It is said that the only thing you will find hard to come across in Nyamirambo is …you guessed right, pork.
The statement points both to the neighborhood’s commercial vibrancy, and its social configuration, two aspects of this colorful neighborhood that seem to contribute in equal measure to its reputation.
Speaking of the former, Nyamirambo is that neck of the woods known to all for its thrift and resilience, its hustling and bustling spirit. It is at once Kigali’s vibrant undercurrent, and its mysterious magnet. Nyamirambo bears all the markings of a bustling African metropolis –well, perhaps without the same abundance of high-rise buildings.
Socially, it is the Muslim quarter of Kigali—boasting the highest concentration of the city’s Muslim population. The landmark Al-Fat’h Mosque, the country’s biggest, calls this home.
In fact, the story of Nyamirambo is in many ways the story of Islam’s turbulent history in past political dispensations.
According to Hamza Niyibizi, a long time resident, “It was the first Umudugudu, the first place in the country where people lived in conglomeration, while elsewhere people were scattered on the hills”.
To understand the suburb better, one must delve into the genesis of its Muslim connection.
Before 1935, the city’s Muslim population was concentrated in the present-day Central Business District –the area below the Makuza Plaza in Downtown Kigali. Today, the only reminder of this past is the nearby Al-Madina Mosque.
In 1935, a new Belgian colonial administration policy was introduced, assigning different races to different parts of the city. The Muslim community was henceforth banished to Nyamirambo, while Arabs and Asians took up their previous abode.
But even before independence, colonial administration policy dictated that Muslims study only from Primary 1-4. At the time, most schools belonged to the Catholic Church, which generally discriminated against non-Catholics. At best, one had to convert to Catholicism to gain admission, an idea many Muslims could not fathom.
Genesis of the hustler spirit
Unfazed, many Muslim parents whisked their children off to neighboring countries like the DRC, Burundi, and Uganda in pursuit of educational opportunities.
The legacy of discrimination was carried over into the first and second administrations after independence, with Muslims generally receiving the second hand treatment from government. Formal public service employment was hard to come by, even for those with the requisite qualifications.
Under such circumstances, the close proximity to each other prompted the Muslim community to think outside the box in the game of survival. Quite naturally, the informal sector became the best alternative to scarce formal employment opportunities.
Soon, a booming informal sector was taking shape in Nyamirambo: car repair, hair dressing, tailoring, welding, art and crafts, retail, wood and metal works, blacksmithing …, name it.
As informal trade grew, the area started juggling a new reputation –it was at once a residential and commercial hub.
To the typical foreign visitor today, no trip to Kigali is complete without sojourning in Nyamirambo. To many locals and visitors alike, it is a cultural treasure, in much the same way that the gorillas in the Volcanoes National Park are a national treasure.
It offers the cheap thrills and scruffy comforts typical of suburban African townships, but that are nowhere in sight in Kigali.
The feeling you’re at home hits you the moment you set foot, whether you’re a Rwandan or foreign national. Everybody knows everybody else, literally, and the multiplicity of languages and cultures fosters the feeling of belonging to a bigger community.
People making the mandatory trip down here are in pursuit of nightly thrills (the place is not set to a time clock like elsewhere in Kigali), fashion accessories from the various boutiques and clothes vendors, a good bargain on the black market –which calls this home, photography (everything here, from public commuters to shop walls and street fashion is markedly more colorful), or to simply watch the rhythm of life.
Here, everyone is able to cut a coat no matter the size of their cloth, so to speak. It is the only place in Kigali you will grab a skewer of tasty brochette at as low as Rwf 200 (well, for those with intimate knowledge of Nyamirambo’s intricate corridors). There is no shame in digging into cheap street snacks like samosas and chapattis washed down with spicy ginger tea at the street corner.
Hordes of foreigners, backpackers and volunteers frequently take up accommodation here, either renting out their own apartments, or joining traditional host families.
For many foreigners from Europe and America, it is the safest bet when looking for an authentic African experience as opposed to the pizza/cappuccino/three-course-meal fare at the standard Kigali hotel.
In the Biryogo area, the Nyamirambo Women’s Center, a sewing/crafts cooperative offers a limited guided tour of Nyamirambo that takes tourists to its deepest nooks and crannies. Dubbed Nyamirambo Walking Tour, the experience is a hit with short time tourists and visitors, and culminates in a sumptuous lunch at the home of one of the cooperative members.
The coop president, Marie-Aimée Umugeni explained that it started in 2007, as a group of women who wanted to “exchange ideas and help each other”, until the growing demand for community based tourism opportunities presented itself.