THE MOTORCYCLE DRIVER screeched to a halt in front of an imposing iron gate, which seemed to be shielding nothing but an enormous, dusty tract of land.
“Here! Here!” he yelled.
We had already stopped and asked for directions three times. In Kigali, Rwanda’s capital city, the quickest way to get around is by motorcycle taxi, or “moto.” Since street names are almost nonexistent, giving directions is notoriously difficult; one has to rely on landmarks. But landmarks keep changing, and new ones sprout up every day.
“We can’t keep up with the city,” says Apollo, who became a moto driver after he was unable to find a job in business.
As I paid and slid off his bike, the clouds were rolling in; the afternoon monsoon was about to break. Far across the empty lot, behind a rusty set of bleachers, was a row of low concrete buildings. As I made my way toward them I could see quick-moving shadows through the frosted glass windows. And then, in blocky letters cut from plywood and tacked onto the building’s exterior: FAED, the Faculty of Architecture and Environmental Design. Inside, the architecture school’s year-end exhibition was well underway.
I pushed open the door just as the clouds darkened the sky, and it felt like a shift from a black-and-white film to Technicolor. Inside, colorful large-scale sketches and architectural plans plastered every inch of the walls. Drafting tables were covered with 3D models, mock-ups, and abstract sculptural forms made of brick, clay, and paper. A slideshow of computer-generated building designs was projected on the far wall. The room was overflowing with students, who were zigzagging between the various projects, refilling drinks, chatting with faculty and visitors. The hum of conversation was constant and electric.
At the far corner of the room, the architecture school’s teachers stood in a tight clump, surveying the frenetic scene. There was Nerea, a bubbly, coquettish young architect from Barcelona; Killian, a lean, scruffy Irishman with a thick northern accent; wiry, shifty Toma — a soft-spoken, perceptive Italian who came to Kigali to teach a 4-day workshop and never left; Sierra, a US-educated landscape architect and the quietly influential department chair; exuberant, outspoken Kefa from Kenya; and Yutaka — Japanese-American, tiny, and shrewd. Lined up together, they could be the contestants on a new reality TV show. Top Architect: International Edition.
Except that one key character was conspicuously absent: the Rwandan.
FAED, at the Kigali Institute of Science and Technology, is a young school. It is also Rwanda’s first and only school of architecture. Its first class — 25 students — matriculated in 2009, and will graduate in 2014.
The school was born out of the 2008 Urban Forum in Kigali. At the forum, influential Kigali-ites discussed the nature of Rwanda’s development, which in the last decade had been characterized by large-scale change. The economy was growing, the population was exploding, and the once-provincial town of Kigali was transforming into a modern capital city.
However, Rwanda has only about 30 registered architects, all trained outside the country, and most working abroad. As the speed of development was so swift, and Rwanda’s resources so minimal, foreigners — particularly German, Chinese, and American construction firms — were being hired to propel the country’s physical and urban development. Foreign architects and engineers with little or no connection to the country were being hired to build Rwandan cities and towns — and were the ones benefitting economically from Rwanda’s rapidly developing physical landscape.
Rwandan politicians and urban development leaders saw an architecture school as a remedy to this problem. Give locals the tools to participate in the building of their own country. The result: local ownership, local integrity, and local character. A 21st century Rwanda, built by Rwandans.
Rebuilding from genocide
But a 21st century Rwanda, built by Rwandans, is a task that extends far beyond high rise towers and freshly paved roads. The country is still rebuilding — philosophically and physically — after a genocide that decimated 20% of the population. In 1994, over a period of 100 days, nearly one million Tutsis and moderate Hutus were brutally murdered in a state-orchestrated attempt to efface an entire populace. The genocide relied on the identity categories of Hutu and Tutsi, once peacefully coexisting, ethnically alike social groups that were strategically pitted against each other during Belgian colonial rule.
A Rwandan filmmaker described those months in ’94 to me as such: “It was the apocalypse. We thought it was, at least. It rained violently every day, bodies were scattered everywhere, blood was everywhere, social order was nonexistent. How could we think otherwise?” After the genocide, Kigali was a broken city, a dead city.
