Kigali, Rwanda Report of what it's like to live there - 07/11/20
Personal Experiences from Kigali, Rwanda
1. Was this post your first expatriate experience? If not, what other cities have you lived in as an expat?
SE Asia before Rwanda.
2. What is your home city/country? How long is the trip to post from there, with what connections? How easy/difficult is it to travel to this city/country?
The States. Trips from the DC area to Kigali are at least 24 hours, with a few connections either in Europe or elsewhere in Africa. (It seems like a lot of flights to/from Kigali route through Addis Ababa, even if you're coming from/heading to a country east or south of Rwanda). It can be costly and time-consuming traveling in sub-Saharan Africa from Kigali, though going to Tanzania and Kenya is easy. (Tickets will run around $250 pp for Dar and Nairobi).
3. How long have you lived here?
4. What brought you to this city (e.g. diplomatic mission, business, NGO, teaching, retirement, etc.)?
Housing, Groceries & Food:
1. What is your housing like? What are typical housing sizes, locations, and commute times for expatriates?
Almost everyone (including singles, couples and people with kids) lives in a big house, most with decent-sized yards. Age of housing varies widely, and many have problems like mold, faulty AC units, etc. Commute time from any neighborhood to the embassy is 10 minutes, and the commute time from pretty much any house to pretty much any restaurant or store is no more than 20 minutes. In short: Kigali is a small town.
2. How would you describe the availability and cost of groceries and household supplies relative to your home country?
The stores in Rwanda leave a lot to be desired. You can always find the bare bones (e.g., rice and pasta), but a lot of other items are hit or miss (like light soy sauce for said rice, and spaghetti sauce for said pasta). Local produce at the markets, especially Kimironko, is fantastic and basically free. Produce at any Simba is usually pretty low-quality--if available at all--but Frulep and Garden of Eden are good options for those who don't want to "brave" the local markets.
A note on Kimironko: most people seem to be intimidated to regularly shop there, but there is nothing to be worried about. If you find your fruit guy/gal, your egg guy/gal, your produce guy/gal--which admittedly may take about four times of going once a week--it will actually be a good shopping experience for the rest of your time at post. Some people send their housekeepers to the market and avow that their housekeepers get lower prices than expats do, but if you find your people/stands and are loyal customers, you will pay local prices. You might even make a local acquaintance or two.
3. What household or grocery items do you wish you had shipped to post?
More IPAs (and good beer in general). The local beer is, let's be nice and say sub-par, and quality liquor and wine can be hard to find and/or pricey. (Wine, for example, is going to be three times what you'd pay in The States for the same brand). Also, toiletries can be kind of expensive here, so be sure to bring what you want/need from The States. Another good idea is to get a cooler to take with you anytime you travel (even just to other sub-Saharan countries like Kenya and South Africa). Meats, cheeses, and alcohol are way better and cheaper in those countries and, of course, in most of Europe.
4. What typical restaurants, food delivery services, and/or takeout options are popular among expatriates?
There are actually a lot of decent/good restaurants in Kigali, a lot of Indian especially, but you can also get good Korean and Chinese food, burgers and pizza galore, and a variety of other cuisine. Vuba Vuba is the latest delivery service, and it's easy to use and has a lot of restaurants on it.
5. Are there any unusual problems with insects or other infestations in housing?
Not really. Ants, millipedes, spiders, and water beetles can be common, but not typically at "infestation" levels. If you just let the common house lizards live inside, they can take care of some of the bugs for you!
1. How do you send and receive your letters and package mail? Are local postal facilities adequate?
Through the pouch. Items from Amazon, for example, take three weeks on average to get here. Local postal facilities aren't the best, but you can mail stuff; it will just be expensive and take a long time for the item to reach its destination.
2. What is the availability and cost of household help, and what types of help are typically employed by expatriates?
People pay between $100 and $200 a month for any type of household help. Most people seem to at least have housekeepers and gardeners, and families with little kids often have nannies. Some people have cooks as well. All of that said, if you're new to embassy living overseas, having help is not essential, and don't let people make you feel like it is--or that if you don't hire staff, you're not helping out the locals. If you shop at markets like Kimironko, you're contributing to the local economy in a way that doesn't suggest that locals need to be hired by expatriates in order to make it in life. Also, household help earns far more than most other professions in Rwanda, so hiring them may help them in the present, but upon your departure they might not be able to find jobs with equal pay/benefits.
3. What kinds of gyms or other sports/workout facilities are available? Are they expensive?
The embassy has a small gym (with cardio equipment and weights), as well as a pool. There are some decent gyms in town, and monthly fees are around $100.
4. Are credit cards widely accepted and safe to use locally? Are ATMs common and do you recommend using them? Are they safe to use?
