It’s that time of year where many of us will be heading home for the holidays which probably means loading up on presents for friends and family back home. Lucky for us, giving gifts that come all the way from Africa is a pretty easy way to wow and impress the recipients of your generosity. Also lucky for us, Rwanda is packed with options for a variety of types of gifts that should keep everyone happy.
This article is the first of two coming at you about Rwandan products and souvenirs. This first article lists the types of things you’ll want to keep an eye out for that make for great gifts and the second article, coming next week, will give you a big ol’ list of stores and markets that are the best places to do your Rwandan souvenir shopping. All in time for the holidays… isn’t that nice of me? So without further ado… here are some great gift and souvenir ideas to keep an eye out for in Rwanda…
Rwanda’s fine arts scene has grown in leaps and bounds in the five years I’ve been here. From humble beginnings with one lonely art gallery in 2010, the city is now home to five (Inema, Ivuka, Uburanga, Tongo, and Niyo), all of which pump out colourful paintings with a style unique to this part of the world. Paintings tend to be big and bold with primary acrylic colours featuring, often along with kitenge fabric underlays. Street scenes and paintings of animals and people are also popular at all of the galleries.
Larger paintings can be removed from the frame and rolled either to be mailed to your home destination or taken with you on the plane. Then you just have it stretched to a new frame on arrival. Paintings from Kigali’s galleries make a really great gift or a personal souvenir (many will do custom pieces) of your time here and your purchase supports a growing, exciting industry and pushes Rwanda’s art scene forward just a little bit more.
Fewer souvenirs are more Rwanda-y than baskets. They’re everywhere! They’re even found at stores in the US like Macy’s. And they’re super cool, too. Rwandan baskets generally come in either a shallow bowl style or a taller design with a pointy lid and everything in between. Traditionally, these baskets are used to carry wedding gifts to newly married couples but you can use them from everything to holding fruit to hanging on your wall as a unique decoration. The baskets incorporate distinctive patterns and colours and there are a huge variety of beautiful ones to choose from.
These Rwandan baskets make an unusual and very affordable souvenir but when you end up with a stack of them they’re pretty heavy, so keep that in mind when you’re planning your packing. You can buy the smallest of the shallow baskets for as low as Rwf 2,000 each (as opposed to $35 to $120 at Macy’s!) and prices rise as the size and level of complexity increases but they’re almost often way cheaper than you’d expect. Buying these baskets supports Rwanda’s women weavers who often work as part of cooperatives such as Azizi Life and others located all around the country.
I think that giving a book-lover a novel or non-fiction book about the place you’re living is a great way to bridge the geographical and cultural divide just a little bit. Being in Rwanda allows for a lot of options for books about the country and the region and I find that curious friends and family really enjoy this sort of a gift.
One of my favourite books is called Land of a Thousand Hills: My Life in Rwanda (not to be confused with A Thousand Hills, a biography of Kagame that I’d also recommend) written by Rosemond Carr about her life in Rwanda. She’s an amazing lady and her legacy in Rwanda lives on even today and I found her story to be a fascinating read. Keeping with the ‘thousand hills’ theme, I’d also recommend A Thousand Hills to Heaven by Josh Ruxin for a glimpse into what it’s like to start a business, a family, and run an NGO in Rwanda. Another great read for me was Baking Cakes in Kigali which is made up of stories of local life in Kigali. As a resident of Rwanda, I found it easy to relate to all three of these books and if you’re trying to give family and friends a glimpse of what life is life here, I think any of these is a good choice.
Then of course there’s a growing selection of books on Rwanda’s Genocide. These aren’t exactly a cheerful gift and they might not be the sort of thing appreciated by everyone, but you’re sure to know at least a few people who want to learn more and dig deeper and there are a lot of books on the topic to choose from.
Clothes and Fabric
Walk around the streets of any East African city and you’ll see women covered in beautiful, colourful fabrics, sometimes from head to toe. In Rwanda this fabric is known as ‘kitenge’ and it can be found for sale in markets and small stalls all around the city. The fabric is often sold in sets of three pieces so that you can make a shirt, skirt, and a head wrap. Kitenge is also often used as a super cool sling for young babies to be tied to their mother’s backs. Many of the patterns have meanings and you’ll almost never see the same pattern twice!
Piggy-backing on the popularity of kitenge, a few fashion chains have popped up in Kigali that use the fabric in new and modern ways. While Rwandan women can rock the headscarf and matching shirt and skirt look, visitors often prefer styles more in-line with what they’re wear and these designs can be found at small shops like Rwanda Clothing Co., Christine’s Creative Collections, the Nyamirambo Women’s Centre (for chilren’s stuff), and Haute Baso. All sorts of different styles of bags are made from kitenge along with things like oven mitts, aprons, baby mobiles, hats, and so on. Pretty much anything you can imagine and they’re all a popular local souvenir and they make great gifts.
Food and Drinks
Rwanda is known for its tea and coffee so picking up a packages make great (and cheap) souvenirs for people. Who doesn’t love tea and coffee, after all? Freaks! Well, perhaps that’s being harsh. Regardless, tea and coffee are both easy to cram into tight corners of your already overloaded suitcases and they’ll be much appreciated. Or you can just drink them yourself when your absence from Rwanda becomes too much to bear. Take a Huye Mountain Coffee tour and then pick up a few bags of that same coffee for an extra little story to tell.
