And so it began…
It was the kind of warm, Rwandan morning that makes an expat forget they miss friends and family. Regina and I approached the gates of the Kigali Institute of Science and Technology (KIST) stadium dressed to the nines and buzzed by the excitement of a large crowd waiting to enter the event. We were attending the 2012 class graduation ceremony in support of our co-fellows and colleagues Jean Paul and Amelie – two of nineteen in the first class of architecture students ever to be educated in Rwanda. We quickly realized we were the only two mizungus – Kinyarwanda for white folk – in the crowd besides a few professors. From a couple months in the country I knew that meant we were in the right place.
Under white tents on an open football pitch, soon to be graduates waited whilst spectators fanned themselves in the grandstand. We alternated between copious video and photo documentation and casual conversation. Chatty with excitement at our friends’ major accomplishment, we discussed what it meant for the country to finally have its own crop of homegrown architects. What exciting contributions would these young people make to their rapidly evolving country? And how refreshing that decisions about Rwandan architecture could finally be made by Rwandans. Anyone who has visited Rwanda understands the state of confusion that characterizes its built environment. Chinese tile, half built houses, buildings still deserted from the 90’s – it’s kind of a mess. The graduation marked a new beginning for Rwandan design culture and an important step towards addressing that confusion. We felt lucky to be there.
The ceremony began by introductions to introductions and thank yous to people not in attendance – typical graduation fare and strangely all in English. The crowd came to when a sizable troupe of traditional dancers took the pitch and blew through a routine full of pomp and percussion. Soon began a litany of names as the orator worked his way down the list of colleges. The faculty of architecture and environmental design was not near the beginning of that list, and we waited patiently for Amelie and Jean Paul’s moment to shine. I checked my email, Regina read her Kindle. Hey, you can only listen to so many kinyarwanda names you do not recognize before your attention wanders. After about two hours the moment arrived – we stood tiptoed like excited siblings. The whole department rose from their chairs as nineteen graduates became the first of their kind in Rwanda. The icing on the cake: Amelie was valedictorian and Jean Paul won the prize for best overall architecture student. But we already knew they were awesome.
The KIST graduation was one of those moments when you get to peek behind the curtain of another culture and share a feeling of connection. What a treat.