Common urban problems: Why Kigali is different

The population in the City of Kigali is expected to hit 1.5 million in the not-so-distant future.

Kigali is one of the most densely populated cities in Africa. In as much as the national population and geographical size is not that big, a lot of Rwandans and visiting residents prefer to live in Kigali.

One quite striking and amazing fact is that when newsrooms and the media are discussing the rising urban crime and social problems, the City of Kigali is always an exemption.

On the contrary, Kigali is more often than not in the headlines offering a precedent for positive urban life; clean city, smart city and safe city.

World over, cities are said to be important social, economic and political forces that pull citizens from the rural and peri-urban areas resulting into urbanization and urban sprawl.

It is also globally recognised that cities grow faster than the urban planning process. This rapid urbanization, coupled with the obviously heterogeneous city populations with significant socio-economic differences, easily result into urban informalities, urban slums, increasing urban crimes and social problems within the populations in cities.

Although similar problems may exist in rural and peri-urban areas, we still tend to perceive them to be worse in cities or large urban centres.

The heterogeneity of cities is so serious that our definitions of urban, of city, our feelings about the city, our experiences of city life, our expectations etc. are so mixed up and diverse.

Many contemporary theorists on urban life have argued that since urban societies are inherently unequal and the social processes that influence the geographical concentration of people and cities relate to wealth and power, this trend is inevitable.

Good enough, for most people cities are and remain great places of social and economic opportunity; they move to the city to find work, to get education, to access better health care, for safety. For individual freedom and expression.

This is the story of many in Kigali that I interact with.

On the other side, we do have people that find cities as scenes of serious socio-economic and environmental problems such as crime, racial conflict, ethnic heterogeneity and pollution.

Consequently, social problems are said to be social construction generated out of interplay between culture, power and ideology. In this perspective, social problems only become prominent and visible when a powerful group makes them a big issue.

People in this category will avoid the city all together, and if they must live in it, will struggle with fears and hopelessness in their everyday lives.

Urban social problems are not only phenomenon to be understood as ‘social constructions’, but are often rooted in larger social issues. Simply put, to understand what goes on in cities we must look at the larger social fabric as well.

Rwanda has only one ethnic group: Rwandans (Abanyarwanda) – one nation, one state, one people, unlike many countries in the region where we have dozens of ethnic groups which make every single social problem difficult to solve.

Such unfortunate cases as post-election violence, unemployment, corruption, ethnic conflict and cleansing, and terrorism in the region are evidently always tied to ethnic connotations.

Kigalians are loyal to the urban policy. They are working hard to implement policies that promote Vision 2020, economic development and poverty reduction, and are committed to keep the city safe and clean.

When there is some rubbish heaps or bushes in the neighbourhoods, they will not carry placards to the streets demanding ‘a clean city’, they will instead get out of their homes on umuganda (community work) day equipped to cleanup, clear bushes, socialise and plan for days ahead.

I agree with many publications that Kigali is truly safe. I see women, children walking in the city and neighbourhood streets late evening.

In Kigali, interest groups will put resources together to construct homes for orphans, widows, the homeless, etc.

When other cities are dealing with urban crime such as robbery, when cities in the global north are publishing research on ‘the colour of crime’, ‘the criminal blackman’, in Kigali, men, women and children are jogging and walking free and safe on the streets, happy to meet each other, stopping for minutes to share a greeting, a smile, a joke.

If someone is stuck on the road, the next car will most likely give them a lift, sometimes to their precise destination. In other contexts, a pedestrian waving for a lift can only inspire the motorist to roll up door screens and speed off … in fear of a fellow human!

Kigali is indeed peculiar and I can only urge fellow Kigalians to keep it up. We must appreciate this opportunity and work hard to make it last. We cannot take this for granted; we cannot afford to abuse this privilege. We must work hard to keep our city clean, smart and safe.

Josephine Malonza, a lecturer at the School of Architecture, University of Rwanda, is an architect and urban designer with keen interest on the dialectical relations between Architecture and Society.