Kigali: A Design City on the Rise

It seems that the more time I spend in Rwanda’s capital city of Kigali, the more I discover. From furniture to fashion, art to craft, and architecture to design, this is a city worth discovering.

I’ve written here previously about how inspiring Rwanda is as a country, a culture and an economy, but when I traveled there earlier this year, I was reminded of the sheer variety, quality and excellence of its art, design and fashion scene. 

Reinventing traditional craft culture

One of the first things I noticed upon my arrival in Rwanda was the use of striking geometric patterns on the walls of houses. Called imigongo, this unique indigenous art form is found only in Rwanda. Made from cow dung and marked by colorful bands of geometric patterns used as decoration, imigongo has been around since the 18th century. Today the art form is best described as a contemporary cultural expression that has migrated from surfaces to portable wooden canvases, plates, wall hangings, clothing and even shoes. 

For fashion designer Moses Turahirwa, imigongo formed the signature for the first collection of his award-winning fashion brand Moshions. His mission to create designs that draw on cultural ideas was inspired by the woven basketry and beaded artworks he was exposed to as a child.

My introduction to Rwanda’s tradition of basketry was revealed upon my arrival at my hotel in the leafy city centre, where a giant sisal bowl adorned with the silhouette of one of the long-horned Inyambo cattle greeted me. It struck me how the culture and traditions of Rwanda are inextricably linked to its artworks and craft. In this case, the Inyambo cattle were traditionally used in dowries, referenced in traditional dances and were even depicted on ancient rock paintings. 

Similarly, agaseke – traditional Rwandan baskets used for food and grain storage and as gifts for important ceremonies – are ingrained in Rwandan culture. 

Boosting local industry with Made in Rwanda

Moses, and many other designers like him, benefitted from the homegrown ‘Made in Rwanda’ initiative launched in 2015. Ingenious and ambitious, its aim is to help boost economic growth and industry, promoting locally made products at a global level. It not only fostered a dramatic increase in foreign investment but more importantly changed perceptions in the country itself by creating pride and trust amongst the local Rwandan population who had previously aspired to imported products. 

Ethical fashion brand Haute Baso, is another of my favorite shops in Kigali, and a success story for the ‘Made in Rwanda’ campaign. Its founder and creator, Linda Mukangoga, has used her clothing, décor and jewellery collective as a means to train local artisans across the entire production chain. “We see fashion as a vehicle for positive change in the empowerment of women and youth who are integral to our value,” she explains. Haute Baso’s ethos is one of simplicity with thoughtful, functional designs, a philosophy found in a mix of woven sisal stools, contemporary agaseke baskets, candles and clothing.

With House of Tayo, designer Matthew Rugamba combines African heritage with modern designs and is celebrated for his bow ties and men’s suits with elegant trims of African kitenge fabric. The brand made global headlines in 2018 with its bespoke “Wakanda Secret Service” three-piece suit which was worn by the brother of Kenyan actress Lupita Nyong’o to the premiere of Black Panther.

The Rwandan government thinks big

As a small nation of 12 million people and with one of the fastest-growing economies in the world, Rwanda has set itself the goal of becoming a middle-income nation by 2035. This sentiment is seen in everything from the standard of safari operators to the efficiency of their Covid policies and their rank as one of the first countries to deliver medical supplies by drone. 

In the case of the latter, they enlisted the help of British starchitect Norman Foster to design the drone ports that will facilitate these medical supplies, essentially approaching the architect who has built the biggest airport in the world to build the smallest. 

With plenty of interesting architectural projects and a surge of new design shops and collectives popping up in Kigali, our art and design tour is an ode to the country’s creative pulse and I’m thrilled to be adding it to the stable of curated itineraries we offer at WILSON TOURS AFRICA.

If it speaks to you, please get in touch with us at info@wilsontoursafrica.com 

Making Travel Count

“The decisions we take over the next decade will determine the fate not only of the world’s biodiversity, but also the fate of us all.” Elizabeth Maruma Mrema, Executive Secretary of the UN Convention of Biological Diversity.

