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Operation Bye-bye huts

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Local and international efforts ensure that Rwanda becomes a Nyakatsiless country

One morning, at the foot of the rolling hills of Shyorongi, a small town a few miles from Kigali, Daphrose

Nyiramirimo, a mother of four stood over her dilapidated grass thatched home, locally known as Nyakatsi, in despair. Her roof was so weak that wind alone could blow it apart and every rain caused it to leak.

Little did she know that within a matter of weeks, Rwandan President Paul Kagame himself would arrive in Shyorongi to help build Nyiramirimo a new home. Together with hundreds of neighbors, Kagame carried bricks, mixed sand and cement. Housing projects from Rwanda are seen on display at the Biennale Giardini in Venice on August 28, 2010 during the opening of the 12th Architecture Biennale whose theme is “People Meet in Architecture”. Rwanda is in the final stage of eradicating grass-thatched huts as the a form of housing for the poor


Before her new home was constructed, Nyiramirimo was part of approximately 120,000 Rwandan families  languishing in terrible housing, void of electricity, access to clean water and other infrastructure.

According to Augustine Kampayana, the Chairman of the Rural Resettlement Taskforce, many of these families used their grass thatched homes as a store, and a kitchen as well. As a result, cases of burnt houses, deaths and loss of property appear repeatedly in district reports. These properties are also known to attract disease-carrying agents like mosquitoes, rats, snakes and jiggers.

The Rwandan government, in turn, has been engaging the people through churches, non government organisations and the private sector to help poor communities acquire better housing through a habitat program.

It all started about four years ago when district mayors filed reports on the status of  governance and security in villages. Reports indicated that “shelter” was one of the daunting problems many families faced across the country. The reports prompted an intense preliminary debate that resulted in the creation of a parliamentary committee, which was assigned to oversee the matter and carry out a national survey, establish facts, and advise the government on what to do.

The committee members discovered that families who live in grass thatched houses have numerous categories arranged in order of O, A, and B. Category O, which constitutes the most vulnerable, includes old men and women, orphans, genocide survivors and those living with HIV. This was the category where Nyiramirimo belonged.

Category A constitutes poor families who can only afford two or three iron sheets but still struggle to get basic goods such as soap, clothing, food and medicine. Many youths, especially uneducated youth in the rural areas, belong to this category.

Category B individuals live in Nyakatsi because it is what they grew up in; it is a cultural heritage passed on by grandparents. Grass thatching is Rwanda’s iconic architecture and a significant number of families in Rwanda grew up in grass thatched houses, even President Kagame’s family and the King of Rwanda lived in Nyakatsi. In fact the King’s Palace in Nyanza, Southern Rwanda is Nyakatsi.

People in category B feel comfortable living in such houses. They are not poor. Some families in this category have big cattle farms and trucks that transport agricultural goods to the market. They have money in their bank accounts. And if they are not rich, some of them have rich relatives.

“You will find ministers, director generals and businessmen here in Kigali who have parents or relatives living in Nyakatsi somewhere in the rural area,” explains Kampayana, whose family also once lived in Nyakatsi.

Eng. William Ngabonziza, an expert in the local government charged with the civil works of the habitat program told The Independent that the model of the project would be a modern village in every part of the country. The design of the structure would meet a certain standard and would be located on the same site.

This way, explains Ngabonziza, “it will be easy for government to roll out infrastructural facilities like water, hospitals, electricity and roads.”

The idea has met resistance from some individuals who are not open to change, but after the government pledged 30 percent of the funds to buy iron sheets for the roof, nails, windows and doors, the results have been encouraging.

In 2010, the government mobilised 1.5 billion frw earmarked for roofing materials, doors and windows.

Every district fills in a requisition form to pick iron sheets and nails when a house is ready to be roofed.

