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Colors and Contrasts of Rwanda

Discover the country’s unique combination of modernity and heritage
Photograph by Charlie Hamilton James
Kigali’s central Kimironko Market is a kaleidoscope of color.

Kigali’s central Kimironko Market

Kigali’s central Kimironko Market is a kaleidoscope of color: red mangoes, green melons, golden pineapples, bushels of green bananas and beans in unimaginable patterns. And it's not just produce: the stalls, which have been leased by families for generations, offer beauty products, textiles, clothing and more. “Come and see”, the vendors motion with a wink and a smile. Travelers mingle easily with locals here but timing a visit for mid-afternoon or late morning will save you from the biggest crowds. A visit is a unique opportunity to watch local city life in action.

Photograph by Charlie Hamilton James
At night, Kigali looks every bit the cosmopolitan metropolis it is becoming.

Kigali, cosmopolitan capital

At night, Kigali looks every bit the cosmopolitan metropolis it is becoming. From the rooftop bar of the Ubumwe Grand Hotel, you’ll get one of the best views, as the lights of homes on the hills pop to life. Those looking for nightlife should head for the music venues and restaurants of trendy neighborhoods like Nyamirambo or Remera. Another option: a quiet, late-afternoon drive through the affluent suburb of Nyarutarama, where impressive gardens and homes offer a different, but equally enchanting view of the city–especially as the sun sets.

Photograph by Charlie Hamilton James
Initiatives like “Kurema, Kureba, Kwiga” ) encourage vivid, public art works with social messages

Expressive street art

Bold murals stretch along roadsides across the country, conveying messages of strength, power and resilience through brightly coloured brush strokes and spray-paint. Artists like Isakari Umuhire aka @muntu621 (pictured here) express their emotions through larger than life images that demand your attention. Other efforts are thanks to initiatives like “Kurema, Kureba, Kwiga” (which translates as ‘to create, to see, to learn’), which encourages vivid, public art works with social messages. Talents aren’t limited to murals: niches in communal spaces sport photographic displays, beautiful sculptures and intricate weavings. And you’ll often find artists, happy to share the story behind that piece that caught your eye, working nearby.

Photograph by Charlie Hamilton James
Rwandan fabrics have symbolic connections to ancestral roots or are artistic creations

Colorful Kitenge

Rwandan fabrics sometimes have symbolic connections to ancestral roots, but these days they’re more likely to be an artistic statement of personal taste. Fashions range from traditional batik sarongs and head wraps, to more modern styles. Patterns are worn with confidence and mute the typical traveler khaki. Luckily, it’s easy to join in. Kitenge (East African cotton) fabrics adorn market stalls (quite literally up to the rafters), ready for your choosing. Sellers with hooked poles in hand will pull down the ones you love most, and tailors–in the marketplace or at local tailor shops–can transform them into eye-popping perfection.

Photograph by Charlie Hamilton James
“African coffee”, which mixes espresso, steamed milk,chocolate and ginger into a brew with a kick

Coffee culture

Coffee culture is fairly new to Rwanda, but locals have embraced the “socialize and sip” mentality that travelers will relate to. Today, you’ll regularly find cafés filled with locals of all ages chatting over cups of steaming Java, and a range of local shops to choose from. Rwanda is a country that has been growing and exporting coffee for generations, so travelers who pop in won’t be disappointed with the quality in their cup. Those looking to try something new shouldn’t miss “African coffee”, which mixes espresso, steamed milk, chocolate and ginger into a brew with a kick.

Photograph by Charlie Hamilton James
The Intore were once anelite, protective force of warriors for the King

TRADITIONAL DANCE PERFORMANCE

Experiencing an Intore dance performance is a full-body experience. Your toes, fingers and heartbeat will impulsively find the rhythm of the ingoma drums. It has been this way for centuries, though the dances weren’t strictly meant to be entertaining. The Intore (which translates to “The Chosen Ones”) were once an elite, protective force of warriors for the King. Promising students were taken under royal tutelage at a young age, and sworn to protect King and country. The Intore dance was performed upon graduation to showcase their ferocity and commitment.

Photograph by Charlie Hamilton James
Intore dancers wear a golden sisal headdress which symbolizes the mane of a lion

Intore dancers

Intore dancers wear a golden sisal headdress which symbolizes the mane of a lion. When their arms are raised, it’s in reference to the royal Inyambo long-horned cows. And the menacing spear work done throughout the dance is exactly what it looks like. While today the dance is purely ceremonial, its intensity hasn’t waned. Here, there’s a lot of singing, chanting and smiles as well, but that’s just the Rwandan way. Performances usually take place at cultural villages and museums. Leaving the country without seeing one would be a mistake.

Photograph by Charlie Hamilton James
Rwanda’s rolling hills are teaplantations on the outskirts of Nyungwe National Park

Tea fields

Look twice at Rwanda’s rolling hills of green and you’ll notice they aren’t the manicured lawns you may have first thought. The tell-tale emerald leaves, growing in perfectly marked square plots, are tea plantations. Watching men and women balance baskets laden with tea leaves on their heads and hips, as they weave seamlessly amongst the growth, is mesmerizing. The pops of rainbow-colored fabrics worn, providing a striking contrast. Travelers can book tours of the tea plantations and guests at the One&Only Nyungwe House–a boutique property set on the outskirts of Nyungwe National Park–have the chance to pick their own tea for a unique souvenir.

Photograph by Charlie Hamilton James
Vibrant colourful Flowers in Nyungwe National Park

Forest flora

Travelers who take the time to explore Nyungwe National Park on foot on official hiking trails have their senses rewarded. Flowers are a kaleidoscope of colors–fuchsia, neon yellow, bright whites and ruby reds. They grow in places high and low, sharing their space with more than 300 species of birds that are just as vibrant. Plus, chances are high that on your way to or from, you’ll find plenty of locals out doing the same.

Photograph by Charlie Hamilton James
Park Rager in Rwanda’s national parks

Conservation Champions, Nyungwe National Park

For the rangers, guides and trackers who help tourists navigate Rwanda’s national parks and forests, conservation isn’t just a job, it’s a life’s work. When your ranger’s face lights up at the sound of primates in the trees, or the trackers quicken their steps in the hopes of offering you a glimpse, you realize that their real mission–beyond carving a path through the dense forest, or holding your hand as the mud sticks stubbornly to your boots–is to share something they love with you. And when your eyes widen at the sights, the twinkle in their eyes is a hint at the joy it brings them, too.

Photograph by Charlie Hamilton James