“Your home will always be the place you feel the deepest affection for, wherever you are.” Proverb
On a particularly bright, sunny and warm afternoon six days after arriving in Rwanda, I spent a quiet afternoon with my twin sister Colette at Ikawa Kafe, speak with its owners Adilah and LaMont Muhammad, African-American “refugees” who have chosen to settle in the land of a thousand hills.
“I still can’t believe we’re here,” Adilah said.
The couple had scanned the African continent in search of a place to live. “Rwanda wasn’t even on our radar,” LaMont said, adding, “We had no idea what it was.”
A place where they say they have been welcomed in a way they have never experienced before.
However, it was the brutal murder of George Floyd that turned their casual search into an imperative. “I woke up screaming into my pillow,” Adilah said, “I’m done.”
Nine months later, they made their first trip to Rwanda. It was January 2021 and the rainy season. Adilah said she had doubts. “It was dangerously muddy and I was really cold. We weren’t sure if it could meet the needs of the family we were bringing with us.
It would be the way she was welcomed into a Rwandan home and family on this first trip that allowed her to overcome her worries. The Muhammads are Muslims and “very spiritual people,” LaMont said. The deep warmth and welcome they felt “was the sign we needed.” But they both agreed there was something else almost as powerful.
The couple were shocked after coming from an America deeply divided by how every Rwandan they met spoke enthusiastically and with great pride about their homeland and their President, Paul Kagame. And for good reason, they both accepted.
“We knew the trauma that Rwandans had suffered during the genocide. Adilah said it was amazing how the country had recovered from this unthinkable travesty.
And while she in no way compares her life in America to the 100-day bloodbath in 1994, when 1 million Tutsis and their Hutu sympathizers were slaughtered, Adilah lived through her own trauma.
Unable to afford health care as a small business owner, she said she lived with physical and health conditions she could not afford to be diagnosed with. After arriving in Rwanda, she was able to pay for the tests and care she needed thanks to Rwanda’s progressive health system which makes care easily accessible to everyone. (See “In Rwanda, health coverage that escapes the United States”)
“We don’t realize how broken we come from America.”
But there are some things that are obvious about the breakup, not the least of which is “the explosion of kids in our schools,” Adilah said.
Their two granddaughters, first cousins, are both pre-teens. Their parents stayed in the United States to work, while their grandparents brought them to a place where the couple could walk the streets without fear of being shot.
It is just one of the many laws that govern the country that no one in Rwanda is allowed to have weapons of any kind.
When asked what they found to be the biggest challenge in their new home, the two girls replied, almost in unison, “cold showers.” And while big tubs filled with hot water are elusive to them, friends are not.
The giddy but relaxed talking about all the new friends they had made at school.
The Muhammads are not the only African Americans who have found or are finding their way to Rwanda.
During our leisurely three-hour visit over a delicious lunch and spiced tea, a number of expats visited the Afro-centric restaurant and cafe the Muhammads established. They were warmly welcomed and clearly found Ikawa Kafe a cozy haven, with African-themed artwork, murals and locally made tables and chairs. (Ikawa means coffee in Kinyarwanda, by the way.)
At one point a woman dressed in traditional African attire with a matching brown and yellow headband found a table next to us and we struck up a conversation. Rosa was on her second fact-finding trip to Rwanda. She had been in the country for two months this time.
A 52-year-old St. Louis native, Rosa said the hardest part of her decision was leaving her family behind. It was clear, however, that she had made the decision. “Yes,” she said when the determined expression on her face made me wonder if she had made up her mind. “I will do it.”
A few nights later we decided to go for a buffet and live music night at Ikawa Kafe. This time the customers were gathered in the street where tables had been set and where the orchestra was playing. One particularly long table was occupied by an unusually lively group of 18-20 women, mostly middle-aged and older, dressed in colorful batik caftans. By their accents, it seemed likely that they were part of the African-American community that Adilah and LaMont had attracted to the restaurant.
It wasn’t long before twin sister Colette engaged one of the women sitting at the head of the table. Not meeting with much success talking across the catwalk and over the group and din of IMAHKÜS chatter Nzingah Okofu, aka Mama One Africa, joined us. She told us she escaped from “corporate America” more than 30 years ago to Ghana where she made her home until she discovered Rwanda a few years earlier. It didn’t take her long to develop a women’s economic empowerment initiative in the country: Rweru Women’s Economic Empowerment Initiative. While IMAHKÜS still had a business and some initiatives in Ghana, it seemed very comfortable leading the table of women who had also escaped from America to settle in the safety and warmth of Kigali. .
The day before I left my adopted country of Rwanda, I hosted a combined birthday party for my Rwandan son Peter and my adoptive twin sister’s husband, Mike, and a going away party at Ikawa. As we arrived early, we had the chance to chat with another African American couple who had found refuge in Rwanda a few years earlier from Virginia. The couple, who said they live outside of Washington, DC, also said they found peace in their new home.
“It’s just the driving that takes some getting used to,” the husband said. But, they were determined to do it and had committed themselves to this task by bringing their two cars from the United States to Rwanda. “We drove for a living there,” the husband said. “We’ll get used to that.”
On the day we first met, Adilah recalled how 90 days after the first visit in January, they arrived with their two mothers and two granddaughters and not much more.
“We were like any refugee,” Adilah said. What set them apart from day one was the welcome they received on their return to the airport from the people they had gotten to know three months earlier. “They came to greet us as if we were coming home,” Adilah said.
Editor’s note: Read a “Rwanda Journal 2022: A Mystical Journey Part I” here.