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Divvying Up 1000 Hills

June 28, 2011

Rwanda's countryside is beautiful and increasingly divided (by Astrid Oksnavad)

By Elise Webb

As an American, it is, honestly, difficult to imagine a country where there just isn’t enough land. In many ways, Manifest Destiny (that oh so flawed theory that Americans had the right to all the land coast to coast) is nonetheless subconsciously instilled in me.  Some residue of the ‘west ward ho!’ complex will permanently be in my mind. There’s always a parcel of land out there. Not that I have ever personally desired a parcel but, I know it could be possible one day to have one in the States. That’s not necessarily possible for everyone in Rwanda. Much of it depends on getting money to buy the land; with 77% living on less than $1.25 per day, money for real estate is scarce. Even if everyone could afford it, it’s a small country so there will never be quite enough land to go around.  

According to the CIA World Fact Book, Rwanda is “slightly smaller than Maryland.” Yet at 11.4 million people, Rwanda has more than twice the population of Maryland. Maryland’s largest city, Baltimore, has a bit over 650,000 while Kigali is just shy of one million.  To say that Rwanda is “the most densely populated country in Africa,” is an understatement.

Still, Rwanda is 90% rural. Which seems counterintuitive, how can a place be densely populated and rural at the same time? Dense population, in my mind, implies Hong Kong or Singapore with apartments stacked on top of each other like beehives full of cells, but I started to understand Rwandan density after my trip to Ngororero District in the Western Province. These beautiful hills are subdivided into miniscule plots of land. Since the economy is mainly based on subsistence farming it soon becomes clear where tensions might arise. How do you feed a family of 6, which the average Rwandan family size, versus 3.2 the average Marylander family size, on half a hectare (little more than one American acre) of land?

Then there’s the trouble of inheritance. You’re a head of household with six kids, who will eventually be six adults, all wanting a piece of land.  A new law encouraging gender equality now allows for female land inheritance.  While that rightly promotes the status of women in society, it further complicates matters. Now each child will get about one fifth of an acre which is less than the median size of a lot for a suburban Maryland house ( a quarter of an acre according to the US non-profit Resources for the Future). As far as I know, most people do not depend on family farming to put food on the table in the Chesapeake Bay area.

Similar land inheritance issues happened in the 1930s in Ireland, but 4 out 5 Irish born in the small island nation immigrated to nearby countries for work opportunities.  That’s not feasible for all Rwandans, especially those who lack education and funds. If they dream of a life outside of Rwanda the setting is distinctly non-African. They see themselves in Europe or America not Kenya or Gabon, and the visa restrictions for immigrating to the West are much tighter than those within the region.  Yet the chances for success, many of which are based on owning land in Rwanda, are few and far between if youth stay at home. It puts these youngsters in a bit of a catch-22; wanting to honor traditional paths toward success but also wanting to flourish.  On top of all of those issues, which would be daunting for any country or state, you have a layer of conflict and mass migration that spans fifty years.

It quickly becomes clear that something needs to be figured out within this generation so that the next generation can build a peaceful life that is hopefully prosperous too.  Rwanda is a very young country, with 43% of population under the age of 14. This means that these kids are going to inherit more than increasingly diminishing land; they will also inherit a system fraught with tensions and numerous groups vying for their own interests. Common ground, in the figurative sense, needs to be found among all of these entities in order to share the literal common ground of Rwanda.

SFCG has worked on creating dialogue around land conflict at level of ordinary life; the day-to-day conflicts between neighbors and within in families about border lines and who gets what. The participatory theatre program last year focused on talking to people and creating a show from the exact struggles villagers were having.  After performing, the actors allowed the citizens to solve their problems in the make believe world of the play in hopes this would translate to the possibility of real-world resolution.

I have hope that these dialogues will continue and, with any luck, open the door to discussion that allows this youthful nation to create new standards of adulthood that move beyond the traditional ideas that require each person to have a house, a spouse, and a plot of land. Otherwise dividing this small country into 11.4 million tiny plots of land will give each person about five square inches of land. That’s hardly a sustainable solution to the conflicts that are cropping up, as ‘the land of a thousand hills’ attempts to share them.


Elise Webb is an International Intern with our Rwanda program for the summer. She is getting her masters in Global Comparative Sociology from Catholic University of America in Washington, DC.

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