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June 14th 2009
Published: July 5th 2009
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Forty hours, seven time zones, and two dismal lay-overs after leaving New York, I arrive in Kigali at half-past three in the morning, a somnolent mess of rumpled clothes, dried-out contacts, and skin like wax paper. The bunch of us debarking in Rwanda shuffle through the airport’s halls like refugees; apart from a young, eager barrista manning the bar at the Bourbon Coffee shop, the place is lifeless. You can’t help but feel like a fugitive creeping into a country under the cover of darkness. I think of my first visit to Rwanda last year, whisking across the smooth tarmac from Uganda, when the tall stands of eucalyptus trees and the bright green tea plantations and the banana plants like starbursts made my arrival feel like a triumphal parade. Now there’s something ignoble about my hunched progress across the tarmac, the bleary-eyed courtesies at immigration.

Passports stamped, bags claimed, eyes flushed under a bathroom faucet.

I’d made plans to crash these first few nights with a friend, an American doctoral student who I met in Kigali a year ago, but I’ve decided to wait out these last hours of nightfall in the airport. On the one hand, I can’t imagine dragging poor Jenna from bed to find my ghostly apparition waiting on the doorstep. On the other, her cryptic directions seem best navigated in broad daylight. I order a cappuccino about the size of a bathtub, plod through the last few pages of my book, watch the trickle of departing passengers heading for taxis or the open arms of friends. It’s a brisk night, and the night crew here at Kigali International are puffing into their hands and stomping their feet. Two other passengers, young Rwandans, have conked out on plush sofas in the café. Probably they’re waiting for sunrise, too, when the flow of motos and minibus-taxis picks up along the airport road - never mind the extravagant taxi fares paid by these fat-pocketed foreigners.

President Kagame, that matchstick of an autocrat who’s won so many plaudits from the West, has set out his ambitious goals for this country’s future: to triple per capita income; to wean it from the spigot of foreign aid; to create a science and technology hub for Africa in what might appear, at first glance, the least likely of places. Much has been made of this project in the foreign press; some pundits, slightly befuddled, don’t know what to make of an African leader who refuses to act more African. A banner trumpeting the Rwandan “Vision2020” hangs over the arrival hall here in the airport, as if to silence any doubters. The bold, computerized leap into the future shows an ultra-modern downtown of office parks and soaring skyscrapers. It looks less like Kigali than Kuala Lumpur.

The airport itself is more modern than the one I departed from a year ago. The 24-hour café is a new arrival; so, too, are the electronic kiosks linking travelers to a bunch of slick tourism portals. (Not everything has changed, though: the kiosks - much like the airport’s free WiFi - are still hostage to this country’s sluggish Internet connections.) The banners heralding our arrival and promoting gorilla tours and warning against swine flu are all written in English - a clear sign, in this ostensibly Francophone country, that the road to Vision2020 will not be signposted in quaint old francais.

At dawn the sun bursts over distant hills, and the air is filled with that acrid haze of diesel fumes and burning crops that, more than anything else, grounds me on African terra firma. I negotiate a ride with a taxi driver from the city’s posh new Novotel hotel, and soon we’re bolting along the airport road, the familiar ranks of pedestrians - grave men in threadbare suits; women carrying fruits and firewood; mischievous schoolboys in short pants - swelling along the road’s shoulder. The skyline is changed: scaffolding and cranes, the skeletons of new office towers, seem to be rising everywhere. On the outskirts of Kimihurura, the ex-pat ghetto where I’ll be spending the next few nights, the sound of heavy machinery drowns out the chattering of songbirds flitting through the flame trees.

At the gate Jenna smiles sleepily; the guard dog, easily cowed, sniffs the ground at my feet. We carry my abundant crap - 46 kilos’ worth of books and bootleg DVDs and posh new New York threads - up the driveway and into a living room about the size of an airplane hangar. Ex-pat living in Africa, I can see, is not unlike how I remember it. Though rents have climbed dramatically in just the past year, Jenna and her four roommates are shelling out about 500 bucks apiece for the sort of pad suited for Madoffs, Mobutus, and Roman orgies. She shows me to the spare room, where I plop down on a queen-sized bed I’ve been waiting two days to reach. We quickly catch up - my writing, her dissertation, ex-pat life, Rwandan politics - doing our best not to wake her roommates. The next thing I know the room is stiflingly hot, and Jenna is doing her hair: it’s half-past one in the afternoon, and I’ve managed to sleep away the morning.