The writer John Berger suggests that apocalyptic events do more than destroy — they also reveal “the true nature of what has been brought to end.” When the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) ended the genocide, they also revealed the sick, twisted mechanisms that allowed the genocide to happen. At the end of this apocalyptic event, this revelation also brought the concrete possibility of resurrection. Near-complete destruction made reinvention necessary, and inevitable.
And this was the fundamental challenge of the post-genocide government — how to, from utter wreckage, create something alive, and something new. The architecture of everyday life — the social, political, and physical architecture — had to be rebuilt from the ground up, on ground that had just been pulled out from beneath the country’s feet. Inseparable from building Rwandan apartment blocks and paving Rwandan roads was building a new Rwandan identity.
In 1994, at the time of the genocide, Kigali was a village — a big, sprawling village — but still provincial. The whole city consisted of what is today the compact city center and the predominantly Muslim quarter of Nyamirambo. Today’s numerous outer neighborhoods and residential areas — Kimironko, Kaciyru, Remera, Kacukiru — were rural farmland and uncultivated bush. Then, the population was about 350,000; today, it stands around a million and is increasing rapidly.
The swell in size and scope can be largely attributed to the vast number of former Tutsis who had escaped during the war or had been living in exile in Europe or elsewhere in Africa since as far back as 1959 (when state-sponsored massacres prompted a mass exodus of Tutsis). After the genocide, they began to return to Rwanda, to a homeland that they had been actively denied, that until then had been an unreachable destination.
Because many of these returnees had spent their whole lives abroad, their connection to Rwanda was more symbolic than tangible; they didn’t have fields to return to, and they knew little about living in the country. Thus the capital city was the logical place to begin building a life in this new Rwanda.
Kigali quickly became an experiment of sorts, where the international diaspora converged with the existing population to simultaneously heal and reconstruct the nation. The urgency of moving forward from the events and aftereffects of ’94 set a fast pace for development. But the returning and native Rwandans (and their tiny, resource-poor country) couldn’t sustain this pace themselves.
Foreign reinforcements — international architecture, engineering, and construction firms with access to materials, infrastructure and technology — had to be called in. And they came readily, eager to invest in one of Africa’s fastest-growing economies and work with the newly stable, powerful Rwandan government.
The extent to which the urban face of Kigali has transformed in the past two decades is astonishing. The attitude towards development is reminiscent of a place like Singapore, or even Dubai. In fact, Rwanda is often referred to as “the Singapore of Africa, ” and the parallel rings unnervingly true. The streets are remarkably clean, rules are implemented quickly and followed obediently, security forces blend into the background of every street, traffic jams are minimal, the strong hand of the government is capable of swift, sweeping changes to the physical as well as social landscape.
Until very recently, though, comprehensive urban planning hasn’t guided the development of Kigali. While productive, the last decade of the city’s urban development has been largely haphazard, driven more by spontaneity and necessity than a larger vision of what the city could be. What has resulted is a city that looks modern and provincial at the same time.
The new Kigali City Tower, an impressive glass-and-steel skyscraper that curves like a sail at its peak, sits on a dusty tract of undeveloped land. The high-end housing of Gacuriro, built in a formerly rural area, still lacks basic urban amenities. And as open-air markets find themselves adjacent to gleaming banks and hotels, the contrast between extreme wealth and poverty is increasingly stark.
The master plan
In 2009, the Rwandan government commissioned Denver-based OZ Architecture and the Singapore-based firm Surbana to design a conceptual master plan for the city of Kigali. The Kigali Master Plan is the first attempt to treat the city as a cohesive whole. The plan seeks to redesign, densify, and expand preexisting and new neighborhoods, as well as create conservation land and areas for tourism and recreation.
In the promotional video for the plan, an all-purpose British female voice guides the viewer through computer-generated animation that depicts a futuristic-looking city devoid of any telling local characteristics.
Modern skyscrapers fill the business district, markets are transformed into shimmering shopping malls, poor informal settlements are “reorganized” into modern single-family homes. The mantra: “the city of the future.” The plan is seriously ambitious, and predictably controversial.
