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Rwanda Nouveau: Remodelling a Nation

Twenty years since the devastating genocide, Rwanda is a transformed nation. Killian Doherty reports on the capital’s attempt to remodel itself as the Singapore of Africa

The smallest most densely populated country in sub-Saharan Africa, Rwanda lies one degree south of the Equator. Close to the heart of Africa, it is emerging from one of the largest genocides in history. The 19th-century European colonisation of Rwanda introduced a system of ethnic classification, engendering deep tribal divisions that contributed to the catastrophic civil war, in which an estimated one million people were slaughtered over a four-month period. It is a conflict that continues along the neighbouring borders of Eastern Congo, the aftermath of which has neither been fully documented nor fathomed. The 20-year anniversary of the Rwandan Genocide was marked on 7 April this year, with national reconciliation set to a backdrop of rapid transformation and modernisation. Aided through rigorous redevelopment policies, both the social and physical transformation over the past 20 years in Rwanda have been nothing short of spectacular.

Rwanda’s redevelopment has seen structural reform in almost every sector, from healthcare to education, from governance to commerce. While 95 per cent of children are enrolled in primary schools, its parliamentary system boasts a 56 per cent majority of females and with most Rwandans having access to free healthcare. The capital city of Kigali is swiftly transforming itself from modest provincial town into an urban city through a masterplan of gargantuan proportions. Devised by USA- and Singapore-based design firms, Kigali is planned around new financial, commercial and cultural districts replete with modern high-rise and functioning infrastructure.


A view of downtown Kigali from the agricultural outskirts. Despite its massive expansion the capital remains largely rural

Rwanda’s post-conflict transformation from an agriculture-based economy to a knowledge-based one, its pristine roads (which are swept daily) and prevailing sense of order is underpinned by its allusions to being the ‘Singapore of Africa’. Latching onto this comparison with hopes of emulating Singapore’s economy, its transport connectivity and urban grandeur, Rwanda also leverages momentum behind its regeneration. And who can blame it, considering the 1994 Rwandan Genocide being the datum by which the country is perennially measured? Yet it’s the transformations within Rwanda’s urban spaces and built environment that point to the conflicting roles they play in the country’s narrative of its re-emergence. As Delia Wendel, an architect who also writes about Rwanda’s post-conflict transformation, states in this regard: ‘space becomes a critical lens to assess the ethics of transition from conflict’.

Despite the rapid urbanisation of Kigali, Rwanda remains predominantly a rural country with a rich network of wetlands, lakes and forestry. Rendering diverse forms of agricultural practice inextricable, from settlement patterns to how individual homes are built, the extension of Kigali through its city masterplan does little to promote or enhance these activities and has the potential to impact on many Rwandans who already live in extreme poverty. A hilly landlocked country, Rwanda is heavily reliant upon importation, as such, construction costs are exceedingly high. Emerging out of necessity self-built housing is the dominant typology. Yet such homes, constructed out of mud-brick, are often outlawed under Rwanda’s new urban policies and aesthetic doctrines. Regarded as the dwelling of the peasant, informal housing does not speak to the new Rwanda and many such settlements have been forcibly removed from the inner city.

While the monolithic city masterplan struggles with many fundamental aspects of Rwanda’s redevelopment such as land tenure and affordability within the construction supply-chain, a number of emerging architectural practices have risen to such developmental constraints. Gaining recent attention for their work, Light Earth Design (with Peter Rich), MASS Design Group, Sharon Davis Design and Architectural Field Office all work within Rwanda. Light Earth Design’s sports pavilion creates exchanges between returning diaspora and those who remained in Rwanda during the war, oddly enough through the game of cricket.


The vaulted masonry domes of Light Earth Design’s cricket pavilion in Kigali

This earthen pavilion is constructed using locally stabilised clay tiles to form large free-spanning structural vaults. Soil excavated from site is machine-pressed into individual tiles with a reduced cement content, which limits transport costs, and uses trained labour from the surrounding community; a low-cost method seen in Peter Rich’s Mapungubwe Interpretation Centre in South Africa. The forms of these vaults evoke Rwanda’s rolling topography and are reminiscent of the woven domes of Nyanza Palace, an architectural treasure from pre-colonial Rwanda. Light Earth’s approach is cognisant of the environmental implications of Rwanda importing its construction industry and through its materiality advocates the visual appropriateness of Rwanda’s shunned adobe vernacular. Sharon Davis Design’s Opportunity Centre in Kayonza (AR January 2014) adopts a similar approach, involving community through skills training programmes. In this case a female-led brick-making facility provides the raw materials for the construction of a women’s education centre, which continues to operate as an income generating enterprise within its rural setting.

Still very much at the heart of Rwanda’s redevelopment, the Kigali city masterplan appears incongruous in its socio-economic and physical context, representative of a larger global phenomenon of more attention given to what a modern city looks like, less what functions it provides. The masterplan is aggressively implemented and the effects visible within Rwanda’s urban spaces. These spaces reverberate with the echoes of conflict, and often focus firmly on mass graves (or ‘memorials’) which posture as tributes to the current government. Kigali’s other focal public spaces take the form of large central roundabouts with unblemished lawns and hedgerows, sited within view of characterless shopping centres. Roundabouts are best encircled from within the confines of a car, as if you do try to access these on foot you could be arrested, as walking on such lawns is an offence in Rwanda. Therefore much of Rwanda’s public domain remains controlled and does little to encourage urban activities. Either overtly displayed or discreetly blocked from public view, its alignment regulates the flow of those circulating within it, but not too much to impair the picture perfect image that is often projected.

As a consqeuence, Rwanda’s redevelopment manifesto garners both praise and criticism. As does its president, Paul Kagame, who has been in power the past 20 years and who shows little sign of leaving anytime soon. Despite a turbulent, long-standing relationship with the West, Rwanda’s postwar reconstruction has been principally influenced by international donors, foreign investment and Western-trained planners and architects.

A zero-tolerance attitude towards corruption in Rwanda has fostered this fruitful relationship and with reliable infrastructure in place (architects can submit planning permissions online), a space has been carved out in which some first-rate contemporary architecture is now thriving. Yet it is also a space that has been created by the popular and dominant discourse of development, considered by some, such as the Colombian Arturo Escobar post-development theorist, as a Western regime of ‘order and truth’ in itself which leaves little room for non-Western peoples and their concerns. And, while considering President Kagame’s disdain for outside interference, asserting that Rwandans are ‘responsible for their own fate’, it also presents thorny, ethical questions of practice that can make it difficult terrain for foreign architects to navigate and negotiate.

Two decades on, Rwanda’s national motto ‘Unity, Work, Patriotism’ continues to give momentum to an extraordinary period of redevelopment and growth. Yet while a lack of unity within Rwanda’s built environment signals an unsteady path towards recovery, it’s the fundamental lack of freedom to discuss such matters openly within Rwanda that its new generation of architects must surely address.

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