It has been in the making over the years, now a cultural revolution seems about to come of age in the Rwandan capital, Kigali.
It has many strands.
“French culture is changing and reinventing each day and I believe this centre will be for innovation, culture and youth development,” French President Emmanuel Macron said last May as he opened the new French Cultural Centre in Kigali.
Although Macron was describing what he hoped would be a step forward in mending his country’s often turbulent relations with Rwanda over most of the past three decades, at another level, his words echoed what has, almost quietly, been unfolding on Kigali’s culture, lifestyle, and education scene.
The French Cultural Centre, designed to promote French culture and education in Rwanda, is part of the wider development.
With its outdoor stage for hosting shows and concerts, a bistro where foodies can get cuisine and facilities to host film screenings, workshops, and other events, the centre offers a platform for an alternative scene in the city’s cultural landscape.
The launch of the centre came less than two years after French media conglomerate Vivendi signed a deal with Rwanda to lease and develop the $40 million Kigali Cultural Village, which now has a cinema theatre, an open concert area, and an Escape games facility. Vivendi’s occupation of the 20,000-capacity village, which sits on 30 hectares, as seen by creatives has expanded the possibilities for Rwanda’s cultural and creative art industry, especially given the group’s activities in music, television, film, video game, book publishing, communication, and video hosting.
Vivendi’s agreement with the Rwanda Development Board (RDD) provides that the media giant set up facilities at the village “...intended to showcase Rwanda’s traditional and contemporary arts, nature, biodiversity, traditional, and history.”
“Projects like the Kigali Cultural Village attract a diverse pool of talent,” says Alex Muyoboke, a music promoter. “It’s an addition that was very much needed in our industry.”
The Kigali Cultural Village and other similar centres are dovetailing into the new dynamics in the education sector. In the past few years, Kigali has seen the establishment of a couple of international and continental tertiary institutions, which have brought into the country a large body of foreign students who have impacted the multicultural mix of the city.
Investments by the Carnegie Mellon University, the Africa Leadership University (ALU), the University of Global Health Equity, the Adventist University of Central Africa, and the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences, in addition to the reforms and redevelopments by the University of Rwanda, have opened opportunities of study in Rwanda, and a pipeline that is funnelling in the growing number of African students moving to study within the continent.
The number of international students in the country has surged in recent years. According to data from Unesco, the number of international degree-seeking students quadrupled from just 778 in 2015 to 3,052 in 2019. With most of them in Kigali, a metropolitan area of just over one million. They have transformed the cultural feel of the city.
The vast majority of the students are from other East African countries, with more than two-thirds coming from neighbouring DR Congo, Burundi, and Uganda.
It has partly been made possible by the freedom movement enabled by regional integration; the increasing convergence of education systems within the East African Community (EAC), and also increased research collaboration between EAC member countries.
In addition, scholarship funding by institutions such as ALU have also lifted student mobility.
Leticia Naa Adu Darko, a Ghanaian first-year student, admitted that she has learnt a lot, and said she sees Rwanda benefitting from “attracting the inventive spirit of West Africans”.
“We have to embrace and celebrate our diversity as Africa because you never know where the academic degree will take you,” she says.
Rwanda does not have work-related restrictions on student visas. This has opened up job opportunities for talented foreign students. Some employers have welcomed this openness, saying it can attract the African talent that the economy needs, particularly in sectors such as health, where there are serious shortages of skilled manpower.
Isaac Odhiambo, a Kenyan student at the ALU Kigali campus, says he has been able to combine his studies with his employment at a company. Several of his colleagues from French-speaking West African countries are teaching French in local schools.
The flow goes in the opposite direction too. Rwanda sent 4,839 students to study abroad in 2017, according to Unesco. One is that it is now easier for Rwandan students to study in English-speaking countries because of the country’s switch from French to English as the language of instruction.
While national and international scholarship programmes have long been seen as a strategic investment in human capital development, they have also been crucial in driving student mobility and exposing learners to the diverse cultures of the world.
These students, together with a youthful population, are a rich resource for the cultural industry. In music, local artistes are leveraging off it and creating products they are taking into more deals and collaborations with their regional and African counterparts.
History of East African connections
Before the coronavirus outbreak brought the suspension of entertainment activities, Kigali had risen to be one of the favourite destinations for musicians from East Africa and further afield.
Events such as the Kigali Up Festival and the Rwanda Film Festival are increasingly connecting local musicians and actors with others from across the continent and the world.
Diamond Platnumz, the Tanzanian Bongo Flava artiste, is one such star. Arguably the most popular East African musician in Rwanda, he has held several sold-out concerts in Kigali and is a household name.
Other artistes who have captured the imagination of audiences in the “land of a thousand hills” are Kenya’s Afro-pop band Sauti Sol and Uganda’s The B2C’s (Kampala Boys) whose ‘Munda Awo’ song and ‘No You No Life’ collaboration with a Rwandan popular artiste The Ben remain hit songs on Kigali’s radio stations.
These and many others, such as Uganda’s Jose Chameleone and Goodlyfe Crew (Radio (RIP) & Weasel), have inspired collaborations with local artistes because of the quality and appeal of their music to regional audiences.