The story of biodiversity on our planet reads like a tragedy. We’ve watched it being written for decades, we’ve heard the alarm calls, but despite that, it’s gaining momentum, directly impacting the survival of wild animals, the majesty of natural spaces and all of us who depend on these ecosystems. 

It’s particularly alarming that by 2100 we could see the loss of 50% of Africa’s bird and mammal species. This widespread impact will be felt by us all as the untamed splendor of the places you travel to diminishes. To say that this is an urgent cause that WILSON TOURS AFRICA backs, underpinning all of the choices we make as a company, is putting it mildly. For we know more than most that how you travel, where you choose to venture, the people you engage with and the experiences you seek there are key contributors to biodiversity. 

Sustaining the African dream

By definition, biodiversity is the variety of life on Earth, but for us as passionate protagonists of conscious and sustainable travel, there’s a world of depth beyond these words. Biodiversity is what’s at the heart of our enduring love affair with Africa; it connects all living things and forms the essence of what moves you during a trip with us. It’s the foundation on which we’ve built a conservation-led, responsible tourism business. 

Being awoken by the primal call of lions reverberating in the still night air, watching as the jewel-toned malachite kingfisher flits a path over Botswana’s life-giving Okavango Delta and being stilled by the sight of Rwanda’s last remaining mountain gorillas as they make their way through the salad bowl of the rainforest. These indelible moments are the ones that WILSON TOURS AFRICA strives to deliver, for they awaken something deep within us all – a reminder that we’re part of something bigger, something altogether more significant than our busy lives. These integral chinks in the chain of Africa’s biodiversity are what connect us to the living world.

Tipping the scales

Beyond the sheer joy of moments like these, biodiversity tells us about how our impact is affecting the natural world and reveals who we are at the end of the day. Over time, our choices as human beings have eroded the equilibrium of the planet. Factors such as climate change, war, urbanization, deforestation, poaching and animal trafficking are all critical contributors to the rapid loss of biodiversity on the planet and particularly in Africa. Ironically, this is a continent famously rich in biodiversity, gifted with high numbers of endemic mammals and plants, but also acutely threatened with an increasing number of endangered ones.

It’s no compliment that eight of the 34 biodiversity hotspots around the world are in Africa. Described as the most biologically rich yet simultaneously threatened regions on the planet, these hotspots are a red flag – Africa is in dire need of help. Some of these hotspots include Madagascar and the Indian Ocean Islands (including those in Mauritius and Seychelles, the Eastern Afromontane (encompassing parts of UgandaMozambique and Zimbabwe) and the Cape Floristic Region in South Africa

Contributing to a legacy 

For Africa to thrive for generations to come, the onus is on each of us to leave a legacy for those to come. It’s in our hands to make choices that will ultimately write a different ending to this story. Contributing to a destination and its community is the essence of what sets WILSON TOURS AFRICA apart. While we know that travel is escape, adventure and discovery… it’s also philanthropy. By choosing to travel with us, you’re choosing to make your mark. We put as much impetus on creating memorable travel experiences as we do on transformational ones. 

With that in mind, know that your actions matter more than you realize. We encourage you to learn about your destination by exploring the recommended reading and watch lists we send out to you prior to your trip; they’re packed with local insight. Allow yourself the time to truly connect with Africa and listen to the very people who are defending her natural riches rather than merely skimming the surface. Immerse yourself completely, there is so much depth that comes from a life spent looking and learning. In the end it will determine what we leave behind and who we are as a people.

Let your trip with us be the catalyst for a legacy in conservation, the start of a new story that honors the natural world

Unforgettable gorilla encounters in Rwanda’s rainforests

For most of us, the real thrill of going on safari in Africa is the opportunity to see wild animals in close proximity. And, to be in close contact with a mountain gorilla, an animal that shares 96% of our DNA as humans, is like holding up a mirror to ourselves. My first visit to the gorillas in Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Park was humbling and breathtaking because of the silent bond of trust that seemed to exist between us – a small group of humans – and the wild family of gorillas which allowed us to observe them whilst they went about their daily business. In fact, it was the recognition of that ancient yet fragile link that had led me, many years earlier, to my husband.

