Guest post: Living in Africa; what’s it really like?

Rosie Coleman explains what she’s learnt from her travels and living in different part of Africa over the past year. Check out her previous blog on how travelling helped her with her career.

I’ve now lived in Rwanda’s capital Kigali for 5 weeks and I’ve been working and travelling in Africa for nearly a year. Lots of people at home often ask what Africa is really like, often somehow expecting me to have had one consistent experience in all 10 countries. For me it’s an impossible question to answer.

With 54 countries, a landmass spanning 30 million km2 and a population exceeding 1.2 billion people, you definitely have a different experience depending on where you are. I’ve barely touched the surface in just one year.

Kigali is less hot than you’d expect

Rwanda lies just a few degrees south of the equator and so, if you’d been listening in high school geography, you could be excused for assuming it should be really hot. But Africa is simply not hot all the time and all in places. Kigali is consistently a good 3 or 4 degrees cooler than my three months in Ghana and definitely less hot than Southern Africa in wet season. Ghana frequently hits 30 degrees plus, and the far more southerly Namibia exceeded 40 on a couple of occasions while I was there. In Kigali, by comparison, average temperatures have been a very comfortable 27. Houses very rarely have fans and offices don’t have air conditioning. in part this is because there’s far less temperature variation through the year in Rwanda and, due to its many hills and high elevation, Kigali is cooler than many other cities in similar positions along the equator. It’s hot, but it’s never unbearable.

The people in Kigali are some of the friendliest I’ve ever met

Kigali is definitely not a hostile place to live as a ‘mazungu’ and I’ll have frequent interactions with adults and children wherever I go. There is a real natural friendliness about the residents of Kigali which, like many places I’ve visited in Africa, seems to be compounded by a generally high level of intrigue towards white people. But, because Rwanda is colloquially referred to as the ‘European capital of Africa’ due to its incredibly high expat population, the intrigue levels are far less than many other places. For exampele, around Lake Malawi white tourists are still a particularly novel phenomenon, and so our few days there was very much made memorable by incredible interactions with locals. In many ways less intrigue makes Kigali an easier place to live, as its that little bit easier to be anonymous.

Kigali has far less Chinese investment other fast growing African economies

There’s definitely a lot of Chinese investment here in Kigali, and lots of building work being conducted by Chinese firms. But there is nowhere near the influence that was so noticeable when driving into cities like Zambia’s capital, Lusaka. Some estimates suggest there are as many as 270 Chinese funded projects in Zambia this year and its not hard to believe just judging by the amount of Chinese corporation advertising. In comparison, I found it much harder to spot Chinese investment in Tanzania. W hilst large infrastructure projects are being funded by the Chinese in Tanzania (including the capital Dar Es Salaam’s new mega bridge across the Msimbazi river) it’s not surprising to find out there are less than 150 Chinese projects in the country. Rwanda in comparison doesn’t even feature in the top twenty of Chinese invested African states, with less than 50 projects.

Kigali is tidier than anywhere else I’ve visited in Africa

Dropping litter here is illegal, there are always street sweepers working across the city and the last Saturday of every month is a dedicated community work day called Umuganda. In efforts to reconstruct the country in the wake of the 1994 genocide, the government drew on aspects of Rwandan culture and traditional practices to enrich and adapt its development programs to the country’s specific needs. Umuganda became a compulsory practice for all 18-65 year olds, which certainly helps in keeping Kigali very clean, despite being very densely populated! The value of Umuganda to the country’s development since 2007 has been estimated at more than US $60 million, and its existence helps to make Kigali the “Singapore of Africa”.

Kigali is the most organised city I’ve visited

As consultants we spend a lot of time travelling across Kigali and public transport can be hot and sticky. However most buses are clearly numbered, have set routes and use a ‘tap and go’ card payment system that cities like Ghana’s capital Accra can only dream of! To be fair, Dar es Salaam’s metro system is incredible, but the population of the Tanzanian capital is so much larger than Kigali, the metro seems to only partly alleviate the stress of getting across the city. Not only that, but Kigali is small enough that most of the time I can walk to where I need to be.

Kigali is the most scenic capital I’ve visited too

Compare Kigali to Zimbabwean capital Harare, and on paper they don’t seem that dissimilar. They have similar size populations and not vastly different geographic sprawl. But where Harare feels like a cold and quite typically European-influenced city, Kigali feels like the villages joined together and decided to become the capital. Of course this isn’t actually what happened, but the hillside houses, constant panoramic views and dirt tracks that seamlessly turn into the tarmacked city centre make Kigali not only a really charming city but also a very accessible one. It’s definitely one of the easiest cities I’ve visited and I’m not sure any other would have made for as happy a three month stay.

So what next?

My time in Africa has been absolutely incredible and it’s clear to me that it’s hands down people at home underestimate this continent more than any on earth. Although I will be going back to live in the UK in September, I’ve already started planning which part of the continent my annual leave will help me explore in 2018. Next time you ask a question about Africa or make a broad statement, think about whether in fact you’re generalising about the continent that constituents more than 20% of the planet’s land mass. And pick up a travel guide for Africa. You won’t regret it.

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