The Evolution of A Kigali Social Life

So you’ve just arrived in Kigali, all excited for this new stage of your life in a strange new city. You might have a job, maybe a place to live, maybe you know a friend or two in town… or maybe you’re just completely winging it with nothing at all organised. Things are a bit new and scary and you’ve got a lot to figure out, but you’re excited and looking forward to discovering what this place has to offer.

So ya… there’s all the practical crap to figure out like finding a place to live, figuring out how to withdraw cash, and finding the nearest grocery store. But, lets be honest… that stuff is boring. What you really want to do is meet people and have a bit of fun in this new place. Right? Right! And, with that in mind, I give to you (based on countless hours of research and anthropological studies) my study on the evolution of a Kigali social life.*

* This list is aimed at the young or young-ish, single, lone new arrivals to Kigali. Families, couples, 70 year olds, people arriving as a part of large groups, missionaries, Peace Corps volunteers, Russian mail-order brides, or those spending all of their time outside of Kigali all remain a mystery to me and the evolution of their social lives is yet to be studied.

Phase One: Bourbon

This first phase sees the wide-eyed, newly arrived, lonely muzungu feeling a strong, almost irresistible pull towards one of Kigali’s Bourbon coffee shops. Your most likely destination will be the Bourbon at the Union Trade Centre in town (where the new arrival will also get their first load of groceries from Nakumatt) though the more adventurous might end up at the MTN Centre. It’s during this first phase that the excited new-to-Kigali muzungu will sit, sipping their latte, reading their Kindle or typing away on their Macbook, all the while keeping their eyes open for interesting-looking people while eavesdropping on the conversations at nearby tables.

At this stage, for the average new arrival, making friends with other foreigners will feel like the most natural thing to do and your trip to Bourbon will have confirmed that there are plenty to choose from. You’ll probably start wondering what all of these people are doing in Kigali, anyway, and make it your mission to find out.

Phase Two: Finding Your Feet

As a new arrival to Kigali who doesn’t know anyone, you will most likely be pretty busy getting adjusted to a new job and to the city’s confusing streets. You’ll probably be focused on figuring out the basics like where to get groceries and how to by a mobile phone and might not be as concerned with the sorry state of your social life, just yet. Fear not! Friends will eventually find their way into your life and this initial friendless phase should be enjoyed as you explore and try to figure a few things out for yourself.

For those of you out there who are a bit more proactive, maybe do as a brave friend of mine did on arrival and post an ad on a Kigali forum inviting one and all to your house for a game of beer pong. While this could invite a whole world of weirdo stalkers, it might also lead to instantly meet a great group of friends. Maybe a risk worth taking? Of course the downfall is having to participate in several games of beer pong.

Phase Three: Quiz Night at Sol e Luna

If at this point you’ve moved into a shared house with other expats then, chances are, one of your first regular social events during this early phase will be quiz night at Sol e Luna. Or if you don’t know anyone, it’s also possibly going to be your first stop if you’re brave enough to venture to a table of strangers and invite yourself onto their team. Many a new friend has been made that way, so just swallow your pride and go for it. Search for smart-looking people and you could end up with a free meal or drinks.

This Kigali institution has been around for years and I’m convinced that every muzungu in this city has passed through this Italian restaurant’s doors on a Monday night at some point during their time here. Being the sad individual that I am, quiz night was my only social outing for weeks after arriving in the city and it’s a fine way to meet people while enjoying a tasty pizza.

Phase Four: The Discovery of Kigali’s Nightlife

For me, an introduction to the nightlife in Kigali mostly meant the discovery of Papyrus which, at the time I arrived, was where Trattoria is now. This small, popular bar was a great place to see familiar faces and meet new people. They’ve since moved to a super huge concrete monster building down the road and the intimate feeling isn’t quite the same, but it’s still a popular place and you’ll bump into people you know any night of the week. Sundowner is another popular spot which will satisfy any longing desire to hear old ‘Ace of Base’ songs while drinking cheap whiskey but it tends to be so dark that recognizing anyone is almost impossible unless you’re in phone contact to tell them you’re standing in the dark shadow right beside them. If you’re looking for more of a clubby atmosphere and a hooker to dance with, try People, Chillax, K-Club or Le Must.

Meeting people in bars isn’t always the easiest things to do but I’ve found people in Kigali to be friendly and welcoming. Just do as a friend of mine did and go to a bar, find the people who look the most fun, and then get all up in their faces with some hilarious dance moves and hope that they take pity on you and adopt you into their group. If you’re not that outgoing, just fake it.

