The New Times (Kigali)

Rwanda: To Own, or Not to Own, a Roof Over Our Head...

The debate in these pages sometime ago on whether to own a roof or not should interest everyone with earnings of any sort.

Seeing how the costs of building or buying a house are so prohibitive, should we leave the venture to the wo/men of means? Should we humble mortals of modest means be resigned to forever being leashed to dependence on hired abodes, with their accompanying vagaries of rent hikes and contract terminations?

As we learnt with anguish in Kenya as refugees, in that classical S.M. Otieno court case that could be said to have been of epic proportions, owning a place should be the do-or-die ambition of everyone. If you are lacking in the good fortunes of owning a home, at least you should strive to own a house. It's not exactly a walk in the park, true, but we'd better fail trying than resignedly throw any such hopes to the wind.

The anguish we suffered in Kenya was seeing that while we called our Kenyan workmates our colleagues, we actually were not equal. Aside from owning an ancestral home, or a family estate, a colleague could build or buy a house. This we could not, being stateless and therefore incapable of laying claim to any land.

That's how we enriched Kenyans, without wilful philanthropic or investment aspirations. Which is what will befall any Rwandan, especially our youth, if they are forced into being enslaved by a lifetime of hired houses. Of course, it's honourable to enrich a compatriot. However, when it's done at the risk of sinking into perpetual paucity, it becomes a fool's paradise.

But with meagre means, how can anyone hope to own a 'residence'?

Take a young person beginning to "fall into things" - get earnings. Say every month they are getting an amount equal to Rwf500,000. Most probably, they'll want to live in a decent house and area, which means slashing that earning and flinging Rwf200,000 into renting a house.

In a year, our young thing will have made their "landlord/lady" - that accursed, pestering "lord/lady" - Rwf2.4m richer. Count that amount in 34 years - the time I've been labouring - and tell me what it amounts to. If I can trust my ability to use a calculator, that's a whopping Rwf81.6m! By all accounts, a middling 'executive residence'.

Now consider another one who rented a cheap house in one of our slums, which are not precisely slums if you've seen where they depend on "flying toilets", only for the first month. Say in that month they were able to save some money and buy a plot of land around Rugende, some cheaper twenty or so kilometres from Kigali City Centre.

Suppose on those first earnings they were able to make some structure of some kind that served as a residential shack. Then from there they built a foundation and started to put up their executive residence, a few blocks a month by a few blocks.

In 10 years, that young thing will have metamorphosed into a veritable lord/lady, with a few houses to their name, if they keep at it. Late Rubangura would've assured you this is possible, even with earnings from selling bits and pieces on the street. Because from there, he rose to own streets and skyscrapers (as, luckily for him, our sky was low).

You may think I am talking from the clouds but no. Even with the cost of land rising by the day and building materials costing an arm and a leg, it can be attempted.

I remember saying I couldn't afford two pieces of land at Rwf118,000 in 1995. And where was the land? Bellow the Parliamentary Buildings and the road to Kigali International Airport! Truth was, I felt it was too far from the city centre. Otherwise, I could've borrowed the money from my workplace.

Today, those plots are prime land hosting lavish palaces. An owner of a plot there will laugh derisively in your face if you flash around anything less than Rwf200 million!

When later I began to 'smell the savannahs', I 'sacrificed' Rwf260,000 to expropriate a land owner and build in the more distant Nyarurarama bush. Today, the house is paying the loan. It sits in a part called "Where-are-the-loos?" and is fetching little in rent, for now. But when the whole of what's today a posh estate finally finds its "loos", I bet my offspring won't be complaining.

Everyone with means, however meagre, should try by all means (fair, not foul!) to own a roof. Government, the private sector, anyone who can; they should do everything possible to assist.

Owning a roof over our head should be one of the fundamental human rights of our society.

Meanwhile, on another note: "I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination... ..if need be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die."

Rulihlahla, 'rabble rouser' who taught humanity to mankind, especially in the West. Oh, that they should continue to desecrate your cherished ideal! Adieu, merciful Madiba!

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