As we drive into the centre of Nyamirambo, past the famous Biryogo mosque, the area is a notch calmer than usual, although it is still by far more alive than any other sector of Kigali Province.
The muezzin sounds the call for the late afternoon prayers. The crescendo of the call eclipses the other local sounds — of auto horns, buyers and customers haggling, a beautiful cacophony that has formed an indelible identity of the place.
Much has changed in Nyamirambo in the past few years: Its signature loud, pimped mini-bus taxis adorned in graffiti images of American singers have been replaced by Chinese Zonda buses.
It is January 5, and tough Covid-19 containment measures recently passed by the government include closing of businesses at 6pm, as well as abolition of trips from or to Kigali and other inter-district travels.
Although other factors have dampened life in Nyamirambo, it is clear that the coronavirus is slowly sucking the energy out of the town.
It is the first day of the new measures (which have since been updated until early February), but business already looks lethargic. The body language of the mask-wearing people on the streets is passionless, a far cry from the usual zest that is displayed even when just walking down the street.
As we drive up a hill, I see storied buildings that have come up where graffiti-painted clothing shops and music studios used to be, from which loud music would blare all day and night because this sector never used to sleep.
The once eccentric town, with a peculiar lifestyle that made it a must go for everyone who visits Kigali, now looks like an old snake shedding off its skin.
Nestled between the elegant hills of Rebero and Mount Kigali, at an elevation of more than 1,800 metres, Nyamirambo is a historic relic, which has maintained a distinct way of life that is an attraction to many.
Its name is a vestige from the 19th century violent battles between the kings of Rwanda and Burundi. One of the bloodiest battles left many dead bodies in the area, hence the name Nyamirambo —from Mirambo, which means dead bodies.
Despite the on-going municipality structural changes taking place in some parts, many sections have remained the same in this intriguing part of Kigali, both in good and unsavoury ways.
I wanted to have a taste of the lifestyle of Nyamirambo, so I looked for the place where the famous green tea, locally known as teveri, is sold.
I find more than a dozen old men, their greying hair covered by Muslim skullcaps, sitting on wooden chairs that take up an entire street. They are sipping all kinds of teas, from green tea to a hot concoction of spiced tea, made of ginger and lemon, served in tiny porcelain cups. A few drink coffee.
As I enter one of the bars to place an order, I realise all the younger men standing on the veranda and those inside are having their tea in bigger cups.
I quickly learn that some are taxi motorcycle riders, mechanics and tailors, who have come for a refill of their daily dose.
They immediately realise that I am not a regular.
As the tea-seller pours me a small cup, he says I might find the sugar a little too much for my liking. After taking the first sip, I realise this was just tea-room banter, because I find the tea bitter, akin to those malaria herbs they used to force us drink back in the village in Buikwe.
In Nyamirambo, one can find the cheapest food in Kigali, where Rwf700 ($0.7) can buy food to last a person two days. All income levels are catered for, from food worth Rwf200 ($0.2) to Rwd2,000 ($2) and above.
My next stop was the famed pilau and chapati restaurants, and the one I ordered from did not disappoint. However, don’t offer to pay using mobile money or Visa card.
The way of life in Biryogo, which is at the heart of Nyamirambo, is heavily influenced by the Muslim cultures, traced from the time many Arabs occupied the place. Many people in this area speak Kiswahili.
At the dawn of the 20th century, as the Belgian colonialists sought to entrench their Catholic-leaning hegemony in Rwanda, the Muslim religion and cultures proved to be a thorn in their plans.
At the time, many Muslims lived in the city centre, where Bank of Kigali is now located. This proved problematic to the colonialists who also had their administrative offices in the city centre.
To get them out of the way, the colonialists moved all Muslims to Nyamirambo.
The place had hyenas living there at the time. The people gradually made it habitable, and the hyenas relocated to parts of Bugesera and beyond.
Just as the place is a convergence of histories, it is also a mirror of the socio-economic reality of today’s Rwanda. Only in Nyamirambo do you find squalor co-existing with grandeur, a microcosm of the country’s income inequality.
On one side is the biggest slum in Rwanda, while on the other are palatial residences.
What the town has not yet shed off is its reputation of crime and drug abuse, largely because these ills are still prevalent.
Haven for criminals
Besides criminals finding easy camouflage in Nyamirambo, sexual minorities have also found it a safe haven, partly because the laissez-faire air in the place leaves no room for many prying eyes.
The same spirit has provided fertile ground for creativity, turning the place into an incubator of fashion, art and music, producing many of the country’s recording artists, actors and icons.
Nyamirambo is also a base for urban subculture formed out of lack, which has influenced the growth of slang Kinyarwanda that has proliferated across the country.
Even though as a lot has changed in Nyamirambo, some things have not. It is still the clothing store of Kigali — where many go for trendy, low-cost outfits, despite the ban on second-hand clothes dampening business there.
The colours, sounds, aromas, and the hustling spirit of the town have not changed.
As we prepare to leave Nyamirambo, I check the time and it is a few minutes past 5pm, less than an hour to when businesses are supposed to be closed. Here, the day has just reached its climax. Perhaps indeed Nyamirambo never sleeps.