The house where the genocide was planned

Friday July 27 2012

Former state house now a museum in Kanombe, Kicukiro District. Photo/Cyril Ndegeya

Former state house now a museum in Kanombe, Kicukiro District. Photo/Cyril Ndegeya 

By KABONA ESIARA Rwanda Today

It is a sunny Saturday, and Rwandans in both traditional and Western attire sit under white tents erected on the opposite sides of the neatly manicured lawns.

Suddenly, newly wed couples and their entourages in both traditional and Western outfits fill the tents. This is a home to two former Rwandan presidents: Juvinal Habyarimana and Pasteur Bizimungu.

The house, four kilometres away from Kigali International Airport and a stone’s throw from the debris of the plane that killed Habyarimana on April 6, 1994, has a modern architectural design, and is an illustration of extreme wealth.

The site is now a national museum that attracts an average of 400 tourists per day. The high frequency of tourists is driven by curiosity to witness the very house where the inner circle (Akazu) sat and planned the genocide.

The palace was turned into a museum as part of the national healing process. “I know it evokes bad memories for victims,” says Alphonse Umuliisa, Director General of Rwanda Museums. “It is not far from the truth.

“We preserve cultural history to build the future for both social and economic wellbeing of the community,” he adds.

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Indeed, at the entrance of this magnificent presidential palace, there is a banner with an inscription: “Discover your Museums. Cherish your culture.”

Christine Mbabazi, a tour guide at the Presidential Palace Museum points out that the first lady’s office was on the right while the president’s was on the left.

At the entrance to the president’s office, chairs are lined up in the corridor. Some have been sealed to stop guests from sitting on them, lest they wear out. It is here that guests waited as the president attended to other duties.

From his office on the ground floor, one is ushered into a spacious family sitting room which is now decorated with pictures, paintings, wood carvings, furniture and artifacts showing the culture of Rwandans dating back to the 1960s.

A closer look at the pictures shows that status in society dictated the type of wear. The married, wealthy, ruling class and the missionaries dressed differently. The images also depict ancient hair styles. King Yuhi V. Musinga’s picture stands out prominently.

The wood carvings display activities a traditional Rwandan used to engage in; digging, dancing and hunting, cooking and ancient Rwandan eating ceremonies.

The master bedroom upstairs was built with security in mind. Sound sensors line the stairs as one climbs to the bedroom surrounded by a large balcony that can be accessed from all sides of the bedroom.

Every time he switched on the sensors while in his bedroom, the president was able to detect the distance someone was from his bedroom.

In the bedroom, a six by six wooden bed without a mattress is positioned close to the expensive glass table supported by gigantic elephant-foot legs. Another sign the president loved style.

The bed, according to Ms Mbabazi, was bought for Pasteur Bizimungu, who was the president from June 19, 1994 to March 23, 2000.

However, when President Kagame was handed the instruments of power, he chose to stay in Kiyovu and not Kanombe State House.

Habyarimana was both a Christian and a traditionalist. On the second floor, a chapel where the president used to say his prayers remains empty with a small table that served as pulpit tucked into a corner.

Ms Mbabazi says when Pope John Paul made a stopover in Rwanda in 1990, the pontiff led mass in the presidential chapel, which can accommodate about 20 people.

But being an African, he never forgot the power of the ancestors. He offered burnt sacrifices to African gods in secrecy.

The study with a green carpet at times was turned into a shrine. However, there is nothing to show it is a shrine except documented testimony from some of his close friends and employees.

This museum is managed by the Institute of National Museums of Rwanda created in October 2006, to carry out research, protect and promote Rwandan heritage.

The Institute of National Museums of Rwanda is also mandated to enhance knowledge, appreciation, respect and sustainable utilisation of national resources for the benefit of the country. “If you want to be rich, promote culture,” Mr Umuliisa says.

In addition to culture promotion and preservation, the institution trains Rwandans to weave baskets for export.

Through these cultural lessons, the minister says, the ultimate purpose is to rebuild the image of the country and the population.