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News Archive

Towards a Heritage Inventory in Rwanda

The article below on heritage preservation in Rwanda was written by INTBAU member and conservation architect Robin Kent.

More often associated with the genocide of 1994, it is less well known that Rwanda has 600 years of history as a nation state, and a correspondingly rich cultural heritage, celebrated in five national museums including the National Museum of Rwanda in Huye, which houses the finest ethnographic collection in East Africa. However, while the cultural significance of arts and crafts is acknowledged, there is as yet no inventory of sites and buildings and the survival of these heritage assets is now threatened by rapid modernisation.

Replica round house. National Museum of Rwanda, Butare (©Robin Kent).In addition to well known colonial-era buildings including two royal palaces, many pre-colonial historic sites survive in local tradition and a number also have important archaeological remains. Traditional vernacular buildings also survive throughout the country, from thatched round houses and clay-walled circular huts in various regional styles to timber and clay structures. The colonial period tended to overlook the pre-colonial heritage, which is relatively unrecognised. In addition, the pace of change, especially since the genocide, has been extraordinary. Although the 416 genocide memorial sites are protected, the current drive for development to accommodate returning refugees and a fast-growing population, and to raise living standards, is threatening Rwanda’s other historical sites and traditional buildings. There is a pressing need for an intensive study to be carried out to identify, classify and record Rwanda’s vanishing heritage sites and buildings.

Above: Replica round house. National Museum of Rwanda, Butare (©Robin Kent).

To begin to address this, a two-stage research project is being proposed by Robin Kent, a British conservation architect with an interest in Rwandan heritage, in partnership with Dr Alphonse B Umuliisa, Director General of the Institute of National Museums of Rwanda, the main heritage body in Rwanda.

Detail of woven rush lining, Royal Palace, Nyanza (©Robin Kent).
The first stage will comprise a pilot study to gain understanding of what constitutes Rwandan cultural heritage ‘places’, recognising the need for this to reflect local understanding rather than be imposed from outside. The pilot study will attempt to identify and catalogue heritage within a specifically defined region of the country, targetting built heritage assets but embracing landscape and townscape areas with special historic or aesthetic values, archaeological sites and remains, as well as buildings and structures that have architectural or historic significance. It will also include ‘living heritage’ in the form of examples of traditional techniques and building crafts that may be under threat, such as thatching, weaving and woodwork, mud-brick walling and cow-dung decoration. The data will mainly be gathered from local community perceptions of heritage and place-related narratives (ie memories and stories). Analysis in consultation with national experts and the Institute will develop a typical range of heritage assets and an understanding of significance that is based on Rwandan perceptions rather than a European model.

Above: Detail of woven rush lining, Royal Palace, Nyanza (©Robin Kent).


Building on the pilot study, the second stage will develop and test a user-friendly toolkit for wider identification and classification of Rwanda’s cultural heritage by local communities. It will include selecting and training suitable local recorders to conduct field trials in selected areas, as a precursor to a nation-wide project. It is hoped that such community involvement will promote ownership of Rwanda’s heritage and strengthen national identity, social cohesion and unity, in contrast with the colonial stereotypes and divisions which contributed so much to the genocide.

Robin Kent DiplArch(Oxf) MA RIBA RIAS IHBC AABC

Below from left: typical modern Rwandan dwelling; the entrance vestibule or Igihabo, Royal Palace, Nyanza; plastic sheeting and metal supports being used for repairs to thatch in 2005 - the round house has since been properly repaired - Royal Palace, Nyanza. All images ©Robin Kent.