Geometric patterns start cropping up on a wall to my right. They are colourful. A fusion of rich maroon, faded yellow, mixed onto black and white backgrounds. Gold-coated busts of inyambo (royal Rwandan cows) adorn the top, clusters of thin-barked eucalyptus trees grow on the other side of the wall. The road is winding less now, but it presses on with its ascent of this final hill that will open up to Rwanda’s second-largest urban settlement, Huye.
I’m dressed in sandals, shorts and a plain white tee, seated next to a sleeping ‘Twiri, her head slowly swaying to the rhythms of the bus. It’s almost three hours since we left the crowded bustle of Nyabugogo back in Kigali but I feel as though the day is yet to start.
When we pull in to Huye Smart Taxi Park, its immediate contrast to Nyabugogo is striking. Ticketing offices with no crowds beneath their awnings, there’s space to walk with one’s luggage, less noise in the air, fewer people, a clean and comfortable sort of hubbub. All this, neatly organized on one side of the first hill of Huye, the same side that hosts, behind the colourful wall, the Ethnographic Museum of Rwanda.
Opened in 19881, it is situated on more than 20ha of land that contains therein indigenous vegetation and a traditional craft training centre (housed within thatched structures) as well as the main 2,500m² chisel-roofed, beige museum building.
We descend the wide stairway from one of the entrances, lugging our luggage down with us. It’s 4 PM.
At the reception we meet a couple of beautiful young mushanana-adorning guides laughing at a joke that’s been in the air for quite a bit, their smiles slightly waning. There’s displays of pamphlets, books, sculptures, bags and sandals, handicraft, all on sale. They add colour to the space no doubt. After parting with RWF 1000 each as East African Students we are availed lockers to shove our stuff into.
With the loads off our backs and a light spring to our steps, ‘Twiri and I walk with our guide into the first of seven exhibition halls found here.
The point of this museum is to provide an illustration of Rwanda, the country and its people, all in chronology; from the earliest times until the present day. It does this through the most impeccably curated massive exhibition halls, with subtle warm lighting that makes you want to take your shoes off and just glide through the hive of information.
The entrance hall has temporary displays as well as numerous shelves of traditional handicrafts for sale. Hall 2 presents a comprehensive view of Rwanda’s geological and geographic background, the development of its terrain and population. Here, there’s a massive centrepiece map of Rwanda with terrain and topography elevations, acclivities and descents. Makes one almost want to touch it.
Hall 3 has illustrations of the occupations of its early inhabitants – hunter-gathering, farming and stock-raising together with later advancements of tools and transport means. The highlight here is the detailed instructions for brewing traditional banana beer.
Hall 4 displays the making of traditional household items: pottery, mats, baskets, leatherwork, the wooden shield of intore dancers. Hall 5 illustrates traditional styles and methods of architecture – and a full-scale royal hut welcomes it all to you. I would hark back to this moment the following day at the King’s Palace Museum in Nyanza.
Hall 6 has traditional games and sports displayed and more space is given to the costumes and equipment of the Intore dancers. Finally, Hall 7, a room which we have to skim through because closing time has been called, contains exhibits relating to traditional customs and beliefs, history, culture, poetry, oral tradition and the supernatural.
Leaving here we are accompanied by the employees from the reception. We literally close the Museum with them. This, ‘closing a museum’, would later happen again to me at the 2Presidential Palace in Kanombe, Kigali where I’d get on a bus to Remera with the guide who’d taken me around and also at the National Art Museum in Nyanza, where ‘Twiri, the lean tall guide and I would run down the backside of its compound in the blanket of darkness in a bid to catch moto-taxis to the bus park in time for the final bus back to Huye.
This is my first of fourteen nights in Huye, and I think there is going to be an interesting time ahead.
1Built between 1987 and 1989 by the Belgian architect Lode Van Pee, funded by the Belgian government, the museum commemorated 25 years of Rwanda’s independence from the colonizer.
2 The Presidential Palace Museum was converted into The Rwanda Art Museum. Artworks that were initially exhibited at Rwesero (former National Art Gallery, next to King’s Palace Nyanza) have found their way there, in addition to other relevant artworks that were recently acquired from different Rwandan artists. According to officials from the INMR, the idea to transform the building into an art museum came from suggestions left by visitors, while other suggestions came from local visual artists.
The flight debris from the presidential jet that went down on 6th April 1994 remains in situ in the garden and this will remain a heritage site.