Gertie in Kigali

If you ever have the opportunity to come to Africe, don’t miss Rwanda. Kampali is a picture-perfect city by any stretch of Western imagination: it’s green and clean, calm and beautiful.

“Oh,” said the Kenyan US AID director, “it’s what can come from a benevolent dictatorship.” Generally speaking, democracy is indeed contentious and chaotic–issues like growth and planning are often the result of hard fought battles among citizens and governments, and progress is often determined by economic feasibility rather than informed decisions.

Clearly, that’s not true of Kigali. A master hand laid out the city plans, and a controlled treasury implemented them. I notice this immediately upon arrival: processing through immigration is efficient, and the airport lobby is organized for travel comfort. Taxis are obtained quickly, and are spotlessly clean. I am driven to the hotel on newly paved roads which have no potholes, cracks, or bumps. Traffic moves smoothly along, and uniformed police men and women are stationed at every intersection of any consequence, making sure that there are no clogs and that fender-benders (if any) are quickly moved out of the traffic flow.

And clean? You haven’t seen ‘clean’ until you’ve visited Kigali: it’s almost unnatural in its pristine landscape. All along the way, there are women in blue coveralls sweeping the streets with brooms and dustpans. Because Kigali is hilly, many of the roads have been cut through the hills, and these sections are characterized by elaborate retaining walls, intricate patterns of brick and rock that are truly works of art. Parks are landscaped, as are divided roads and the center sections of the many center sections of traffic roundabouts.

Signage is clear and well maintained, and the frontage of businesses has no debris–no cans, loose papers, plastic bags–not even a cigarette butt. Everywhere, there are workers: at one stop, over 30 men were constructing an elaborate retaining wall; at another location, a dozen or so laborers were hand-digging a trench, pick axes flashing in the hot sun. There are sidewalks and motorcycle helmets, leafy trees over the roadways, and manicured yards behind beautiful fences.

As I drive around town, I think “This is too good to be true. There has got to be pain and poverty behind the latticework and brick. ” And there probably is–it’s just that the casual visitor doesn’t see it. Even brief glimpses of small earthen hut villages show an orderly system of smooth dirt roads and trenches, and of one-room businesses with neat facades and bright signs.

Well, I am here for a few days, and most of my meetings are held in the Serena Hotel–an aptly named facility, to be sure. The hotel staff understands the term ‘customer service’ like few other hotels I’ve ever visited, in the US or elsewhere. For instance, when I arrived in Kigali, I asked the cab driver if he took US dollars, since I had not had an opportunity to change dollars into Rwanda francs. “Of course,” he assured me.

However, upon arriving at the hotel, I discovered I had no bills smaller than a $100. “No problem,” he said, I will get change.

But it seemed that the hotel wouldn’t change the bill, and so off he went to the bank ‘just down the street.’ I went to my room, and the bellman promised to bring me the change when the cab driver returned.

Within fifteen minutes, the bellman knocked at my door. “Sorry,” he said. “The bank will not accept a bill printed earlier than 2003.” We discussed this, and it seemed the best course of action was to give him another bill. I found one from 2006, and off he went.

Twenty minutes later, he was back. “The bank,” he explained, “would not take this bill. It has a tear in it.” Sure enough, a small tear (not 1/8 of an inch long) was on the bill.

“The poor cab driver,” I said. “It’s taken him almost 2 hours, and he still hasn’t got his twenty dollars. Not a good return for his day. (Not to mention his gasoline cost!)” Together the bellman and I sorted through my cash, and agreed upon yet another candidate bill to submit to bank scrutiny.”‘

This one worked, and I resolved to stop at the foreign exchange office in the airport when I arrived in the next country I would visit.

But the point of my story is that throughout the ordeal, both the cab driver and the bellman were cheerful and willing to go to any lengths to resolve the problem–an attitude that was clear throughout the facility and — in fact — everywhere I went in this country.

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3 thoughts on “Gertie in Kigali

  1. A positive statement about benevolent dictatorships. . . we so often place a negative spin on “dictator” but it obviously is not always the case! Enjoy!

  2. Oh my! This country and its people sound too good to be true. I wonder where the unrest we hear about in this country is. Is Kigali the home of the ruling government maybe? Even Washington DC doesn’t measure up, nor does any other American or European city I’ve visited. And the people seem genuinely caring, helpful, friendly. I’m glad you had this experience.

    Love, Nan

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