Inside a cottage at Huye’s Hôtel Faucon, two chairs and a small table, with a seal of ancient carpentry, stand at the centre of a neatly kept sitting room. The cottage has two bedrooms, each with a king-size bathtub and the bed in the larger room is also of ancient design. This particular part of the hotel is where King Mutara III Rudahigwa of Rwanda stayed whenever he was in the area – the reason why these facilities have been preserved in their original form. However, for the king to gain access to one of the very first hotels in his own country, he had to injure the ego of some racist whites—the colonial rulers of the time.
Located in the centre of Huye town and facing the main road, the rustic walls of Hôtel Faucon are covered with off-white paint. A coffee brown strip runs close to the roof. Towards the front entrance of the hotel, is a huge tree that gives this 67 year-old hotel its country look even from a distant glance. Away from its appearance, Hôtel Faucon has such fascinating history that is intertwined with events related to Rwanda and Burundi’s struggles for self determination. First, where the hotel is located today is the exact plot on which a house in which the Belgian royal couple lived when they visited during colonial times. This house, according to those who know, was gutted by a fire in 1943. About three years later, a Belgian called Faucon built a hotel on the same plot for exclusive use by white people.
The hotel has eight rooms, two apartments, a restaurant and bar. In the backyard is a garden with a few trees stretching on about an acre of land. During the last days of colonial rule, Hôtel Faucon was the very epitome of splendour and luxury—a lush place where only whites were allowed to enjoy entertainment in the bar and nice accommodation in rooms. It was also a resting place for the then white administrators of colonial Ruanda-Urundi. This was where they spent time relaxing after a day’s work. According to Jean Bosco Nyirimana, the manager, legend has it that the hotel was forbidden to black people and the dogs—a similar cliché used in apartheid South Africa. There was a signpost erected outside the hotel with a stern message written in French: ENTRÉE INTERDIT AUX NOIRS ET CHIENS (Entry forbidden to blacks and dogs). In other words, the whites were not to share facilities with lesser humans like black people.
One day, while a few racists enjoyed their moment, little did they know that time for a rude awakening that they had no right to abuse Rwandans in their own country was fast approaching. This story goes that one day in 1955, King Mutara III Rudahigwa was returning from a visit to neighbouring Burundi when he decided to make a stopover at the classy Hôtel Faucon. Delighted to find a hotel that he had never been to, a tired King ordered his entourage to stop so that they could rest at the hotel for awhile. On approaching the hotel, the king and his men were stopped by bold words, printed in French: “ENTRÉE INTERDIT AUX NOIRS ET CHIENS.” These words infuriated the monarch and out of rage, he stormed the hotel leaving a shocked gateman paralysed in fear.
At the balcony, a few patrons sat while sipping their refreshments of the day. By the time they looked up from their drinks and cigars, they found themselves face to face with the royal fume. Théogène Ntampaka, the chief executive officer of the hotel reveals that: “King Rudahigwa ordered his men to beat up all the whites at the hotel who had dared to compare his people to dogs in their own country.” The king then demanded that the hotel opens its doors to black people who could afford the services offered, thus effectively removing the race barrier that its management had erected around the hotel. The hotel has since 1955 been owned and managed by a Rwandan couple and is open to all people. Agnes Mutangana is the only living of this couple and now stays in Germany, but plans to return to the country.
The King’s compartment
To put a figurative, regal stamp on the historic change he had caused in this colonial outpost of privilege, king Rudahigwa moved to ensure a permanent black presence at the hotel. He commandeered what would today pass for a presidential suite of the hotel for his own use whenever he was in the area. He would also invite King Mwambutsa of Burundi to this place whenever he was at the hotel. Standing separate from the rest of the hotel, the preserved setting of the living room as it used to be when it was in use by the king welcomes the visitor. A set of two chairs stands in the centre of the room, with a small table said to be the original used by the king placed right in the middle. The smaller bedroom was reserved for one of the King’s most important guest of the day. The royal bed is still intact.
Sleep like a king
Standing above a raised ground, the kings compartment is surrounded by trees in the backyard providing a cool breeze for the visitors. Even someone standing outside, can read royalty from the face of this separate apartment. The pebbles and stones leading to the front door have been covered by green moss. Today, it is possible not only to visit The King’s Chambers at Hôtel Faucon, but also to rent the suite for a night, if only briefly. This is the most expensive facility at the hotel. It goes for Rwf 30,000 irrespective of your ethnic background. When the writer visited the hotel, there were no barriers to entry, all whites and locals were enjoying football from the bar.