The City Is Burning! Street Economies and the Juxtacity of Kigali, Rwanda


This article is about the juxtaposition—or side-by-side coexistence—of divergent economic, political, and city building processes in Kigali, Rwanda. I focus on abazunguzayi, nomadic merchants whose public presence in Kigali’s streets are seen as antithetical to the global city aesthetics that urban managers wish to stamp on Kigali as its future image. I argue that abazunguzayi shift the weight of authority from formalized sources to the streets by leveraging an internal contradiction of transforming Kigali’s surface into an optimally controlled high-tech city with world-class infrastructure municipal aspirations to produce Kigali’s future as a hub of high-end tourism and international conferences ironically depend on the very subjects and practices that are considered antithetical to that future. I argue that this is occurring for two reasons. First, Kigali’s street economy is embedded in the daily operations of the city. Abazunguzayi run discount economies that the city’s low-paid workforce depends on to reproduce their labor. This includes the labor that is necessary to build the envisioned new Kigali. Second, while everyone participates in the street economy, women abazunguzayi pose a specific problem for city authorities. As crackdowns on the street trade are becoming more violent and visibly target women, city authorities undermine the national project to promote “women’s empowerment” as an element of Rwanda’s world-class brand.

This is a preview of subscription content, log in to check access.

Fig. 1
Fig. 2


  1. 1.

    Mumujyi wuhiye is just one of many warning calls. “Tigo Yigeze!” (Tigo is here!) is another, from the advertisement for the Nigerian mobile company Tigo. The joke makes fun of both Tigo’s advertising and the Rwanda National Police uniforms that are the same shade of blue as Tigo’s logo. Another is “Imvura yirawa!” (The rain is falling!), an imperative to take cover.

  2. 2.

    Literally to erupt, like a volcano but also to shake violently.

  3. 3.

    In most cities there are tensions between various offices and sources of authority. In Kigali, however, these tensions are not always easy to track given the distributed network of central authority. Differentiated relationships between various posts of authority certainly do exist and are expressed over the street economy (see below). In the specific case of street raids, however, national police and security guards work together.

  4. 4.

    I am grateful to an anonymous reviewer for Urban Forum who called attention to this point.

  5. 5.

    Machete wielding youth militias of genocidaires. Interhamwe were often directed by the military but composed of young men who carried out most of the actual killing during the genocide.

  6. 6.

    It is worth noting that unlike Singapore, the City of Kigali has never had a coherent policy to “formalize” the street economy. The policy has always been to eliminate the street trade.

  7. 7.

    By 2001 the UN media project, International Regional Integrated Network (IRIN), reported that Local Defense forces and police had “stepped up” their efforts to clear the streets of hawkers and street children. The 2003 Rwanda country report by Human Rights Watch quotes several informants being detained through “roundups” in Nyarugenge as early as 2000.

  8. 8.

    Several firsthand accounts of the Containers that I gathered during field research speak of inmates frequently dying of heatstroke and exhaustion.

  9. 9.

    Both were vague about Olivia’s husband’s current whereabouts.

  10. 10.

    Although many point out that as low as Rwf 2000 would be enough to buy produce to sell for the day.

  11. 11.

    The World Bank officials like to call credit associations like ibimina, “social capital” because in theory, they are based on trust. With Kigali’s street traders though, ibimena enforcement is fierce, and there are plenty of rumors about various punishments like people having their homes burned down for trying to get out of paying ibimena.


  1. Appadurai, A. (2002). Deep democracy: urban governmentality and the horizon of politics. Public Culture, 14(1), 21–47.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  2. Bayat, A. (2010). Life as politics: how ordinary people change the Middle East. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  3. Benjamin, S. (2008) Occupancy Urbanism: Radicalizing Politics and Economy beyond Policy and Programs. International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, 32(3):719–729.

  4. Berry, M. (2015). When ‘bright futures’ fade: paradoxes of Women’s empowerment in Rwanda. Signs., 41(1), 1–27.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  5. Burnet, J. (2008). Gender balance and the meanings of women in governance in post-genocide Rwanda. African Affairs, 107(428), 361–386.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  6. Burnet, J. (2011). Women have found respect: gender quotas, symbolic representation, and female empowerment in Rwanda. Politics & Gender, 7, 303–334.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  7. Burnet, J. (2012). Genocide lives in us: women, memory and silence in Rwanda. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.

  8. Cascais, A. (2019). “Rwanda: real equality or gender washing?” Deutsche Welle. accessed July 14, 2019.

  9. Chatterjee, P. (2004). The politics of the governed: reflections on popular politics in much of the world. New York: Columbia University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  10. Crossa, V. (2016). Reading for difference on the street: de-homogenizing street vending in Mexico City. Urban Studies, 53(2), 287–381.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  11. de Certeau, M. (1984). The practice of everyday life. Berkeley: University of California Press.

    Google Scholar 

  12. Davis, M. (2004). Planet of slums. New Left Review, 26, 5–34.

    Google Scholar 

  13. Davis, M. (2006). Planet of slums. London: Verso.

    Google Scholar 

  14. de Boeck, F. (2015). ‘Poverty’ and the politics of syncopation: urban examples from Kinshasa (DR Congo). Current Anthropology, 56(S11), 146–158.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  15. Finn, B. (2018). Quietly chasing Kigali: young men and the intolerance of informality in Rwanda’s Capital City. Urban Forum, 29, 205–218.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  16. Gibson-Graham. (2008). Diverse economies: performative practices for ‘other worlds. Progress in Human Geography, 32(5), 613–632.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  17. Gondolfo, D. (2013). Formless: a day at Lima’s Office of Formalization. Cultural Anthropology, 28(2), 278–298.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  18. Goodfellow, T. 2013. “Kigali 2020: The Politics of Silence in the City of Shock” OpenDemocracy Digital Commons 3/14/13, uploaded 3/15/13.

