No sign hangs on the door of La Locanda B&B in Musanze, and few taxi drivers in this small town in northwestern Rwanda have heard the name. But if you ask your driver to bring you to “Alberto” or “The Italian” they will probably know where to go.
Alberto Benvenuti — whose last name, fittingly, means “welcome” — first came to Rwanda in 2006 as a volunteer with an Italian NGO called Granello di Senape, or Mustard Seed. The organization worked with Musanze’s street children, many of whom had lost their parents in the 1994 genocide, to coax them into shelters and eventually integrate them back into their extended families.
The program became self-sustainable after five years. “They didn’t need me anymore,” Benvenuti says. But he didn’t want to leave Rwanda, and thought it might be a good place to start a business. Benvenuti leveraged his international relations and political science degree into a year-long gig at the Italian consulate in Kigali, Rwanda’s capital. Then he used the money he’d banked to open a butcher shop in Musanze, about 100 kilometres northwest of Kigali. This proved unwise. Benvenuti was not a professional butcher. “And I don’t like meat,” he adds. “It was the wrong business.” The shop tanked. Benvenuti closed after two years, having lost his entire investment. “I didn’t have a penny in my pocket,” he says.
At the time, he was living in a house in a compound of 10 residences built in the 1970s for workers of an Italian pesticide company. To raise money, he rented one of his rooms to travellers. Once he realized how much his guests enjoyed the place, he decided to take over the entire property and renovate all the houses, one by one. He added a patio onto the main house to serve as an open-air restaurant and bar, installed a wood-burning oven and opened La Locanda in 2016.
About half of Benvenuti’s overnight guests are Rwandans seeking respite from Kigali’s noise. The other half are international travellers looking for a mid-range bed on their way to gorilla treks in the nearby Volcanoes National Park. “It is a nice mixture,” Benvenuti says. He enjoys serving guests from the capital who come to relax and “chill out in the garden.” And the tourists “bring a fresh air to the place,” he says. “Everyone has a story behind them. Talking to them is my way to travel.”
La Locanda also reigns as a favourite hangout for Musanze’s expat community. “I like that they take this place as their home,” says Benvenuti. “They can come and sit here. They can jump in the kitchen and grab a drink for themselves. For me, it’s totally fine.” Most foreigners living in Musanze work with wildlife conservation in some way, and on any given Friday night, Benvenuti’s patio will be crowded with a global crew of primatologists, biology graduate students, gorilla veterinarians, research volunteers, and public health workers. All will be draining glasses of Italian wine or bottles of Virunga Mist Dark Ale and sharing plates of cannelloni and wood-fired pizza.
The latter is a particular point of pride for Benvenuti. “I don’t care if people say that they do not like this place. Everyone can think what they want. But if you say my pizza is not good, that is like saying my mom is not a good mom.”
Marcello Di Cintio (@DiCintio) is the author of four books, including Pay No Heed to the Rockets: Palestine in the Present Tense, Walls: Travels Along the Barricades and Poets and Pahlevans: A Journey into the Heart of Iran.