The Kigali Model: Making a 21st Century Metropolis

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Shearer, Samuel


Piot, Charles

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This dissertation examines the relationship between city planning and everyday life in Kigali, Rwanda. It focuses on markets, neighborhoods, and streets where Kigali residents encounter emerging technologies of architecture, finance, and expertise. These technologies are aimed at converting Kigali into a global metropolis with world-class tourist facilities, hi-tech service industries, and a “green” urban metabolism. Many city residents, however, experience these processes through mass evictions, market closures, and an ongoing utility crisis in the city. In response, they are going kukikoboyi (literally “to cowboy”), creating rogue markets, housing settlements, and ad-hoc utility networks. While Kigali’s international team of managers and consultants disavow these spaces and practices as informal, illegal, and antithetical to the city’s “world-class” future, they are nevertheless unable to erase them from the city’s surface. My research explores these divergent practices of city-making to show that a new Kigali is being built: a 21st century metropolis that, despite being a rogue version of its planned future, is a cosmopolitan urban center that no single interest, process, or population fully controls. Methodologically, this dissertation places the popular practices and expertise that hold a city together in conversation with global city modeling and design theory. Instead of focusing on a single neighborhood or population, The Kigali Model is an ethnography of an entire city that asks how differently situated social actors share the costs of producing, subverting, and negotiating their urban future. During twenty-seven months of fieldwork in Kigali, I interviewed foreign technocrats who were employed by multinational design and consultancy firms, paid by international finance organizations, and housed in Rwandan government ministries. I spent months following illegal street traders as they produced nomadic market spaces and (often correctly) anticipated that city authorities would be unable to enforce new zoning and tax laws. I participated in community infrastructure building projects and—when the pipes we laid failed to deliver services—became myself incorporated into the city’s hydraulic system by lugging twenty-liter jerry cans of water up forty-degree slopes. I also mapped the social and economic networks that produce and continually re-make Kigali’s largest “slum,” and debated views of urban modernity with second-hand clothing vendors, their hipster clients, and planners who wish to demolish the markets that both populations depend on. I use these ethnographic encounters to theorize Kigali beyond the categories of slum, crisis, and laboratory so often applied to African cities. I show how these seemingly disparate spaces, populations, and practices produce urban ecologies, cultures, and human and material infrastructures that persistently reinvent the city and the people who live there.





Shearer, Samuel (2017). The Kigali Model: Making a 21st Century Metropolis. Dissertation, Duke University. Retrieved from


Dukes student scholarship is made available to the public using a Creative Commons Attribution / Non-commercial / No derivative (CC-BY-NC-ND) license.