Bougainvillea Grows Through Barbed Wire

My good friends Katie and Dave live on what I thought was the Upper East Side of Kigali. The topography is more like that of San Francisco, though with the German Embassy around the corner, President Kegame’s house a few blocks away, and the upscale Hotel des Mille Collines up a long hill and around the bend, I quickly assumed this is Kigali living at its largest. They say the neighborhood was inhabited by the wealthiest class in Rwanda before the war but many of them have left for larger, newer homes on the outskirts of town; these older houses are now occupied primarily by NGOs and their employees. (Hotel Rwanda, by the way, is based on genocide-related events of 1994 at the Hotel des Mille Collines, but it was actually filmed in South Africa). A few of the surrounding roads remain unpaved but new construction abounds: I walked past more than one hotel project in the works, and a few vacant lots filled with laborers and their shovels. All houses in this neighborhood surround themselves with tin gates, brick walls, and the inevitable gatekeeper, more a relic of the messy past than reflective of a present need for tough security.

Across town, however, it might as well be the Hamptons. As Ian, Katie’s gregarious driver, steered me up a hill past ramshackle homes, nearly grazing a steady stream of water-toting pedestrians on the roadside, he gave me the first lesson in real estate: location, location, location. “Up at the top, where the views are very good, that’s where the rich people live now, the very rich.” Indeed, the crowds thinned as we neared the top and the McMansions appeared. This area has only been developed in the last two years, and the majority of the houses (gigantic by most American standards), still had scaffolding around them. It seemed almost implausible that, given the context, these structures were being built for a single family. They house the businessmen, the ex-patriot developers, the government ministers, the diplomats.

As part of the government’s broad development plan, Vision 2020, they’ve also built neighborhoods nearby that might be considered more middle-class, smaller than the mansions but huge by Rwandan standards and still largely unoccupied. Another 2,500 of these houses are in the works for the next few years. Accompanying these houses are the stores and schools where they can buy a cell phone, do the grocery shopping, and drop their children at the playground all within one complex. This neighborhood didn’t strike me as luxurious, exactly; it seems the people building them are after size more than anything else. “It’s like a competition,” Ian said, “one man will buy a Hummer and the next will want a limousine and a bigger house.” Keeping up with the Joneses knows no boundaries.

The horrific war of 1994, when over a million people were slaughtered across Rwanda in a matter of months, is rarely spoken of around here. This genocide is referenced in a similar way to which we speak of September 11th: a marker in time from which to look forward, the post-war or post-94 state of things, rather than a recalling of the events themselves. Considerations of ethnicity, a long-attributed cause of tension, hatred and war have been all but eliminated by the current government, headed by President Kegame. The ethnic distinctions of Hutu and Tutsi actually have socio-economic origins: when the Belgians took over Rwanda in a 1923 mandate from the League of Nations, they handed a Tutsi identity card to any household owning more than 10 cattle, and a Hutu card to those who owned fewer. The ensuing creation of race from class is obviously complex, and probably not my job to detail here.

But these days its all about reconciliation, of country and culture, and any project that supports this receives fervent approval from the government. Rwanda very much feels like a country in transition; the faded signs for old restaurants and les bureaux de changes are mostly in French, new billboards for cell phones and the first annual East African investment conference, in English. Rwanda had been the recipient of substantial foreign aid, of food and money, following the war but the government has begun turning down aid in favor of economic investment and various loan arrangements. It hasn’t exactly been an easy transition, as Katie remarked shrewdly, “It’s hard to give people something for free one year and expect them to pay for it the next.”

Coffee is emerging in many ways as a source of national pride and unity. Ian told me that President Kegame visited the United States and realized that it’s easier for Americans to find roasted Rwandan coffee than it is for Rwandans. Kegame returned from his trip and promptly arranged for two branches of the Bourbon Coffee Café to open in Kigali, each costing over $1 million (overseas investors composing the bulk of that). The one nearest Katie and Dave’s house would compete with the best of NYC’s coffee shops, a warm and glossy lounge space with serious mahogany furniture and a palatial view of the surrounding hills. Rwandans have set up shop with laptops and friends here this afternoon, though I’m the only one within sight drinking Maraba cooperative coffee from a French Press (a $2 steal!); most of the people around me are sipping blended, whipped cream-topped $6 things, or Coke.

Coffee is always an acquired taste, isn’t it, and Rwanda has never been much of a coffee drinking country (they have long preferred tea) in spite of having some of the most prized Bourbon Arabica coffee plants in the world. But perhaps this is their moment to become acquainted with coffee, and develop a café culture to accompany it. Before Bourbon Coffee Café, there existed no obvious place in Kigali to ‘meet for coffee’ or hold court in a privately-owned public space. Parisian coffee consumption probably increased tremendously when it became fashionable for the literati to sit at Café de Flore with un petit café crème and watch their fellow citizens with the eye of un flaneûr. Unlike in Paris, however, this café can proudly dress its servers in American Apparel t-shirts embracing the slogan ‘naturally crop to cup’ while they watch the bourgeoisie settle in.

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One thought on “Bougainvillea Grows Through Barbed Wire

  1. Jeg, Have you read the book Sacred Trees, Bitter Harvests by Brad Weiss? I think his anthropological work on coffee in Tanzania will be very pertinent to you. I highly recommend reading it, or at least the introduction. Happy researching!

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