A stroll around any part of the City of Kigali will lead you to an obvious conclusion: we love walls.
Perimeter walls, or fences, are so commonplace that the City Hall had to find a way of legislating the issue.
The city Master Plan prohibits specific suburbs from having fences that are not transparent. Be it for security reasons, aesthetics, privacy or prestige, residents build perimeter walls even between adjacent houses in safe neighbourhoods. But why is the habit so popular even in an age where construction costs are so high and Kigali is one of the safest cities in the world?
Ernestine (not real name, for personal reasons) is a civil engineer. She told The New Times that walls have a high upfront cost but with long-term advantages. “Walls can last up to between 20 and 25 years with relatively no maintenance,” she said.
Aristide Horimbere, a real estate agent in Kigali city, says there are several reasons by Rwandans love perimeter walls and they go beyond security. “Most of our customers prefer perimeter walls over cross-wire fences not just because of security. They value privacy and having a place to call their own,” he said. Jeanne, another Kigali resident, adds: “Walls help keep our children safe and orderly as movement in and out of the house can be easily controlled.”
However, walls, like everything else, come at a cost. “Cemented brick walls can cost up to Rwf70,000 per cubic meter,” she said. “It specially becomes a challenge if there is a shortage of cement.”
Eng. Fred Mugisha, the Director of Urban Planning and Construction at the City Hall, told this newspaper that the structure and aesthetic of walls have something to do with the city as a whole. “The proposed Master Plan designates that commercial areas are not to have walls so as to ease business operations. Some residential zones are also advised to have transparent fences as it would be a good addition to the look of the city,” he said.
Mugisha said that the standard is not to have fences around homes but if one insists, they are advised to install enclosures that are at least 50 percent transparent, at least in some suburbs.
This, he said, would contribute toward the city’s beautification drive.
“While one’s garden is their private property, it should also be half-public, that’s what we encourage for those who insist on having fences in neighbourhoods where they are allowed to have them,” he said.
“We don’t encourages construction of perimeter walls around one’s property and in some areas, and it is actually prohibited in commercial zones,” he said.
He noted that they have lately put emphasis on enforcement. “We now advise investors accordingly, where fences are not allowed, we make it clear to you,” he said adding that, depending on the location, even some apartments are not supposed to have high perimeter walls.
“Slowly by slowly people will embrace our message,” he said when asked about the level of uptake.
Kigali is generally a green city, with plush, well-kempt neighbourhoods. Yet often this beauty is often “obstructed” by walls all over the place.
But the walls are equally common in lowly neighbourhoods as well.
“People value their privacy,” Aristide said. “Some people cannot even consider living in gated neighbourhoods because individual homes do not have walls around them,” he continued.
Yet, some homeowners and landlords install walls around their property to keep potential encoroachers at bay. Like elsewhere in Africa, land is an important asset in densely-populated Rwanda and citizens are generally keen on doing everything possible not to lose an inch of their land.
“Most walls are built to clarify the limits of one’s parcel of land. It helps prevent potential disputes,” said a mason in Kimironko, a city suburb.
But he also observed that some people just put up walls between themselves and their neighbours to go with the flow.
“Some people just do it because it’s what everyone before them did,” the mason said.
There is also a historical aspect to this.
Appolinaire Muvunanyambo, Secretary General, Inteko Izirikana, an elders forum, said Rwandans have from time immemorial always had fences around their homes – and traditionally they were often thick enclosures made up of wild trees, ‘imiyenzi’ (tuphorbia tirucalli) or the sacred imivumu (ficus) trees.
Rwandans have always had fences around their homes for various reasons, he said, citing security – against thieves or wild animals.
Today, he said, one may not have cows but they own TV and radio sets, and other possessions and they want to guard against intruders.
“Fences have always been our thing,” he said.
Walls have indeed been very useful to individuals and communities. Aesthetics, security, ‘peace of mind’, habits and order are all good reasons to mount walls.
But change is coming and it’s coming fast. With land and material prices soaring, and Kigali increasingly becoming touristic and City Hall insisting on having as few walls as possible, it is plausible to assume that residents and real estate owners will one day rethink whether or not perimeter walls are actually a necessity. Then, perhaps, we will open to the idea of open homes.