Another light and easily pack able food idea is ‘akabanga’ which is a Rwandan ‘pili pili’ sauce which, as far as I can tell, is synonymous with ‘hot sauce’. Akabanga is more of an oil than a sauce, and it’s seriously hot. It’s difficult to define an actual flavour… I just tell people that ‘it tastes like burning’ which seems to be understood once they try it themselves. That it comes in a dubious-looking eye dropper bottle adds to the mystique. The bottles are tiny and cheap and a couple of drops will add heat to whatever you’re eating. They make easy gifts, especially for the spice lovers out there.
Another nice (albeit heavy) gift to bring from Rwanda is some of the tasty local beverages. Maracuja (passion fruit) juice is popular and can be found in concentrated forms at Nakumatt and some other grocery stores. If you’re after something with a little more ‘bite’ then try to locate some banana beer or wine to give your friends at home a sampling of the local tipple. If you’re not feeling quite so adventurous, taking a couple of bottles of local beer home with you is a fun gift. ‘Turbo King’ is always appreciated for the ridiculousness of the name and ‘Virunga Mist’ adds a bit of a local flare.
Poo paintings! Yes folks, these lovely geometrical paintings are made of cow poop. Who knew cow poop could look so trippy? Not I! These paintings are unique to Rwanda and combine texture (that’s the poo) with a whole bunch of interesting patterns, usually involving diamonds and triangles. Each of the traditional patterns is meant to mean something and there’s a great display of patterns on the wall outside of the museum in Huye if you want to see how huge the range of patterns is. A new and more contemporary style has also developed with different types of shapes and colours emulating Rwanda’s landscape, plants, and animals.
Though I usually refer to these as ‘poo paintings’, the actual name is ‘imigongo‘ and they’re a painting style traditionally made by women. You’ll find imigongo paintings at souvenir shops all around Kigali but most of them have been made at a Kaziba Village cooperative (located about 2.5 hours outside of the capital) which is worth a visit for those of you who want to learn more about the process. These paintings, along with baskets and pottery, are a truly unique Rwandan gift.
I’m not really up on my Rwandan jewellery except to say that paper beads are really popular. You’ll find all sorts of necklaces and earrings made from this simple but surprisingly elegant material at any souvenir shop around town. Following on from the style of traditional Rwandan baskets, weaving is also a popular way to make jewellery and you’ll see a common style of colourful, circular, flat woven earrings as well as necklaces formed in a variety of creative ways using the same technique.
The traditional methods have led the way for a whole range of exciting products from young Rwandan designers. Check out the website of Inzuki for a prime example of Rwandan jewellery taken to the next level. Abraham from Artpoint Rwanda (located near La Galette in town) has been making beautiful things out of the brass and steel from old padlocks for five years and Melba, a new arrival to Rwanda, has created a line of jewellery using Rwandan plants and fabrics for her Gunura line. Each of these are great examples of a craft on the rise in this country.
How could you leave Rwanda without taking home a lovely map of Kigali to remind you of your good times in this city? You couldn’t possibly do such a thing! Lucky for you… I made one. You can pick up The Map – Kigali at any of these wonderful locations and if you’re looking for an unfolded version to hang out, head to the Azizi Life Boutique at Heaven Restaurant as they’ve got a bunch on sale. The Map – Kigali is made with love and packed with little tips, reviews, advice, and the all-essential cartoons! What more could you ask for, really? Well I guess if you wanted a map of Rwanda, I can’t really help you there. But lucky for you you can also find Rwanda maps for sale from the guys who hang out in front of UTC in town. They’re not the sexiest of maps but they’re functional and, at the very least, something to hang on your wall.
As you visit Kigali’s souvenir shops you’ll see a lot of beautiful ceramics ranging from entire kitchen sets to vases to candle holders to much larger outdoor pots. Pottery in Rwanda has, for many years, been the traditional handicraft of the Batwa and this continues today at the Gatagara Pottery located bout 1.5 hours outside of Kigali. Many of the pieces you’ll find around Kigali have come from this pottery.
The pottery of the Batwa is renowned for both the style of their creations and the high-quality clay that can take up to three years to prepare. Add in a range of natural colouring, their years of experience in creating the designs, and you’ll find the results to be both beautiful and functional. These pottery creations make a unique Rwandan gift covering a huge array of purposes. Just make sure you pack everything very well… I had the spout of a teapot crumble into oblivion on the way to Canada in my suitcase so take special care with this fragile beauties.
Carved wooden items can be found mostly in the tourist shops around town that sell pretty much everything. Carved masks are a popular and fun souvenir, serving spoons and bowls are both beautiful and functional, and then of courses there are the intertwine giraffes and other carvings. Many of the stores have large statues on sale and Umutako even do these super cool carved wooden crocodile benches that make amazing Rwandan souvenirs (albeit not the most transportable). Keep exploring and you’re bound to find some very cool, unique items made out of wood. Small gorilla and other safari animal carvings make nice gifts for kids and the nativity sets are another popular choice.