I remember writing about the smells of Sierra Leone and Kurdistan the first time I went to each. Different wafts and spices in either place, but there was a pungent stench that was the same in both, a distinctly developing-world smell.
After living in Kurdistan for long enough, in the cradle of not only civilization but black gold, I know that smell to be rich, thick petrol. And not like the type we know in the states, but bottom of the barrel sludge that countries without the purchasing power of the United States and the west have to rely on.
The more I think about it, it’s not just a developing world smell but also, when viewed from the western perspective, a second-place smell. No matter how drastic and quick Kigali’s development has been (Rwanda has been one of the most rapidly developing countries in the past twenty-five years), Kigali and cities like it will always be second to the west in the rat-race for things like petrol.
In Iraq that petrol was almost comical, where one of the most oil-rich countries in the world only had the worst, most corrosive oil and gas available to the local purchasing public. I had to change my motorcycle’s sparkplugs every few months as the thick, dark ooze fouled them quickly and meant my engine, and everyone else’s, needed constant upkeep and love.
All of it economics, really. The good stuff was always exported to the highest bidders, the American or British or Dutch companies with drills in the ground and deep pockets at home, leaving the lowest of the low for domestic sale. But the oil that spewed into the air in Iraq made the most beautiful sunsets I’ve ever seen. Where the sun, dipping, disappearing before it ever really reached the horizon, faded seamlessly into the permanent haze of pollution and ethereal gas that hung just above the ground, scattering light and refracting otherworldly colors in every direction as the orange ball slowly dissolved into nothing.
That petrol might not be the best quality for combustion engines, but that smell, on every street there and every street here, has so much more character than any smell in America and reminds me that for all of Kigali’s perfectly-hewn grass, well-paved roads, and neatly-spaced broadleaf trees on the sidewalks, there’s still a lot of untamed, wild charm that exists here and everywhere in countries just like it that are still fighting for an invitation to the western world.
Kigali is a city bustling with the kinetic energy of a place that knows it’s in the middle of becoming something much more. It’s still a city that has a massive disparity in income, with neighborhoods of mansions backed up to sprawling informal settlements and all of it connected through steep water troughs that carry the water downhill to the bright brown Nyabugogo River, full of soil and runoff from thundering downpours that leach the soil of nutrients, removes too much of its trash, and eventually carries all of that thick red African mud to the Nile.
What all of it really means- the petrol, the tainted red mud, the dirty rivers, the pollution and rough edges, they’re all part of the many smells, the dirtiness, the character, the too-interesting imperfection that has slowly been weened out of our American world but is alive and well and full of character over here.
I’ve been in Kigali for a little over two weeks now and am starting to understand the city and its flow. My job often requires that I hop on a motorcycle and get to different neighborhoods of the city to check on company operations or conduct random spot checks. It’s an amazing perk. Each trip is informative in so many ways, as neighborhoods each have their own flair, and the city itself rolls over one small hill into a small valley, only to rise again and careen off an even higher and steeper hill to yet another valley. It’s an improbable place. Any sense of logical urban development is entirely beside the point of what Kigali is and has become, a rapidly growing city built over dozens of hills a mile above sea level, the heart of a small nation of a thousand hills tucked between some of the world’s thickest rain forests to the west, and some of its most famous savannas to the east.
The energy here is rooted in a culture that, though mindful of tradition, is eager for continual growth and change. Social enterprises, like Pit Vidura, the company I now work for (and will share more info about in a later post) are more common here than almost anywhere else I’ve lived and worked, as that desire for growth and change coupled with a relatively low level of corruption makes an inviting environment for experimentation and innovation.
All of that together was one of the leading motivations for me looking for work out here. Rwanda, and by extension East Africa, is one of the breeding grounds for development-based innovation and continent-minded social enterprises designing positive initiatives that are also tied to local buy-in and agency. A place where companies and new ideas come to cut their teeth and hone their methods before looking to spread to new developing regions.