Too often, travelers skip Rwanda’s beautiful capital city to go trekking around mountain gorillas, relax by Lake Kivu or join a safari at the Akagera National Park. At most, they spend a day in Kigali visiting genocide memorial sites.
But Kigali has more to offer than just its dark past. It is one of the most liveable cities in Africa, and for the right reasons. It is extremely safe, clean and green, sprawling over stunning hills which add to the city’s aesthetic allure. Moreover, there is really nothing to beat the stunning views you get from the top of the many green hills, and the feelings of serenity and peacefulness that you get to experience while being there.
Here is a list of my favorite local experiences to have while visiting the city, each offering something special to the curious traveler; whether it’s a fascinating local insight, visual and olfactory immersion, mouth-watering local flavors, or even the opportunity to support entrepreneurial development and improve livelihoods and living standards.
Woodworking With Irenee
When I booked a woodworking experience with Irenee on Vayando’s website, I had no idea what to expect. I had no previous experience in woodworking, and no particular interest in this art; however, my vision completely changed as soon as I met Irenee in his workshop in Kicukiro. He is so enthusiastic, not only about creating high quality local products, but also about teaching his art to the Rwandan youth as a means to overcome poverty. Instead of having to struggle in finding jobs, he wants to give the opportunity to these young Rwandans to acquire the confidence and skills to create their own jobs.
Woodworking itself was fun as well. With a teacher such as Irenee, full of wonderful stories and jokes, I cannot picture it being a boring class for a single second. The most mesmerizing part for me, however, was to see this useful and visually attractive object coming to shape out of unworked block of wood in a couple of hours only. And what is best, you get to keep what you have made.
Traditional Cooking With Aminatha
Growing up illiterate in the Congo with her single mother, Aminatha still recalls her happy childhood memories revolving around her passion for cooking. For a long time, she was unable to gain financially from this love; however, since April 2015 Aminatha has started giving traditional cooking classes to the delight of the food lovers among us.
I was lucky enough to be one of her first students. Together with three of my friends, we met Aminatha and her interpreter early morning at the Nyamirambo Women’s Center. We were first introduced to the center, before heading out to the market to buy all the vegetables and other ingredients we needed to cook. All activities — including the hands-on cooking class — took place in Nyamirambo. This area of Kigali is renowned for its vibrant street life and culture, including its mouth-watering and cheap local cuisine.
And honestly speaking, what better way to discover a culture than through its cuisine? After washing and cutting the ingredients, we learned to make four traditional vegetarian dishes in a kitchen of a local residential compound. These compounds typically regroup four or five houses which share a kitchen and a bathroom area. We then savored our creation in the living room of the Nyamirambo Women’s Center’s President, Marie Aimee Umugeni.
My favorite dish was dodo, leafy greens grown in the region only.
Sisal Basket Weaving With Grace
In Rwandan culture, sisal basket weaving is of great importance, and is often a favorite option for women — especially in rural areas — who are trying to make ends meet. As Agaseke baskets are being used all around the country, and are becoming more popular abroad, there is always a market for them. Also, weaving skills are very meaningful to acquire as they are usually transmitted over generations from mother to daughter. Sure, weaving demands patience and time, but as it has mostly been a social activity in Rwandan society, it is also very fun. In fact, you very rarely weave alone.
At the Nyamirambo Women’s Center I had the chance to meet Grace who, with the help of an interpreter, taught me the intricate technique of weaving. I also learned about sisal fibers, where they come from and how they are given these beautiful vibrant colours. I then started creating my own purple earrings under the meticulous supervision of Grace. After two hours of weaving, and only one earring done, I was given some additional purple sisal fiber and a needle to take home to continue my project.
Admire Local Street Art With Bonfils
Contemporary artists who have decided to follow their passion regardless of general trends in the country are not many yet, but the ones who have persisted are extremely talented, ambitious and willing to bring their art closer to the people. Bonfils Ngabonziza is one of them.
In 2014, Bonfils and other artists from Ivuka Arts joined forces with Kurema, Kureba, Kwiga (To Create, To See, To Learn), a public-arts social enterprise in Kigali, to use their art as a tool for social change. The talented team drew a couple of sketches to be used for making murals addressing positive living and the stigma around HIV & AIDS. Based on these sketches, the artists gathered in different parts of Kigali, including Remera and Nyamirambo, to make the stunning murals. Each have their own story to tell.
Soon after arranging a meeting through Vayando, I met Bonfils at Ivuka Arts. We first toured the grounds of the studio and gallery, then took a couple of motto taxis to visit four murals around Kigali. Not only were the murals fascinating to look at, I also had the chance to learn about the story and meaning of the artworks by one of the artists himself. This was a memorable day, and a great chance to acquire local insights about the Rwandan contemporary art scene.
Fashion Design With Rupari
Rwanda might still be somewhat new on the fashion scene, but talented local designers are certainly not missing. Rupari is one of them. She studied International Economics at university, but started her professional career in a bank — although soon decided to follow her dream. She had already been modeling, drawing and creating her own designs over the years; however, it was not until she acquired the necessary expertise, confidence and funds that she opened her own little boutique, Rupari Design.
Rupari is happy to share her knowledge and love for African fabrics with curious travelers. Going to her boutique you’ll be able to chat with her, look at her sketches, peruse current collections and learn about the whole process of bringing sketches to life. Not only will you hear about it, but can work with the tailors at the back of the boutique to create your own little piece to take back home.
Why not even order a tailor made dress or suit with the fabric of your choice? In any case, this experience provides great insights into the local fashion industry, and an opportunity to learn more about African prints.
Do you have a memorable Kigali experience to add to this list? Please share in the comments below.
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