My first full day in Kigali, capital of Rwanda, was on Saturday, December 28th, 2013. I arrived the evening before and was staying with a German friend of Martin and Jonas – though neither had actually met him in person. He and his roommate were extremely nice, but they forgot to mention something important about the following day…
My first inclination that something was wrong that morning was how impossible it was to find a motorcycle taxi. In Burundi, Rwanda, Tanzania, Uganda, and Kenya, it’s generally quite easy and efficient to find and take motorcycle taxis. I had taken one the day before to get from the bus terminal to where I was staying. But now, on what should have been a normal Saturday morning, I couldn’t find any motorcycles or buses and the streets were deserted.
As I gave up and started walking toward the center of the city I struck up a conversation with a Rwandan. At each corner we’d try and get a ride on a motorcycle but none seemed interested in taking us. Finally we found one who would cooperate and the selfless Rwandan allowed me to take the ride. I didn’t have any food in my bag, a rarity on this journey, so I was looking forward to going downtown and getting something to eat. As the guy dropped me off in the equivalent of Kigali’s Times Square, I saw no one. I felt like I was in a zombie movie and the zombies were hiding! Where was everyone??
I went into a grocery store but it was closed. All the employees were cleaning the windows. I walked past 10 restaurants and none were open. I found a mall that was open, but none of the stores were. There was a cafe inside that someone recommended to me, but it was also closed all morning. The same thing was happening – the employees were cleaning when I got there. I asked them where I might be able to eat something. At this point I was starving and the heat only exacerbated my hunger. They said I’d have to go to a touristy place – the best option considering that I was on foot was the Hotel des Mille Collines (also known as Hotel Rwanda).
Visiting this hotel was on my agenda for the day given its role in the Rwandan genocide, but I didn’t want to eat there. I knew it would be horribly overpriced.
The night before I had a “Rolex.” A Rolex is an Indian chapati (similar to a Mexican tortilla but made with wholegrain wheat flour) topped with beans and scrambled eggs. Simpler versions without the beans and/or eggs go by other names. This is the premium version, so when combined with the rolling action you get the name Rolex. It cost about $1. I had hoped to have one again for breakfast, but a hotel breakfast would be at least 10 times more expensive.
I made my way by foot to the Hotel des Mille Collines and inquired about breakfast. By the time I got there I didn’t feel very hungry anymore but I knew I had to eat. The heat was strong. I exchanged pleasantries with the security guard while my mind’s eye projected what this small hotel looked like with over 1200 guests while chaos reigned supreme beyond the gate I found myself at. Today there is a small memorial marking the significance of the hotel during the genocide. Otherwise it’s an upscale hotel that caters to foreign clientele. The only breakfast option was the buffet, which cost about $15. It was the most expensive breakfast I had on the entire 2.5 year Happy Nomad Tour (second place goes to breakfast at the Seoul airport for $11) and one of the most expensive meals period. There wasn’t much I could do though.
At the hotel I finally asked the staff what the heck was going on! I could understand if the city was shut down on a Sunday morning, but even then Eastern Africa has a significant Muslim population. The city would continue functioning even if lots of people go to church. They told me it was Umuganda. I didn’t know what Umuganda was so I asked for clarification. Umuganda literally means “coming together in common purpose to achieve an outcome.” Traditionally it’s a day for friends, family, and communities to come together and accomplish difficult tasks. Umuganda gained an even stronger importance in the rebuilding of Rwanda after the 1994 genocide.
Today, community work is still done on Umuganda serving to further strengthen and unify communities. People also use it as a day to deeply clean the home and workplace. This explained why people at the grocery store and cafe were cleaning their respective premises. Umuganda takes place on the last Saturday of every month, but since it was the last Saturday of the year it was the mother of all Umugandas. People were cleaning in preparation for the fresh start that the New Year offers.
In thinking about it I couldn’t help but fall in love with this holiday. A day per month to give back to the community. A day per month to stop and reflect. A day per month to slow down and think about the bigger picture. A day per month to purify. It’s estimated that some 80% of the population observes Umuganda in some way. Beautiful!