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Travels in Search of Coffee

March 9, 2010

One of the quiet joys of a Saturday morning in Kigali is to go for a stroll to the coffee shop.
Since this is a fairly frequent occurrence for me – nice leg-stretch, get a little morning sun, commune with nature, shake off any lingering effects from that one mützig too many at Friday night’s dinner – I thought I’d chronicle the journey in a photo-essay…

Stepping out of the front gate (having woken the guard from an early morning kip), the open road invites. When it has rained, it is a little less inviting, because it is constructed from a sticky clay and rubble. When it is the rainy season, it is sometimes wet and slippery, and all times rutted and bumpy.

...at the corner of our street.

The lack of street names makes getting around just that little bit more fun, therefore. The nearest we have to an address is that we know the clutch of streets around our vicinity is known as Umudugudu Urwego (umudugudu meaning effectively ‘village’, the smallest political administrative unit, headed by a chief or ‘manager’ in the latest government statements)… officially: “the Umudugudu is charged with building cooperation, collaboration and solidarity among members of the
community.”
So knowing the name of your umudugudu is a start…that is enough to call up and get a cab, say, into the neighbourhood – but not necessarily at all to your front door.  So plenty of standing outside and waving at unmarked cars ensues…

From the corner of our (unnamed) street, where it dog-legs up a small rise to intersect with another (unnamed) street, there is a little valley across which, on the next rise, there is a cluster of mudbrick houses, a couple of ‘boutique’ hotels, and some of the modern private housing activity that seems to be rapidly advancing over all the hills here.

Housing boom - in fits & starts

I recall reading a good blog discussion on this house building boom which was already in full flight back in 2008 and earlier – which has meant a lot of poor people have been moved off their plots on the upper parts of the hills. Part of the debate was over the issue of whether the poor were being adequately compensated, if at all – see that discussion here

Putting such weighty matters to the side – it is Saturday morning after all – the first real challenge is simply navigating the ruts, holes, puddles and bits of debris. This morning something is happening up at the next corner – the intersection of (unnamed) and (unnamed) – try putting that into Google Maps!*

A big old dump truck is dumping a big old load of rubble on the side of the road. This can only mean…roadworks.

So that's where the council tax goes...

And so it does; just around the bend, and one section of notoriously nasty ruts is plugged, loosely, with a dump of rubble. There won’t be any smoothing it down – that only happens in the nice neighbourhoods, where asphalt roads are laid and big drainage ditches are dug and lined with retaining walls. This happened up at the far end of the road much traveled I am taking now; big office buildings sit up there, adjacent to the major thoroughfare of Nyarutarama Road… the sealed road runs past these office buildings for about 30 metres and then just stops.

Here, the idea is that passing vehicles, at some risk to their suspensions and mufflers, will pick their way gingerly over the strewn rubble and eventually tamp it down. A form of community involvement I guess, not just limited to the monthly Umuganda community work day on the last Saturday of each month.

DIY Road Repairs

The contrast of buildings dotting the hillsides is visually interesting; ambitious ruins from the pre-war era standing beside simple houses being torn down to make way for large office buildings (but not residential – one of the big contrasts with Singapore who in so many other ways is a bit of a role model for Rwanda).

Old & the New

And everywhere, people – cultivating a block of land here, tilling a small plot between construction sites there. Down in the shallow valley between Remera-Kimironko (as one ridgeline) and Nyarutarama (as another ridgeline), no large houses are being built – only the poor live at the boggy, soggy foot of the hills. These valley fields are laid out and are worked similarly to the rest of the country. In Kigali city, as soon as you step away from a major road and go beyond the mansions, you are likely to see a cow in a rickety stall or a tethered goat at any moment.

Building boom - Nyarutarama

Mutato and Moto Stop


At Nyarutarama Road, things start to bustle. Right by the imposing Rwanda Development Board building is a busy mutato (mini-bus) and moto (motorbike taxi) stop.

