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Sunshine and Shadow in Rwanda’s Rural Housing Programme

KIGALI, Apr 27 2011 (IPS) - The gleam of new corrugated iron sheets shimmers through the blue-green haze that veils Rwanda’s rural valleys and hillsides. It is a visible sign of Rwanda’s metamorphosis from a nation devastated by genocide seventeen years ago to the fastest modernising state on the continent.

But are the shiny roofs the jewels on Africa’s emerging bride, or the bling worn by a bully?

Most of the new houses are the result of a hugely ambitious plan to bring rural families, at present scattered across the countryside, together into villages called imidugudu, enabling the government to more easily provide electricity, water, schooling and security. But it is a smaller programme, the replacement of grass-thatched houses with more modern structures, which caught the attention of aid agencies when complaints emerged last year that the homes of the minority Batwa, former pygmy forest dwellers, were being destroyed by the government.

The issue is complex, encapsulating many of the tensions haunting Rwanda as well as the strides it is making towards prosperity.

Evident progress

Realising grand plans

In Rwanda's system of government, the job of local leaders is to mobilise and co-ordinate local and national resources to implement programmes.

In the case of Bye-Bye Nyakatsi, central government earmarked 10 million dollars. This is complemented by the mobilisation of the army to distribute roof sheets and building material. Public works programmes aimed at employing youths provide further labour.

Then Rwanda’s intense traditional communal-work system, called umuganda, kicks in to help build the new houses. Everybody pitches in to supply labour and materials - officially on the last Saturday of every month, but often whenever someone has time to help a neighbour.

On the Saturday morning following the Apr. 7 start of Rwanda’s annual mourning period to commemmorate the genocide, the villagers of the Rwakivumu umudugudu in the Nyarugenge district of Kigali are carrying large stones and cement bricks on their heads, cushioned by a crown woven from banana leaves.

The trek for each stone or brick is arduous - from the road where they were delivered down a steep forested slope to the building site where their houses are being constructed. There, a team of contractors, paid by government, are working on one of the unfinished shells of what will be a five-by-ten metre house.

Dative Mukatishime, one of the stone porters, points to her half-finished house. It’s been a month in progress, but she isn’t sure when she and her husband and two children will be able to move in, because they will have to wait for the contractors to finish the plastering. Meanwhile, she is busy helping her neighbours build their houses.

While the construction is under way, she and her family stay nearby in their wattle-and-daub structure, newly roofed with metal sheets in the place of the thatch that had always covered it. It will be demolished as soon as they move. Felicien Kagisha, vice mayor of the Khanyinya District, explains that Mukatishime is one of the pioneer families that will settle in the new "model" village. The idea is that they start with the poorest, the nyakatsi dwellers, and settle them in first, in the hope that the success of the first phase will persuade others in the area to join them in a new and better life.

Apart from ubiquitous building activity, the extent of Rwanda’s housing progress is most evident in the north-western town of Rubavu, formerly Gisenyi, on the border between Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. On the Rwandan side solid concrete and stone houses – many newly built or under construction – contrast with the squalid shacks of Goma, the sprawling, chaotic town some 200 metres away on the Congo side of the border.

In the capital Kigali, the tin or plastic-covered shacks so prevalent in developing cities are non-existent, despite an urbanisation rate of more than 6 percent per year in the city of 1.2 million people. The houses in Kigali’s poorest areas are small and densely-packed, but they are solid, permanent structures.

About 80 percent of Rwanda’s population of 11 million live in the rural areas, the most densely populated in Africa, where the houses are solid structures, the more sophisticated ones made of brick and roofed with rounded clay tiles, and the simpler ones of mud bricks with iron-sheet roofs.

Up until 2010, the poorest of the poor lived in grass-thatched mud-brick or wattle-and-daub huts known as nyakatsi. The last of these are being eradicated by the government campaign called Bye-Bye Nyakatsi with an efficiency for which Rwanda is increasingly becoming known.

The statistics roll off the tongues of the proud technocrats driving Rwanda’s grand development plan, Vision 2020. James Musoni, the minister of local government whose department is in charge of the anti-thatch programme, says when Bye-Bye Nyakatsi was launched in December 2009, Rwanda had 120 000 families living in grass-thatched houses.

“As of end last month, we are remaining with 18 000 families still in those houses… in the next three or four months we should be done with that exercise,” he says.

Kigali had 1,559 grass-thatched houses before the Bye-Bye Nyakatsi campaign started, says mayor Fidele Ndayisaba. So far, 1,093 houses have been built to replace them. By the end of April, the remaining families living in nyakatsi will be able to move into new houses.

Vexed question of thatch

Officials and politicians are somewhat less clear about the reasons for the removal of thatched roofs and their replacement with metal sheets if a family cannot be moved immediately into a “modern” house. Some mention the fire hazard, especially with mass electrification taking place in Rwanda, others point to the dangers of snakes and insects living in the roof, and the fact that maintaining a grass-thatch roof in rainy Rwanda drains the little resources available to those who live under these leaky canopies.

