Like in many societies in Africa, architecture in Rwanda has evolved over time. Rwandans have moved from living in caves and forests to temporary and permanent shelters introduced by foreigners like the Arabs and Europeans.
Architect Eudes Kayumba, the managing director of Landmark Ltd, says Rwandans are no different from other people in the rest of Africa. In the beginning, he says, Rwandans lived in caves and forests.
Dr Ephraim Kamuhangire, a historian and consultant on cultural heritage issues, says the fire and caves happened in phases. He explains that it was during the Stone Age period when people lived in caves and forests. It was later during the Iron Age when people started discovering fire and constructing shelters.
Huts are also known as vernacular architecture, synonymous with the African society and in this case, Rwanda. It is called vernacular because the building principles were (still are in some places) never written down but rather passed on from one generation to another through word of mouth.
For many centuries, Rwandans lived in round huts until foreign influence forced them to move to rectangular designs.
The Kiga and Ankole huts in the western Uganda have a striking resemblance to the way Rwandan huts were (and still are) built. Their roofs are built to touch the ground while the wall is mainly composed of mud and wattle. A pole is fixed in the middle to support the roof.
The Germans were the first foreign influence in Rwanda. Unlike the British architecture that was characterized by small space, the Germans’ architecture is characterized by big space. An example of this is the Richard Kandt House in Nyarugenge, which was the first Germany building in the country, built 100 years ago. Some Rwandans picked ideas from this building. However, for many buildings, the idea is only applied on the verandas.
Unlike the British, the Germans built their houses with windows opening from the inside. This can be noticed on most of the buildings around the country.
According to history books, a year after the Germans had fallen in love with the country, the Belgians came and took over. Back then, most of the architectural designs were Belgian.
Kigali Central Prison, which will soon be turned into a hotel, is one example of Belgian architecture. Some of the oldest churches in the country also have some Belgian and Gothic/Romanesque characteristics.
Apart from the prisons (with a castle style) and churches, Kayumba says the Belgians didn’t leave many buildings to reflect on their presence and influence in the country. Baked bricks, however, were introduced after their arrival.
The Arabs were the first foreigners to reach Uganda, Tanzania and Kenya before the Europeans came. While there, the Arabs influenced everything – trade, religion, architecture, etc. However, it was not the same in Rwanda.
Kayumba says the Arab influence was experienced in this hilly land of ours years after the Belgians had controlled and influenced most people’s cultures, including architecture. But it is the Arabic influence that is responsible for the slanting roofs.
In the past few years, architects have adopted some of the characteristics of the Victorian architecture that was popular in the 19th century. Some buildings in some areas spot this kind of architecture. The gable roofs are a good example of this.
It gained popularity after World War II and is the dominant style for most commercial buildings. A good example is the Kigali Towers.
You may notice that some of the houses have a touch of every bit of the architectural styles. Kayumba blames this on people’s confusion and failure to make choices.
The architect says the small houses around town that seem to have been built by amateurs are a result of many people moving into the cities in the 80s.
He says: “There was an abrupt of people into the city; slums started coming up with no planning.”
The materials used in building have seen a change since way back when man started building temporary shelters. In the beginning, grass was the most favoured building material. However, In Rwanda, grass-thatched houses were eliminated in 2009. Today, it is illegal to construct a grass-thatched house.
Baked bricks were introduced with the coming of the Belgians.
Roofing materials have also seen a change – from grass to iron sheets, asbestos, tiles and then concrete for the flat roofs. However, in the late 1970s asbestos was declared harmful to human health and the government is working on ridding the country of them.
Other materials that have come into the industry over time include sand, cement, stones and tiles.
Types of roofing
Well, architects have explored all types of roofing without concentrating on one. Some of the roofing types include the round (for the huts), gable, shed, flat and hipped.