An attractive piece of modern architecture with its symmetric walls, high ceilings and thoughtful angles of natural light streaming in, the Kigali Public Library is a very impressive sight. It’s tucked away behind the US Embassy with a great view of the post-apocalyptic-looking construction on the opposing hill.
You can’t fail to spot it while on a commute around Kacyiru, though ironically, it proves a hard place to find for the moto-taxi guys. Librairie is a bookstore in French, and asking to be taken to the library will probably see you taken to Ikirezi Bookstore near the Dutch consulate. It’s actually a place worth a visit, with its expansive selection of African titles and its Inzora Rooftop café that offers you a slap of Kigali’s remarkably volatile weather. So you’re safer saying you’re heading to the US Embassy. The library comes into visibility near the roundabout and you can direct your moto guy to go behind the embassy. Alternatively, you can take a bus to the Kacyiru Taxi Park and walk up for five minutes to the library.
The first time I visit is mid-morning on a Sunday. The huge space, with all its symmetry and light streams racing in, makes me slow my walk and soak it all in. I inquire at the desk about the Great Black Music exhibition which was a recommendation from a friend on my first week in the country.
“The exhibition does not operate on Sundays,” the young lady at the desk tells me.
It may have been a blessing in disguise because when I did come back a fortnight later, I would end up spending four hours glued to the exhibition screens, my ass stuck to the bean bags that were acting as seats.
Looking at the time, it’s an hour to noon which is closing time on Sundays. I decide to have a look around. It’s all clean spaces, well thought out staircases, soft landings with carpets that dissipate most sound from a person’s stride. There’s a lot of young people, seeming more on their devices enjoying the indoor WiFi than the books on the shelf.
I walk around reading the titles which are not really neatly arranged if compared to the overall outlook of the place; I find some interesting autobiographies in the Computer Science section, an English paperback at the French textbook section. But not to worry, the Kigali Public Library itself is a work in progress, with some empty shelves at the basement floor, but it’s certainly moving in the right direction.
It’s RWF 12,000 to rent1 out a book for a year2, RWF 3,000 for a month. They don’t do it weekly. Late fees are RWF 300. To register, head to the library’s info desk where they’ll give you a form to fill in and you can pay there too.
They announce the closing time when I’m at a lonely corner on the lowest level of the building, frisking through ‘All This and Heaven Too‘. I honestly didn’t know it was a book, Florence Welch must read a lot!
There are fewer girls today as we trudge out, a fact that I observe in retrospect after my second visit. Our bags are checked out by a lethargic female guard. I think in her head she’s thinking there are better things she’d be doing with her Sunday. The search isn’t quite thorough; I could have sneaked out ‘Memoirs of a Geisha’, a book I managed to read the first and last page of there.
I move up to Shokola Rooftop Café, which comes highly recommended with fervent praise from my acquaintance Akazuba. The ambience is striking, the balance of simple yet refined is unforgettable. The wait staff are dressed in laid-back denim, comfy Vans or Chuck Taylors coupled by African-print shirts. Comfortable bohemian vibes are wafting…
They are playing Asa on the soft speakers, and then Nina Simone and then Billy Holiday. And then it all loops. There’s busy people here, mostly expatriates on their Macs; designing charts, proposals and nibbling on fudge cake or a sandwich paired with this or that blend of coffee, like I momentarily proceed to do.
There’s a quaint shelf of sparse books on the side… random titles. I’ve carried my own. Let me indulge in Warsan Shire’s Teaching My Mother How to Give Birth.
1 More recently, ordinary persons used to pay Rwf 1,200 per month to read books, students pay Rwf 800 per month, and children pay Rwf 500 per month. During the coronavirus lockdown measures, the library announced that anyone in need of library services could access its digital library for free.
2 Annual membership is Rwf 12,000 for adults, Rwf 8,000 for students and Rwf 5,000 for children.