Travel Black Book Ambassadors Series

Kigali: Rwanda's city of hills

The best of home: Ambassadors to Singapore provide an insider's guide to their favourite destinations

Who: Mr Guillaume Kavaruganda, 48, Rwandan High Commissioner to Singapore, New Zealand and Australia and Ambassador to Indonesia

Favourite destination: Kigali, Rwanda's capital, is a beautiful city of hills built within green ridges and valleys. Although it is close to the equator, the city's 1,567m elevation allows for good weather and average temperatures of around 21 deg C.

Kigali is the size of Singapore, but with one million inhabitants. As the capital, it has the facilities that one can find in other major cities around the world, even free 4G access on public transportation. It is also one of the cleanest and safest cities in Africa.

SEE

Over three months in 1994, about one million people died in the genocide against the Tutsi minority group in Rwanda.

There are six memorial centres around the country, but I recommend visiting the Kigali Genocide Memorial Centre (www.kgm.rw) in the Gisozi neighbourhood. It was built to educate the public and commemorate the victims. It also serves as a burial ground for 250,000 victims of the genocide. An audio tour of the memorial centre costs $15.

Visit the Natural History Museum, also known as Kandt House (tinyurl.com/mx5cej7). It is named after German explorer Richard Kandt, who founded Kigali in 1907, and is located in his former home. It showcases models of vibrantly coloured birds, mammals and exotic reptiles found in Rwanda.

  • Getting there

  • The quickest way to get to Kigali is to fly Singapore Airlines or Air India to Mumbai, then catch a RwandAir flight to Kigali, which operates four times a week.

    Alternatively, Kenya Airlines offers direct flights from Dubai and Bangkok to Nairobi, where there are flights to Kigali.

    Tips

    • Kigali, and Rwanda in general, are known for being safe and clean. All Rwandans practise umuganda, a mandatory day of community service on the last Saturday of the month. They get together to clean roadsides and public spaces, help build schools, protect environmental parks and do other communal work.

    • Rwandans are generally reserved and soft-spoken. One should not ask any Rwandan which ethnic group he belongs to. Since the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi, the government has focused on peace and reconciliation to help move the country forward. Rwandans will identify themselves as a Rwandan and not Hutu, Tutsi or Twa.

    • Non-biodegradable plastic bags have been banned in Rwanda since 2008 and will be confiscated at the border. Take along your own reusable bags if you are going shopping.

    • Rwanda is a small country with well-connected roads, so a week there is enough for sightseeing.

    • Singaporeans do not need a visa to travel to Rwanda. For more information, go to Rwanda tours (www.rwandaecotours.com), Rwanda Gorilla Safari (www.africatravelresource.com) and Amahoro tours (www.amahoro-tours.com).

The museum's knowledgeable employees can also provide information on the nearby mountains, hills and parks. For example, a few hours of light hiking up Mount Kigali, a hill with charming houses located on the south-western edge of the city, offers amazing views of the whole city at the top.

I also recommend a visit to the King's Palace Museum in Nyanza (tinyurl.com/jgjevzx), 88km south of Kigali, to view replicas of the former palace grounds. You can learn more about how the kings of Rwanda used to live and rule before the country was colonised by the Germans in the late 1800s, followed by the Belgians after World War I.

EAT

My favourite restaurant is Khana Khazana (www.khanakhazana.rw), an Indian restaurant in the Nyarutarama suburb. Though much richer, Indian cuisine has many similarities with Rwandan food, which is not spicy and mostly vegetable-based. A meal here will cost about $50 a person.

Go to Chez John (tinyurl.com/l6gwuhl) in KN 50 Street for an authentic Rwandan meal. It is a buffet-style dining experience and the ugali (paste made from maize and water, similar to porridge) and isombe (thick vegetable stew made from cassava leaves, usually served with dried fish) are very good. The lunch buffet costs about $6.

In Rwanda, a must-try dish is brochettes de chevres, meat skewers with matoke (savoury charcoal- grilled green banana). It is most often made of goat meat, but it can also be cooked using beef, chicken, pork or fish. This dish can be found in any bar or restaurant for about $1 and pairs well with Rwandan beer such as Primus or Mutzig.