Generally, Rwandan policy makers seem to conflate the idea of living under thatch and the poverty of those who do. Replacing the thatch with metal sheets is therefore seen as an important step in upgrading their living conditions. As for the disadvantage of corrugated iron roofs – its lack of insulation – officials point out that rain is much more of a problem than temperature, which rarely leaves the range of between 15 and 25 degrees Celsius.

There is an argument that some government decisions are taken more for the sake of boosting the image of Rwanda as a modern society than in the interest of its people. A retired politician who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of being branded unpatriotic, points to a recent decision to ban bicycle taxis from the streets of Kigali, leaving hundreds of young men out of work. This, he says, was done merely to improve the image of Kigali.

The permanent secretary of finance, Kampeta Sayinzoga, counters by arguing that the decision was taken to bring down an unacceptably high number of accidents involving the bicycles.

It is highly probable that the Bye-Bye Nyakatsi programme was conceived as a genuine and necessary step to raise the poorest Rwandans out of indigence. It forms part of a comprehensive approach which includes a one-cow-per-family programme, the subsiding of fertiliser and seeds, indigent grants and educational support.

But the issue of show over substance at the level of elected district leaders seems to have caused the problems of the Bye-Bye Nyakatsi programme.

Ildephonse Niyomugabo of Coporwa, a Kigali-based organisation advocating the rights of the Batwa, says the nyakatsi dwellers welcome the replacement of the thatch with metal sheets, and would gladly move from their imidugudu into modern houses.

The problem is that the authorities removed the grass roofs – and in some cases destroyed entire homes – of 720 Batwa families without first providing alternative accommodation or iron sheets to replace the thatch.

“It was catastrophic,” says Niyomugabo. To date, about 100 families have been able to move into new homes. The rest are housed in dreadful temporary conditions while their houses are being constructed – sometimes six families in one house without windows or doors. Such overcrowding worsens the already bad health conditions of the Batwa, who suffer from high HIV infection rates and cholera, he says.

What cannot be said

Coporwa’s efforts to raise the alarm about the demolitions throw an interesting light on the state of Rwandan public discourse. The organisation approached the state-owned daily newspaper, Rwanda Radio and the government television channel for coverage, but was rebuffed. A private station in Kigali, City Radio, gave them an airing, and the organisation commissioned its own documentary video to help persuade government officials of the harm caused by the campaign.

Faith Mbabazi of Rwanda Radio explains that her radio station did cover the story, but not through the prism of Corporwa, focussing only on the Batwa. Because the demolitions affected other Rwandans as well, the station covered the story inclusively without mentioning ethnicity.

This is in line with the extreme sensitivity around ethnic identity in the media and in politics, stemming from the 1994 genocide in which Hutu extremists, feelings stoked by years of racist “Hutu Power” hate speech spewed by Rwandan radio stations and newspapers, tried to exterminate the minority Tutsi population in a 100-day orgy of violence. Today, mass graves and scattered bones are still being discovered as Rwandans undertake their unprecedented building spree of roads, homes and agricultural terraces.

Against this background, the idea that the demolition of Batwa houses in the Bye-Bye Nyakatsi campaign could have anything to do with discrimination against them – a form of ethnic cleansing – is unthinkable.

But how could some of the district leaders get it so wrong? The answer to this question provides fascinating insight into how the Rwandan development miracle is being driven.

One element is the enormous pressure under which the country’s 30 district leaders work. They sign a personal performance contract with Rwandan president Paul Kagame, who has a fearsome reputation as a leader who insists targets are met. Come election time, it is not the voters who kick out the underperforming district leaders, but the ruling party that persuades them to withdraw their candidature, says a senior Rwandan journalist at a state-owned newspaper.

At the same time a carrot of extra allocations for well-performing districts is dangled in front of them, so that the districts compete with one another to score the highest in meeting their development targets.

Musoni explains the “decentralisation” system which allows the national government’s centrally-planned policies to be implemented in the remotest corners of the country: “You take elected (local) leaders, you take them for a seminar, you teach them, we show them the benefits, give them tools, kits, and they go back: you know that this is going to be done. They really do a great job.”

The result is that local leaders often err on the side of zeal rather than care. The Batwa made homeless have not been forgotten, say the authorities.

Local government minister Musoni says: “It was a mistake committed by some local leaders (in the east and south of Rwanda). They didn’t get the proper message. But I went out [in a] statement over the radio and warned them, and it immediately stopped. But there had been some families that have been really hurt.”

Niyomugabo confirms that, as far as Coporwa knows, the premature demolitions have stopped. Musoni says that the local leaders were ordered to rent houses on behalf of the affected families, or help them to stay with family members.

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