Credit cards are widely accepted in Kigali and safe to use, but you'll need cash for activities outside the city. ATMs are common but not always working, so it's best to just write checks at the cashier at the embassy and get Rwandan francs that way.
5. How much of the local language do you need for daily living? Are local language classes/tutors available and affordable?
For daily living in Kigali, you'll be fine with English, but even a few Kinyarwanda words and phrases will go a long way (at least in terms of making the locals smile, which can otherwise be a challenge). If you shop at Kimironko, knowing a bit more Kinyarwanda will be very helpful at first, but it's not essential, and you'll find people working the stands who will be able to communicate with you in English. If you're outside the city, you'll notice a decline in English-speaking ability, so better still to know at least some Kinyarwanda. French isn't taught in schools anymore, so only the older population speaks it, but as there are a decent number of Congolese living in Rwanda, French can be helpful.
6. Would someone with physical disabilities have difficulties living in this city?
There are worse places for people with physical disabilities, but Kigali doesn't seem super conducive for said people. It's very hilly; a lot of restaurants have stairs (but no elevators, escalators or ramps); and the sidewalks, although good, are usually crowded with people.
1. Are local buses, trams, trains or taxis safe and affordable?
Local transportation is dirt cheap but not really that safe. Motos are off limits for US diplomats--for good reason--and it doesn't seem like anyone should need to take local buses. Taxis are fine and shouldn't cost more than $10 to the airport from just about any neighborhood in Kigali (or $15 from the airport home).
2. What kind of car do you recommend bringing to post, given the terrain, availability of parts, burglary/carjacking risks, etc.? What kind of car do you advise not to bring?
If you bring a car, definitely bring a 4WD vehicle. Toyota Rav 4s are the most common vehicles in Rwanda, so Toyota parts and service are readily available. If you bring a US or UK brand, bring plenty of spare parts. If you plan on doing safari driving in Akagera (highly recommended!), you can do so in a Rav 4, but your experience will be better in a more robust vehicle.
Phone & Internet:
1. Is high-speed home Internet access available? How long does it typically take to install it after arrival?
Yes, fiber internet is available, easy to set up, and relatively problem-free. Liquid internet is around $100/month.
2. Do you have any recommendations regarding mobile phones? Did you keep your home-country plan or use a local provider?
Local SIM cards and plans are easy to set up. You can also use GoogleFi. The local MTN network is super cheap, a few dollars a month or so.
1. Are qualified veterinarians and/or good kennel services available? Do animals need to be quarantined upon entry to the country? Are there other considerations regarding pets that are particular to this country?
Pets Plus has qualified veterinarians--who can do surgeries, etc.--and the prices are very affordable. Animals don't need to be quarantined upon entry.
A consideration about pets that's particular to Rwanda: for the most part, locals view dogs as guard animals (at best), and are typically afraid of them. There are virtually no street dogs in the whole country. That said, the nonprofit organization WAG is a great resource for helping rescue street dogs, and a great place to foster and/or adopt local dogs if you're looking to get a dog here.
Employment & Volunteer Opportunities:
1. What types of jobs do most expatriate spouses/partners have? Locally based or telecommuting? Full-time or part-time? Can you comment on local salary scales?
Getting a local job is challenging, but there are plenty of volunteer opportunities, and telecommuting is always a good route for spouses/partners of direct hires.
2. What volunteer opportunities are available locally?
WAG (see above), Africa International Club, and more.
3. What is the typical dress code at work and in public places? Is formal dress ever required?
Depending on position, most people wear business casual to work. In public, casual wear is most common.
Health & Safety:
1. Are there personal security concerns to be aware of at this post? Please describe.
Rwanda is a police state and locals follow the rules, so it's a very safe country. Women can freely walk around Kigali, even in the evening/at night (not in the middle of the night necessarily, but even then, they'd likely be just fine), and the biggest personal security concerns would probably be related to traffic: drivers can be careless, vehicles are in ill-repair and hoods can fly open right in front of you, etc.
2. Are there any particular health concerns? What is the quality of available medical care? What medical conditions typically require medical evacuation?
Rwanda is a high-risk malaria country, and most (if not all) of the bodies of water have schistosomiasis (aka snail fever), so it's best not to go swimming anywhere except at pools in Kigali.
The quality of medical care in Rwanda definitely leaves something to be desired, and if your injury/health issue doesn't qualify you--or for some reason you aren't able--to be flown to Pretoria, brace yourself. Try to avoid going to Medi-Health (even if the health unit staff wants you to); the facility is of very poor quality, and the medical professionals are not professional. King Faisal is passable, and they do have an MRI machine and an x-ray machine, as well as more competent medical professionals than those at Medi-Health.
