This blog post was written by a recent Duke alumna working in Rwanda. She was involved with the Duke Human Rights Center throughout her time at Duke. The post was published anonymously at her request.

When I first arrived in Rwanda six months ago, I immediately noticed how clean the streets are in Kigali, the country’s capital. Rwanda is notoriously pristine and orderly, often deemed the “Switzerland of Africa.” Kigali is praised as one of the cleanest and greenest cities in the world (1). Single-use plastics are banned. Street cleaners sweep for hours every day. And hardly any street vendors, homeless people, beggars, or sex workers can be seen.

The absence is unsettling. It distinguishes Kigali from major cities throughout the world. At first, I was wowed, but the veneer began to make me feel uncomfortable. After a quick Google search, I found that my eerie concern was justified. Human Rights Watch reported that such “undesirables” – those spending too much time on public streets – are taken to Gikondo Transfer Center. Gikondo houses up to 800 detainees cramped in destitute conditions without adequate sanitation, food, or water (2). It is an unofficial detention center managed by the government. Human Rights Watch found that until mid-2014, street children were also detained there (2).

The police routinely bring those found to be “dirtying” Kigali into Gikondo Transit Center. By doing so, the government is illegally punishing people for being poor (3). There is no legal basis for their detention. They are not formally charged with any crimes nor taken to court. Impoverished people are taken and beaten for arbitrary periods of time. Some are held for days while others are held for several months. After being released, they are ordered to leave Kigali, although most have no choice but to stay in or around the city, where economic opportunities are concentrated (2).

Human Rights Watch interviewed one woman who had been arrested and detained four times for selling small trinkets and clothing on the street. She was beaten for having no money. Others detained in Gikondo were beaten for speaking too loudly, not lining up to use the bathroom, or for their babies going to the bathroom on the floor (2). “They checked me everywhere for money when I arrived. But I did not have any, so they beat me on my face and my back,” she told Human Rights Watch. After several weeks, she was released. As she left, a policeman said to her, “You are tarnishing the city. Why don’t you just leave the streets?” She cried to Human Rights Watch, “The government forgets that not everyone has the money to do business as they want us to. Many of us are struggling. If I had the means, I would leave this life of selling things on the streets.”

The Rwandan government says that Gikondo is a rehabilitation center with social workers and health care providers, that it provides emergency support, and that it is a transit point to other rehab centers. But Human Rights Watch found that there is barely any access to medical treatment or rehabilitation support (2).

The arbitrary detentions at Gikondo Transit Center violate Rwandan and international law. The government has a legal obligation to close the center, investigate cases of unlawful detention, and release all detainees. Tourists like myself who visit Rwanda should be aware of what they are praising when they fawn over Kigali’s “clean” streets. I will concede that many of the government’s efforts to keep Kigali clean as the city grows and the country develops have been effective. Roads have been repaved, bus services improved, and access to toilets and clean water increased (4). Once a month, all Rwandan citizens are required to participate in community service, called “umuganda,” focused on beautification projects like clearing land for gardens, collecting trash, and building new roads, classrooms, and toilets (4). But illegal arrests and detentions should not be an acceptable part of Kigali’s urban revitalization. Considering poor people to be “dirty” and punishing them for being impoverished is illegal and does nothing to alleviate poverty. Those who are economically vulnerable need social assistance programs, health care, and education, not illegal detention and beatings. What really lurks behind Kigali’s clean streets is an injustice that should be called out, investigated and stopped.

Works Referenced

  1. Mourby, Adrian. 2015, June 15. “Which is the cleanest city in the world?” The Guardian. Retrieved from: https://www.theguardian.com/cities/2015/jun/15/cleanest-city-world-calgary-singapore
  2. Van Woudenberg, Anneke. 2015, October 15. Human Rights Watch. Retrieved from: https://www.hrw.org/news/2015/10/15/dirty-secret-behind-kigalis-clean-streets
  3. Peralta, Eyder. 2018, June 25. “The Dark Side of Keeping the Streets Clean in Rwanda’s Capital.” NPR. Retrieved from: https://www.npr.org/2018/06/25/623114826/the-dark-side-of-keeping-the-streets-clean-in-rwanda-s-capital
  4. Twahirwa, Aimable. 2018, April 20. “Cleanest city in Africa? Kigali scrubs up. Reuters. Retrieved from: https://www.reuters.com/article/us-rwanda-green-pollution/cleanest-city-in-africa-kigali-scrubs-up-idUSKBN1HR2F8