Polishing a Turd and Other Adventures in City Loathing

Simba Kigali

“C’est interdit,” declares the clearly bored and substantially overweight guard as she slithers up to me in front of Simba Plaza. This architectural equivalent of a cold sore is the latest skyscraper to afflict downtown Kigali. It stands, pointless and grotesque, overlooking a mess of parking spaces and wasted opportunities. I assume the Uniformed One means the act of photographing the urban carbuncle that she’s apparently been assigned to protect from the public, but it has already bruised my sense of common decency and good taste, and I see no point in wasting the digital equivalent of film on it. Besides, I already got the shot I came for long before Inspector Clouseau’s clueless stepsister began wagging her baton in my face.

This kind of rule fetishism never ceases to rub me the wrong way. Heck, if Al Queda Rwanda wanted a picture of this sad excuse of a building, they could just walk across the street and take it from there. I feel equal parts resentment and pity as I leave her to her business of harassing the people passing through the metal detector to get inside Simba.

Apparently delusional with desire for the middle class trappings that the rest of us are struggling and mostly failing to manage, the city of Kigali is spreading itself across the beautiful landscape like an infection, its purulent tendrils of inflamed development stretching outwards, poisoning all they touch. With a confidence tinged with arrogance, the city’s visionaries appear to have confused the mere act of ceaseless construction for actual progress, and increased complexity for improved quality of life. And so, hillsides are now pockmarked with ostentatious villas, corners clogged with supermarkets and gas stations, and flashy international chain hotels clamor for front row seats along downtown thoroughfares only recently paved over.

A chaotic network of seemingly unplanned roads wind their way past these ugly and undesigned, undignified edifices, hastily and shoddily erected as temples to landlordism and the pleasures of commercial intercourse, most of them falling apart before they’re even finished. The only thing more depressing than the new crap they’re busy putting up is the old crap that for whatever reason has been left standing. The combination of old and new is an urban shit sandwich of such epic proportions that it could surely only appeal to an exceptionally masochistic urban planner.

The city may be young and growing, but it shows none of the true health and vitality of youth. It makes sounds that remind me of the coughing fits of a patient stricken with consumption — a protracted death rattle of fitful convulsions, loud desperate spasms. Under the auspices of a group of ex-soldiers and fervent free enterprise acolytes this place is on a mission to impress, so it is all business, no play. While Kigali’s roads are lined with tropical foliage and a few defiant trees, there are no public parks, no plazas, no waterfronts, or pedestrian zones. There is no medieval town center to explore, the only variation on the endlessly congested roads is a bunch of decorative roundabouts. Vaguely Stalinesque, with their largely inaccessible and therefore largely pointless ornamental gardens and stairways as focal points, they serve only as navigational beacons and as monuments to the traffic that ceaselessly swarms about them.

Around them go trucks, belching diesel fumes so thick you can feel the soot settle on your skin, delivering rocks and cement to facilitate the construction of yet another road. And so it is that the tumor grows relentlessly, fueling its own needs first, while sucking the life from all about it. Like clots of congealed blood in decaying arteries, the traffic in the bloated city flows fitfully, causing further damage as it snakes its way past blockages of people, products, and protrusions of bricks and blocks and crops and other crap. Occasionally, reluctantly, surprisingly, accomplishing the tedious task of moving people and goods from here to there and back again, this ceaseless traffic takes on a life — or death — of its own. Loud, obnoxious motorbike taxis cruise the streets soliciting business, like so many disease-riddled prostitutes looking to turn tricks, a way of getting around so deadly that expats are warned sternly against riding them.

Thankfully, just as ungainly scar tissue will grow to protect still healthy tissue below, the ever-present and foreboding brick-and-barbed-wire walls that surround each and every house conceal remnants of nature surviving within the city: well-tended perennials, manicured lawns, carefully cropped shrubs, an avocado tree or two, maybe even a veggie or flower garden. Private bliss. An exception to the rule. Horticultural denial. Meanwhile, the common space beyond those isolated sanctuaries is entirely decayed, ignored by all, necrotic tissue left to its own devices, dirt and debris being sloughed off like a random scab. At least in our despicable gated communities back home there’s some sense of pride and ownership of the shared common ground.

Maybe it’s just me. I loathe the city — any city — with its pretense and posturing, its self-aggrandizing need to overwhelm those at its mercy. I mourn for those who strain and struggle to convince themselves that the trappings of the city are worth all the sacrifices they are making, knowingly or not. It is their own choice of course, and, sure, it’s better than what they had — but for how long will it remain that way? And as the cancer consumes the land about them, I wonder how many of it’s victims will have much choice in the matter? Just as is the case anywhere else, those who are made to suffer most on the altar of supposed progress are rarely the same who stand to gain the most. Dirt poor families are readily evicted to “somewhere else” so their mud huts on sought-after lots can be torn down and make way for the imposing palaces being built by well-heeled refugees returning from Uganda and Congo, their coffers overflowing with purloined coltan riches.

It is not that I — a briefly visiting, ultra-privileged neo-colonialist — could or should deny the proud citizens of Kigali the chance to better their lot in life. But I recoil at the sight of their presumed Oz, the state that it’s in already, and the direction in which it is heading: messy and unfair, complete with congestion, total confusion, constant chaos and countless means of alienation, estrangement, stress and disease. It strikes me as entirely unsustainable, and certainly undesirable. And it makes me realize how much I miss Vermont.