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Using the Past to Build a Future: Historic Preservation and Modern Architecture in Rwanda


In 1994, a genocide decimated Rwanda and destroyed many existing socio-economic and political structures; it was a devastation so pronounced that many scholars have interpreted its results as a tabula rasa. However, the Rwandan genocide actually left behind a vast field of debris including human remains, damaged buildings, and empty homes. Rather than erase these remnants of the time before it came to power, the Rwandan state has deliberately sought to preserve and presence some of this debris for its own political legitimation. Furthermore, the state has developed museums and heritage sites to solidify a common understanding of Rwanda’s history that validates the control of the incumbent party. But at the same time that it looks backward to rewrite history, the state also looks forward to the future. New construction conveys an image of modernization and progress through architectural symbols of modernity including the use of materials such as concrete, glass, and steel, as well as forms and styles based on international precedents. These architectural symbols help to produce a national imaginary of Rwanda as a “modern” nation and enable the Rwandan state to claim legitimacy based on narratives about national progress.

Today, Rwanda is broadly considered an African success story offering an alternative model for modernization in the global South. Most studies of Rwandan development have focused on economic strategies, but have not examined the state’s strategic use of historic sites and the contemporary built environment to both sustain and subvert a timeline of past, present, and future. This dissertation argues that the Rwandan state has used historic preservation and modern architecture to stage modernity in a way that seems to adhere to global expectations of linear progress, but in fact dissolves the boundaries of past and present, or tradition and modernity, in ways that are specific to both the state’s and country’s needs. And in this manner, Rwanda can be a model for developing countries in today’s world.

As I will explore in this dissertation, the Rwandan state performs a linear progress that is largely based on Western notions of developmentalism. State rhetoric focuses on modern-ization as an ongoing process, and development plans are couched in the language of “visions” for the future. In this way, the state keeps modernity as a telos in order to instill hope in a formerly-devastated population. The affirmation of modernity as a future stage to be reached is also a way to claim the potential for parity with fully developed nations, even if it has not yet been achieved. Multiple examples of the performance of linear progress will be explored in this dissertation, including the representation of precolonial culture as a distant past; the sequestering of traditional materials into museum spaces; the construction of modern-looking architecture; and the adherence to international genocide commemoration norms. These are all ways in which Rwanda seems to adhere to the construct of a linear time in which the past must be surpassed in order to move toward the future. In this way, Rwanda performs modernization.

However, the Rwandan state also disrupts the construct of the linear timeline in two ways. The first is the temporal palimpsest, or the layering of multiple times in built space, so that past, present, and future are mingled and not necessarily distinguishable. This includes the selective preservation of remnants of the past, as well as the renovation of historic sites without clear indication of new materials. These historiographical manipulations allow Rwanda’s present-day elites to mold history in their own interests. The second form of disruption is the dissolution of the binary of tradition and modernity by disproving that one always comes before the other, and by expanding the agency of who is “modern.” In other words, Rwanda disrupts the association of tradition with “before” and African, and the association of modernity with “after” and Western. As subsequent chapters will show, there is evidence in Rwanda’s built environment that notions of modernity have been shaped by various internal and external agents, and are not just a legacy of colonial or Western influence. The Rwandan state has also explicitly declared that as it builds a path toward a better and more “modern” future, it will draw on its own traditions.

Through a nuanced balancing of historiographical and chronological manipulation with the performance of progress, Rwanda seems to propose a new model for modernization which can lead to developmental success. However, this model is dependent on a lot of staging and a high degree of control. Beneath the veneer of success, there are concerns that a model which is predicated on authoritarian power and risky speculation could lead to a downturn, or worse – a return of ethnic violence. This dissertation will examine the benefits and potential pitfalls of the Rwandan model.

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