Urban Studies Kigali
Phillip Cantrell
  • LAST REVIEWED: 17 April 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 20 February 2024
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780190922481-0045


Kigali is the capital and largest city of the Republic of Rwanda. The founding of the city is credited to Dr. Richard Kandt (b. 1867–d. 1918), who arrived in 1898 with the first German imperial delegation. In 1907 Kandt, as the German Kaiser’s representative, constructed a house and established residency at Kigali, in present-day Muhima sector. As the Rwandan royal court was at Nyanza in the southern part of the kingdom, Mwami Yuhi Musinga (b. 1893–d. 1944) initially asked Kandt not to establish a residency at Kigali, as he feared its location in the east-central region would allow the Germans more centralized control over the kingdom. Kandt did not comply, however, and established a residence on Nyarugenge Hill near to the present-day Gakinjiro market. Thereafter Kigali served as the administrative center for both the German and Belgian colonial administrations. With a central location between Tanzania, the Belgian Congo, Uganda, and Burundi, Kigali developed into an important commercial center frequented by trade caravans. In 1962, following Rwanda’s independence, Kigali became the formal capital. Throughout the first two presidencies of Grégoire Kayibanda (1962–1973) and Juvénal Habyarimana (1973–1994), Kigali remained a relatively small, obscure city as the country was being developed. The city first came to the wider world’s attention when Habyarimana’s plane was shot down by a missile as it approached Kigali International Airport on April 6, 1994, an event that triggered the start of the Rwandan genocide. In the ensuing months, forces under Paul Kagame, who would become president in 2000, advanced southward toward the city to end the killings and take control of the country. As a result, Kigali, like most of Rwanda, experienced considerable destruction. After securing power, Kagame, and the ruling Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), aided by considerable development money, rebuilt and transformed Kigali. The most momentous transformation occurred as the result of hundreds of thousands of Tutsi refugees who returned to Rwanda after years in exile. Since most of the refugees no longer had any ties to their rural places of origin, they took up residence and began new lives in the urban areas, most notably Kigali. In the years since, Kigali has undergone a remarkable transformation into a highly modern and cosmopolitan commercial hub, often touted as a model for urban development in Africa. Some refer to Kigali as the “Singapore of Africa.” Yet with a metropolitan population that roughly tripled between 1991 and 2001, burgeoning presently to over one million, developmental challenges remain in terms of health, sanitation, housing, economic inclusiveness, and urban planning. Anticipating continued robust growth, Kigali launched a 2008 Conceptual Master Plan for phased-in development to 2040.

General Overviews

No general overviews or treatments of Kigali’s history have been written, apart from the brief essay Kagwanja and Ruterte 2003. Parker 2010 provides a bibliographic overview of numerous sources since 1950. Korydon and Berlanda 2018 is a well-illustrated work that provides a larger overview of the meaning of family and neighborhood in Kigali, with many useful, relevant Kinyarwanda terms provided.

  • Kagwanja, P., and M. Ruterte. “Kigali, Rwanda.” In Encyclopedia of Twentieth-Century African History. Edited by Paul Zeleza and Dickson Eyoh, 305–306. London: Routledge, 2003.

    A brief encyclopedic account of Kigali’s history. No original arguments or debates are presented, but it provides for a quick overview.

  • Korydon, H. Smith, and Tomà Berlanda. Interpreting Kigali, Rwanda: Architectural Inquiries and Prospects for a Developing African City. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 2018.

    A well-illustrated work that uses architectural design concepts to illuminate the nature of Kigali’s growing number of informal settlements. The book progresses through chapters on family, society, neighborhood, settlement, and territory to elucidate the challenges inherent in urban design. Also included is a Kinyarwanda glossary of terms related to housing and spatial relationships.

  • Parker, Philip, ed. Kigali: Webster’s Timeline History, 1900–2007. Las Vegas: ICON Group International, 2010.

    A chronological, yearly compilation of both key events and the publication of primary and secondary sources in which “Kigali” appears in the title. Also makes note, though not exhaustively, of key persons who were born in each referenced year. The sources are mostly in French, not annotated, and, despite the title, the book references no sources prior to 1950.

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