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

Abstract

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.

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Notes

  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.

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Shearer, S. The City Is Burning! Street Economies and the Juxtacity of Kigali, Rwanda. Urban Forum (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s12132-020-09388-3

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Keywords

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