I sat down to talk about it one afternoon with Amelie, a soft-spoken, shrewd third-year architecture student, at Kigali’s most popular café chain, Bourbon Coffee. As usual, the café was bustling with well-dressed Rwandans and seemingly every NGO worker in the city. Bourbon’s Rwandan founder modeled the café directly after Starbucks after working at the company’s Seattle headquarters; he is steadily turning Rwandan coffee into an international industry and convincing tea-inclined Rwandans to drop $4 for a mocha latté.
Bourbon is a clever experiment: take a successful model like Starbucks and adapt another culture to it. It’s also remarkably indicative, as Amelie pointed out, of how the Rwandan government is approaching urban development.
“They want to bring in foreign models and impose them here, even if they make no sense for Rwandans. They have no interest in creating new models.”
For example: in recent years the government has employed the common practice of razing slum neighborhoods in central areas of the city and moving dwellers to high-rise apartment blocks miles away from their original homes. Of course, there is some logic to this. Makeshift homes lacking in formal utilities like plumbing, potable water, electricity, and sewage are breeding grounds for disease; in government-funded housing, residents’ quality of life could substantially improve. And in formal housing, residents are more likely to be treated like formal citizens, as opposed to faceless slum dwellers living on society’s fringes.
“But more matatu [shared taxis] or bus routes haven’t been added. So the people [relocated from the slums] are cut off. They can’t get to work, or the market, or to the places they need to go. The government doesn’t think about this,” said Amelie.
She also explained how culturally, Rwandan homes are one level, centered around a courtyard, and filled with extended family members and multiple generations. By sharing living space that is designed to be communal, families remain deeply connected. They also live in close communion with their neighbors, and take part in communal work days and neighborhood decision-making — features of Rwandan society that have been integral to post-genocide reconciliation.
Suburban sprawl, which threatens to destroy the self-sufficient neighborhoods and fragment extended family compounds, constitutes a fundamental change in the way people live.
Amelie also told me about another new policy, which enforces the demolition of traditional housing made with mud and roof thatch. From the government’s perspective, mud houses with thatched roofs connote rural, primitive, backward Africa — an image Rwanda is ardently attempting to shed. The government, and many local architects, prefer instead to construct skyscrapers, shopping malls, and housing developments out of imported, and more importantly “modern” materials.
Understandably, a mud-walled, thatched-roof shopping mall may not work. But for smaller-scale construction, these materials are renewable, cheap, and responsive to Rwanda’s climate, and can be used in tandem with imported materials in innovative ways.
“I know we’re modernizing,” said Amelie. “But there’s no need to do it so harshly, force people to abandon everything they know. There’s one idea of what modern is, and it is New York, it is Dubai, it is glass and steel, materials Rwanda doesn’t produce. They don’t believe that you can have modern and Rwandan at the same time. So the city will look so generic, it could be anywhere in the world.”
Perhaps it is a foreign-designed utopian fantasy, a Dubai-esque house of cards, a blatant affront to the urban poor, or a forward-thinking model of what is possible in 21st century Rwanda. Regardless, elements of the master plan — zoning neighborhoods into commercial or residential areas, relocating communities, restructuring transportation, building hulking new skyscrapers — are already underway.
Architecture for everyday life
As I wandered around the FAED year-end exhibition, students were enthusiastic and eager to show me their work. Amza, a third-year wearing traditional Muslim dress and brightly colored high-tops, pulled me over to a display of photos from a class trip to Mombasa, Kenya, where the students studied coastal Swahili architecture. Another wall featured student designs for mobile milk kiosks to replace the countless milk stands scattered throughout the city. Across the room, students showcased proposals for improved public housing and community space in Kigali’s Kimisagara neighborhood.
Sierra Bainbridge, now the dean of the program, explained that the biggest challenge is teaching architecture to students who have had minimal exposure to creativity, let alone design, in their prior education. In addition to learning the skills of architecture, they are learning how to think creatively, critically, and conceptually.
“What is a shelter, what is an enclosure, what is an undefined space — the students need to engage with these abstract concepts before thinking about a bank, a hotel.” Otherwise, given the lack of diverse architectural references for students, they tend to imitate the uninspired buildings that are constantly popping up around them.
