Regulars at Alliance Française in the 2000s will recall us, Sauti Sol, doing covers of Youssou N’Dour’s Seven Seconds. We were much skinnier then. Hungry to be played everywhere, to go everywhere, to do everything.
It was a time when the dreams we had outdistanced our pockets. Last week, while attending the 18th inaugural Kwita Izina, we not only met and had dinner with Youssou N’Dour, we even got on stage with him and jammed, in front of a thousand guests and the President and First Lady of Rwanda. Our dreams matched up!
Kwita Izina, for the uninitiated, is a naming ceremony done for the gorillas that dwell high above the peaks of Musanze, above Volcanoes National Park. I flew in straight from Johannesburg, where I was doing some recording work, for the ceremony. That’s why I didn’t have proper hiking boots with me when I got to Kigali. More on that later.
Volcanoes National Park is a two-hour drive away from Kigali – and that’s just the entrance. We left the Marriott in the morning for the mountains via an incredibly scenic route. Rwanda is the land of a thousand hills, and there is no straight road for longer than one kilometre. At Singita Kwitonda Lodge, we checked into our rooms and then prepared for the naming ceremony the next day.
In the lobby the next morning, on the way to the naming ceremony, I nearly hyperventilated when I saw Didier Drogba. Sauti Sol are lifelong Arsenal fans, so, obviously, I went up to him and told him just as much. He smiled and said, “Well then, this should be fun.” The pain in my heart knows why he said that and laughed…
The Rwandese take their culture very seriously. Drogba was in Rwanda for the same reason as we were; to name the gorillas, alongside a host of other A-list guests, like Youssou N’Dour, Gilberto Silva (captain of The Invincibles) and Uzoamaka Aduba, from Orange Is The New Black. Among us, though, it was only Youssou who flew to the lodge where the ceremony was to take place – the rest of us formed a 40-electric car convoy and met him there.
At our next location, we were provided with refreshments and the official naming regalia. Our host, Rwanda Development Board, was incredibly organised and had everyone’s clothing and measurements set to size. I jazzed up my outfit a little with boots. It was too cold to wear sandals if I’m being honest. The cold messed me up though; when it’s cold, I pee a lot. Have you seen traditional Rwandese regalia? Do you know how hard it is to go to the bathroom in that? I found out that day.
The ceremony itself was colourful and fully displayed Rwanda’s respect for their guests and their country, with 50,000 people from the surrounding community present, song and dance, huge woven structures of a gorilla family, and the Prime Minister and his wife were in attendance. Afterwards, we had lunch on Ellen DeGeneres campus at the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund. Then we headed back to Singita.
A word on the lodge: we had expected fancy because you know, Sauti Sol is fancy, but we hadn’t expected Singita level of fancy. There are two sides of the lodge, and we were sleeping on the private residency side that costs $25,000 per night. It was the most expensive nap I’ve ever taken! The place is all-inclusive and comes with a private chef. Each room has a hot tub that faces out into a sprawling backyard enmeshed in the wild – you can be in there enjoying your soak, and the buffaloes are just a few metres away, watching you commune with nature, which they are a part of. Everyone is naked.
At 7am the next day, we went up to the mountains to see the gorillas we had named. Usually, this costs $1,500 per person. These gorillas are still in the wild, not in cages or anything like that, and so the wardens have to teach you how to communicate with them. So after hiking for an hour, in annoying manyunyu rain, we reached the wall that separates the village from the leafy equatorial rainforest, like the ones we’re taught about in GHC.
At the wall, the trackers gave us directions that sounded like they were meant to scare us. Don’t look them in the eye if they attack you, and crouch low in submission if they do. Then they took out machetes to hack at the trees, and tracked gorilla dung to find the gorillas.
After the Gorilla 101 and another half an hour, we met our gorilla family. We named them Kwisanga, which means ‘feel at home’ in Kinyarwanda. That’s how Rwanda makes us feel – at home. Outside Kenya, our most loyal fan base is Rwanda. Gorillas, by the way, have such human expressions. They have families and even roll their eyes like us. I think they think we’re dumb.
I slipped and fell in the mud six times on the hike back. Of course, I did! I was in my workout sneakers, which make sense for the gym, not for the mountains of Rwanda. My butt hurt every time of those six times. I was so ready to go back to my very expensive room and look at animals outside and rest – but the rest was short-lived, as we were informed that the First Lady herself, Jeannette Kagame, had invited us to walk with her husband – President Kagame, just to be clear – the next morning.
