Rwanda’s State House now turned into major museum and leisure centre

Sunday June 16 2013

The palace that used to house former Rwandan presidents Juvénal Habyarimana and Pasteur Bizimungu. It is now a tourist site.

The palace that used to house former Rwandan presidents Juvénal Habyarimana and Pasteur Bizimungu. It is now a tourist site . Photos by Henry Lubega. 

By Henry Lubega

Leisurely pacing the gate is a lone gate man armed with a stick. Beyond the gate on the paved walkthrough are A4 size papers with the couple’s names littering the ground and giving directions to the wedding reception.

Guests stream in to attend different wedding receptions scattered across the more than two-acre compound. At the extreme end of the paved walk through is a huge one-storeyed building with fading tiles. At one end of the compound is another lone security man in the watch tower, blankly facing the wreckage of the former presidential crash jet.

Welcome to the former fortified Rwanda State House in Kanombe, a suburb of Rwanda’s capital Kigali, now turned into a museum and wedding reception venue.
Located four kilometres from the country’s Kigali international airport, formerly known as Kayibanda International Airport, the museum finds itself in a heavily-militarised zone with very few ordinary civilian homes.

A short distance to the former State House away from the airport is the military police headquarters, a military hospital, and a military high court. Construction of the State House, which was home to two of Rwanda’s former presidents, started in 1976 on the orders of Juvénal Habyarimana (March 8, 1937 – April 6, 1994) who became president through a military coup in 1973 when he deposed his cousin Gregoire Kayibanda, the country’s first president.

At the main entrance, one looks for security signs synonymous with presidential residencies but none is in sight, save for the lone guard wielding a baton-like stick, waiting to direct you to the reception. Here, a tall slender young girl dressed in the Kinyarawanda traditional wear is ready to welcome you and take you through the do’s and don’t’s. This include not taking pictures while inside the museum palace, and a brief history of the former state house.

After a payment of 1000 Rwanda Francs (about Shs5,000), you are ushered into the main compound void of any signs of the military expected at a residence of a president. All that is left there are the empty guard posts and watch towers save for one facing the wreckage of the former presidential jet. The last president to stay there was Pasteur Bizimungu (born 1950) who was the fifth president of Rwanda, holding office from July 19, 1994 until March 23, 2000 and in 2008, the government turned it into a museum.

From outside, the place looks like a single-storeyed house, but it’s not until you are inside that you realise that it’s a double storeyed one. Habyarimana is said to have been so much obsessed with the colour white. This explains why from the waiting room to his public office on the ground floor up to his private office on the top floor, everything is painted white, save for a few changes that were made by his successor, Bizimungu.

All presidents save for Paul Kagame and Théodore Sindikubwabo, the country’s interim president during the genocide period, never used the former State House.

Rare view
The rear side of the house serves as the entrance to the public office with the King Louis sofa set in the waiting room. Like the walls, the chairs are white as well. The office was changed by Bizimungu to give it different chairs and a table top which is brown.

The house has three sitting rooms on the ground floor, one for the president, the children and the First Lady. Ms (Me) Habyarimana, as she was popularly, known had her own sitting room in which she used to host her guests on the eastern side of the house facing the swimming pool. Save for the First Lady’s furniture in the house, the other two have had face-lifts and changes in terms of furnishing.

The stair case to the first floor where the bedrooms are, has got security sensors, whose switch was only switched on once the president and his family were in their bedrooms. As soon as one stepped on the stairs, the president would know and on which stair the person was.

The first floor houses three bedrooms, the master bedrooms, the boys and the girls bedroom. The master bedroom still has Bizimungu’s kingsize bed, a small dressing table and a bedside stool which was used by Habyarimana. The glass bedside table has a white edge with elephant legs as its stands. From the master bedroom, one can access the huge balcony which could be mistaken for a lawn tennis court.

Eastern wing
On the extreme eastern wing of the house on the first floor is the TV room. It’s from here that one of the secret exit for the president was located. On one wall with wooden decorations in the middle is the TV stand; on the right hand side is the remote controlled door to the secret entrance to the third floor while on the extreme left is a gun chamber also remote controlled.
On the third floor, which cannot be seen from the outside, is the president’s gym, his special private office, a room for his presents from other heads of state or groups of people, and the few remaining gifts include art pieces and sculptures.

Next to the gift room is the president’s chapel. The chapel has got two entrances from inside and another on the balcony. The chaplain was using the balcony entrance which he could only access by use of the president’s special exit. The reason being that on the extreme end opposite the president’s private office was a special room for the president’s witchdoctor.
The floor also housed the First Lady and children’s salon. Just adjacent to the salon is the children’s study room.

In the basement of the house on the eastern wing is the president’s club. This is where he would go dancing whenever he felt like. It is fitted with a bar and some in-built seats. It’s not a huge dancing floor but it can accommodate up to 30 people.

Python’s pool
The rear compound also has a swimming pool, a lawn tennis court, and a volleyball court, and an outside bar next to the swimming pool. On the orders of his witchdoctor, Habyarimana is said to have constructed a special pool for the python he was keeping in the compound of the State House. The python pond is just next to the watch tower on the fences overlooking the wreckage of the plane crash in which he died. Parts of his plane fell within the compound of the State House which is just close less than five minutes’ drive from the airport. Part of the huge compound now hosts several wedding receptions on weekends.

“The State House was last occupied by former president Bizimumgu and in 2008 it was decided that it is added on the country’s growing number of museums and cultural sites in a bid to create variety for the tourists,” the guide says.

The huge old compound is well manicured but the somewhat overgrown trees; give an ancient and eerie appearance to the one time beautiful and dazzling abode. The museum is not only about the past two leaders, but it also bares the traditional hair style known as Amasunzu and clothes of Rwanda from as early as 1900. This cultural journal in the time, spices up the modern furniture and artifacts in the presidential palace.