I was having a lot of fun to begin with, but when we saw the giraffes, life took a sharp right turn at ‘Surreal Avenue’ before blowing a tire and crashing into a streetlight on ‘Pinch Me I’m Fucking Dreaming Boulevard.’
Our safari guide had said the magic words and given us the green light to step out of the car, slowly, so as to not frighten off the tower (no, seriously, that’s what you call a group of giraffes.) As I stepped out and nervously fumbled with my lens cap, a group of nearby warthogs startled and ran off single file into the thick bush. I quickly pointed my camera in their direction then decided not to bother.
The Akagera National Park surprised me in a lot of ways. This was the side of Africa I had learned about in textbooks and Discovery Channel specials; that seemingly endless expanse of massive lakes and thick bush booming with wild life. This was the kind of place where at any moment you’d expect Simba and Rafiki to stumble out of the bushes looking guilty, humming Hakuna Matata and mumbling something about White Castle.
But the park, as beautiful as it is, is a finely focused bubble that pops as soon as you realize exactly what it is. The jeep, the safari, the smiling khaki-clad guide, the throngs of loud Ammuhrican voluntourists each wearing a different T-shirt broadcasting their respective alma mater or hometown (just in case you were too shy to ask,) all of it was part of a guise, a weird illusion that gets solidified the moment you lay eyes on your first zebra.
This is not the Rwanda I had known thus far, but sadly I feel like this is the Rwanda most people see; distant, removed and passing quickly by the open window of a moving vehicle, doors locked.
Kigali itself has actually surprised me with its modernity. When you think of Eastern Africa, your mind is immediately overloaded with images of guilt-ridden World Vision famine commercials or flashing newsreels of people in faux military garb chopping each other’s arms off with machetes in the jungle.
But the reality of the city couldn’t be more opposite…something I’m actually very thankful for.
I remember a funny conversation I had with my mom the other day. After the usual Italian mother-hen diatribe about how I’m too skinny and the now expected reminder to not give my passport to strangers on the street, we got on the subject of how I get to work. Of course, I lied and said I take the bus, casually avoiding the topic of motorcycle taxis; she’d grab the next flight over just for the chance to throttle me. Stunned, she cried out, half laughing, almost as if she was covering her tracks just in case I was being sarcastic and she had missed the cue:
“There are buses?!?!?” she finally said.
Hell, I might as well have told her I teleport to the radio station.
“Well, sometimes. But other times they get caught up in elephant-related traffic jams in the jungle. In that case, I usually just string some banana leaves together, stand really still for a while, then rope together some exotic birds into a kind of floating mat, then I fly to work. It takes some practice, but it gets easier the more I do it.”
That time I was being sarcastic. That time, I think she got it.
Yes, Kigali has buses, and roads, and skyscrapers, and shops, and bars and cafés and just about everything else you’d expect from a city of over a million residents.
It’s strange, I get the same feeling in Kigali than I did in Istanbul, that feeling of being caught right in the middle of an urban identity crisis. Kigali is a pimply, greasy, awkward teenager with a crackling voice and bad facial hair, aware that he is no longer a boy but not yet sure how to be a man.
But the beauty is that the city doesn’t really seem to care and neither do its residents.
In every way, Kigali is the shining beacon of an African city in the midst of a social and economic shift, but other parts of the country seem stuck in that disadvantaged Lion King cultural clusterfuck that people envision when you whisper the word ‘Africa.’ Driving to the national park through hours of untouched sub-Saharan landscape and banana-thatched rural villages, Kigali seemed like half a world away.
Don’t worry Rwanda, we’ve all gone through awkward growing pains, but sooner or later you’re going to have to make up your mind and decide what you want to be: thriving, modern metropolitan African powerhouse or safari jungle adventure.
It works for now, but you can’t be both, at least not forever.