Growing up in Rwanda, Christian Benimana always wanted to become an architect. But when he was ready to begin training, he had a problem: Rwanda didn't have a single architecture program. He ended up applying to a university in China, and teaching himself Chinese so he could attend.
Now Benimana is helping build a new architecture school in Kigali, and helping lead a new generation of millennial architects who are hoping to help shape Rwanda's entire infrastructure.
Two decades after the end of the country's civil war, Rwanda is now one of the fastest-growing economies in the world. By 2050, the population will double. The country is transforming, as the government bulldozes neighborhoods and builds new high-rise developments, which most former residents can't afford. Benimara, along with a cohort of other new architects, wants to figure out how to build buildings that are both socially equitable and sustainable.
Over the last four years, eight young Rwandan architects, funded by fellowships from Global Health Corps, began working with MASS Design Group, a Boston and Kigali-based firm that's perhaps best known for a rural Rwandan hospital designed to help prevent the spread of disease. Benimana was one of the first group of fellows, and quickly rose through the ranks to lead MASS's work in the country and help launch the new Africa Design Center.
The center, which is set to open later in 2016, is meant to foster some badly needed design talent; right now, the entire continent of Africa has only about a quarter of the number of designers in Italy, at a time of unprecedented growth.
Rwanda seems to be ready for it. "The country now has the perfect environment to push for the right development," Benimana says. "There is political will to come up with creative solutions to the country’s challenges with emphasis on minding the general population well-being."
"People are becoming aware of what is the situation out there, and how architecture is changing people's lives," says Marie Amelie Ntigulirwa, who also went through the fellowship program. "People are also witnessing how standard architecture not only is excluding the majority of the population but also is making them feel bad."
Neither was originally interested in architecture as a tool for social good. Benimana was motivated by aesthetics. Ntigulirwa thought that only rich people could afford to hire architects, and that by becoming an architect, she could become rich herself. The fellowship shifted her views.
"Those two months were the turning point of the picture that I had for architecture," she says. "I saw how when you design something for the community and work with them, teaching them, learning from them, not only it adds value to the building because the community feels the ownership, but also it pays back not with money but something that is hard to express. ... That feeling you get when you do something that impacts an entire community, and not a single rich person."
Design, they realized, can reshape every aspect of a community's experience—including healthcare, the focus of the fellowship. "There is no doubt that healthcare is a human right, and delivery of appropriate healthcare systems starts with the right infrastructure," says Benimana. "We are convinced that the well-being of a patient and their dignity contribute equally to recovery periods and quality. It is of utmost importance that we architects ensure that the healthcare delivery system supports all areas of this delivery of human right equally to all."
As the new Africa Design Center helps train other young Rwandan architects to look at the profession as a tool for systemic social change. "Architecture perpetuates or manifests inequality when ignorant of context, as we’re seeing as imported architectural prototypes are constructed across the African subcontinent, only to burden local stakeholders with buildings that fail after only a few years or infeasible resource demands," he says.
They're hoping to be a model for the rest of Africa. "[Rwanda] is one of the countries where most of the problems Africa is facing in the near future are so apparent and are approaching faster than in most of the rest of the continent," says Benimana. "The fast-tracked and ambitious agenda of the country to come up with solutions, and an open mind to experiments and implementation trials, makes it easier for the movement to grow."