In one workshop this year, the students visited artisans who practice traditional weaving, and were then given colored paper and asked, with no further instruction, to weave. This simple direction prompted beautiful, abstract objects — curved asymmetrical orbs, intricate boxes that deconstruct into loosely layered ribbons, precise checkerboard squares linked into a spiral. Another workshop explored brick walls, and students stretched the potential of this locally produced, easily accessible material, creating physical models that played with concepts like ventilation, private and public space, and light.
“The idea was to give students the space to think freely. And expansively,” Yutaka, instructor for the brick wall workshop, pointed out. “Before even considering the design of an actual building, you have to just experiment with what is possible.”
Sierra told me, “Having taught in other places, where students have ridiculous access to architectural references, where they have grown up looking at art, taking art classes, where creativity is encouraged — the work that these guys have managed to do in full void is really impressive. And I think it’s revealing of human creativity. How innate it is, and how surprising it can be.”
After the exhibition wound down, I cornered Jean-Paul, a lanky, quiet third-year student and favorite among the FAED faculty. We sat in a small gazebo outside the building; the rain had long stopped and given way to crisp evening air. I told him how impressed I was with the exhibition — the creativity of the projects, and the passion of the students.
“We’ve come a long way,” he said bluntly. “When we first showed up here, we had no idea what we were getting ourselves into.”
Because architecture is a relatively unfamiliar, foreign-dominated profession in Rwanda, it is largely viewed as a luxury item, reserved exclusively for fancy office buildings and hotels. The idea that design could and should be applied to everyday life — to build affordable housing, to create a more humane city, to promote health — is something new. Many students admitted that they were first drawn to architecture because they thought it would make them rich.
In fact, architecture was a fairly new idea for most faculty at the Kigali Institute of Science and Technology as well. When FAED first started, KIST didn’t hire any new architecture professors. In their first semester, the students took courses in math, physics, chemistry, engineering — but no design.
“It was an architecture school in name. But we had no architects teaching us. And we had no idea what was going to happen,” Jean-Paul recounted. “I was inspired by Normal Mailer as a kid,” Jean-Paul continued. “And pictures of New York, Paris. But architecture was something foreign, fancy, luxurious. I had no idea what architecture could mean for my own country.”
After a semester of relative confusion, this changed dramatically. The school connected with foreign architects working in Kigali and found a slew of expat teachers. Attracting Rwandan teachers to the school was difficult given both the rarity of Rwandan architects and a controversial school policy: expats were paid significantly more than Rwandan teachers, regardless of educational background.
For the few Rwandan architects in Kigali with plenty of lucrative opportunities to practice, this policy offered little incentive to devote time to teaching. There’s an obvious irony about this: the school, founded on the grounds of architecture for Rwandans, by Rwandans, is run almost exclusively by foreigners.
And yet it’s these foreign architects — not the local ones — who are championing the idea of a Rwanda-specific architectural vernacular.
I asked Jean-Paul what architecture meant for him now, after three years of school with an assortment of international professors and trips to Rome, Venice, and Kenya. He told me, “I think people are the most important element of architecture. And what people need is different in every single place. It’s based on their daily lives, their culture. So I can learn from foreign architects and visit foreign places, but I need to take those tools and apply them locally, come up with an architecture that is specifically Rwandan. I used to wonder why Kigali didn’t look like New York — but now, I don’t want it to. We can’t copy New York and implement it in Kigali. Architecture here needs to be about the people who are here.”
A few days later I spoke with Toma, an Italian professor at FAED. He was extremely conscious of his own foreign perspective in Rwanda, and the difficulties, for his students, of translating architectural ideas that have roots elsewhere into something they can own.
“The western model of approaching thought is a grid — something that divides space. Here, that didn’t exist. The right angle came very late. Huts were circular — space was organized in a circular way. So it’s a real challenge — how to teach independence from imported models, how to teach students a framework they can then adapt to their own ways of thinking.”
Peter Rich, a South African architect whose work is driven by collaborating with communities and engaging in intense local research, recently gave a lecture entitled “Learnt in Translation” to the FAED community. Rich highlighted the ways in which local communities organize space — constructing along the curves of nature, building houses that reflect the culture of the inhabitant, utilizing materials that complement rather than confront the surrounding environment.
“This is architecture,” he said, “though no architects were involved.”
