Although there are many factors that have led to Kigali’s solid infrastructure and booming development, one thing stands out as the organising principle: umuganda.
I was sitting on the terrace of La Brioche, a popular bakery-cafe in Kigali’s Gacuriro neighbourhood. It was twilight – the streetlights were coming on, and the first hint of cool wafted through the air after a sweltering autumn day. As I sat with my cappuccino and demi-baguette reading a collection of short stories by celebrated Rwandan writer Beata Umubyeyi Mairesse that I’d just found at Kigali’s best literary bookshop, Ikirezi Books, I noticed my phone was running low. I asked the young man at the next table, whom I’d overheard speaking English earlier (most people do in this trilingual city, but it’s good to check), if he had a charger. He did not. He went back to his MacBook, I to my short story, and then, about a minute later, he turned back to me.
“I’m leaving in a couple of minutes for an opening at a new photo gallery nearby,” he said. “It should be fun. Do you want to come?”
I called a car on Move, the local ride-share app populated exclusively with Volkswagens assembled at a new plant nearby, and we arrived early at the Kigali Center for Photography. Theo, 23, the man from the terrace, seemed to know everyone, and introduced me around. Josephat’s studying film at Kigali Film and Television School. Rodriguez has a show on local radio station 103.6 HOT FM. Niza is the founder of one organisation that teaches under-employed women traditional basket-weaving, and another that gives at-risk youth space and materials to paint. Jacques is the gallery director, and Winny owns Sweet Ibanga, a mixology company that’s working the party. “I know what you like,” she beamed at Theo as she muddled him up a mojito.
Kigali is a city that has had more to come back from than practically any other on the continent, including some like Mogadishu in Somalia and Juba in South Sudan that have yet to pull it together. But over the past 25 years, and specifically over the last decade, Kigali has been transformed – by president Paul Kagame, by new laws and policies, and primarily by the people who live there – into what may be the most inviting city in Africa.