Kigali and Nairobi are two sides of the same coin.
One has cleanliness that shocks any regular traveller to sub-saharan African cities. The other has filth that beggars belief. One understands that a red traffic light means stop and even boda bodas observe that. In the other, traffic policemen wave you through red lights then arrest you on another occasion for doing exactly that.In one, touts wait with minimum fuss for a bus to fill up and depart. In the other, a poor woman is separated from her children and luggage as touts snatch them to force her into their vehicle.
One city is hypersensitive about its security, leaving you with a feeling that the trees lining up the middle and flanks of dual carriageways are watching you.
(Staggered by the clean nature of one bus terminus and assailed by images of the bedlam at Machakos “Airport” Country Bus Station, I asked an official: “Can I take a picture?” “No,” came the reply. “Why,” I asked, “security?” Question: Why did I think it necessary to ask for permission before taking a picture in a public place? Guess).
The other city revels in freedom. It is casual even when going through the motions of appearing to mind its safety.
Just a few hours earlier at the checkpoint before entering JKIA, a policewoman never interrupted her chit chat on the phone and just glanced at women’s handbags as she waved them through. She didn’t search them. There was no policeman to frisk the men, so they walked past her.
The thing was a farce. It was a nuisance being made to leave the vehicle for no reason.
Nairobi — and Kenya in general – is a free society and this liberty includes the freedom to die needlessly as the relatives of the approximate 800 victims of terrorist attacks can attest.
Kigali — and Rwanda — does not have a single terrorist victim.
One city is quiet, the other is loud. (Somebody please help me crack this one: a tout yells himself hoarse shouting, “Kibera namba nane!” Yet you can read the route card on the dashboard. If you can’t, the driver can assist you.
Even if you yelled to the point of spitting out your lungs, a passenger not going to Kibera would not change his mind. If he is headed there, he doesn’t need his ears beaten to pulp over that. Why expend an incredible amount of energy on so futile an activity?)
In one city, you can tell somebody with whom you have a meeting with reasonable certainty the time you will get there. In the other, a journey that would take 10 minutes can stretch up to two hours, thanks to gridlocks.
In one city, you can arrive home at 3am without the fear of being mugged while in the other, danger lurks behind every bush and, increasingly these days, with the boda bodas near you.
In order, cleanliness and safety, Kigali is where Nairobi used to be in the 1960s and early 70s — before it was taken over by buccaneers known as kanjuras. Like locusts, they ate, leaving in their wake bare earth.
It is hard to imagine that 20 years ago, this place was awash with the blood of hundreds of thousands. It is almost impossible to remember that the imagery of Satan was used to describe it.
One American missionary wailed: “There are no devils left in hell. They are all in Rwanda.”
And Lt-Gen Romeo Dallaire, the UN Force Commander at the time of the genocide, called his gripping book Shake Hands With The Devil in reference to a handshake he was obliged to have with Mr Theoneste Bagasora, the genocide mastermind.
Rwanda is engaging the energies of that boisterous crowd called Kenyans on Twitter. Under the hashtag #SomeonetellKagame, the majority have been telling the two-term leader to desist from seeking a third. I went to Kigali to attend a symposium on African development and governance.
It was organised by the Meles Zenawi Foundation of Ethiopia with presentations and discussions being made by a plethora of experts.
It was opened by President Kagame, Ethiopian PM Hailemariam Desalegn and Ghana Vice-President Kwesi Amissah-Arthur, all of whom constituted the first panel and fielded questions on Africa’s development models. Mr Kagame later sat in the audience as a participant.
Then I went to the streets, markets and pubs. One of the first things I noticed is that Rwandans like Kenyans and once they establish that you are one, they become solicitous. This is in contrast to Tanzanians who regard us with suspicion or South Sudanese who often show open hostility.
To every person I spoke to, we made a deal: I want your views, not your identity. I won’t take down your name or your picture and in return give me your candid opinion of term limits. What do you think about President Kagame running again?
I was astonished. The only place I heard a case for term limits was at the symposium itself where, ironically, the president was. He said every country should be left to chart its course and that he rejected the neo-liberal paradigm of economic development and governance.
Dr Donald Kaberuka, the Rwandan president of the African Development Bank was asked if he was not one of the country’s talents who could ascend to the presidency and if he was willing to give it a go. His answer? “What makes people think that because one is a good CEO or businessman he can also make a good politician?”
The last person I spoke to was the taxi driver taking me to the airport. I asked him what he thought of a Kagame third term. He didn’t answer directly.
He told me a story that lasted the rest of the trip. He was born in exile. He joined the Rwandan Patriotic Army and participated in the invasion of his country from Uganda. Life in the Virunga Mountains was sheer misery.
More recruits died there of hyperthermia than from action on the battlefield.
Rwanda has no minerals and is dependent on its human resource base but growth has been steady. More and more people come out of poverty every year.
But some people say President Kagame is a dictator who brooks no opposition. True or not true? “From the circumstances we came from, only a very strong person can hold Rwanda together, I was told.
There are enough people who would like to loot it. He is authoritarian against corruption and waste. Who gains from such vices?