Among Rwanda’s rising stars is Bruce Melodie, the first Rwandan artiste to perform at Coke Studio Africa, who has since collaborated with big names across the region including Uganda’s leading female artiste Sheebah Karungi.
The cosmopolitan audience in urban Rwanda has had strong connections within East Africa as students, business operators, and employees of regional organisations, but the history of the country influences its cultural palate in ways that are different from other countries.
For nearly four decades, millions of Rwandan refugees who were forced out of the country at the end of the 1950s and early 1960s scattered to all corners of the world, but the bulk remained in East Africa, mainly Uganda, DRC, Burundi, Tanzania, and also Kenya as refugees.
A whole generation of Rwandans was born, lived, and grew up in other East African countries before moving to Rwanda after the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi following the Rwanda Patriotic Front (RPF) taking power. This generation added in a significant way to the regional cultural taste of the land.
There is now a watch on the next direction. The industry sees the unveiling of popular streaming platform Spotify in Rwanda opening up new opportunities for musicians and content creators to distribute their productions to a wider global audience.
However, only a handful of artistes have embraced the platform so far. Eloi Muhoranimana, better known by his stage name Eloi El, is one of them. The electronic dance music player is reaping benefits from the platform, which is available in 178 markets worldwide.
Last year, Eloi El accumulated seven million streams on Spotify, making him arguably one of the most-streamed Rwandan musicians.
Before Spotify made its streaming services available on the Rwandan market, local musicians were already leveraging other platforms such as Apple Music, Audiomack, and YouTube.
With Spotify’s 165 million subscribers and 365 million monthly users as at June 30, Eloi El believes that local musicians can gain access to new markets and more commercial deals.
His optimism seems vindicated by reports that Don Jazzy’s Mavin Records is set to start working with Rwandan musicians. The record label has handled big artistes in Nigeria such as Korede Bello, Tiwa Savage, and Iyanya.
It could influence more collaborations among Rwandan, and East and West African musicians. Backed by such major labels, industry people in Kigali see it leading to a fusion of genres of music from West and East Africa, and something interesting coming out of it in the near future.
A loop to sports
Part organically, and part by design, in addition to the cultural and educational streams, sports has become a big part of the new face of Kigali.
It has been a busy sporting year during the pandemic. In early May, the Tour du Rwanda, one of the highlights of Africa’s professional cycling calendar, started in Kigali, and the month closed with the postponed NBA’s inaugural Basketball Africa League (BAL), the most high-profile event held at the new Kigali Arena at that point. Rwanda will host the finals of the league in 2022 and 2023.
From late August, AfroBasket, the Africa men’s basketball championship contested by the senior national teams, was also held at the Arena, followed days later by the African Volleyball Championship.
They are cogs in the development of a sports economy. Kigali is also in the process of developing a sports centre on 21 hectares in Remera, where Amahoro National Stadium and the indoor Kigali Arena are located.
The sports centre will include the stadium and the arena, which will be improved and expanded, and will be home to more facilities including tennis courts, football pitches, and outdoor basketball courts as well as cycling tracks.
The streets around the proposed sports centre have been given a facelift and the transport system revamped. The area now boasts improved pavements and a bike scheme.
Where people come to play, entrepreneurs looking to monetise are never far behind. They have set up an array of establishments ranging from improved pubs to coffee and wine shops.
Once famous for its red-light district (Migina), its face is changing. A wave of gentrification is turning it into an upmarket cultural melting pot, with restaurants run by entrepreneurs from DR Congo, Burundi, Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, and Rwanda. They serve a diversity of regional dishes.
Towards a post-Covid capital
Even before the outbreak of coronavirus, Kigali was considered to have one of the dullest night lives in the region. The infusion of a large foreign student population, the cultural centres, sports arenas, international and continental universities, and a thriving youthful population now look to have conspired to change the city’s reputation for being uptight, and leave a more edgy multicultural post-Covid-19 capital.
The last element in this evolution, often unsung, has been the national carrier RwandAir, which has increasingly become a continental connector. An early move to make Rwanda one of the first handful of countries not to require visas for Africans, gave Kigali as a transit hub a big boost, as did some of the struggles of its rivals. There was a dramatic rise in West Africans transiting to the Gulf, and more recently southern Africa. Many of the West Africans, especially Nigerians, also opted for long stays and bought property in the city.
Some of these were pay-offs that probably had not been planned to the last bit. They have together enabled it to write new stories about itself.
While the country’s past, characterised by the genocide is still alive – and quite complicated for that matter – a brew of cultural diversity is enabling it to reshape the way people in the country and Kigali see themselves in the East African family and on the global stage.
But like other cities globally, before it gets there, it has to face a daunting challenge – how to respond to the problems that the post-pandemic world will present. Unesco has noted that while billions of people around the world turn to culture as a source of comfort and connection, the impact of Covid-19 has not spared the sector.
More than 80 per cent of Unesco World Heritage properties were closed down at the height of the pandemic, threatening the livelihoods of local communities and cultural professionals.
Cultural institutions and facilities, including museums, theatres, and cinemas, lost and many are continuing to lose millions in revenue and had to let go of their staff.
As Unesco aptly put it, the world is experiencing a cultural emergency. For Kigali, and more open East Africa, more open borders, more free trade, and more cultural exchange is just what the doctor ordered.