(CNN) – Kigali’s streets are full of traffic, motorbikes race around buses, the street markets are full of activity. It stands by the roadside and is like any other big city in the heart of Africa. But this is a city that is different from other metropolitan areas on the continent.
Today, Rwanda’s capital is synonymous with the surrounding verdant hills where mountain gorillas cling to life, while roads around the world have become famous for their immaculateness.
But for so many, this city remains tied to the genocide that killed between 800,000 and a million Rwandans in a brutal tribal conflict in 1994.
Now, however, Kigali is moving forward through a combination of community service and entrepreneurship, without forgetting the lessons of its brutal past.
Cleaning up for the community
A major cleanup has made Kigali’s streets some of the cleanest in the world.
MARCO LONGARI / AFP via Getty Images
Driving around Kigali has to see the cleanliness and lack of rubbish to be believed. There is no garbage stain, no piece of paper, no discarded plastic bottle.
While the local government pays some residents to clean up the streets, every family has to help clean up their community on the last Saturday of the month.
This is known as Umuganda, which translates as “coming together for a common purpose”. It’s an old Rwandan concept that was officially revived in its current, mandatory form in 2009. There are penalties for those who do not participate. The result is that the city is now one of the cleanest capitals in the world.
Inyambo cattle are treated like royalty in Rwanda.
Umuganda is part of a wider healing process across Rwanda. The government has also restored the tradition of Girinka, a welfare system where vulnerable families get their own cow. Girinka has played a huge role in bringing society back together.
In Rwanda, cows enjoy a high reputation, a ticket and insurance against the harshest forms of poverty. And when a cow has a calf, its owners are expected to give the newborn to their neighbor. The idea is to promote the community through traditional means.
“If you want to wish someone prosperity, give them a cow,” explains Edouard Bamporiki, poet and Rwanda’s minister of culture. “And if I give you a cow, it’s like we’re sealing our friendship. You can’t betray anyone who gives you a cow.”
The importance of the cows in Kigali is shown at the King’s Palace Museum, which is home to a herd of long-horned Inyambo cattle. These cows have royal status in Rwanda. They are serenaded and pampered, and offer the luxuries that today’s affluent tourists would expect.
“In our tradition we raise our hands when we dance like the horn of the Inyambo,” says Bamporiki. It is clear to him and everyone at the Royal Palace how much the Inyambo are revered and why cows play such an important role in bringing people together.
Mathias Kalisa belongs to a new generation of entrepreneurs in Kigali.
It’s not just traditions that are used to create a new Kigali.
Mathias Kalisa is a young entrepreneur who uses one of Rwanda’s greatest export goods, coffee, to show how this city has changed and developed over the past 25 years. It is typical of the younger generation here, who have created an energy and togetherness that can be felt on the streets.
“Before 1994 you couldn’t see a young person like me doing business,” he says, carefully pouring out a cup.
Despite the horrors of the period, Kalisa doesn’t believe there is a chance that Kigali and Rwanda as a whole will return to this period.
“If you look at the pace of this country, how stable it is, how the young generation is involved in the future of the country, we actually feel different and get involved,” he says.
The same energy is in Joselyne Umutoniwase, a designer and creative force behind Ruanda Clothing. Like Kalisa, she is on a mission to show a new and different side to Kigali.
“The fabric comes from all over Africa,” she says as she walks through her shop and shows her latest creations. “So we have West Africa, the colorful, the waxy.”
The clothes that Umutoniwase makes are said to change perception.
Joselyne Umutoniwase’s fashion designs help spread Rwanda’s creativity.
“It’s about telling a new story,” she says. “I think every time someone from here takes an outfit in this showroom, travels with them, goes to New York, goes to London, goes to Paris, that outfit can tell a different story about Rwanda.”
Umutoniwase started their business in 2012 using branded techniques that were not common in Rwanda at the time.
“I took the opportunity to create different kinds of things and show people that it is possible to create things here in Rwanda, have them made here in Rwanda and sell them in the market here in Rwanda.”
She says she offers more than just clothes to tourists and fashion-conscious locals.
