Monday, February 18, 2019

Not All Those Who Rwanda Are Lost

Did you enjoy my pun in this post's title, a riff on a famous line by J.R.R. Tolkien in The Lord of The Rings? I'm fairly proud of it. We just wrapped up a fun weekend in Rwanda and Burundi with S, one of my best friends from back home who's visiting us in Kenya. This post is dedicated to our time in Kigali, Rwanda - I'll do a separate post for Burundi.

We covered a lot in our few days in Kigali. The clear first stop for history nerds like me (and to an even greater extent S) was the Kigali Genocide Memorial, which serves as a public museum as well as a burial site for about 250,000 of the more than one million victims of the Rwandan genocide in 1994.

The museum wasn't huge, but it was very well curated, organized, and maintained. The exhibits and stories shared within its walls were very powerful; I couldn't help but feel the waves of emotion I felt years ago visiting Buchenwald Memorial, a former Nazi concentration camp in Germany. The patterns repeated in history were chilling. Above, for example, is a photo of some of the propaganda used to prepare the population to commit and accept genocide. The museum also had an exhibit with overviews of other genocides committed around the world, drawing parallels and helping visitors understand how these atrocities were committed (and hopefully, in the long-term, how they can be stopped).

As impactful and painful and recent as the genocide was, it doesn't define the country or its people. It's one of many, many things that are important for understanding Rwanda today. In recognition of that, we went to check out a small slice of Kigali's bustling art scene at Inema Arts Center. Many of the pieces were breathtaking, and we could easily see how the center was able to support not only classes for children but 14 artists-in-residence! Nevertheless, after a quick perusal of the prices, we quickly learned that none of us would be able to afford any of the art in the gallery.

We also enjoyed some of Rwanda's rich food culture, from traditional Rwandan food sharing many of Kenya's staples like matoke and cassava (the starchy root vegetable that looks like chalk pictured above) to high-end fusion like chapati tilapia tacos with guacamole. M was even pleasantly surprised to enjoy a deliciously tender medium rare steak (pictured below). Interestingly, I also learned ugali (the maize flour cake staple of Kenyan cuisine) is commonly made in Rwanda with cassava flour instead.

On our last day in Kigali, we did a walking tour with the Nyamirambo Women's Center, which I can't recommend highly enough. They have a cooking class, basket-making class, and a few other options, but we chose the basic neighborhood walking tour. We started in the women's center itself, which had a beautiful array of handmade products created by local women whose skills have empowered them to become self-reliant (and the center to become self-sustaining). It's an extraordinary accomplishment considering how many similar organizations try and fail to equip beneficiaries with livelihood skills to the extent that external donations are no longer needed to keep everything running. All the women sew one of these fabric hearts somewhere on each product as a symbol of their success as a cooperative and as a sort of signature trademark.

The Nyamirambo neighborhood was a very interesting place with a large Muslim community composed of those who were brought from Tanzania by German colonialists as translators. After the 1994 genocide, many more Rwandans converted to Islam because of the unique role Muslims played hiding many Tutsis and saving countless lives. One distinct feature of this conservative Muslim area was the lack of any alcohol in sight and the unique institution that arose to meet the demand for a venue for libations, conversation, and friendship: the milk bar. It's exactly what it sounds like: a bar where milk is served instead of alcohol, made even more popular by the fact that drinking milk is a big part of Rwandan (like Kenyan) culture. Sounds like a great time to me!

So although Rwanda is known for its gorilla treks (which proved too time-intensive and costly for us this time), our trip shows there are plenty of other things to experience in even just the capital of Kigali. If we're lucky, we'll be back someday to do it all!

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