Twice a month, if the president is around, he’ll walk on the streets of Kigali with the people. The day is dubbed Rwanda’s car-free day, and no one drives from 7am to 10am in the morning. There are even free clinics on the corners for people to check their vitals to promote healthy lifestyles. It feels like the Africa we all want, the one that cares for her people.
The night before, I almost unleashed my dance moves on Rwanda’s night life, but fell into bed, exhausted from three days of barely sleeping – only to wake up 20 minutes before we were supposed to leave. I wrote on the band WhatsApp group that I wasn’t going to make it. Polycarp called me immediately: “You’re missing the opportunity of a lifetime.” When you’re in a group, there’s always someone who can represent you – and Polycarp had decided that it was not going to be him today.
After being ushered through security in the street, we were led immediately to the President and I thought “Oh My God.” He said: “Good morning, Sauti Sol. Are you enjoying yourselves?” I can’t remember what I said, other than thanking him for the invite. The President’s preferred walk drip is athletic from head to toe, topped with a snapback that doesn’t have a party logo on it – refreshing! Also refreshing is that all his security detail, comprising men and women, is young, fit, and healthy.
In Kenya, the person with that role is probably in their 40s, and yes, has earned their right to be there, but that feels very reflective of how Kenya treats youth in general: not giving young people a chance, not investing in the youth, or in women, like Rwanda has actively tried to do. (The head of the RDB is a 31-year-old woman!)
Regardless of the drip and the youth around him, I was sure there was no way a 64-year-old president was going to outwalk me. I was very wrong! The young, healthy bodyguards had to tell me to hurry up.
There were also corners on the walk from which music played. As we passed one of these corners, we heard a Sauti Sol song play, and both the president and the first lady turned around and acknowledged us, acknowledged that our song was playing. This is what the meaning of being a good host is to me: when someone wants to make sure that you know you’re special to them, and they’re glad to have you there, and have made arrangements for you, specifically.
As we enjoyed the music, we also noticed foreign investors coming up to the president to pitch their ideas to him as he covered the 5km. And that made sense to me, because he is the CEO, so to speak. Anyone can present a PowerPoint presentation to a CEO, show the graphs and the numbers, but if you can’t explain it to me on a walk together, then it won’t work for the people. It needs to be as simple as that.
Our song on the side of a Kigali street wasn’t even the best part, for me. The best thing, I think, was that it felt like a spiritual walk. This is the time that people spare for their morning devotions. It’s Sunday morning. Instead of going to church, though, they walk, or run, or jog. It’s like a spiritual cycle that bonds Rwanda, and the man who leads it. You see, as we are walking, everyone not with the president is moving in the opposite direction.
They’re waving, and he waves back. He sees a family, he stops to take a selfie. He cheers them on, raising a fist in the air in encouragement. He infuses his attitude, his essence, all over his people. Whenever you’re talking to a Rwandese person, you almost feel like you’re talking to him, or ‘walking the walk’ with him, because his energy, his aura, is imbued.
The day was made for Rwandese people and he sticks to the day more than anyone else; he leads by example. Leadership is not about building megastructures with every budget, it’s about inspiring people, too. And when he stopped, on that day, he turned back to say – I felt – that he was giving us time to catch up.
Ha! The tempo is consistent, in spite of who is running around him. He’s walking at his consistent speed in the right direction. We weren’t behind him because of protocol – we were behind him because he consistently outwalked us. At the end of the walk, the first lady sprinted up a small hill that was the final stage.
As she sprinted, everyone laughed, and some, including myself, followed her up the hill. Then as we caught our breath, the president caught up with us, again. He dropped another gem – one we all know – if you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go with others. It felt like he was speaking directly to me about my brothers. That was my sermon for the day. It’s been on my mind a lot. My bandmates (brothers) and I are business partners in many things.
We do business together, we’ve lived together…and doing things together has always been more rewarding than doing it alone. Even in our Alone Together project, we did it in the family, on our record label, on our YouTube. That unity helps our individuality stand out even more. What Mr Kagame said made me remember the importance of my place, in a group with a common goal.
The vibe, the feeling of that walk in the morning made me feel like that’s the church the city – and me – needed. Sometimes we look in religion for healing, but sometimes it’s those things that bring our communities together that heal us. Somewhere where no one is forced to come and no one judges you if you walk slowly. And the president – well, he exemplifies the motto of Sol Generation, really, which is Discipline, Order, Passion and Excellence. Basically – he’s hella DOPE!
The writer is an award-winning artist with Sauti Sol, businessman and thought leader.