The New Times (Kigali)

Rwanda: Traditional Mindsets Slowing Modern Housing Projects

Rwanda has started an outright campaign to do away with grass-thatched houses, locally known as 'Nyakasi'. Across the whole country, the needy are offered free iron sheets and those who are able to buy their own, are encouraged to do so by the government.

Despite the overwhelming effort from the central government and local leaders, there are still grass thatched houses or huts in the countryside.

Going beyond the commonly associated issue of rural poverty, to conflicting interests of tradition versus modernity, it has been discovered in most cases that people with grass thatched houses also own iron sheet roofed houses within their premises.

John Munyurangabo, 62 years is a resident of Murundi sector in Kayonza district who said that he greatly admired the grass thatched hut he once lived in more than the big iron sheet roofed one he lives in today.

"I had to demolish my hut due to the demands of the authorities, but I can assure you that it served me more than the one I am left with. I stayed in the cool grass thatched house during the hot hours of the day. My current house is very hot during the day and troubles me greatly," Munyurangabo said.

This explains one important thing; people still cherish traditional huts, despite the fact that they know the importance of having a safe and securely roofed house. Most rural people trace grass thatched houses, far into their cultural and traditional roots.

Cultural values and norms are greatly embedded in the rural populations of Rwanda.

Richard Kirenga, 47, a resident of Nyagatare District in the Eastern Province of Rwanda said that grass thatched houses are not necessarily bad as they are culturally binding.

"People relate to their ancestors and want to stay attached to the typical Rwandan village," he said.

"We construct grass thatched huts for artistic, traditional and domestic purposes. I don't see why grass thatched houses should be demolished unselectively."

"Cases where, one has a big iron roofed house and another traditional hut, should be different from where one lives entirely in a grass thatched house. The latter could be in trouble in cases of natural calamities, however the former has created a number of opportunities for their wellbeing," Kirenga said.

Most local leaders reiterated the importance of saving some beautiful traditional grass thatched houses.

Many grass thatched houses need to be replaced with permanent iron sheets for the sake of protecting the lives of the rural poor.

Local leaders too, think that some huts are too beautiful, to be destroyed, and would like to see a cautious approach.

However, these very local leaders lament about the fact that the illiterate and ignorant rural people, continue to live in grass thatched houses.

They revealed a situation where a grass thatched house was burnt to ashes, when the owner kept one million francs inside. However, if the owner bought 30 iron sheets worth Rwf 150,000 for a permanent house, he would have saved his property.

Jean Marie Kalisa, a local leader in Kayonza district in the Eastern province of Rwanda said that the population needs to be further sensitized about the advantages of having permanent house structures.

"We lament about the local population's ignorance and this shouldn't over shadow the whole exercise of eradicating grass thatched houses," Kalisa said.

"I am of the view that the poor be given iron sheets for permanent houses. I also support the sensitization of those ignorantly living in grass thatched houses.

But again, let those with grass thatched houses, purely meant for leisure and cultural preservation be given the right to do so," said Kalisa.

Addressing the issue of Nyakatsi is a complex venture that demands a systematic approach, mainly because it deals with the transformation of the people's minds.

It is not true that the majority of people living in 'Nyakatsi' houses, or who have put up such houses, do not have alternatives-for they do. They simply enjoy the pleasure of having such houses amidst their homesteads.

In fact, some do not see any problem of living in grass thatched hoses at all-that's why phasing out of these temporary houses comes as a last choice.

Those who are too poor to buy iron sheets, have the government's support who have identified and actually constructed new houses for them.

Modern changes have for ages inevitably conflicted with tradition in most cultures and Rwanda is not unique.

The whole issue thus revolves aroundthe minds of Rwandans and fortunately like another malleable material; minds do change, provided they are exposed to great possibilities over time.

A grass thached house in rural Kirehe district is one of the thousands that are to be eradicated.

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