Kigali is a city of hills and valleys. The land is green and lush with tall blades of grass, trees whose fruits I have eaten, but never seen. Paved roads settle in between the living things, almost like topographical lines. The road rises along the hills, then drops lazily down, then turns again. The sky throws itself high above the hills, black and flecked with stars at night, then turns into a blue, sunlit veil of an atmosphere during the day, so that you squint at the bright distant hills but never manage to clearly make them out.
I landed in Kigali at 1245 am, at a small, glossy airport that proclaimed itself as international and was decorated with all the gloss, color, and style of zebra skins. I stepped out past the baggage carousels and into the night with Jean Paul, the driver who had been waiting in a patient frantic for my gently tardy plane. I saw the stars and the green and the dark night and thought, so this is Africa, this is Rwanda. My first introduction to the continent, and to the country, and a most fortuitous introduction indeed.
I rode that car with the windows down, wanted to stick my head out like a puppy and taste the sweet green of the palms rolling by, and the hill air biting through the expected humidity. Instead, I sat in place like a proper human being, and let the breeze from slightly reckless driving and the downhill acceleration bring the outside world to me.
They say Americans are prone to think of Paris as the celestial city, and we are (at least I am). And if Paris is heaven, then to Americans, perhaps Africa is often the opposite, or at least a confused hell of confabulated images we have seen or things we have heard. For one, we tend to think of any African country as Africa. “Oh, I’m going to Africa,” we say to one another, rather than, “I’m going to Rwanda.” We think of South Africa as Africa, or Egypt, or Tanzania, or Morocco, or even – because of recent events – Libya or Nigeria or Liberia or Sierra Leone. If nothing else, we Americans are stubborn in our propensity to generalize about Africa, as our viral fears and immigration policies and travel guidelines have revealed. Sometimes, even one city becomes our entire conception of a continent three times as vast as the United States, and just as varied in its climes. If someone said that New York or California – or God forbid, Florida! – represented all of the United States, various factions of the country would rise up revolted, and in revolt.
Our image of Africa has also been distorted by those charity infomercials we grew up watching alongside our morning cartoons and bowls of cereal, by our mothers’ constant warnings that every unfinished scrap of our food was being withheld from the bloated stomach of an orphan in Africa. The news media too has been fond of selective imagery, merely the exotic or the horrific, with pictures of jungles and monkeys and glorious vistas interspersed with corpses of men and women hacked and burned by ISIS, emaciated women walking with children on their backs and food on their heads down a dusty road, large yellow eyes in a shrunken face, black fumes from bodies laid to waste by Ebola. There is a reason images are so carefully culled and curated: we do not forget them. And while we certainly shouldn’t forget, there is more to Africa then that.
And it’s true that much of sub-Saharan Africa is still socioeconomically deprived, and there is still much need for infrastructure and medicine and housing and functional economies for many of its people. But this is also a continent that already routinely uses mobile payment and banking, even as we still struggling to use ApplePay, or to even convince certain stores to accept credit cards as a form of payment. This is a continent that is growing extensively as an emerging market and a global economy, so much so that America and even China are starting to invest heavily in different countries. (Everywhere in Kigali, I saw red lanterns with gold Chinese calligraphy raised in front of booming construction sites.) This is a continent with cities that rival the infrastructure of our cities, who may put the condition of our towns to shame. This is a continent that produces incredible cultural beacons, in numerous and diverse fields – Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Chinua Achebe, Lupita Nyongo, Nelson Mandela, Desmond Tutu, Didier Drogba, Marcus Samuelsson, and many more – that give us insight into modern Africa and the rich complexities within. Africa is not just dust-caked feet, water buckets, and extruding empty bellies.
So when I landed in Kigali, and was unburdened of my naiveté, my illusions, and my plain ignorance, I looked, and saw, and thought: so this is Rwanda. Just one hundred years ago, Rwanda was a colony under German and Belgian control. Just twenty years ago, the country was stained red by a horrific genocide, in which nearly one million people were killed in 100 days as the world watched and declined to help. Just ten years ago, Rwanda was coming back to life, slowly, trying to find its way back to peace and reconciliation through gacaca, to a viable economy through tourism and coffee, to growing infrastructure through investments in healthcare and agriculture. And now, it is Rwanda, was Rwanda, will still be Rwanda: a land of a thousand hills, green with life and full of its various peoples. A country with many tragic and beautiful things to tell, with all of its past and present spreading before me, for me to learn and unlearn, and to actually see with my own new eyes.