Biryogo in Nyamirambo, a Kigali City suburb, has been one of those places full of surprises, weird fashion styles, Kinyarwanda ‘slang’ and the most notorious bars and ladies of the night.
Though, it has managed to place Nyamirambo on the list of the most business oriented places in town. Now, the area could soon be turned into an upscale city centre once plans to upgrade informal settlements in Nyarugenge District commence next year.
The planned upgrade will start with Biryogo, Agatare and Rwampara cells, all in Nyamirambo with more than 83 per cent of the over 26,000 residents of Nyarugenge Sector.
However, there’s more to this place than the slum-dwelling, motor spare-parts theft, drug abuse and prostitution.
Biryogo is a well-known business hub. Popular businesses include restaurants, fashion boutiques, garages, roadside food kiosks and bars. But all this started in the 40’s and 50’s, when the place provided affordable housing.
“During the 40’s and 50’s, Biryogo was the only place one could find affordable housing and was popular with Arabs and Asians. Employers stayed with employees but when it was decided that employees find their own housing, the Biryogo slums sprung up,” says 75-year-old Amani Abbas Nshizirungu who grew up in the area.
Nshizirungu says Biryogo was the first place where people lived in crowded settlements.
He says because most people who worked for the Asians and Arabs spoke Swahili, the area was first referred to as ‘Camp Swahili’. So, we sought to find out how the name Biryogo came into existence.
“The name changed around the period when Rwanda was still under the rule of King Mutara III Rudahigwa. Since most people around the area worked for the Arabs and Asians, they developed a close bond and didn’t want any outsiders within their circle,” he says.
He continues to say that they were rude and hostile to people who wanted to penetrate their circle and most times they were abusive. Because of their nature, Nshinzirungu says they were branded ‘Ibigoryi’ literally translated as ‘stupid’ and they make noises similar to those made by ‘Ibiryogoryo, (stokes)”
“The people who were labeled ‘Abaryogo’ come from the family lineage of Bitungabari, who was rude, hostile and offensive towards people.
His attitude spread to his family members and eventually to the people in the surrounding areas. Everyone who lived in that area was known as a ‘Muryogo’ and the more people settled around the area, the more the place and name became famous,” he adds.
Biryogo and Muslims
According to Nshinzirungu, Muslims came into the country through Tanzania, coming mostly as traders.
He also adds that others came during the colonial era to do administrative work.
“Most of them used to work for Arabs and Asians who by then resided in town where Al-Madina Mosque is located all the way to Ecole Belge up to Gakinjiro area. After settling, they constructed houses and their businesses were expanding when they were evicted by Belgians before settling in Biryogo by the Belgians,” he says.
The city centre was reserved for the Belgian colonial administration while the Muslims were given the area below Al-Fat’h Mosque, the first mosque built in Rwanda in 1913.
Business in Biryogo
This area is a hub of activities ranging from grocery shops, boutiques, bars, music studios and garages among others. More so, it’s one of those places where someone’s financial status, however small or big it is, will enable them to get something to eat or drink.
“From what I gather, life is generally cheap in Nyamirambo,” Nshinzirungu adds.
Foodstuffs, clothes, and general merchandise are cheap and available. A stick of brochette can be gotten at Rwf 100. Chapatti,” cost Rwf 100 and tea with ginger is Rwf 50. For this reason, most people looking for jobs usually reside there.
Another popular activity in Biryogo is car maintenance. Apart from garages in Nyabugogo, Biryogo accounts for the majority of garages in the city centre. It is widely believed that when a car owner loses his car parts, they should try Biryogo garages and spare parts shops.
Another resident who gave his name only as Isma told how the garages operate.
“We used to be chased by security personnel but not anymore because we avoid operating from the streets,” he says.
Working on a car depends on its condition but the least amount that can be charged is Rwf 5000 and above.
Isma has been in this job for ten years and on a good day he can go home with Rwf 10,000.
“We continue to operate from here but our biggest worry is those people who come to sell stolen spare parts.
When authorities track them here, we are all held accountable. So, we try to discourage it or isolate people who are caught stealing,” Isma says.
Nshizirungu talked about one of the oldest, if not the oldest house in Biryogo which is still standing and very strong. The house that was built by one Muhamudu Gatwa was constructed in early 50’s. The house has two rooms and Nshinzirungu says that it should be considered among tourist sites within Kigali city.
“I think it would be a great tourist attraction considering that we don’t have many touristic attractions around Kigali city especially in Biryogo.”
Biryogo might soon change shape but it’ll take a lifetime to change its way of life. It’s an area that has created its own identity and attracts its own class of people.
A four-year project to upgrade informal settlements in Nyarugenge District is meant to
minimise recurrent eviction of dwellers.
It will begin with three cells in Nyarugenge Sector–Biryogo, Agatare and Rwampara–that are said to host more than 83 per cent of the over 26,000 residents of Nyarugenge Sector.
The project expected to start by 2016 was an initiative of the City of Kigali and Rwanda Housing Authority.
The project will help upgrade them by setting up basic infrastructure such as water and electricity.
For the residents to be able to refurbish their houses, negotiations with financial institutions for micro loans are underway, according to Abbias Philippe Mumuhire, the City of Kigali’s Neighbourhood and Housing Architect.
The project will be funded by the World Bank, that committed to inject US$10m of the $18m required, while the rest will be provided by the government.