I forgot how beautiful Kigali looks at night.
I hadn’t been back in over a year, and after a while, despite best efforts and a long series of carefully cataloged Facebook photos, memories start shattering into in a big pile of broken shards you’re sure fit together but aren’t sure exactly how, like a puzzle where all the pieces are yours but subject to the same cognitive whims that birthed them in the first place. Sometimes I’ll smell something, close my eyes, and all of a sudden I’m back drinking coffee on a speeding motorbike or wandering the streets of Nyamerambo at dawn in a daze like I’d never left. I’ll relive that time I spent in Rwanda, straddling the life a European exchange student and a Canadian university bum, a fleeting daydream that feels so real you can almost grip the sweating bottle of Mutzig and watch as the condensation rolls down your thumb.
But I forgot what Kigali looked like once the sun set. Most houses in the city are single-dwelling bungalows made of brick, stone or mud depending on what area of town you’re in, with only a single solitary lamp outside the gate to distinguish it from any other. The effect is pretty in twilight, but in darkness, lights pepper the hills so that if you focus just right you can make out the contours of the rolling landscape like motion capture polka dots on a curvy cocktail dress.
Revisiting places you used to live puts a lot of things into perspective. You immediately think of how much time it’s been since you were last there, then notice the physical aspects that have changed; the billboards that have finally been replaced, the stores and shopfronts that have silently switched hands in your absence. The familiar faces I used to see outside my house every morning hawking cell phone minutes or taxi rides are gone, replaced with a new set of smiling salesmen selling the same old shit, but it’s different.
You also start to think about the things you never really noticed before. I’d forgotten about the Rwandan suffocating sense of respect for law and order, that when juxtaposed with Kampala or Nairobi, makes the place look like more like Switzerland than Swaziland. People wait patiently at traffic lights, line up at matatu stops and absolutely refuse to liter; the streets are so clean, you can eat off them. I realize only now how spoiled I was to have Rwanda be the first place I visited in Africa, the same reason people often jokingly refer to Kigali as “Africa-Lite.”
One night, my old friend and editor Andre took me back to a resto-bar called Caiman, a place we used to frequent so often we didn’t need to specify a location when we made plans on a Friday night. It’s one of those places you’d never find unless you already knew where it was; a perfect terraced paradise carved into the side of a hill that overlooks a small lower-income suburb of Kigali. It’s the kind of place where you can order fresh grilled goat, seemingly endless rounds of Guinness, and watch silently as the sun sets over the hills of Kigali.
We laughed over the same jokes, ate the same food and drank the same drinks, but then something weird happened. I started to realize how much I’ve changed since I was last there. I thought of the man I was and how much 14 months can completely change a person’s outlook on life, the universe and everything in it. I thought of the places I’d been and the people I’d met along the way, how it all seems to blur into a porridge of words and slurs strung together with nothing but the tiny voice in my head as lead conductor of the screaming cacophony that exists only as specs of disjointed jumbled time and space between my ears. But if I close my eyes, I can separate and pick out each moment to relive it like a YouTube video in my head as long as I give it a moment or two to buffer.
People say life happens quickly, but I think like that’s a lie people tell themselves to justify a lifetime of apathy and comfort in exchange for a prescribed pursuit of happiness, or at least a half-assed attempt at it. Life happen slowly, painfully slowly actually. When you start counting all the time spent asleep, or in transit or narcissistically pissing away time on social media, the clock looks like a NASCAR snail going around in circles with no particular end in sight. It’s a lot of bullshit padded into less interesting bullshit, but if you look hard enough, the tiny strange moments in between spent with friends over drinks and shit-talking about nothing on a porch seem to occupy an exaggerated focus, at least from my perspective. If you really pay attention, the tiny seconds of personal peace in seas of chaos add up to a lifetime of happiness and internal bliss; shards of dull glass in a mountain of sand eventually to be washed away by an ocean of time ready to devour everything in sight if you don’t keep it close to the chest.
These moments of great peace get buried in mountains of righteous self-pity and lifetimes spent wondering the what-if?s. In spite of everything, these tiny flecks of nothing come together to create a multicolored mosaic of minute-moments, the true of beauty of which is hidden to all but those willing to take a step back and appreciate the greater image they form together.
As we walked down the winding dirt road that led from the secluded Caiman, we stumbled around and kicked stones down the path, laughing at jokes I can’t remember. The area was so dark, the sky looked almost like the reflection of a nearby hill, covered in its own array of tiny lights shining in a sea of darkness. The guys were schmoozing a few girls while I staggered down the hill with my neck craned all the way back. I looked up and saw Orion lying on his side and suddenly remembered I was in the southern hemisphere.
I closed my eyes and took a deep breath through my nose, trying to imprint the memory in my mind, just another in a large pile of shattered glass dreams in Kigali.