Failing to recognize the importance of local knowledge, he argued, is what breeds the generic, inhumane modernism that dominates contemporary architecture, particularly in the developing world.
Rich gave his talk in an unfinished youth sports center called the “Football Center for Hope,” designed by Irish architect and FAED professor Killian Doherty. The center is in the neighborhood of Kimisagara, a poor, under-resourced part of the city where mud houses sit precariously on hillsides and residents have created informal community networks in response to the city’s lack of attention.
In a workshop that Peter Rich led with 3rd year students at FAED and a group of students from the University of Arkansas, the budding architects did extensive interviews with inhabitants of Kimisagara and examined the ways in which people and communities organize space intuitively, out of necessity.
What they found was that this neighborhood, despite its poor infrastructure, derived strength from a profound sense of community. Residents knew every winding alley and backstreet, every family, every tailor shop or fruit seller or medicine man. They loved the physical closeness of the neighborhood — how everyone traversed the same routes and crossed paths in the same public gathering places. People were in constant, face-to-face contact with one another, and this was integral to everyone’s well-being.
They did express a desire for more living space — but only slightly larger. Camaraderie, and public space, was more important than privacy. The residents did want better access to basic resources like clean water, electricity, healthcare, and sanitation facilities. They also wanted better schools for their children, and houses and roads that were stronger and less susceptible to destruction by the frequent heavy rains.
What they didn’t want was a drastic change in their way of life — something that would prompt a loss of this communal, idiosyncratic, people-centered social structure that they had developed, organically, over time.
If architects were to actually enter the picture in Kimisagara, residents would want them to work with, rather than replace, what the neighborhood had already created. This kind of small-scale, community research done by the FAED students produced information that could be incredibly useful for architects working on urban housing in Rwanda.
But by nature it is slow and subjective, two characteristics that the government and local architects tend to find uninteresting. Drastic change, they argue, has its own merits.
All 21st century cities look the same
Jean-Marie Kamiya is one of the handful of Rwandan architects working in the country, and his firm, GMK Architects, is heavily involved in the Kigali Master Plan. Educated in Congo and the US, Kamiya is a stately, imposing man, softened by his wide, bright-white smile.
I paid a visit to GMK, which is responsible for several malls, convention centers, and skyscrapers in the city, all built in the last five years. In the lobby of the office, glossy renderings of the firm’s work were on display. The buildings were clean and modern in material — every one made liberal use of glass and steel — but flashy and extravagant in sensibility.
Balloon-shaped glass roofs, spiraling steel facades, jenga-block story arrangements, curvaceous concrete walls. Several looked like five or six buildings of different size, shape, and style adhered together to form one schizophrenic structure. Each certainly required significant air-conditioning and numerous elevators.
Kamiya’s office had enormous glass paneled walls; he sat at a wide mahogany desk at the far end of the room; I sat in a folding chair about 15 feet away from him. After a long exchange of pleasantries, I asked him whether his work was guided by any Rwandan principles, whether he felt he was building for Rwandans specifically. He immediately took issue with my question.
“Is there such thing as architecture specifically for Rwandans? Do you see other countries putting a label on their architecture — this is Singapore architecture, this is Dubai architecture, this is American architecture? Cities today are about the same things: density, efficiency, economics, population growth. All 21st century cities look essentially the same.”
I countered: But what about cultural difference? What about differences in weather, topography, pace of life? What about creating spaces that people feel comfortable in, that people feel were designed with them in mind? What about using materials that are native and plentiful in a country, rather than relying on imports? And what about learning from the mistakes of previous cities?
Kamiya sat up straighter in his chair and cleared his throat, as though about to give a lecture to a misbehaving student. In the 21st century, he explained, these questions are superfluous to the task at hand. As the world globalizes, everything and everyone is becoming more homogenous. People’s lives are more and more similar across nations. The distinctions between cultures are becoming blurred, and increasingly irrelevant.
So why assert some need for architectural difference? Architecture is about functionality. It doesn’t need to concern itself with the so-called “specific” needs of different kinds of people in different kinds of environments. Just because people haven’t always lived in apartments, haven’t always relied on cars, doesn’t mean they shouldn’t. “Sometimes you just have to push people’s boundaries. They’ll adapt.”
