Rwandese refugees: a return to hope

Survivor Munyakazi is ready to work again

Only 62 years of age although he looks nearer to 80, Michel Munyakazi finally arrived at his home village of Rutongo near the Rwandese capital of Kigali after a 28-day trek under the hot tropical sun and thunderstorms. For 30 months before he began the gruelling journey, Munyakazi languished in a refugee camp in eastern Zaire. His wife and two children never made it back to their lush farming commune on one of Rwanda's breathtaking Thousand Hills.They died in the teeming refugee camp of Kahindu.

Munyakazi says he considers his survival of both the camp and the agonizing march a "gift from God". He is one of an estimated 600,000 Rwandese refugees staggering home in a sudden and massive influx. An equally large number of Rwandese are still refugees in neighbouring countries.

Despite his deformed toes and a limp, Munyakazi proclaimed himself ready to work again. "I can farm," he said. Munyakazi is a farmer like 90 percent of Rwanda's nearly 6 million people.

Within a week of his arrival Munyakazi had the chance to cultivate, as thousands of returning families were given a simple hand hoe and vegetable seeds through an FAO-led operation.

Rwanda: Land of a Thousand Hills

Transforming returning refugees back into cultivators is a critical step -- the supply of hoes and seeds is being increased -- on the road to the recovery of food production. Inputs and seeds are also being given on a regular basis to poor farmers who are not refugees.

However critical it may be, furnishing simple hoes and vegetables seeds is only the first step in recovery efforts that need to run in tandem with emergency relief operations still under way.

Rwanda, a small enclave of 26,338 square km, has fertile land, steady rains and a potential for growth far higher than many nations in the region. It boasts up to three productive crop seasons a year in some parts, a sharp contrast to those countries that have trouble with just one.

But behind the Thousand Hills, there are, as the Rwandese often say, a thousand problems that need a thousand solutions. Not all of them are beyond reach, however, and many, especially those required to increase food production, may not be as complicated as feared.

Food self-sufficiency, which stood at 95 percent in 1985, dropped to a low of 49 percent in 1994 although latest information now puts it at 62 percent. Some 34 percent of rural households have less than 0.7 ha of land, the bare minimum leaving little for marketing and earnings. Lack of fuel is aggravating deforestation, robbing fertile soil of its protection and giving way to erosion. If neglected, environmental damage may become irreversible.

"The most immediate need is to increase the capacity to produce more food," says Jean Francois Gascon, a French agronomist who has been involved in agricultural development in Africa for over 20 years. "The potential is there. Rwanda is exceptional in that more than 50 percent of its land is arable."

Adds Gabriel Kouthon of Benin, a 30-year veteran of food and nutrition issues in Africa: "More and better use of inputs is essential, such as seeds, fertilizers and pesticides.The idea is to enable farmers to increase their level of production from mere subsistence and begin to market."

While intensification is in the making in this densely populated country (some areas have as many as 900 persons per square kilometre), big hopes are pinned also on improving and extending cultivation of marshlands. "Of some 165,000 ha of marshlands, 94,000 ha are under cultivation," notes Moise Sonou, an irrigation expert and, like Kouthon, an FAO staff member. At the end of November, they rushed to Rwanda as part of a Special Mission advance team headed by FAO Director-General Jacques Diouf.

Sonou and other FAO Africa experts huddle daily with government officials and respresentatives of other UN and international organizations, major donor nations and NGOs to formulate plans and programmes to increase the productivity of marshlands so as to ease pressure on other lands, including hilltops reaching up to towering volcanoes.

If agriculture is part of the thousand problems, it is also part of the solution: agriculture accounts for 40 percent of GDP and 80 percent of export earnings (coffee being one major export commodity).

"What is important," notes FAO Representative Peter Vandor, "is to plan, programme and put into motion now what is needed in the future, even if the emergency situation is in full swing. The aim is to begin immediate actions to assist in ensuring stable food production so that future crises are prevented."

The international community is being mobilized to assist Rwanda to slip out of its acute crisis and realize its considerable potential so that it may once again be known only as the Land of a Thousand Hills, a jewel in the heart of Africa.

By Hilmi Toros

20 December 1996


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