“I think it’s the picture of Rwanda. I am selling the picture. I am selling the creativity, the energy of the people. I am selling the dream of the people who want to move forward.”
As with Umuganda and Girinka, Umutoniwase hopes that in the face of adversity, their textiles and clothing can become part of a larger story of unity.
“I think the word I would use to describe Rwanda would be turi kumwe. It’s the word that means ‘we are together’, we work together towards one goal … to build a Rwanda that we are all towards are proud. “
A past that has never been forgotten
Photos of victims at the Kigali Genocide Memorial.
This urge to work together to promote unity across the division stems from the still raw and painful memories of the 1994 genocide.
The indiscriminate killing, which took place in just 100 days and which killed up to a million people, is well documented. But no trip to Rwanda would be complete without a visit to the Kigali Genocide Memorial.
It is a powerful and harrowing testimony to what happened 27 years ago and why this country went to such lengths to create a new, unified front.
The remains of 250,000 victims are buried here in mass graves next to a memorial wall with their names, where relatives can come and show their respect. The photos of these victims, which can be found throughout the museum, are a reminder that the genocide must be killed indiscriminately regardless of gender, age or wealth.
Honore Gatera is the director of the Kigali Genocide Memorial. His work here is personal – he’s a genocide survivor and has seen firsthand the brutality of the era.
“I’ve seen the result of hatred,” he says. “I’ve seen how a person, a normal person, a friend, a neighbor, someone you went to school with, a classmate, can turn into your killer … I’ve seen death. I’ve seen how hundreds and hundreds of people have been killed. “
Honore Gatera, the director of the memorial, survived Rwanda’s atrocities.
Gatera says Rwanda learned the painful lessons of that time, one in particular.
“You will never be able to prevent mass atrocities, genocide and hatred if it doesn’t start with personal and individual commitment to the cause. I think the lesson we have learned in Rwanda is from the individual about the community up to the national level we have to hold hands. “
Education also played an important role in Kigali’s path to healing, he says.
“The DNA of people who became murderers has been changed by 30 years of upbringing to hatred. From upbringing to division and exclusion. How do you become a murderer on the order of killing 100 people in a day?”
“What kind of humanistic and cultural values has this person lost in their DNA that they become a killer? And this is what we are teaching the younger generations. Let us restore those humanistic and cultural values.”
Walking through the monument, it is impossible not to feel the presence of a quarter of a million people buried here. This place represents them, but also the way the country remembers, does not forget and is determined to unite and renew.
Gorillas in the fog
Trekking guide Francoise Bigirimana says he can communicate with gorillas.
Tourism outside of the Covid pandemic has become a key factor in Rwanda’s regeneration and rehabilitation. And nothing attracts outsiders so much as to take a look at the mountain gorillas that are hidden deep in the rainforest of the Virunga Mountains, which stretch across the borders of Rwanda, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Efforts by local conservationists to protect and preserve these fragile, endangered species have caused their populations to slowly increase. There are now over 1,000 in the wild found here and in the Bwindi Impenetrable Park in Uganda. Getting close to them is a privilege that is as heart pounding as it is unforgettable.
Francoise Bigirimana is a trekking guide who knows the gorillas of this region very well. His deep knowledge comes from working with the renowned primatologist Dian Fossey, who lived with the region’s gorilla population for almost 20 years.
In fact, he knows her so well that he can even speak to a gorilla. From “mmm hmmmm” for a good morning to “mmmmggghhh mmmgghhh” for sitting, Bigirimana is well versed in being safe around these wild primates.
“In my heart I feel that I love her as much … as I do my own children,” he says.
Bigirimana’s love for the gorillas is evident. He keeps them calm when they are around because while they are used to people, they are very much not tame. Up close, it is impossible to escape our relationship with them. Humans share up to 98% of their DNA with gorillas and this shows in their facial expressions, their movements and their relationships with one another.
The approach of tourists to gorillas has helped create the right conditions to sustain their population and habitat. It’s a great example of good news from Rwanda. Its preservation and its resurgence are a clear parallel for a country where everyone tries to pull in the same direction.