No sooner than I’ve checked into Chez Mzungu, it seems, I’m checking out: Jenna and her boyfriend have decided to spend the weekend in Kibuye, and while they’ve still graciously offered me a spare room in their pad, the awkwardness of getting acquainted with their roommates is a bit more than my sleep-addled head can bear. So I’m again hauling my bags outside, heaving them into the back of their car, trundling down the rough backstreets of Kimihurura en route to Auberge la Caverne - the guesthouse where I passed so many weeks my last time in Kigali. With plans to make this stay in Rwanda an extended one, I’m already tapping into Jenna’s social network to find prospective housemates. She mentions friends and acquaintances in suburbs I’ve never heard of. I nod judiciously, scratch my chin. The day is bright, hazy, unbearably hot. Already I’m looking forward to brisk nights, to waking up with the covers pulled above my shoulders.

It was in New York that I realized Vourlias-in-Africa 2.0 should be a dramatic upgrade from its predecessor. After trip interruptus forced me from my Maputo pad sooner than I’d planned, I’d decided to pick up where I left off in March: to find some comfy digs, reliable Internet access, and a worthy group of friends, and to make Kigali my home base as I travel further afield - to Burundi and eastern Congo, to Uganda and southern Sudan. At the root of this strategic shift was the sense that it was time to take my writing more seriously; that for all the joys of my capricious, seat-of-the-pants ambles across Africa, there was something missing from my life.

For the better part of two years, making whatever modest name for myself as a writer, I’d hitched my fortunes to a handful of editors with whom - by whatever whims of fate - I’d managed to forge a tenuous bond. But I was frustrated, and broke, and apart from a few sexy bylines, convinced that my writing career was going nowhere. What I needed, coming back to Africa, wasn’t another wild, wide-eyed jaunt across the continent’s hinterlands, letting luck and shoddy buses take me where they may. V-i-A2.0 demanded adherence to certain principles. It demanded discipline, rigor. It demanded a Plan.

So The Plan was set in motion in New York, where a simple visit to the newsstand convinced me it was time to change my life. You don’t appreciate the value of a good newsstand till you’ve spent twenty months huffing around Africa, worn-out copy of National Geographic Traveler crumpled in the bottom of your bag. Here, in bright glossy splendor, were music magazines and men’s magazines; sports magazines and style magazines; food magazines and fashion magazines; more women’s magazines than there were, I suspect, women to read them. Why wasn’t I pitching them on Tanzanian rappers or Kenyan footballers? Why couldn’t my culinary adventures in Zanzibar make for a smart piece for Gourmet? If some new tech story came my way - the introduction of fiber-optic cables in East Africa; the development of Google apps specifically for African cellphones - why shouldn’t I be writing that story for Fast Company or Wired?

I’d spent two years thinking of myself as a “travel writer,” when there was a whole, wondrous world of media that - industry convulsions notwithstanding - was waiting for my glittering copy to grace its pages. It was time, I realized, to stop being a travel writer, and to start being a writer who, as luck might have it, just happened to spend 12 months out of the year on the road. It was time to grab those bylines in Men’s Journal and Town & Country; to enjoy the $2-a-word fruits of the Hearsts and the Condé Nasts.

From the terrace of la Caverne, watching the cloud shadows ripple across the hills of Kigali, everything seems bright, loaded with promise. I want to enjoy this moment while it lasts. If there’s any guarantee to life in Africa, it’s that the joys are both sharp and fleeting. Even in Kigali, in the cozy bubble of ex-pat life, surrounded by the promise - and promises - of Vision2020, you don’t forget the great weight on this country’s shoulders. You know that there are women haunted by the genocide in Butare, that there are men shooting up in the alleys of Nyamirambo. You know those shadows aren’t gone once they’ve passed over the hills, and that they sit just as heavily over Rwanda’s hearts.


5th July 2009

great stuff
hey Chris..this is great stuff....I am moved by the bit of having a plan as writer...we need to talk about this at length for I am in the same basket. Otherwise good luck with your work. Allan Kigali

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