22 June 2011, Rumonge - A massive return of refugees is a clear sign that peace is advancing in Burundi. It also adds pressure on the country's limited ability to feed its growing population. FAO is helping returnees grow food for their families.
"In Burundi, war is about hunger. If the people have enough to eat, it will not come back," says Bosco Nzambimana, concluding a long account of his life as a refugee. Three years ago he came back to his natal city of Rumonge on the shores of Lake Tanganyika in southern Burundi.
Having been able to stay out of trouble during much of the 90's, war caught up with Bosco while he was working as a primary school teacher in Muramvya province in the north. "We would teach during the day and hide in the forest at night." In 2002 he left the country for Uvira, across the border in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Since 2005 peace is taking root in Burundi, and people are returning home. But their numbers — over 500 000 between 2002 and 2009, according to UNHCR estimates — are overwhelming for one of Africa's most densely-populated countries, already grappling with an increasing scarcity of land for growing food to feed its hungry and growing population.
Many returnees have difficulty in getting back the land they have left behind. Some find their property occupied by others, some don't even remember where it was — unsurprisingly, if you take into account that most people fled almost 40 years back, in 1972, or in 1993.
For those who can't be resettled, the government, with support from the UN and the donor community, is building ‘integrated rural villages'. Nzambimana has found a place in Mutambara, one of four such settlements in Rumonge, now home to almost 1,000 households.
That number is a remarkable testimony of the fact that in the majority of cases peaceful solutions are found between past and present occupants: the total number of families returning to Rumonge between 2008 and 2010 is estimated at 15,000.
"People try to follow the government's call to work on peace together," says FAO expert Vénuste Nahimana. "But off course, it is not always easy." FAO plays a crucial role in the reintegration process, he explains, as it helps returnee families grow their own food. "After all, people have to eat."
FAO provides a wide array of farming material — beans, maize and vegetable seeds, as well as cassava and potato cuttings, fruit trees, poultry and small ruminants. Moreover, families receive the necessary tools and inputs, such as fertilizer, as well as training.
However, the biggest problem is where to grow. In theory, each returnee household is entitled to 0.5 hectares, but land is scarce. The villagers of Mutumbara have found an unusual temporary solution: they use property on loan from Rumonge's prison.
Together with a local organisation, FAO organises farmer field schools here, "a programme that provides people with the technical know-how to become experts on their own fields," according to trainer Spéciose Ndikumana.
Today, it's all about tomatoes. They were planted five weeks ago in the nursery. Now, a group of 25 students learn about plant diseases and how to treat them. Then, at the end of the session, they all come together and sing.
"We sing about what we do," says Nzambimana, who wrote the songs. He likes it, just as he likes to sing. He also does it in church. Singing lifts the spirits, he says. Even though he has not been able to resume teaching, he doesn't complain. So many people are worse off than him. He is still young. His first goal is to get resettled.