burst of laughter at his inane joke while you bled with disgust inside but what could you do? Those were the times.

So, when this is where you are coming from, it’s interesting to sit and observe life in Kigali today and, especially, the conduct of the commuter.

An elder who shouts “Haroh!” in his phone will receive combined looks that will literally drill holes into his skull. In any case, with everybody silently bent over their laptop, tablet, smart or ordinary phone, etc, as if in prayer, who dares breathe into that gadget?

Gone is the obnoxious cigarette and pipe smoke everywhere; the phlegm tossed out at will; the answering of the call of nature everywhere; generally the dirt, disorder and darkness. The Kigali resident has mutated into an urbanite.

Of course, occasionally there are those of us still seized in our old village-bumpkin ways of the 1950s, rekindled in 1994, who may impulsively ‘answer that call’. But it’s enough that it touches off a national concern. Maybe it serves to push our planners to consider multiplying these so-far mean public conveniences!

Otherwise, that this place is in so short a time an emerging metropolis is nothing short of a miracle. Truly, time flies!

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