“When it comes to Africa…I think we must take responsibility and accept our failures…What image does it even give about us, about Africa. In fact the image that it gives is that we are not there to address even these problems…It doesn’t make sense that our leaders cannot get themselves together to address problems affecting our people…African leaders, we don’t need to be invited anywhere to go and address our problems without first inviting ourselves to come together to tell each other the actual truth that we must tell each other about our serious problems….” 1 President Paul Kagame
Linda Heywood rightly points out in her article "Mbanza Kongo/São Salvador: Culture and the Transformation of an African City, 1491 to 1670s" that Mbanza Kongo, as a then-new Christian city, ultimately failed mainly due to an almost total reliance by local leaders on European technical expertise.2 The population of Mbanza-Kongo also clearly was not happy to accept foreign languages and ideas forced on them, which can be inferred by the Kongolese King Afonso being “so concerned that the Kongo students he had recruited to study under the Christian foreigners [had] found ways of escaping…that he asked the King of Portugal to turn over to him the island of São Tomé”3 to prevent their escape.
The people were speaking, but the leader was not listening. The most successful African leaders today are those who have worked tirelessly to address the needs of their own people through approaches that look inward (from national and pan-African perspectives) for solutions to human and national development problems.
The introductory quote above from President Paul Kagame of Rwanda were comments he made during an event on the sidelines of an African Development Bank meeting in Kigali in 2014. The President was criticizing African leaders who seemed to care more about photo opportunities in Europe or America than solving the security and development problems in their own countries. He was met with loud applause from the audience in attendance, and the video of the President’s full statement has since gone viral (https://youtu.be/2ncO46Wf1_o).
There are many countries in Africa, and worldwide, that have suffered deep historical trauma, but the Rwandan genocide, the horror still fresh in the world’s consciousness, must still jolt the average Rwandan citizen, at times unexpected, with unwanted frequency. A trauma that deep can destroy a society or urge it forward. Memory must be parsed carefully to find the essence of a thing here or there that benefits, discarding the detritus, while self-realizing solutions to stubborn problems. In the capital city, Kigali, rapidly becoming a shining example for the continent, people and ecology-centered architecture is rising from the ashes of the past, embracing the country’s hilly topography and elegant cultural treasures, to chart a pristine path into the future. Before discussing the Kigali of the present, it would be useful to give a brief overview of the country and the city.
One particularly interesting fact about Rwanda is that is has maintained its pre-Colonial national boundaries into the present [Figure 1]. Culturally, the country is unified under one language and its society was traditionally organized by complex clan and lineage lines under which Tutsi and Hutu designations were fluid identities determined by economic and class distinctions, not by ethnicity (a third group, the Twa, are believed to be indigenous to the region).4 The capital of the Kingdom of Rwanda was at Nyanza, in the south of the country.5 After the Kingdom of Rwanda was nominally absorbed into German East Africa, Kigali was founded in 1906 by Richard Kandt, the appointed administrator, mainly as a trading post.6 Kigali, however, did not become the capital of Rwanda until independence in 1962.7 At independence, Kigali had a total population of only 6,000. That number has grown to over 1 million today.8 Rwanda has made impressive strides since independence, but most strikingly after the horrific 1994 genocide. Most of which one can see in the Capital. Kigali is a city divided into three main districts: Nyarugenge, Kicukiro and Gasbo, and stretches over no less than 15 named hills. The four main ridges of the city are separated by deep valleys. Due to its elevation, between 1,400 and 1,850 meters above sea level, the climate is temperate. The city has proclaimed a clear vision: “…to make Kigali the “Centre of Urban Excellence in Africa” which will be achieved through Social Inclusion, Sustainable Development, and Economic Growth.” The stated goals of the Kigali government are to be “a city of character, vibrant economy and diversity, of green transport, of affordable homes, of enchanting nature & biodiversity, of sustainable resource management,” and “a city of endearing character & unique local identity.”9 But are any of those goals being realized?
Every city has its own points of reference, but great cities have iconic structures, distinctive architectural landscapes and populations unhindered in their pursuit of prosperous and happy lives. Constructed at a cost of US$300 million and opened in 2016, the Kigali Convention Center [Figure 2] has become a centerpiece in Rwanda’s drive to be a leader in the Meetings, Incentives, Conferences and Exhibitions (MICE) industry by providing state-of-the-art facilities to attract diversified investment into the country. A Rwandan company, Ultimate Concept Limited, is the developer and majority owner of the Convention Center. A German architect, Roland Dieterle, designed the center, which includes a 5-star Radisson Blue hotel (292 rooms), the Kigali Information Technology Park (346,598 square feet of rentable office and retail space) and a museum.10 Describing Dieterle’s design inspiration, Nana Ocran of the South African online (and print) media brand that focuses on contemporary African culture, summarizes it as:
“…the circular style of many of the country’s buildings, which led to the structure of the center’s 40-foot metal dome – a direct play on the beehive-shaped home of the King of Nyanza in southern Rwanda, but with added features of window shades and a protective coating to help regulate the interior temperature. LED lighting and transparent glass throughout is meant as a structural nod to a new openness. All citizens can witness the life and use of the building, from the exterior light displays to its regular conferences.”11
One of the main drivers of architectural concepts in Rwanda is Christian Benimana, program director of the MASS Design Group, which is based in Kigali and Boston. The philosophy behind his work centers on an ecology-based people-centered approach to design:
“Benimana has become one of MASS’s most vocal advocates, often speaking at international events about creating African Design Centres (ADCs) across the continent. With a belief that every architectural scheme should have a holistic effect on its users, Benimana has expressed a design vision for specific buildings to extend their structural form and to function in sublime ways - schools should help students learn, and hospitals should help heal the patients.”12
Two prime examples in Rwanda are the Umubano Primary School [figures 3, 4 and 5] and the Butaro Hospital [figures 6, 7 and 8]. The image to the world and the reality on the ground is that Rwanda is developing for its people, not around its people. The African Design Center in Kigali is a key player in driving people-centered design for African needs.
