Postcolonial theory has asserted the need to carefully consider how present-day social and cultural practices are marked by histories of colonialism.
One striking element of postcolonial Rwanda is her amazing resilience that has rendered many colonial practices less thought of in many aspects of development.
Rwandans are so committed to diluting the colonial mentality of divisions that they have unapologetically dropped their ethnical identification imposed on them by colonialists and decided to be Rwandans.
In the same light, current development ideas in Kigali could actually be used to erase or correct some colonial urban anomalies.
A closer look into a portion of the African Union Avenue (KN 3 Road) could help us trace a series of buried epistemologies through which present relations can be asserted.
Until 2008, between the downtown Kigali main roundabout, also seen as the gateway into Kigali’s CBD and the Sopetrad junction, on opposite sides of the avenue, existed two neighbouhoods, Upper Kiyovu (Ikiyovu c’yabakire) and Lower Kiyovu (Ikiyovu c’yabacene); A bizarre symmetry between the rich and the poor.
How did this symmetry fall in place?
Kigali’s rapid urbanisation is said to have started only in 1962 after independence. On the one hand, Upper Kiyovu (for the rich) had until then been an exclusive residence for Belgians, after which it continued to develop as a composition of elite neighbourhoods.
Todate, it is still home to a huge expat population, a result of which a bunch of high-end restaurants serving western and Asian cuisine dot the area.
On the other hand, Lower Kiyovu (for the poor) grew as a result of the spontaneous rush to the city by Rwandans upon independence, the result of freedom from the initial ‘discrimination capitation tax’, a tool used by colonialists to restrict natives to their rural areas and discourage them from cities and towns.
The influx of Rwandans into the city induced a heavy rural-urban movement that was overwhelming to house in the city at that time. As a result informal settlements mushroomed around Kigali.
Logically, the nearer to the city it was, the easier it was for people to walk and work in Kigali and the industrial park then in Gikondo.
Lower Kiyovu provided a perfect installation site at that point in time.
This symmetry had for long been the ‘new order of things’ in this neighborhood. A crude line dividing a people who had for long been entangled in the colonial mentality; that of division, but at the same time a people full of ambition and confidence to work hard and move on towards the brighter future.
In 2008, the City of Kigali in collaboration with Rwanda Social Security Fund (then Caisse Sociale du Rwanda) and the Rwanda Housing Bank expropriated the 362 households of Ubumwe cell-‘Kiyovu for the poor’-, thus dismantling the said symmetry.
The households, after they were fully expropriated, either chose to move to a new housing estate in Batsinda, to other neighbourhoods within Kigali or relocate to rural areas.
As of today, this expropriated area largely remains an urban void with several high-rise buildings coming up.
To make a speculative hypothesis; two scenarios are possible; the new developments could either dilute this symmetry, by creating a new and neutral urban space for all, or they could worsen the situation if they continue to economically isolate the ‘poor’,only allowing the ‘rich’ neighbourhood to encroaches into the ‘void’.
The former scenario would indeed be a win-win situation for Kigali and Rwanda; a correction to this urban anomaly catalyzing social exclusion and marginalization within the city.
By successfully breaking the symmetry of a colonial scheme, dividing the native populations into two separate spheres of activity, this spacecould become a uniting corridor along which these two classes of people could begin to integrate socially.
A possible, easy to implement project is that ideas could be mixed use developments, social housing projects and common social amenities.
For instance, the pharmacy at the RSSB headquarters at payage (which, by the way is part of the former Lower Kiyovu is a successful ‘micro’ social place I’ve loved to observe over time; A space that draws together a wide range of people coming together to seek medication or approvals for expensive prescriptions.
I have seen people form small chat groups at the lower entrance, next to the ‘hippopotamus fountain’ and one can capture a sense of communal use of space.Such micro scale elements attract a wide range of people making them sociable places.
The city, as the place for our civilization provides the framework for social, cultural and economic activities, which brings people together and consequently enhances both social cohesion and economic advancements.
Rather than understanding the city as a static object, we need to constantly look at it as a social space; a ‘laboratory of change’ and a custodian of the people’s hopes at the same time.This way, such urban anomalies can be kept where they belong ... to the past.
The writer is an architect and urban designer with keen interest on the dialectical relations between Architecture and Society.