Having worked the Kigali bar scene for a few weeks, you’ll start to bump into some familiar faces during the daylight hours at Inzora or Shokola and you’ll notice that they also go to quiz. This might lead to more sober conversations that you actually remember and, eventually, to some new buddies.

Phase Five: House Parties

Kigali isn’t a place that’s known for its raging bar and club scene. In fact, it’s a pretty sleepy place and you’ll probably find yourself getting bored of the ‘going out’ options pretty quickly. Enter the house party. To combat the somewhat blah bar scene, house parties in Kigali are common and if you’ve got a decent-sized circle of friends, you’ll probably be able to find at least one every weekend.

Unless you’re a complete freak show, as you meet more and more people in Kigali, you’ll probably start getting invited to house parties. This is really your chance to shine. House parties offer an opportunity to meet a lot of new people at once, many who are also new to Kigali and in search of their own new group of friends. You can talk without screaming against the loud music you’ll find in bars and house parties are a friendly atmosphere where random introductions are usually pretty welcome.

Parties are great places to really get to talk to people and if everything goes to plan, they’ll know your life story in no time and you’ll finally get to pad out your Facebook friends with the Kigali crowd. Just try not to get so drunk that you forget meeting all of these new people and then introduce yourself to them again and again until they’re sick of you (I’m sorry about that).

Phase Six: Branching Out to New Activities

If you’re only in town for a few months then you’ll probably find that your social life reverts back up to quiz night followed by nights out at various Kigali bars and house parties. This pattern seems to keep the social expat happy for up to three months before they feel the need to branch out to other activities.

While Kigali isn’t packed with obvious distractions, there are plenty of fun things to keep you busy… you just have to know where to look for them. Or, if everything is going to plan, your new friends will start inviting you to things and you can just follow along without having to do any of the searching yourself. This phase might see you doing some volunteer work, finally hiking up Mount Kigali, playing Ultimate Frisbee at ungodly hours during the week or going bowling from time to time. You might start playing tennis, hanging out at a pool, joining a gym or various other Kigali offerings or you might spend your weekends exploring the rest of Rwanda.

Participating in these new activities will undoubtedly lead to all sorts of new friends with varying interests and suddenly your weekends will be filled with more than just going to bars and recovering the next day.

Phase Seven: The Discovery of How Small Kigali Is

Having at this point expanded your friends base beyond just your housemates and possibly some co-workers, it will start to become very apparent that Kigali isn’t all that big of a place for the young, social, single expat. The same people’s faces will begin appearing at the same bars, house parties, movie nights and sporting events and that girl whose boyfriend you stole* and the guy whose shoes you barfed on* and any number of people you’d prefer never to see again will seem to be in your face at every turn. So after one too many crazy drunken nights ending in foggy memories of making out with various people on various dance floors all over town* and the discovery that everyone knows all of the gossip to do with all of your questionable activities… it’s a bit of a shock to the system.

During this phase you’ll begin to realise that, if you’ve ever misbehaved in Kigali, you won’t escape your actions – no matter how hard you try. The solution? Either become a better person and stop getting drunk and acting like a dick or, do like I do and go into a temporary hibernation and hope any gossip you’ve provided to the Kigali world has blown over by the time you make your triumphant return to debauchery. Which leads nicely into Phase Eight…

* All of these scenarios are imagined and are, of course, not the sorts of behaviour that I would ever engage in. Honest.

Phase Eight: Laying Low

Shameful about your recent debaucherous weekends and living in fear of the Kigali gossip mill, the logical next step is to stay close to home in the company of close friends only and to wait for any damage you may have caused or gossip you may have created to be replaced by something else in the upcoming weekends. Phase Eight could see you drop off of the social radar altogether for awhile. Let it be noted that this phase rarely lasts long, but it is one that is experienced at various points during the Kigali Social Life Cycle and will often be seen in combination with ‘Phase Nine: Going Local’ and ‘Phase Ten: Staying Home and Watching Movies’.

A Phase Eight foreigner might vow off of booze altogether and choose a life of healthy meals at home, early morning ‘Insanity’ workouts and late-night spa sessions at the gym to keep you out of trouble. This phase will likely see a new focus on being a well-behaved, healthy citizen – but this is unlikely to last.

Phase Nine: Going Local

Now that you’ve repeatedly visited all of Kigali’s party spots over and over (and over) again, Phase Nine sees the brave muzungu, confident in their knowledge of Kigali and a little bored at the usual Friday night offerings, branching out a bit. By this point you’ve probably found yourself a few local friends and are a bit curious about Nyamirambo or Kicukiro and other areas of town yet to be explored. This may lead to places with appalling (and loud) live music, lots of karaoke (also likely to be bad and loud), wonderful fish, pork and brochette places, banana wine, and very strange comedic acts involving barking, meowing and fart noises. Prepare yourself. You’re not likely to see anyone you know so this phase is sort of like a semi-social continuation of Phase Eight for those who’d prefer not to be on house arrest.