This is the crux of the widening schism between the practitioners and the academics. Of course, the folks at FAED would argue that architecture’s functionality is contingent on its consideration of culture, that cities must look different and must reflect the culture of the people that inhabit them. As Rwanda imports foreign models, should it not look closely at the telling flaws of these foreign models?
Jean-Paul summed it up this way: “Not every place has to go through the process of combining small neighborhoods into one big city, sprawling outward, building suburbs, relying on cars for daily transport between suburb and city, facing an oil crisis, and then wishing there was a way to turn back, to return to the small, self-contained, walkable neighborhoods of the past.”
Perhaps there are alternative paths.
A Place-centric architecture
A few weeks later, I sat down to breakfast with my neighbor, Frederic, who I’d recently learned was a practicing architect. Frederic is half-Rwandan, and his family left the country in the 1950’s, just as troubles between Hutus and Tutsis were beginning to flare. He was educated in Europe and worked for several years as an architect in Paris. After the genocide, he was compelled to return to his home country. Frederic is now working on a Master Plan project to build pedestrian bridges; he also builds houses and commercial buildings for private clients.
As we chatted about the changing Kigali, it became clear that Frederic was, in numerous ways, a bridge himself. He’s a Rwandan from the diaspora, coming home to claim a country he doesn’t know very well himself. He’s working on the Master Plan, yet he’s designing bridges to facilitate public space, human interaction, and environmental consciousness. In all of his work, he’s decidedly contemporary yet committed to consulting with locals and using local materials whenever possible. He’s even taught architecture at FAED as well as consulted with the government’s urban offices.
Frederic’s views were resolutely moderate, and wisely malleable. He doesn’t feel he needs to align himself with one extreme: either the local-centric architecture school or the ruthlessly modern-inclined government.
“Its just not useful,” he said. “What’s important is showing people what you can do with your ideas, not just spouting them. If you actually design and build an incredible building out of volcanic rock [abundant in Northern Rwanda], people will believe your fluff about local materials.”
Perhaps his road is the most realistic: embrace the will and energy of the government, and find clever ways to work within the system to realize your ideas. And also, “Let go. No matter what we do, cities are living forms. They’ll build themselves. Trying to control that is like stopping life, stopping the flow of time. It’s impossible. They’ll outdo us.”
I wondered, then, whether it was unwise — or unnecessary — to even consider the idea that architects, in building 21st century Rwanda, could actually shape 21st century Rwandan identity. What Frederic was saying was that this would happen anyway, regardless of what architects do. Identity will reflect the city, and the city will reflect identity — they create each other.
As Peter Rich pointed out in his lecture, everyday people are the primary architects of the places they inhabit, intuitively. People give bare buildings life, infuse them with personality and identity.
“What we can do,” he continued “is to build spaces that improve people’s lives, and encourage people to love their home, their city. But this can look like many different things.”
Of course, there is the need for balance. Local doesn’t necessarily mean only using traditional materials; “tradition” is not antithetical to the “21st century.” Rwanda isn’t filled with ancient, monumental structures — its architectural references are subtler, embedded in people’s everyday lives, and discovering them requires a creative, considerate eye.
Local is about being site-specific – about learning from the land, and the time-tested ways in which the land has been used. Grass roofs keep houses cool; cactus fencing creates semipermeable, neighborly boundaries (and is medicinally useful). Local knowledge exists, and should be utilized; there’s no need to reinvent the wheel entirely.
Frederic made a speculation. “The political leaders now are people who’ve come back to Rwanda after 1994. They didn’t grow up with traditional forms of architecture like grass roofs and cactus fencing. So they don’t understand the value of traditions. They have this idea that Rwandan culture doesn’t exist, and therefore doesn’t need to be valued.”
Rwandans from the diaspora perhaps have to relearn — or learn, for the first time — what Rwandan culture means. And then, learn to consider culture as a factor in making policy decisions. Placing a high value on culture — new, old, and in flux — might be the first step in encouraging a place-centric kind of architecture.
