Have you ever wondered about the meaning of the name Kigali, the capital of Rwanda? Is the name from the ancient Kingdom of Rwanda? Was Kigali its capital? Or is it the name of a local town the colonizer decided to turn into the seat of a new protectorate state in Africa?
Well, Kigali takes its name from Mount Kigali at the foothills of which the city is located. In Kinyarwanda, the prefix ki- denotes objects, while the adjective –gali means ‘vast’, ‘broad’, ‘wide’. Thus the translation of the name Kigali yields ‘great or big mount’ or ‘vast mountain,’ because the mountain itself is broad and wide. However, based on oral tradition, it is said that the name might have originated in the 14th century when local king Rugwe after conquering the area stood on top of the hill and stated “burya iki gihugu ni Kigali,” which translates to “this country is vast.” Note that the capital of the Kingdom of Rwanda was never Kigali, but Nyanza.
The city was established in 1907 by the German administrator and explorer Richard Kandt, who chose Kigali for its central location, and good views of the entire region (security-wise). Perched at an altitude of 1500 m, Kigali is made up of rolling hills and valleys, thus it is quite a strategic point. Kandt’s house was the first European house in the city, and is still in use today as the Kandt House Museum of Natural History. Very often to destroy the power of traditional and local kingdoms, colonial main cities and capitals were chosen away from the usual centers of power which might have carried a lot of the indigenous people’s traditions and thus caused a resistance to the colonial rule; this could also explain the choice of Kigali as the capital.
Kigali became the capital upon independence in 1962. Two other cities were considered as contenders for the title of capital, Nyanza the seat of the Mwami and the capital of the ancient kingdom, and Butare which was considered a cultural and religious center. Yet again Kigali won over the other two because of its central location. Over the years, Kigali has grown and expanded. However, the Rwandan civil war and Rwandan genocide of 1994 cast a dark cloud over Kigali, the Rwandan sky, and the entire sub-region. Over 800,000 people died during that time, which marked one of the darkest times in the history of the country. Today, one can still visit the Genocide Memorial in Kigali to remember those whose lives were taken.
Today, Kigali has expanded tremendously, and grown significantly. Much of the city has been rebuilt, and today flourishes. It is the economic and financial hub of the country. In 2013, the economy was reported to be dependent on foreign aid and illegal resource extraction from the DRC. I once read comments from a member of the Rwandan financial ministry who explained that they were finding new precious stones or minerals every day on Rwandan soil… in reality, it is from neighboring DRC.
Overall, Kigali knows cooler temperatures than most countries around the equator, because of its high elevations. The city is particularly lauded for its cleanliness, innovation, and foreign investments. The quick turnaround and rebuilding of Kigali and Rwanda as a whole has made it a key player in all continental organizations. Although many criticize the government of Paul Kagame, it is no doubt that Kigali and Rwanda have experienced undeniable growth, thanks to a combination of the neighbor’s wealth and good governance.
If you visit Kigali and Rwanda as a whole, please make sure to check your plastic bags at your point of origin as plastic bags are prohibited on Rwandan soil. Make sure to visit the Kigali Genocide Memorial, the Amahoro Stadium, the Presidential Palace Museum which was the abode of past president Juvénal Habyarimana, the Muslim mosque of the city, and the different craft centers. The city expands along all the different hills, and so make sure to ride around on the moto-taxis or use public transportation, and do not forget to buy the famous agaseke baskets for which Rwandans and Burundians are known for.