My best friend in Rwanda, Faycal Ngeruka, is now officially a regional pop idol. I’m still pinching myself. How was it that my friend, to whom I once served clumpy macaroni and cheese (Rwandan cheese does not work so well) in my Gisenyi apartment, is now all over East African television?
As I write this, I’m sitting on my bed in Nairobi. The last time I was in Rwanda, I remember Faycal saying that he had saved up money to travel to the Idols auditions. Idols is the East African version of “American Idol”—with all the same music, etc.
Flipping through the channels, I somehow found Idols. The host was about to announce the voting results. And he prefaced it with, “Who knows who will go home today? The judges never thought Faycal would go home last week.”
Faycal had made it. He had made it to international television, and was officially a pop star.
I met Faycal at what was then the Kivu Sun, the fancy hotel in Gisenyi. He was a law student at the Universite Libre de Kigali (Gisenyi campus), and sang on weekends to help to pay the bills. I was new to town, and only had the company of my journal when he paused between songs to introduce himself.
“Francais? English?” he asked.
“Both,” I responded.
That was the beginning of a close friendship. He guided me through Gisenyi life. We spent hours together, just hanging out at the video store next to the Texas restaurant in the city center. I met his family—his cousins, his aunts, and most remarkably, his grandmother, with whom I could barely converse, but who was incredibly generous with her smiles and her homemade ikivuguto (drinkable yogurt).
Every weekend, I would go to the hotel to listen to him sing. When my expatriate friends were in town, I would drag them there, too. He had audiences with President Kagame, Don Cheadle, and Daryl Hannah.
And when I stayed at the hotel too long and it was too dark for me to walk home by myself, Faycal would walk me there, and we would sing together. Most often, it was Boyz II Men’s “Water Runs Dry” song. I would take the melody and he the harmony. I was often self-conscious because he was so much more talented than I (the pinnacle of my public performance was a middle-school talent show, during which I sang Aladdin’s “A Whole New World.”). I later taught him new songs, by Craig David. We spent hours trying to get the pronunciation perfect.
He would call me “his Lucy Liu,” or “Morgan Freewoman,” after one of his favorite actors. And while his girlfriends and female friends perhaps initially suspected that I was a threat, they soon realized that he was really just a very good friend. So good that he invited me over to his little apartment to listen to music and eat beans and rice (his favorite meal) and I visited him at the clinic when he was sick with malaria (again).
In June of 2006, he managed to secure a singing contract at the Intercontinental in Kigali. That proved so lucrative that he moved there, and secured a singing contract at the Mille Collines, as well. He has now switched over entirely to the Mille Collines, singing by the pool. It’s one of the hottest spots in town, and he became very well-known. His somewhat grainy music videos play on television, and his songs play on the radio. He has already won several competitions, which help to pay the bills, which are much higher now that he has added a new baby to his family. The last time I was in Kigali, I went to hear him sing, for old times’ sake. From the Mille Collines, we took a long taxi-moto ride a couple of miles to his new house. It’s fully furnished, with a baby room decorated with Pooh wall hangings. And just like old times, we had a delicious dinner of beans and rice, and drank boiled water.
He was, and continues to be, my closest friend in Rwanda. So imagine my surprise when I sat in my room in Kenya and heard Faycal’s name on television. He didn’t make it—he was voted off—but at the same time, he has made it. Knowing Faycal, this won’t be the last time we hear from him. It’s just the beginning.
Want to hear Faycal? He's online: