I had heard the tales. I had seen the signs in every corner of town. Rumor and after rumor surfaced: “Men and women together??” “For only 500 francs???” “Naked?!?!?”. Eventually, my curiosity got the better of me and I finally worked up the courage to accept a friends’ long-standing offer to visit a Rwandan sauna.
If you’re looking to test your comfort limits, make your way to one of Nyamirambo’s many ‘Sauna and Massage’ parlors, more authentically pronounced “SAUW-na”. Prices for such services can range from a few hundred francs at the most local of places, to over $50 at the Serena or some of the more upscale spas. The Nyamirambo gem I visited cost Rwf 2,000 for all the sauna you can stand and Rwf 3,000 for a 30 to 45 minute massage. Like many of Kigali’s saunas, the one I visited was located behind a restaurant/bar, so that you can get some grilled meat and Primus along with your total body cleanse.
The sauna attendants welcomed me with a thin piece of gitenge fabric and pointed me towards a curtained closet, where it was made understood through hand gestures and broken French that I would get completely naked and wrap this sheet around me. The steam room was behind a large metal door that opened up to a small, dark, steamy room. The only light came from a dim red bulb just above the door, making the whole scene that much more creepy. I stood in the doorway for far too long, peering through the mist in an attempt to locate my friend, determine how big the room was, and not step on any bodies, but was promptly chastised for letting the cool air in by the chorus of angry sounding “muzungu….” phrases and coming out of the darkness.
Besides the fact the men and women shared the tiny room, the sauna itself was not unlike those back in the US – wood paneled, with two levels of seating. Eucalyptus leaves burned in the coals emitting a nice, fresh scent (and covering the body odor). In the dim light, I couldn’t really tell if the man next to me was naked, or if his sheet was just strategically bunched up, but decided it was for the best not to stare to find out. Some women were laid on the tiled floor, while another man rubbed their back and legs. For a such a conservative culture, one in which showing bare thighs or mid drifts on the street is nothing short of scandal, I found the whole situation quite strange. I found some personal space, kicked back, hiked up my sheet-dress, and fell into a sweaty state of relaxation.
Exiting the steam room, I helped myself to a cold shower and was handed a dry towel, after which I stood around awkwardly, waiting for someone to show me which door my massage was behind. A masseuse appeared and led me out the back door to an alleyway, around the building and into a side room, where a bed with lacey sheets was waiting for me.
For one accustomed to ‘western’ massage etiquette, where the masseuse politely holds the towel as to ensure that you do not feel naked or exposed, stays within acceptable personal space boundaries, and routinely asks if anything is uncomfortable, the massage I received in Nyamirambo was, to say the least, alarmingly intrusive. Already uneasy after a (far too high) upper thigh massage, my masseuse proceeded climb on top of the table and mount me, legs straddled, in order to massage my back, at which point I wasn’t sure if I should be stifling laughs or calling for help. I went along with it, reassuring myself that I was ‘open’ and ‘liberated’ enough not to be bothered by this woman’s invasiveness. She ended it all by rubbing globs of oil in my hair and all over my face. I emerged shiny, slippery, and shaky, and drowned my trauma in a beer and large bowl of steamy beef soup from the bar outside.
While every sauna/massage joint is different I’m sure, you may want to carefully evaluate your physical contact comfort level before indulging. Maybe I’m just old-fashioned, but armed with my experiences I would gladly venture more visits to Kigali’s many saunas, but will be steering far away from any and all offers for a massage until the trauma of my last visit subsides. Best 5,000 francs ever spent.