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Visiting Kigali from Nairobi leaves you both impressed and sad

Wednesday November 12 2014

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Last week, I finally got the chance to visit Rwanda, a country that people whose minds I revere, like Carol Musyoka and blogger Coldtusker, have raved about for years.

It was a typical trip, in the manner in which many first-time business people visit an African country.

The agenda was to fly in, attend a conference at a top hotel and also make a few excursions to tourist sites. But this also means that one got to talk mostly with other attendees and not with local citizens.

The trip included a visit to the Kigali Genocide Memorial, a site that every visitor should see at least once. It was a moving experience, and one that takes a strong fortitude to see and comprehend.

Rwanda got a shock to its core with the genocide of 1994. It has since re-defined its history, state, ethics, and values around those events, not its "independence" from Belgium in 1962.

The visit to the memorial was a very sad one, but just as sad was to fly into Kigali at midnight and drive along well-lit, smooth streets.

Traffic lights that are obeyed during the day by motorists were off, but flashing road reflector markings and endless street lights brilliantly illuminated the roads and side paths, which had a few pedestrians strolling at this time of the night.


This was sad for me, and I think for anyone coming from a city like Nairobi, which has a great deal more resources available but whose authorities can't seem to build a road that lasts or light up a street.

Kigali is a city of many hills where it seems to rain every other day, and while it has visible gabions, each rain shower does not mean that entire roads peel away or that potholes magically multiply as they do in many parts of Nairobi.

We also got the inevitable talk from a government official on the possibility of doing business in Rwanda, and it was impressive.

That you can register a company online in two days and get a certificate delivered before your conference is over? That if you choose to make a land investment, you can get your title processed within one month?

That there’s a true "one-stop shop" agency that foreigners deal with to get all their needs attended to like work permits, business or city licenses and rates or taxes?

The government official also challenged us to walk the streets and look for any litter, and I later took a few walks around the town in the daytime, but to see other sights.

There was no litter, but what was more impressive was drivers obey traffic lights and road signs.


This happened throughout, and while a policeman sometimes whistled and signalled drivers to move along, everyone went back to obeying the lights once the traffic cleared.

As a pedestrian, I was cautious, not wanting to disrupt the harmony of the busy street, and I checked to see how other pedestrians crossed the road at zebra crossings where drivers yielded.

I left with the feeling that while Kenya has a more dynamic, innovative and robust private sector compared with Rwanda, our public sector is bloated, lagging, and non-performing in terms of visibility and service to its citizens compared with Rwanda.

I hope this is the same feeling that the numerous delegations of Kenyan MPs and MCAs said to have visited Rwanda have also gotten, along with an inspiration on how to do better back home, and give more services with the resources they have.

There were, however, also some small cracks at the seams here. In my short stay, my naivety lost me a little money twice; once when overcharged by the midnight hotel taxi, and again when a swarm of newspaper vendors took advantage of my buying copies of every Rwandan English daily newspaper title to also sell me a week-old Tanzanian newspaper.


Later, when I took one walk with a "mzungu" colleague, we were swarmed with a great deal more requests to buy clothing or take taxis to visit other sites.

A group of street kids appeared from nowhere, with one small boy following us all the way back to the hotel gate, pleading “I’m hungry, you’re my Jesus” to my colleague in a bid for some cash, which he didn’t have.

The security in Kigali is visible and impressive and I wish I had a picture to prove this, from the airport to the hotels, and even on street corners at night.

The checks were thorough and efficient on everyone, with none of the stuff I once saw at one of Nairobi’s top hotels where MPs and hotel guests were allowed to walk around the metal detectors.

But will the intensity last as volumes go up, as they inevitably will? Or will they get to a point where you can tell tired guards that what’s beeping in your pocket is your car keys or phone, without having to pull out either item?

Oh, and that stuff you'll do in other airports, like mutter to your fellow Kenyans in Swahili about security profiling or particular habits of the local residents? Don’t do that here. They may not advertise it, but many Rwandans, you’ll encounter from taxi drivers to waiters, speak good Swahili.

Twitter: @bankelele