At a leadership conference in Charlotte, North Carolina, earlier this year, President Kagame pointed to three concepts that drive development in Rwanda: Unity, Accountability and Vision. Unity seems to center on re-constructing a Rwandan society that in its pre-Colonial period was not divided by the false sense of ethnicity that was indoctrinated during the Colonial period. It is becoming a country where people are learning to think of themselves as Rwandans first, and where the mention of ethnicity is not only taboo but discouraged by law – and for obviously valid and good reasons.
In the mid-’90s, barely two years after the genocide, I had a very close friendship with the daughter of the then newly appointed Rwandan ambassador to the United Nations. I was a frequent guest at their home, and she and I would reception-hop at the various Consulates and Missions in New York (mainly for the food and drinks). One evening, after drinking a bit too much at a Rwandan reception, we had stepped out to chat and sober up on the front steps of the Consulate. Soon after, a young man knelt behind my friend and spoke to her in their language, Kinyarwanda, then quietly stood up and disappeared down the street. My friend neither responded to him nor showed any emotional reaction. After pressing her to explain what had just happened, she relayed that the man had simply said: “we didn’t kill all of you yet, but we will.” This was said to a young woman who had stamped in my mind the imperative to refer to her people as Rwandans only, and that she herself would never identify as anything other than that. It may take a couple of generations to stamp out ethnic identifications, but I certainly hope the Rwandan people succeed.
Accountability is about looking inward to learn from past mistakes while taking full responsibility for societal advancement. It is a society that values civic responsibility, where each citizen recognizes that collective advancement hinges on individual accountability. But without a clear vision, societies will simply walk in circles. The vision that Rwanda is following is that the country will not follow international-community-imposed rules over making its own choices.
The choice the Rwandan people have made is that the country is open for business, that entrepreneurs are empowered, that gender parity is essential to development, and that the nation will invest in health, education and security to ensure that the countries greatest strength, its
human capital is placed at the center of development. This sets the tone for the development of Kigali within the context of Rwandan development as a whole. Clean energy production to power Rwanda’s development has its challenges, but the country appears to be on track to achieving universal access by the 2023/24 fiscal year, even while taking into consideration population growth. The country is currently scaling up its current, approximately, 216 MW of clean energy production to the needed 512 MW. Investments in Rwanda’s abundant energy sources like hydropower, peat, lake gas methane and geothermal energy have the potential to produce 1,613 MW, more than three times the projected need. Off-grid solar power, additionally, is already providing clean electricity to rural communities.13
Rwandans are attempting to piece together the shattered bits of their collective consciousness. Henri Bergson, who in his essay Creative Evolution suggested the possibility of a subjective construction of reality, even if objectively seen. He proposed the possibility that “matter is…as an immense piece of cloth…which we can cut out what we will and sew…together…as we please.” We experience the “stream of life” as a tangible expression of “consciousness run through matter.”14 The Rwandan people have suffered a great trauma, but they are transforming their aspirational ideas into concrete societal and built structures that are healing for both individuals and the nation. They have chosen to regain aspects of their culture lost during the Colonial period to propel them into a modern future where they will control their destiny, and for that I am very optimistic.
1 Kagame, Paul. African Development Bank Group Annual Meetings, 19-23 May 2014, Ending Conflict and Building Peace in Africa meeting, 20 May, Kigali-Serena Annual Meetings Village, Unscripted Comments.
2 Linda Heywood, “Mbanza Kongo/São Salvador: Culture and the Transformation of an African City, 1491 to 1670s,” in Africa’s Development in Historical Perspective, eds. Akyeampong et al. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014), 367.
3 Ibid. 370.
4 Apol, Laura. Requiem, Rwanda. East Lansing, MI: Michigan State University Press, 2015. Internet resource, Prologue.
5 Twagilimana, Aimable. Historical Dictionary of Rwanda, 2016. 175.
6 Dorsey, Learthen. Historical Dictionary of Rwanda. Metuchen, N.J: Scarecrow Press, 1994. 275.
7 Apol. Prologue.
8 Nduwayezu, 17.
9 Kigali City Website (http://www.kigalicity.gov.rw/index.php?id=61).
11 Ocran, Nana. Online source. http://nataal.com/kigali-architecture.
12 Ocran. Online source. http://nataal.com/kigali-architecture.
13 Samuel-Li Godwin N. O.- Lingling. https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fenrg.2018.00068/full
14 Bergson, Henri. “Creative Evolution.” In Art in Theory, 1900-1990: an Anthology of Changing Ideas, edited by Charles Harrison and Paul Wood, 140-143. Malden, MA: Blackwell Press, 1993.