  19. Goodfellow, T. (2014) Rwanda’s political settlement and the urban transition: expropriation, construction and taxation in Kigali. Journal of Eastern African Studies, 8(2):311–329.

  20. Goodfellow, T. (2015). Taming the rogue sector: studying state effectiveness through informal transport politics. Journal of Comparative Politics, 47(2), 127–147.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  21. Guyer, J. (2004). Marginal gains: monetary transactions in Atlantic Africa. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

    Google Scholar 

  22. Hart, K. (2002). “Informal economy” The Memory Bank. Accessed April 17, 2020.

  23. Holston, J. (2008). Insurgent citizenship: disjunctions of democracy and modernity in Brazil. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  24. Human Rights Watch. (2006). Swept Away: Street Children Illegally Detained in Kigali Rwanda.

  25. Human Rights Watch. (2015). “Why not call this place a prison? Unlawful Detention and Ill- Treatment in Rwanda’s Gikondo Detention Center.

  26. Jeffremovas, V. (1991). Loose women, virtuous wives, and timid virgins: gender and the control of resources in Rwanda. Canadian Journal of African Studies, 25(3), 378–395.

    Google Scholar 

  27. Jones, J. (2010). ‘Nothing is straight in Zimbabwe’: the rise of the Kukiya-kiya economy 2000-2008. Journal of Southern African Studies, 36(2), 285–299.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  28. Kinyanjui, M. N. (2013). Women informal garment traders in Taveta road, Nairobi: from the margins to the center. African Studies Review, 56(3), 147–164.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  29. Kinyanjui, M. N. (2014). Women in the informal economy in urban Africa: from the margins to the center. London: Zed Books.

    Google Scholar 

  30. KIST (Kigali Institute of Science and Technology Studies). (2001). Kigali economic development survey. Rwanda: Kigali.

    Google Scholar 

  31. Lefebvre, H. ([1972] 1991). The Production of Space. Cambridge: Blackwell publishers.

  32. Lindell, I., & Ihalainen, M. (2014). The politics of confinement and mobility: informality, relocations and urban re-making from above and below in Nairobi. In W. Willems & E. Obadare (Eds.), Civic Agency in Africa: African arts of resistance in the 21stcentury (pp. 119–133). Oxford: James Currey.

    Google Scholar 

  33. Makhulu, A.M. (2015). Making freedom: apartheid, squatter politics, and the struggle for home. Durham: Duke University Press.

  34. Meagher, K. (2010). Identity economics: social networks and the informal economy in Nigeria. Oxford: James Currey.

  35. Marx, K. ([1891] 2006). Capital: a critique of political economy (3 vols). New York: Penguin Classics.

  36. Niyomwungeri, C. (2017). “Abazunguzayi n’utujagari mu byashegeshe Umujyi wa Kigali Mu Myaka Irindwi Ishize.” Igihe. Accessed August 29, 2018.

  37. Purdeková, A. (2011) ‘Even if I am not here, there are so many eyes’: surveillance and state reach in Rwanda. The Journal of Modern African Studies, 49(3):475–497.

  38. Quayson, A. (2014). Oxford street, Accra: city life and the itineraries of transnationalism. Durham: Duke University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  39. RISD, & Burnet, J. (2003). Culture, practice, and law: women’s access to land in Rwanda. In L. Wanyeki & M. Wanyeki (Eds.), Women and Land in Africa: Culture, Religion, and Realizing Women’s Rights (pp. 176–206). New York: Zed Books.

    Google Scholar 

  40. Roy, A. (2011). Slumdog cities: rethinking urban Subalternism. International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, 35(2), 223–238.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  41. Scott, J. (1998). Seeing like a state: how certain schemes to improve the human condition have failed. New Haven: Yale University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  42. Simone, A.-M. (2011). A town on its knees? Theory, Culture and Society, 27(7–8), 130–154.

    Google Scholar 

  43. Sommers, M. (2012). Stuck: Rwandan youth and the struggle for adulthood. Atlanta: University of Georgia Press.

    Google Scholar 

  44. Sundaram, A. (2016). Bad News: the last journalist in a dictatorship. New York: Doubleday.

    Google Scholar 

  45. Tertsakian, C. (2016). “Rwanda security officials should stop abuse of street vendors” The East African. Accessed July 5, 2019.

  46. Twizimana, F. (2014). “Kigali: Yrwanaho, Umupolisi Yarasiye Umusore Muri Gare Arapfa” . Accessed August 6, 2019.

  47. Van Shi, K. (2019). “The Kigali paradox: how did Rwanda’s capital become Africa’s cleanest city?” Mail and Guardian Online. Accessed August 8, 2019.

  48. Vandersypen, M. (1977). Femmes Libres de Kigali. Cahiers d’ étudies Africaines., 17(65), 95–120.

    Article  Google Scholar 

Download references

Author information



Corresponding author

Correspondence to Samuel Shearer.

Additional information

Publisher’s Note

Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Shearer, S. The City Is Burning! Street Economies and the Juxtacity of Kigali, Rwanda. Urban Forum (2020).

Download citation


  • Kigali
  • Street economies
  • Informality
  • Gender
  • Master Plan