The balance between old and new is a tenuous one as well. How much should be preserved? Francois, a French architect working on the pedestrian bridges project with Frederic, cited a counterexample to rapidly changing Kigali: “In Paris, the preservation of the past is so strong that there isn’t the possibility of creating something new. Everything is rigid, fixed. Movement has stopped. It’s almost absurd. Cities must grow and change as life does, as generations do. Putting a stop on this leads to a dead end.”
As Kamiya said, architecture should be dynamic, evolving with the times. But this doesn’t have to mean a blatant erasure of the past. Outlawing traditional construction methods — and, most recently, a plan to demolish all Belgian colonial buildings — isn’t an organic kind of evolution.
“Its too symbolic — erasing physical history doesn’t erase the history itself,” Francois said. With or without the physical buildings, the past will live in people’s memories.
“It is part of the country’s fabric now, whether they like it or not. But once you destroy the buildings you can’t bring them back.”
And the past is present in palpable, eerie ways. Far from the city center in the neighborhood of Kanombe is a meticulously preserved European-style house, custom-built for President Juvenal Habyarimana, head of the regime that orchestrated and perpetrated the genocide. Habyarimana was killed on April 6th, 1994 when his plane was shot down just before touching down at the Kigali airport.
His death sparked the start of the genocide; within hours of the shooting, roadblocks went up, instructions were disseminated, and killings began. His plane crashed in his own backyard, and the remains are still there, preserved for visitors to behold (but not photograph, as investigations into who shot down the plane are still underway).
Inside the house, Habyarimana’s garish furniture and décor — heavy-wood paneling, massive leather couches, somewhat retro linoleum and metal finishes — remain in place. A guide gave me a tour of the house, opening up hidden doors leading to vast wings, rooms reserved for meetings with dignitaries, concealed cabinets where arms were stashed, and the president’s secret room where he practiced voodoo. The house was designed with secrecy in mind; only a privileged, instrumental few were allowed behind its disappearing doorways. It’s chilling to imagine the conversations that took place inside.
And yet this house is not being destroyed with the rest of the colonial buildings: it’s too laden with history, too symbolic of the leadership that has eternally scarred, and transformed, this country.
This discovering, crafting, shaping of identity will take time — generations. 18 years after the genocide, Rwanda is just beginning to reflect on itself. Frederic pointed out that the people who are running the country now — in all fields — are people who experienced the genocide acutely, in their own lifetimes, firsthand or in the diaspora. They watched it play out. They’re the generation that will always be defined by having lived through it, and it will remain in their memories.
“The younger generation — like the students at FAED — they’re the ones who can really change Rwanda, shape it into something new. We can’t, because the history of this country lives too close to the surface for us. So it will take a lot of time.”
After we wrapped up, Frederic pointed me in the direction of the “one-stop center,” an all-purpose construction center for the city where a scale model of the master plan was on display. The 15 x 15 foot glass-enclosed model sat squarely in the center of the building, a mesmerizing diorama of miniature skyscrapers and apartment blocks, waterways and greenery, highways and houses spilling over the softly undulating landscape. An island of progress. A city in a bubble, about to rise into the sky.
On my way home, I walked past a construction site for the New Century Hotel, a mammoth concrete-glass-steel project funded by Chinese investors. The skeleton of the building loomed over a group of workers gathered at its base. As I neared, I saw that the group was made up entirely of young Rwandan construction workers, except for one short, stocky older Chinese man standing in the middle and wearing a hard hat, the obvious leader on the job. He was taking aggressive steps back and forth and shouting, angrily, in Mandarin.
The Rwandan workers kept silent, comprehending nothing. I watched the Chinese man continue to assert himself, pace, and shout for several minutes, trying, and failing, to convey what he was feeling. But it didn’t translate. The young Rwandans just looked from side to side, shifted around, and held back smiles. It seemed they had other ideas.
[Note: This story was produced by the Glimpse Correspondents Program, in which writers and photographers develop long-form narratives for Matador.]
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Meara Sharma believes in movement -- the way a face settles, a bus navigating a hairpin turn, walking through an unfamiliar city. She finds new places thrilling, as well as the process by which a new place becomes familiar. She is committed to learning the dynamism of a place -- through conversations, landscapes, senses, memories. As she moves through the world she gathers materials which often reappear in writings, dances, and other makings.