You can also try Urwaga, an artisanal banana beer made from a variety of locally grown bananas.

Also try sambaza - small lake sardines from Lake Kivu that are often fried and eaten as a snack. Sambaza can be found in Kigali, but are best at any of the hotels and lodges along Lake Kivu, one of Africa's great lakes which forms the border between Rwanda and Congo. It take about three hours to get there from the city.

For many Rwandans, a perfect breakfast is a glass of nourishing cow's milk and a banana. There are milk bars everywhere serving glasses of hot steamed fresh milk with cocoa powder, honey or tea.

Bourbon Coffee (www.bourboncoffee.rw) in Nyarutarama is a Rwandan coffee chain with several outlets in the United States. The coffee is great and you get a pleasant view of the hills surrounding Kigali.

SHOP

Quartier Mateus used to be the go-to shopping complex, filled with locals. One can bargain and find all kinds of things. It was my favourite place to buy art by local artists, but as of February last year, it was vacated to make way for the construction of new buildings.

Now, many of the Quartier's vendors and traders can be found at the new Chic Building downtown, or in the Remera, Gisozi and Gasabo neighbourhoods.

For souvenirs, I recommend the beautiful and colourful baskets that are handcrafted by Rwandan artisans. They often work for co-operatives which were formed to help empower women and promote reconciliation through craftwork.

You can find these and other locally made craft goods at Ikaze Showroom in KN 67 Street, Inzuki (www.inzuki.com), a store at Ndaru Courtyard in Boulevard de la Revolution, and many other stores in Kigali.

Another must-buy is good quality Rwandan coffee and tea, which can be found in any supermarket.

Rwanda produces fully washed Arabica coffee beans, which are considered speciality coffee and are quite popular with coffee drinkers. Rwandan tea has a strong and refined taste and is well-liked by connoisseurs.

Akabanga chilli oil, which costs less than $1 a bottle, and Rwandan honey are also good souvenirs that can be found easily in local supermarkets.

PLAY

In summer, there is the Primus Guma Guma Super Stars (tinyurl.com/meagkvu), a live travelling Rwandan music competition that is sponsored by Bralirwa Brewery's Primus lager and created by entertainment and event management company East African Promoters to help grow the music entertainment industry in Rwanda. The competition tours the country from May to end-June.

Lake Muhazi (tinyurl.com/ltu7djo) is about an hour's drive from Kigali. Get a comfortable seat at one of the restaurants or bars along the lake's banks, enjoy a meal of fresh fish and admire the birds and the setting sun while listening to the waves.

For a local experience, go to Nyamirambo, the oldest part of Kigali, where few tourists go.

It is a multicultural, vibrant neighbourhood filled with affordable bars and shops.

Most of the residents there are fashionable and the streets are crowded and colourful with women dressed in kitenge (waxed cotton) dresses and sarongs. The suburb is open all day and night and is the home of many artists who often perform in the bars in the evening.

It is worthwhile visiting the mountain gorillas in Volcanoes National Park (tinyurl.com/mq6tqw2), on the borders straddling Rwanda, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

A 11/2-hour drive west of Kigali, it is the only place in the world where you can visit gorillas in their natural environment. A permit costs US$750 (S$1,051) a person and the money goes partly to conserving the endangered animals. You can book a tour with a gorilla trek company (www.rwandagorilla.com).

On the eastern border is the Akagera National Park (tinyurl.com/l94qd7v), also a 11/2-hour drive from Kigali, where you can go on a safari to see lions, elephants, hyenas, giraffes, buffaloes and leopards.

For pristine flora and fauna, the Nyungwe National Park (tinyurl.com/lth3otk) in the south-west,thought to be one of the oldest forests in Africa, is home to 13 primate species and more than 300 species of birds.

STAY My favorite hotel is Hotel Mille Collines (www.millecollines.rw), located in the city centre. It was built in 1973 and was one of the first modern buildings in Rwanda at that time. It has been modernised year after year and costs about $250 a night.

In 1994, it sheltered a large number of Rwandans who sought refuge from the genocide.

The 2004 movie, Hotel Rwanda, was loosely based on what happened there.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on April 09, 2017, with the headline 'Rwanda's city of hills'. Print Edition | Subscribe