Day 1. Back in Rwanda after a two-year hiatus. Not jet-lagged, since it’s only one hour ahead of the UK, but definitely sleep-deprived. As an old hand at Kigali city buses, I rock up to the bus shelter outside of Chez Lando and call at the man hanging out of the window of a wide white bus to ask if he’s headed for Town (Kigali speak for the downtown district, rather than the line that goes to the coach station, Nyambugogo). He gives a noncommittal yes and I attempt to board with three 100 franc coins clutched in my hand. But the man is a passenger, not the cash collector who would normally sit in the window seat and beckon at potential riders; this colorful character has been transformed into a small plastic yellow circle, bolted to the handrail. Passengers push past me and press keycards to the circle: it’s a card reader like those used at my university for building access. It chirps and the driver nods them on. And here am I, the sweaty muzungu troglodyte, trying to give someone my coins to get a ride to the downtown district.
It’s kind of a cliché among foreigners in Rwanda – leave for a month, they say, and there will be a new skyscraper when you return. It’s not so far from the truth. My first trip to Rwanda was in 2014; since then, Kigali has added a convention center, multiple upscale hotels with rooftop cocktail hours far out of my price range, and a bevy of high-rise glass monstrosities favored by Chinese construction companies. As a result, the government has rerouted roads and converted areas to pedestrian-only to accommodate it all. And, apparently, upgraded to a 21st century bus ticketing system.
Since I’m blocking the door and holding up the flow of capital city traffic, a kind woman loans me her card and I pass her the coins; I take a seat in the back and three more people shoehorn in next to me. The bus takes a route that is mostly familiar, but brighter, somehow. A shopping center seemingly modeled after Soviet design sensibilities is behind fences that advertise the construction company and preview the coming remodel: the flat, rain-puddle roof has been replaced with a wide, sweeping parabola recalls a cruise ship lido deck, bare concrete walls are now plated with shining, slick tile like a three-story Mac store. As we round the curve that starts the climb toward Town, I spy the new high rise that protrudes from the top of the hill like a glass needle and we pass a new hotel, half white, half brick, punctuated with the geometrical lines of imigongo, the traditional Rwandan art form that uses cow dung and clay and colors that mimic the mustard and ochre of the countryside. In a sea of soulless glass edifices and cruise-ship chic, this particular building could only be found in Rwanda. It’s beautiful. It’s a statement of identity. The whole city seems different to me – perhaps just when taken in contrast to my sunny, sepia nostalgia, my memories of clear blue skies and pink bougainvillea by the Embassy pool and the aqua curtains of my Parliament classroom.
Not exactly high rises; man with beer bike on a dirt road
Kigali has changed; I have changed. Who I am and what I’m doing here is completely different, and I can’t tell if the city actually looks that different or if I am projecting myself upon it. In 2014, I first arrived here as a teacher – I was totally unprepared for the next two years of my life, but eventually I fell into a rhythm with Rwanda, a sort of peace with how to get by and how to operate and who I was in that space. And now, I’m back, for a much shorter period and with a completely different brief. Researcher, not teacher.
The road to get here with this new title was far rockier; without a contract from the U.S. Department of State, the Embassy was not available to jump through all of the bureaucratic hoops for visas and permissions. My colleagues at Bristol have lovingly suffered through months of my nail-biting and anxious outbursts over the multi-stage research permit and visa process; from just trying to figure out what to do to flipping my lid when hearing that the reason no one is responding is because the government shifted research permitting to an entirely different department. They probably did this to spite me, I cried in exasperation and resisted the urge to hurl university property out of the doc room window.
But here I am: through Immigration, permit promised for pickup this week. And it has all become very real, that deep, gnawing realization that all of the preparation, two years in essence, has led to this point, to this change of positionality: researcher.
[to be continued]