Rusting Rwandan roller-coasters

A native son struggles to realize his dream of a lone amusement park in a scarred country.

Eugene Nyagahene 88 224 (photo credit: )
Eugene Nyagahene 88 224
(photo credit: )
Iron rails for the future roller coaster lay around the site, rusting. Just like bright-colored vehicles and boats for the different water-rides. There are 40 containers full of equipment, most of it imported from China Africa is often associated with famine, corruption and civil wars. Especially for Rwanda, the country where in 1994 800,000 people were massacred during the 100-day genocide, that connotation is strong. But in the capital, Kigali, an enormous amusement park was being constructed, planned by a businessman who hopes to prevent new mass murders. Last month, however, the Rwandan government suddenly sold the construction site to a rich developer. Rwandan multimillionaire Eugene Nyagahene, 49, is disappointed. "This is what used to be my dream," he says while flipping through a book of the completely planned amusement park. The book shows (animated) pictures of rides you would expect in Disney World: wooden and steel roller-coasters, a Ferris wheel, ghost trains, a carting track, climbing facilities, water rides, a zoo, swimming pools and a casino. "During the genocide I was abroad, but I lost a lot of family. One of the problems that led to the killings was a complete lack of entertainment, and no information from outside Rwanda. The only radio station in the country was the hate-radio station RTLM, Radio Television de Mille Collines. It broadcast only propaganda, setting the tribes against each other and turning people into murderers. I strongly believe that people get a more open mind by entertainment and outside information. With this information and entertainment, these tragedies can be prevented in the future," says the entrepreneur who built the country's largest multimedia company, Tele-10, after '94. In Rwanda you are not supposed to ask if someone is a Hutu or a Tutsi, after the Hutu majority murdered hundreds of thousands of Tutsis - and moderate Hutus - in 1994. The killings stopped only after armed Tutsis invaded the country from neighboring Uganda and took power. After the invasion, a lot of Tutsis in exile returned to Rwanda, where they rebuilt the economy. Western countries gave billions of dollars of aid to boost the economy, sometimes driven by feelings of guilt. Nowadays the country is experiencing an economic boom, especially in Kigali. The amusement park would have become the ultimate symbol of the revival. In February, Nyagahene started to feel something was wrong, after the Rwandan environment authority REMA ordered him to stop construction. REMA claimed the park was located in a protected wetland. "I have invested $6 million so far," he says as he drives around the 100-hectare (1,000-dunam) construction site. Iron rails for the future roller coaster lie around the site, rusting, as do bright-colored vehicles and boats for the water rides. There are 40 containers full of equipment, most of it imported from China. "Look, the roads were already finished. And on the other side I have constructed an expensive artificial lake. All those trees have been planted by me. When I started preparing this terrain for construction five years ago, it was a rubbish dump. Now it is worth $15 million." That appears to be the main problem. Five years ago the place was a worthless, but in the current booming Kigali everyone wants the land for building. "I had to hear on the radio that the Kigali City Council sold the land to a developer called Dubai World," says Nyagahene. The council could do so, because it owns the majority of the shares in the amusement park. The Rwandan government could not resist the offer from Dubai World, which claims it will invest a total of $250 million in the country. Expensive houses and hotels will be built on the location, and Rwanda can continue its boom. Suddenly the protected wetland is not an issue anymore. Nyagahene still tries to be positive: "If Dubai World compensates me with $15 million, then I can possibly still realize my dream at another location." But the park, which should have been opened late this year, will be delayed by at least five years. As he drives off, the roller coaster rails stay behind, rusting.