Long before gorilla trekking was a tourist activity, he had spent three weeks climbing though the salad bowl of the Congo forest on a personal quest to see these remarkable primates for himself. One day, I happened upon a photograph of him sitting next to a gorilla and I remember being impacted by the implicit trust evident between them – it struck a deep chord in me. So much so, that on the strength of that one photograph, I just knew I had to meet the human in it. For that image spoke of a shared passion for wildlife and wild spaces and the deep connection that exists between all of us living things. Most of all, it stirred an enormous respect inside of me.

A reminder of what matters

Anyone who has experienced the enormous privilege of trekking to see gorillas will agree that the time you spend with them is incredibly grounding. For in those moments, the white noise of our busy lives and the seduction of our personal dramas is forgotten. It all simply comes down to you and this incredibly powerful wild animal before you, who – with very little reason to trust you – allows you to sit and observe him in his primordial paradise.

Thanks in part to the high cost of gorilla permits which fund preservation and anti-poaching initiatives, the dedicated conservation efforts by the Rwandan government and high-end eco lodges like Singita Kwitonda have brought about an increase in the total gorilla population from around 680 to more than 1 000 in the past decade. It is hard to believe that it has been almost 30 years since this tiny country in the heart of the continent endured one of the worst genocides in living history – a horror that left millions of people dead and its infrastructure, society and wildlife decimated. And yet today the country – affectionately known as “The Land of a Thousand Hills” – is an inspiring place of great hope.

Rwanda has become one of the world’s great conservation success stories, having built a dynamic, sustainable, luxury ecotourism model in the process, as well as pioneering bold initiatives with respect to women’s empowerment. With the mountain gorillas and golden monkeys in the north, and chimpanzees in the south, Rwanda’s rainforests and mountain terrain are home to everything from rhinos, elephants and Cape buffalos, to lions and leopards – not to mention more than 700 species of birdlife.

A land of magic and mist

Singita Kwitonda was named after a legendary silverback gorilla, the late Kwitonda (“humble one”), who led his family out of the war-torn Virunga National Park to safety in the mountains. A jewel in Rwanda’s hospitality offering, the lodge is a place suffused with an incredible energy and dynamism. Set on 70 hectares of land on the border of the Volcanoes National Park, it boasts breathtaking views of the Sabyinyo, Gahinga and Muhabura volcanoes shrouded by the swirling mists that Dian Fossey made famous in her book. As always, Singita’s vision is big – the lodge has been purposefully designed as a buffer zone which will eventually transform the surrounding farmlands into a lush habitat for the gorillas by way of reforestation.

Singita’s goal is to plant 250 million indigenous trees and some 600 000 saplings which will restore these lands once more. The lodge’s low-rise buildings will, in time, become totally integrated into the landscape and the roofs of these contemporary yet iconic buildings have been planted with indigenous orchids and other plants to form micro habitats for butterflies, birds and bees.

Part of the landscape

Singita’s luxurious suites cut a stylish swathe without detracting from the spectacle outdoors. Each of the eight glass-fronted guest suites is designed for engaging with the moody landscape and comes with a palatial bathroom, fully-stocked kitchenette, and indoor and outdoor fireplaces. To retire in your own heated pool, with views of the volcanoes, after a gorilla trek, is a soulful, unforgettable experience. Another highlight in the luxury ecotourism journey is Kwitonda’s farm-to-table philosophy, whereby fresh produce grown on site is served in dishes which showcase Rwandan cuisine.

We are so pleased to announce that Singita Kwitonda is once again where we will base ourselves on the last leg of our Greatest Safari on Earth aboard the Emirates Executive Private Jet, a journey set to take place from August 26 to September, 7 2022. If you are interested in joining us on a 12-day sojourn designed to deliver the ultimate in wonder, adventure and luxury, contact info@wilsontoursafrica.com