Rwanda’s capital is often described as a city that sleeps, rather than one that doesn’t. Rwandans are, by nature, more reserved than Kenyans, or other Africans. Loud music isn’t tolerated after 8pm and bars tend to close early. Some may call it boring, but Kigali’s residents embrace the city’s quiet calm. Yet, the oldest part of Kigali defies this stereotype.
In the southwest corner of the city in the multi-cultural neighbourhood of Nyamirambo you'll experience a history and a vibe difficult to find anywhere else. Home to a mixed population, including much of the city’s working class and Muslim population, as well as bars, boutiques and hair salons, the area is an interesting juxtaposition of cultures.
At Nyamirambo’s heart is the Women’s Centre (NWC). The group began in 2007, with 18 women who came together to support each other, discussing issues like health, family, education and unemployment. It has since expanded to include a sewing cooperative and provides practical training and skills for disadvantaged women.
The NWC has also evolved to tap tourism as a revenue stream. They employ locals to lead tours, providing them with an income, while offering tourists an insider’s view of a proud neighbourhood that has repeatedly resisted redevelopment and modernization.
Different aspects of the area illustrate the diversity that makes Nyamirambo special, and the NWC tour weaves a trail from the spiritual soul of the historic Green Mosque to Nyamirambo’s creative hubs. These are a few of the highlights.
Morning at the milk bar
Milk bars are where Rwandans get their equivalent of a morning latte. Nyamirambo is home to more than fifty of the small shops filled with little more than a vat of fresh cow milk. Glasses of hot, steamed fresh milk are served straight up, with cocoa powder, honey or tea.
Recently, the government has promoted milk bars in a push to nourish more of the population, particularly those on a low income, encouraging a healthy start to the day. For many Rwandans, a fresh glass of milk and a banana, is breakfast.
Made to measure
The streets of Nyamirambo are among the most colourful in the city, brightened by the sight of women in kitenge (waxed cotton) dresses, sarongs, and wrapped around their waist, babies slung around their backs.
Swarms of people gather around a platform in the center of Nyamirambo to bid on Levi’s jeans, River Island shirts, and other labels at the second-hand clothing auction, while at the fabric market, women sift through the vividly patterned kitenge, before taking their purchases to Rwandan, Senegalese and Congolese tailors, known for their fine dressmaking skills. From small kiosks, surrounded by spools of thread in every colour, they sew made-to-measure garments.
Women also sew next door to the NWC boutique where the tour begins, selling their hand-made childrens' clothes, home accessories and handbags, all in a kaleidoscope of kitenge.
Nyamirambo's spiritual side
The Green Mosque, nick-named for its green and white minarets, has been a fixture in Nyamirambo since the Muslim community first came to Rwanda as traders in the 1930s. Kigali’s Muslims set up shops in Nyamirambo, and continue their tradition as merchants today, opening their shops well past sunset, adding to the area’s nighttime buzz.
The oldest mosque in Kigali, the Green Mosque is a symbol of peace, with a history as a safe haven for many Rwandans during the genocide: Nyamirambo is said to have escaped some of the worst atrocities of the 90s, largely due to its Muslim population. Many opened their homes and mosques to shelter Tutsis. Their acts of righteousness, along with a loss of faith in Catholic and Protestant leaders, resulted in high conversion rates and Rwanda’s Muslim community has doubled since the genocide.
The rising stars
As lively as it is during daylight, Nyamirambo really heats up after dark. Muslim-owned shops, in typical Arabic tradition, are open late, and an underground music scene fuels Kigali’s best nightlife.
Hip hop and reggae are the most popular, with young, emerging artists, as well established Rwandan rappers like Lil G playing at recording studios, radio stations and bars. Choice Motel, open nightly to tourists and locals, is one of the top spots for live music.
Image by Amy Guttman
Eat like a local
Rounding off the NWC tour is a cooking lesson at a local woman’s home. After exploring the daily fresh produce market, where you can see women grinding cassava root with giant pestle and mortars, you’ll be taught to cook some traditional Rwandan cuisine. Irish potatoes – named because the original crop came from Europe – sugar cane, and a stew of green beans, tomatoes, and onions, make up lunch at the end of the morning.