3. What is the air quality like at post (good/moderate/bad)? Are there seasonal air quality issues? Does the air quality have an impact on health?
The air quality in Kigali is moderate. People with allergies seem to have some problems during dry season.
4. What do people who suffer from environmental or food allergies need to know?
Bring your medication(s).
5. Are there any particular mental health issues that tend to crop up at post, such as Seasonal Affective Disorder (winter blues)?
6. What is the overall climate: is it extremely hot or cold, wet or dry, at any time of year, for example?
Kigali's climate is very similar to that of SoCal: warm and sunny most of the time, with temps ranging between 60F and 80F/15C and 27C year-round. The seasons here are rainy and dry as opposed to hot and cold. At higher elevations, like in Musanze, temps can be a little colder, but you shouldn't ever need more than a warm jacket.
Schools & Children:
1. Are preschools available? Day care? Are these expensive? What has been your experience with them, if any? Do the schools provide before- and/or after-school care?
1. What is the relative size of the expatriate community? How would you describe overall morale among expatriates?
There's a good-sized expat community here, with people from all over. Morale seems pretty good (at least outside of pandemics).
2. What are some typical ways to socialize, either with local people or with other expatriates? Are there groups or clubs that you can recommend?
For the most part, socializing with locals isn't common; the language barrier can be too great, the disparity of wealth often dictates that the foreign resident pay for activities/meals/drinks, etc. Socializing with other foreign residents can be easy and fun, mostly at people's houses but also at restaurants and even in Akagera, hotels outside of town, etc.
3. Is this a good city for single people? For couples? For families? Why or why not?
Single people might have a harder time in Kigali than couples or those with children b/c Kigali is a "family" post (i.e., most people have children). Couples who like getting out of the city and hiking in Musanze, game driving in Akagera, kayaking on Lake Kivu, etc., should do fine here as well.
4. Is this a good city for LGBT expatriates? Why or why not?
Not sure. If the locals do have problems with LGBT people, they wouldn't say/do anything. (Rwandans, for the most part, are reserved and muted; there is a culture of not speaking out against anything).
5. Is it easy to make friends with locals here? Are there any prejudices or any ethnic groups who might feel uncomfortable here?
See response to #2 with regards to making friends with locals. With regards to prejudices, if you're Black American and driving, police might assume you're Rwandan and stop you at a checkpoint, but as soon as they'd realize you were a diplomat, you'd be fine.
6. Are there problems with ethnic, race/racial minorities or religious prejudices? Gender equality?
Not for expats.
7. What have been the highlights of your time in this country? Best trips or experiences?
Akagera National Park (game driving, camping); Nyungwe National Park (hiking, birding, chimpanzee trek); Lake Kivu (kayaking with Kingfisher Journeys); canoeing on the Mukungwa River and on Lake Ruhondo with Kingfisher Journeys; Musanze (golden monkey trek, hiking Mt. Bisoke). The chimpanzee trek seems undervalued/way less known than the gorilla trek, and yet it's incredible. At a fraction of the cost, you can get up close to active chimpanzees, watching them run through the forest, stuff their mouths with figs, and fight with Dent's mona monkeys.
8. What are some interesting/fun things to do in the area? Can you recommend any “hidden gems"?
See above answer. Hidden gems are: the chimp trek in Nyungwe (booked through RDB), canoeing (see above), and the Lakeside Fish Farm for a nice day out from Kigali.
9. Is this a "shopping post"? Are there interesting handicrafts, artwork, antiques, or other items that people typically buy there?
Handmade baskets are the most popular souvenirs, and you can find them lots of places in Kigali.
10. What are the particular advantages of living in this city?
The weather is ideal, the produce is great and cheap, there are plenty of good restaurants, it's safe and clean, the commute to the embassy is short, and weekend getaways/activities outside the city are, at most, a four-hour drive (though Musanze and Akagera are only two hours away).
Words of Wisdom:
1. What do you wish you had known about this particular city/country before moving there?
How expensive imported goods are, how noisy it can be with all the construction (building the golf course, road works, erecting apartments and other buildings, etc.), and how hard it is to become very close with locals.
2. Knowing what you know now, would you still move to this city?
Yes. And two years seem just about right.
3. If you move here, you can leave behind your:
Winter wear, fear of shopping at local markets, and Smart car.
4. But don't forget your:
Sense of adventure, mozzie repellant (especially for Akagera; the tse-tse flies can be horrendous there), quality binoculars/camera, and good beer.
5. Do you recommend any books or movies about this city/country for those who are interested in learning more?
"Life Laid Bare: The Survivors in Rwanda Speak" and "Machete Season: The Killers in Rwanda Speak," both by Jean Hatzfeld, and "Shake Hands with the Devil," by Lieutenant-General Roméo Dallaire.