Flooding and landslides triggered by heavy rain killed at least 129 people in Rwanda’s Western, Southern, and Northern provinces as of Wednesday.
In a mountainous area in neighbouring Uganda near the border with Rwanda, six people died in the southwestern Kisoro district. These numbers are likely to rise.
These are tragedies that have come from otherwise good fortune. After one of the longest dry and hot spells, Rwanda and Uganda have been visited by heavy and unrelenting rains since March.
Landslides have already struck other hilly and mountainous regions of Uganda, like Kasese near the Rwenzori mountains, destroying homes and displacing hundreds of families. Other notoriously landslide-prone areas in the east of the country, in the Bugisu region, are looking on with bated breath.
I travelled through all these affected areas in Uganda and Rwanda early in the year. These mountainous and hilly regions are breathtakingly beautiful. However, driving into Kisoro, on its steep and winding roads, is something better done on an empty stomach. With a full belly, the stomach-churning and head-turning twists on the road could leave you throwing up on your lap.
In Rwanda, the drives are longer. A country veritably sitting on a thousand hills, it barely has any flatlands. Many of the roads are built on hilltops, so they are narrower than in the neighbouring Kisoro and Kabale regions.
Conquering this terrain comes at a cost. To prevent the deadly landslides from piling earth on roads and sweeping away settlements on the lower side, Rwanda has been building retainer walls several metres high on its highways. According to government figures, it increases the cost of building roads and other infrastructure by anything between 150 and 200 percent!
Homes on the hills
In several places, cement steps are built from the bottom of the highway up to the settlements to enable people to get to their homes on the hills. They might look beautiful on postcards, but these hills have a developmental penalty. On the plus side, it might help keep them fit. You don’t see too many potbellied people about.
The people of the hills and mountains are nothing like those of the plains. You have to be tough to eat there. They terrace the hillsides and break their backs farming as they climb. You need steady steps and can’t be feeble. To be efficient, the smart ones among them work collectively, creating a collegial spirit. But because they can’t afford the leisure breaks of the plains people, they are fiery-tempered and plain speaking.
One of the most terrifying sights is the bicycle couriers hurtling down the hills with their cargo at speeds that would win them the Tour de France. They are so fast they can’t dare pull the brakes because the tyres would explode, and they would end up as mincemeat on the tarmac. They also pray that they don’t hit a stone or a fold on the road because they would end up cold far down in the valley.
In these places, you don’t go to work with a head full of waragi or chang’aa. You save that for the end of the day.
In Uganda’s hilly Kisoro and Kabale regions, more populated than Rwanda, the past 40 years have wrought significant changes. With the hillsides cleared for agriculture, these once cold and malaria-free places have got warmer. Malaria came along with the shift to warmer climes and took a toll.
But its response to the explosion of the population and the constraints of land has had the most far-reaching national consequences. Used to back-breaking work, the Bakiga people (in Kabale) and Kisoro (including the Bafumbira and Banyarwanda) fanned out to the rest of the country and took their work ethic there.
In fertile and sparsely populated regions like Bunyoro in northwest Uganda, they got land cheaply before oil was discovered there and turned fortunes. Then they reproduced in large numbers. After a generation, they were wielding their economic power and numbers to win local elections. Faced with mounting Bunyoro militancy, in 2009, President Yoweri Museveni made the extraordinary announcement that key political positions in the region would be “ring-fenced” for Banyoro, and the Bakiga wouldn’t stand.
Years later, with the creation of a record number of districts, there are now predominantly Bakiga districts in Bunyoro, where they still till the land like it’s going out of fashion. The Bakiga migrant labourers then became the first community of Ugandans who left their ancestral lands and created a new homeland all for themselves. They also moved to other regions in the west, and the capital Kampala, as one of the early generations of manual labourers. The next generation, of course, didn’t do the menial work that their parents did. They emerged as part of the middle class and local bourgeoisie, having gone to school and tapped into the higher rungs of the economy.
Far more than on the Ugandan side, most of Rwanda’s hillsides are covered by trees to help stem ravages like erosion and landslides, and in a few years, they will be enveloped by thick greenery. The future of the people here is as modern-day forest people. How that society might look like, the country probably has nothing in its history to help it envision it.
For the Bakiga, these landslides are an excellent opportunity to fill in the missing bits of their history. They were among the country’s first environmental refugees, long before anyone knew these climate change-disrupted times would come.
Charles Onyango-Obbo is a journalist, writer, and curator of the “Wall of Great Africans”. Twitter@cobbo3
Source: The East African