At first, when the government contracted factories to supply materials, only a portion of the materials would be delivered, as factory workers would agree with someone from the local government to deliver a fraction of the materials. Then local councils would divert some of the materials. Eventually the beneficiary would get only a fraction of the iron sheets they were entitled to. There was a time when many finished houses waited for weeks to get roofing material because iron sheets had been swindled.

After discovering the malpractices, the police and the army stepped in. The thieves were jailed. Now, the team that handles the procurement and distribution is made up of three parties: the army, the police and the local government. For example, when a truck from a certain district arrives at the factory to pick iron sheets and nails, a representative from the army, the police and the local government have to sign on everything loaded on the truck. They also record the number plate of the truck.

At the district, a team of three also receives the materials, one from the army, one from police and another from the local government. Iron sheets are then counted one by one to prove that they were all delivered.

Since the army and the police took over the responsibility to ensure that all the procedures are run efficiently, avoiding all unnecessary bureaucracies, and physically participating in the construction of the houses, the project is expected to finish, if anything, ahead of schedule.

However, when the program began the government faced numerous obstacles: since all families had to be moved from their land to community settlements, the government had to find a suitable site to establish the settlement. Some sites belonged to government while others belonged to individuals. For the sites that belonged to individuals, the process involved compensating the owners, which was not always easy. In such cases, friends and neighbors had to come in and help raise funds for every family that could not afford the compensation.

Another obstacle was the overwhelming number of people living in Nyakatsi compared to the available resources. When government calculated funds needed to buy all building materials, it found out there was not enough money in the coffers, thus inviting the beneficiaries to contribute.

Meanwhile, Rwanda faced intense criticism for enforcing this policy.  In some districts, local officials were reported to have razed all the Nyakatsi disregarding circumstances like rain or loss of property.

Kampayana says those reports were hyped by the press, but he agreed that there were some isolated cases where some families were forced to pull down their Nyakatsi because they were not willing to give up living there. “Sometimes we apply some force,” says Kampayana. “When the government gives houses to those who can’t afford the houses, then I think they must comply with the policy.”

The government has since set a deadline of May, 2011, to phase out the offending structures across the country. “We are not flexible on this, and they [owners] should not be flexible, we have provided all the resources,” says Kampayana. Local leaders have been put to task to ensure that the deadline is met.

Neighbours together with local councils and religious groups go out and identify poor families with a Nyakatsi house and during Umuganda, the period every month when communities work together to clean up their villages, make bricks or cut trees to raise walls and then wait for the government to deliver the roofing. The army and the police are also part of the project.

Rwandans in the diaspora have also been remitting millions of francs home to support a project they called “Bye Bye Nyakatsi.” The project intends to construct 504 modern low-cost houses for underprivileged families in Bugesera district.

Corporate companies are weighing in too. On January 28, 2011, Rwanda’s beverage and beer manufacturer, (BRALIRWA) donated over 21million frw to the Rwanda Diaspora Global Network (RDGN) to support Bye Bye Nyakatsi. “The project itself is of high importance and highly creative,” said BRALIRWA’s Managing Director, Sven Piederiet. “I believe, today, there is no better project in the same sense that exists.”

A Bill Clinton funded project, Partners in Health (PIH), is also partnering with the district of Burera, in the north of the country to build new houses for 39 families in the district. These families live in scattered poor houses in a remote village of Nyamicucu. Recently, seven of the 39 families were each ushered into a four-room decent house with a concrete floor and tin roofing. The house, at a cost of about 2.4million frw (approximately $4000) includes a separate portion with a kitchen, a storeroom and a toilet. The remaining 32 houses are under construction and should be complete by the end of May, 2011. Matthew Craven, the country director of PIH told The Independent that there was more to the houses. “We have also provided basic furniture, including beds and chairs for the new houses.”

In Rulindo district, World Vision has also pledged 500 iron sheets for 50 houses for vulnerable residents living in Nyakatsi before the end of March.

Comments (1)Add Comment
written by mulumba Abudallah, April 22, 2011
I wish Ugandan leader could swallow their pride and take lessons from kagame!

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