Phase Ten: Staying Home and Watching Movies

Having exhausted all of Kigali’s nightlife options you’re probably, at this point, ready for a bit of a rest. This usually comes in the form of hanging out at home with friends and watching whatever movies and TV shows you wisely brought with you on your giant hard drive. People who’ve never been into movies or watched a lot of TV in their entire lives are suddenly finding themselves engaged in riveting conversations about the latest episode of Game of Thrones. It’s weird.

Phase Eleven: Running Out of Movies

Once you’ve depleted your stock of movies you’ll have to head back out there into the Kigali social scene once more to either make friends with people who have more movies or just to combat your boredom. A trip back to quiz night makes a good stop to get reacquainted with all of the new faces in the city before seeing them out at the house parties you’ll no doubt be attending soon. You might find yourself initially shocked by all of the new faces that have appeared in town since you went into temporary hibernation but get back out there and, if you want to, you’ll know everyone’s story in no time.

Phase Twelve: Antisocial Behaviour

In a city like Kigali, people are leaving all of the time. It’s god damned depressing. It you’ve been in town for longer than a couple of years and have seen friends come and go, you might slowly be turning into one of those bitter folks who have no interest in meeting new people. People in this phase have attended one leaving party too many and to cope have surrounded themselves with a set group of friends who are probably staying as long or longer than they are so as to avoid any more heartbreaking departures.

People in this phase should be approached with a thick layer of skin as they probably don’t care who you are or what you’re doing in Kigali. The only thing they’ll be wondering is what asshole friend of theirs invited the stranger to their party. The first question asked to a new arrival by someone in this phase, if they decide to speak to you at all, will almost always be ‘How long will you be in Kigali for?’, a qualifier to see if you’re going to break their heart by leaving too, just like all of the others.

Phase Thirteen: Disappearance

Complete disappearance from the Kigali social scene usually coincides with finding that special someone and choosing to spend all of your free time with them. People in this stage might venture out from time to time to dinner parties, often with others like them. Weekend getaways to romantic spots and the occasional trip back to your home country to meet your partner’s parents are common. People in Phase Thirteen might head out to quiz or a movie occasionally, but will be unapproachable as they will be engaged in a deep conversation or cuddle with their other half.

Phase Thirteen muzungus are very unlikely to be spotted on the bar or house party circuit and you’re only likely to cross paths with them in a supermarket as they stock up on supplies before heading back to their home to nest. However, if the relationship should go awry, people in this phase are likely to hit the sauce pretty hard and will begin their social life journey once again, starting with Phase Four. In their misery they will become a force to be reckoned with and you might discover them under the table at Sundowner clutching onto a goat leg and crying into their whiskey and coke. Approach with caution.

Phase 14: Loneliness & Estrangement

Disappearing into your cave in Kigali and not having much human interaction beyond just a few friends will sort of screw you when those friends leave (and they always do… those big jerks!) Holing up at home for even a few months will leave you disconnected from Kigali’s social scene and a stranger to the city you thought you knew. You’ll realise that there are only so many movies one can watch without going insane and that connecting with people on Expats in Rwanda as you recommend a good Internet provider or try to sell a half-filled bottle of shampoo doesn’t really count for much. The lack of social activity will likely drive you out of your home (sometimes reluctantly) in search of contact with others of the human variety.

Phase 15: Reconnecting

As you become bored and lonely at home, you will begin to make small steps as you try to become part of Kigali’s social fabric once more. Sadly, Kigali will have moved on without you and those events where you were once known by one and all will be filled with strangers and you’ll be the sad, sad person sipping their beer alone in the corner waiting for someone to talk to them (That’s me! Please come say hello!)

Fortunately, as nobody ever really leaves Kigali, enough time will have passed for many of those friends who had left years ago to return once again to take up a new job posting, do their Phd or Master’s research, or just for a lovely Rwandan holiday. But the harsh reality is that it’s time to make some new friends, reengage with the city, and enjoy all of the great things that are happening here on a daily basis!

Time to head back to quiz, I guess!

About Kirsty

A Canadian who left in 2001 to wander around the world in search of sun, beautiful views and goat brochettes. Found Kigali in July 2010 and it seems like the perfect fit. I expect to be here until I get kicked out for defiantly walking on the grass while wearing flip flops.