woman of chaos in Africa-Lite

It’s taken me a long time to write this, and I’m not even sure if I like what I’ve written, but I’m posting it anyway because I’ve had a gutsful of write-write-delete-delete.

Kigali confused the hell out of me. I went in thinking I had a good idea of what to expect: I’d talked to people who lived there, I’d read some books, I’d googled the crap out of everything. But none of that mattered because the reality wasn’t even remotely close.

Think Africa, and you think desert plains, rhinos, skinny men on bicycles, a baking orange sun. Donkeys and trucks and rickshaws, women in big flowery dresses and starving kids with flies in their eyes.

Kigali ain’t that kind of Africa.

Kigali is clean. Quiet. Calm. Zen, even.

Kigali is the developed side of developing. It has five-star-hotels, European bakeries, satellite dishes. It has pedestrian crossings and you’re expected to use them (the cops told me off when I didn’t). The footpaths are even. The gardens are manicured. There are skinny women in high-vis vests who sweep, sweep, sweep all day. Nobody drops rubbish, nobody smokes, nobody swears, nobody scribbles naughty words on the walls.


It’s weird, bro.

It wasn’t always like this. Twenty-three years ago, one of Rwanda’s two ethnic groups – the Hutus – went out and totally butchered the other ethnic group, the Tutsis. When I say butchered, I mean literally: they did it with machetes and guns and hand-grenades, and they wiped out 800,000 of them within 100 days. It’s even worse than it sounds, because most of the Tutsis didn’t – couldn’t – fight back.

I went to Kigali’s Genocide Memorial museum last week and left with a new perspective on how truly crap the human race is.

And I guess Rwanda realised this, too, because since the genocide ended, the government has put in a monstrous effort to turn everything around. Fix things up, make good of the horror, start anew. In two decades, they’ve done what takes most countries a century or three. While most of Africa is still scrabbling around in the dust, around 97% of Rwanda’s children attend primary school, and mortality rates for children under five have halved in the past decade. Yes, 45 percent of Rwanda’s population still lives below the poverty line, but that’s up from 56.7 percent in 2005.

In 1993, the average life expectancy of Rwandans was 27. In 2014, that had risen to 64. And in 2013’s parliamentary elections, 51 out of 80 seats were won by women.

Even a politically/economically/socially ignorant individual like myself can appreciate that’s pretty decent stuff.

But I didn’t like really like the place. Kigali is … well…

There’s nothing to do. But it’s not just that (but there’s REALLY nothing to do). There’s just no…. anything. No music, no mess, no colour, no street food, no buskers. No touts, apart from the two young guys who tried every day to sell me post cards and world maps. No beer cans in the gutter. Even New Zealand has beer cans in the gutter.

Yeah, each place is different, duh. But Kigali feels like it Humpty-Dumptied off the wall back in 1994 and was put back together by the rest of the world without its African parts. Most of the other foreigners-slash-expats are either English language teachers, charity workers, missionaries, gorilla enthusiasts, café-owners or Chinese road-builders.  Being none of those myself, I was – quite naturally – bored out of my skull.


But I did contribute to Rwandan society in some way, and that was as a source of hilarity.  My feet, apparently, are something so utterly rare and obscene that people had to stop in their tracks to look at them. The locals passing me would crane their necks, frowning, as they tried to make sense of these fat white toes in battered Tevas.

I know that I’m a pretty weird thing to look at, and we all enjoy looking at weird things. But it’s somewhat unnerving – nay, terrifying – to walk down a street and have every single passerby run their eyes down my body.

Besides their fascination with my lower extremities, the folks also had a perchance for shrieking ‘mzungu!’ when they saw me coming. If I responded, they burst into giggles. If I didn’t respond, they burst into giggles. Mothers whispered loudly to their swaddled babes, ‘Mzungu!’ and yank their offspring’s face in my direction. The men elbowed one another and stared, and laughed, and stared.

I liked some things. The kids, when they weren’t squealing ‘Mzungu! hello! hello! give me money-give me chocolate-hello!’ These tiny little beings would charge up to me in the street and hold out their hands for me to shake, or stroke my arms, or chorus ‘Hello!’ one after the other. Some of them jogged alongside me in the mornings, sandal-footed and barely panting, grinning big white smiles until they reached the school gates and called, bye! Byeee!


I loved and hated the “moto” taxis. These dudes ride around all day on battered Suzukis, looking for people to pick up. Dare to travel anywhere on foot and you’ll be swatting away indignant beeping motos every four steps. They’re enormously convenient: it takes barely 12 seconds to hail one and the ride never costs more than 1000 Rwandan francs (about $NZ1.70). They’re also enormously irritating: the drivers can’t fathom the concept of a white woman using her own feet (however ugly) to get around, so to walk anywhere was to be flanked by exasperated bikers beeping and revving their crappy engines.

I want to say I liked other things, but, beyond the nice-and-safe four walls of the nice-and-safe stucco house I stayed in, with its electric jug and mosquito nets and two (TWO!) housekeepers, I just kind of, didn’t.

And it’s only now, after my first 24 hours out of Rwanda and in Nairobi – in the thick of this massive, heaving, filthy, congested, fuming mess of carsbikestrucksbusespeopledogssmokefruitrubbishutterfuckingchaos that I kind of wondered if Kigali is missing something, and if that thing is its Africa-ness.

Whatever Kigali was before, it sure ain’t now, and probably never will be again. But, well, maybe it doesn’t want to be.


2 thoughts on “woman of chaos in Africa-Lite

  1. Wow. Awesome story and can relate to some of this. You have a real story here.
    It is very hard to explain the sense of nothing to do in a land of people spending their day doing very little but earning their days keep. Beep beep. Be careful on the road and off it in Kenya. If your car is traveling too slow it may pass on the footpath side…


    1. Yes, I was nearly smashed over by one of those under-passing cars! I wouldn’t say that many of the people in Rwanda have little to do: many of the folk there have jobs or school to go to. But depends on how far you venture off the beaten path, of course.


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