I had never been to Africa before joining MASS, but I have now been in Rwanda for five weeks as a new MASS Design Fellow in the capital city, Kigali. For the next few months, I’ll be working on a renovation and addition to the district maternity hospital located in Nyanza. I am excited to be working on a project that is part renovation and part new addition, as this is my area of experience from working in the United States. Hospital design is new to me, but I am learning a lot about it with each passing week.
Even though modernization in Rwanda is well underway, particularly in the large cities, many of the smaller cities and towns do not yet have the buildings or equipment needed to provide optimal maternal and neonatal care. Located in the Southern Province of Rwanda and formerly the home of the Rwandan kings, Nyanza is now the home of a district hospital which supports many smaller healthcare facilities and clinics in the area.
The existing maternity hospital building in Nyanza was built in 1931 by the Belgians. The exterior of the building has some really nice tectonic details, with a heavy stonework base, elegant thin concrete lintels, and a spacious loggia along each wing (shown below). The building was sturdily constructed and has a great deal of potential, but the interior needs some work to rehabilitate it and convert some of the existing spaces to different functions, such as a new neonatal intensive care unit. We are also designing several new buildings to increase the capacity of the hospital and provide a new operating room and pediatrics ward. Below is a photo of one of the small rooms where birthing currently occurs (it is not much bigger than what you see in the photo).
It is exciting to be working with MASS and UNICEF to bring this building up to better and safer conditions and construct new buildings that can provide the space and equipment that is needed here. One strategy that we have been excited to implement with this project is the use of solar chimneys to encourage ventilation, especially in the ward spaces. We recently completed our Schematic Design phase, and are now beginning Construction Documents.
On the drive to Nyanza and back, I have been struck by the fact that every square acre of Rwanda seems to be cultivated. There are 10 million people in a country the size of Maryland (and extremely few apartments or high-rises, which are found only in the capital). That’s 10 million people living in mostly individual homes with their own plots of land to farm in a very small country. As you drive through Rwanda, it seems like every piece of hill or valley you can see is terraced or planted or somehow being lived on. It is also interesting to actually see the people working on the land; most large American farms are planted, watered, and harvested by machine these days, but in Rwanda, you see men, women, and children bending over in the fields to sow seeds or collect the harvest. There is a close relationship between the people and the land.
One thing that I have learned after living in Rwanda for a while is what it is like to look different from the vast majority, and to be conspicuous wherever you go. But the stares you may get from the local people are more the result of curiosity than anything else, and strangers will smile and say hello to you when you pass by. Small children will wave and say “muzungu!” which means foreigner. Sometimes they run up to give you a high-five or handshake.
It actually amazes me how fast you can assimilate to a new situation. I’ve been here only a short time, but I have been learning the language quickly and can communicate with most people using a mix of Kinyarwandan, English, and French. Kinyarwandan, a Bantu language, can be difficult to learn because its sounds and structure are so different from English or the Romance languages, but it is very rewarding to be able to communicate with local people in their own language. It is also easier to pick it up when you use it every day to talk to store owners or moto taxi drivers.
My time here so far has definitely been invigorating, and I can honestly say that I learn something new (or several new things) every day, whether it involves architecture, preservation, healthcare, history, politics, culture, or language. I look forward to the next year in Kigali and all the experiences it will provide.
Jennifer Gaugler - holds a B.Arch from MIT and an M.Arch from Tulane. She is living in Kigali as a MASS Design Fellow.