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Situated over several hills and valleys, Kigali is the capital city of Rwanda and is home to the main administrative and commercial centres of the nation as well as over one million people.
In pre-colonial times Mount Kigali was a site of magical renewal overseen by the Bami (kings) as well as being an important stopover on cross-African caravan trade routes. In 1907 the city was officially founded by the Germans, who had been granted the colonial concession of Tanzania, Rwanda, and Burundi at the Berlin Conference of 1885. After World War I, the Belgians gained control of Rwanda-Burundi through the mandate system of the League of Nations; however, since the administrative tasks for the region were centred in Bujumbura, the capital of Burundi, Kigali grew slowly throughout this period.
After independence on July 1, 1962, Kigali became the capital city of the Republic of Rwanda. Because of its central location and its good transport links, industry and trade blossomed and the city began to grow.
During the 1994 genocide perpetrated against the Tutsi, Kigali suffered massive population loss; some of the buildings were damaged in fighting between the former Forces Armées Rwandaises (Rwandan Armed Forces: FAR) and the Rwandan Patriotic Army (RPA). Other buildings were destroyed simply out of hatred and anger. Since then, a period of intense rebuilding has seen Kigali develop and thrive.
“Cleanliness and Security” is the motto of Kigali. In accordance with this motto, the city is a safe and secure place to live, visit, and explore at any hour of the day or night. The police patrol the streets and the population is encouraged to report anything that may be of potential harm to others. In fact, Kigali City is regarded to be the safest city in Africa by most international visitors.
Hygiene and cleanliness are also main policy areas for the governing of the city. Cleaners, working for private companies and cooperatives, are hired by Kigali City to clean highways, streets, and public gardens. In addition to this, on the last Saturday of every month, the citizens and friends of Rwanda take part in Umuganda (voluntary community work) and help to clean their neighborhoods and streets, build houses, hospitals, and schools. There has also been a complete ban on plastic bags since 1998 to reduce litter. Every six months the city’s cleanliness is reviewed and, if necessary, actions are taken, such as replanting gardens and improving pavement. In 2008 the United Nations awarded Kigali a Habitat Scroll of Honour Award to recognise the work that has gone into the construction of this model, modern city.
Kigali is rich with culture and the arts. The Kigali Genocide Memorial Center commemorates the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi and explores other genocides throughout history and around the world, inviting visitors to reflect on the past and contemplate hope for the future. The city is inundated with remarkable architecture, museums, recording studios, theatres, dance performances, and unique craft markets. Kigali revels in its safe, clean, friendly, cultured and progressive atmosphere.
In an area controlled by the Kingdom of Rwanda from the 17th century and then by the German Empire, the city was founded in 1907 when Richard Kandt, the colonial resident, chose the site for his headquarters, citing its central location, views and security. Foreign merchants began to trade in the city during the German era, and Kandt opened some government-run schools for Tutsi Rwandan students. Belgium took control of Rwanda and Burundi during World War I, forming the mandate of Ruanda-Urundi. Kigali remained the seat of colonial administration for Rwanda but Ruanda-Urundi’s capital was at Usumbura (now Bujumbura) in Burundi and Kigali remained a small city with a population of just 6,000 at the time of independence.
Kigali grew slowly during the following decades. It was not initially directly affected by the Rwandan Civil War between government forces and the rebel Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), which began in 1990. However, in April 1994 Rwanda’s President Juvénal Habyarimana was killed when his aircraft was shot down near Kigali. His death was followed by the Rwandan genocide, with Hutu extremists loyal to the interim government killing an estimated 500,000–800,000 Tutsi and moderate Hutu nationwide. The RPF resumed fighting, ending a cease-fire of more than a year. They gradually took control of most of the country and seized Kigali on 4 July 1994. Post-genocide Kigali has experienced rapid population growth, with much of the city rebuilt.
The city of Kigali is one of the five provinces of Rwanda, with boundaries set in 2006. It is divided into three districts—Gasabo, Kicukiro, and Nyarugenge—which historically had control of significant areas of local governance. Reforms in January 2020 transferred much of the districts’ power to the city-wide council. The city also hosts the main residence and offices of the president of Rwanda and most government ministries. The largest contributor to Kigali’s gross domestic product is the service sector, but a significant proportion of the population works in agriculture including small-scale subsistence farming. Attracting international visitors is a priority for city authorities, including leisure tourism, conferences and exhibitions.
The name Kigali comes from the Kinyarwanda prefix ki- combined with the adjective suffix -gali, which means wide or broad. This was originally applied to Mount Kigali, most likely because the mountain itself was broad and wide, with the city later being named after the mountain. According to Rwandan oral history, the name originated in the 14th century. Rwandan scholar Alexis Kagame, who did extensive research into the country’s oral history and traditions, wrote that the name Kigali came into use after King Cyilima I Rugwe completed a conquest of the area. The legend states that Rugwe viewed the territory from the top of a hill and said burya iki gihugu ni kigali, which translates to “this country is vast”.
The earliest inhabitants of what is now Rwanda were the Twa, a group of aboriginal pygmy hunter-gatherers who settled the area between 8000 and 3000 BC and remain in the country today. They were followed between 700 BC and AD 1500 by a number of Bantu groups, including the Hutu and Tutsi, who began clearing forests for agriculture. According to oral history, the Kingdom of Rwanda was founded in the 14th century on the shores of Lake Muhazi, around 40 kilometres (25 mi) east of modern Kigali. The early kingdom included Kigali but it was a small state at this point in its history with larger and more powerful neighbours, Bugesera and Gisaka. A member of the Gisaka dynasty killed Rwanda’s king Ruganzu I Bwimba in the 16th century, but Ruganzu’s son Cyilima I Rugwe fought back with help from Bugesera and was able to expand Rwanda’s territory. In the late 16th or early 17th century, the kingdom of Rwanda was invaded from the north by the Banyoro of modern-day Uganda. The king was forced to flee westward, leaving Kigali and eastern Rwanda in the hands of Bugesera and Gisaka. The formation of a new Rwandan dynasty in the 17th century by the mwami (king), Ruganzu II Ndoli, followed by eastward invasions and the conquest of Bugesera, marked the beginning of the Rwandan kingdom’s dominance in the area. The capital of the kingdom was at Nyanza, in the south of the country.