People crowd around buses peering in and gauging the relative comfort of the remaining seats, while young guys with bags of nuts and with trays of hard boiled eggs work the crowds or hop the buses themselves to go find another selling spot. All the while the bus ticket seller/tout is shouting out destinations to fill that one remaining seat before he will let the groaning bus go.
Nyarutarama Road is upmarket and it shows; the sidewalks are paved, the nicely laid-out gardens alongside the road have retaining walls and deep drainage, and the road itself is wide, allowing impatient SUV drivers to go whizzing down the wrong side of the street for hundreds of metres so that they can avoid being delayed in being first to get to the traffic lights or speed bumps that stop traffic anyway.

Christian Life Assembly church

Casino at Top Tower Hotel on adjacent hill

Some days this all becomes “NGO carshow” time; fleets of 4WD cars and double-cab light trucks roar up and down the road, NGO logos emblazoned on doors and with earnest-looking drivers and passengers… But not on Saturday; even in the late morning, the road is quiet and only the occasional car or clearly ‘company vehicle’ rolls along to compete with the buzzing motos.

Not rolling down OUR street * sigh *

Nyarutarama Road runs along a narrow ridge. As a result, to left and right you have often uninterrupted views of middle-distant companion hills, along which traffic runs and houses cling. Nyarutarama is swank, and that accounts for why several embassies and high commissions are housed here –Tanzania and Uganda are the first encountered.

McMansions adorn the Nyarutarama hillsides

On a Sunday an added attraction is the singing that bursts out from the churches that sit down the hill a little; one, a massive simple construction, is very busy on Sundays, and another – where services take place in a huge marquis tent due to ongoing construction of a big structure – seems even more crowded and even louder. And everywhere, there are those large houses.

The objective today is coffee and the destination is therefore the MTN Centre, unmistakably MTN …

MTN Centre, Nyarutarama, Kigali

The MTN Centre is a big looming construction; and clearly there are clearly some running repairs needed before the next rainstorm comes. No safety harnesses in sight.

MTN Yellow


Through the busy car park and into a very modern mall.
And past the guard with the shotgun.

NGO Workhorses...SUVs and Hilux trucks

The MTN Centre has, naturally, a large MTN outlet with service desks for pre-paid airtime purchases, post-paid account, internet subscriptions and a very small selection of handsets for sale. It is open long hours during the day, and always well guarded. The MTN Centre also has: a decently-stocked pharmacy; a rather unexciting French-English bookshop (Ikerezi in town is much better); the ‘German Butcher’ deli which offers a good selection of meats, breads, a modest range of foreign grocery items and a pretty awful selection of over-priced fruit and vegetables.
MTN Centre also has a good hairdressers (male and female, Mzungu no problem as a dreadlocked Kenyan named Evans does a great job without talking you to death); and, alongside two sports-bars, one of which does a big trade in buffet lunches, I find Bourbon Coffee, the flagship of Rwandan consumer exports, with their store now open on L Street in Washington DC, in addition to the three Kigali stores.

Roof repairs in rainy season: Priceless

Bourbon Coffee is just what I want on a Saturday morning; it is (relatively) quiet, it is large and spacious, with leather armchairs, lots of well-spaced tables both inside and three outside on a small deck; it has plenty of power outlets for the digital nomads to feed their laptops while they feed on a wide menu of western styled foods (hamburgers, baguettes, samosas, salads, you-name-it…and a big selection of cakes and ice creams). And – when it is working – free WiFi (password controlled).

Branding is everything


But I come here principally for the coffee – real espresso, with real crema and usually a consistently good standard of making the precious cup. The beans are Rwandan, marketed at Bourbon by the name of region of origin. Yes they do teas, cold drinks and brewed coffee. But it is the precious gift bestowed by Luigi Bezzera, who invented the espresso machine and technique, in 1901, that draws me…

Bourbon Coffee, Kigali


Bourbon Coffee, Kigali


The perfect cup

* A PS: in fact Google Earth does pretty darn well…. The house I’m living in can be seen here:

'Volcon Hotel' for volunteer consultants

..and the little journey diligently chronicled here (which worked up a nice thirst) is depicted here:

Coffee Travels

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