Mazane and Sharita islands in Lake Rweru can easily pass for those “middle of nowhere” places, but they are actually part of the Bugesera District in the Eastern Province. However, the communities in these islands often feel excluded from the community development efforts of the District.
By any standard, the island is under-developed. While other residents of Bugesera District enjoy good health services, schools, roads and access to clean water, shelter and electricity, residents of Mazane and Sharita only see a glimpse of those privileges when they cross the lake.
Residents of these islands have to make two- hour long journeys to reach markets, hospitals and to access other facilities. The only existing primary school was established in 2005 and currently has around 256 pupils. In addition, the only source of water is the lake, which has muddy water that is mostly used without being filtered or boiled. This causes further health problems.
The homes on these islands do not have electricity and only a few houses have miniature solar panels on their verandahs. Residents are often seen basking in the sun to harvest dry beans, while others weave fishnet baskets.
Mazane and Sharita residents who mostly depend on fishing and growing beans, have to cross the lake to reach Batima trading center and they say that the lack of nearby trading centers and proper transport have affected their livelihoods and businesses. They shared numerous stories of persons drowning and residents losing their loved ones to the treacherous waters.
Now, these unfortunate living conditions are set to end – in June 2016 the Rwanda Environment Management Authority (REMA) commenced a process of relocating all the families to the mainland.
New Homes, New Hope
Rweru Model Village will soon be home to more than 400 Rwandans who are to be relocated from Mazane and Sharita islands in Rweru Lake. The Islands were mapped as high-risk zones. With connection to electricity and clean, drinkable water, the Village is comprised of a school, a health post, and a modern market (Agakiriro) and has access to Internet connection.
In the 1st phase of the project, UNDP provided financial and technical support to build 64 houses, through the “Supporting Ecosystems Rehabilitation for Pro-Poor Green Growth and Vulnerable Ecosystem Recovery” (SERPG-VERP) program. In additional to the construction of the houses, SERPG-VERP program supported the construction of water harvesting tanks; provision of common cowsheds for biogas, milk and organic fertilizer to use in kitchen gardens; and construction of Biogas digesters to reduce the dependence of the residents of this green village on wood as a source of energy.
Today, 104 families have been relocated and settled in the Rweru Model Village. The Model was inaugurated during the 22nd Liberation Day celebration on July 4, this year.
Mukarusagara Melena is one of the beneficiaries who was relocated from Mazane Island in late June and resettled in this newly integrated model village built by the Government of Rwanda and its partners including UNDP. The mother of three is steadily trying to settle into this new life following her resettlement, along with 100 other families. Mukarusagara says she had lived in Mazane Island with her family most of her life, until she was relocated to the mainland. Now, for the first time, she is able to access public services just like other Rwandans.
“We lived in isolation, completely cut off from the rest of the country; life was unbearable as no single basic service could be accessed from that island,” said Mukarusagara.
“Whenever a pregnant woman had complications or was due to give birth, the only way to reach the health center was by a canoe. There are many I know who ended up giving birth on the canoes. Being a community health worker, I used to face many similar challenges. I even recall one time when I was accompanying a woman to the health center on the other side and she gave birth in the canoe. After she gave birth, I told the husband that we should continue to the health center for follow up but he refused. Those are the mindsets you get when you are operating with people living in such living conditions,” she said.
Mukarusagara believes that better access to public services such as the health center, market and other facilities will improve life for her and the other former Mazane and Sharita Islanders.
“It’s a miracle! We live in better houses, with electricity and we sleep on mattresses which we had never known before moving here. Also, our children can go to a nearby school and the sick have access to health centers and can get immediate treatment. Now that we are closer to the market, we can start businesses which we failed to do when we were still at Mazane,” Mukarusagara added.
Habimana Jean François, 48 year old father of six, echoes similar feelings. Habimana also says his family has started settling into a new life outside the island.
“We had no clean water, no school, we used to make dangerous and costly trips to Batima. Because we had lived through this for such a long time, we started to get used to it and somewhat comfortable but you only have to visit mainland to realize what we were missing. The area was prone to diseases such as malaria and other hygiene related diseases,” Habimana said.
Habimana added that even growing their crops was difficult as floods destroyed their crop every rainy season and the surviving crops were savagely decimated by hippopotamuses from the lake.
“Life is better now. When we first got into our new homes we felt like we were dreaming. Most of us had never slept in a house with electricity and didn’t have access to clean water. We were given basic materials when we relocated. Here, we are given endless opportunities beyond farming and our children have a great school. I am hopeful the future is better, we are committed to working hard,” Habimana said.
With just single bedroom houses back at Mazane and Sharita Islands, Mukarusagara and her peers used to sleep in the same rooms as their livestock, kitchen utensils and other belongings. Now, they say that their new houses have more space for everything. The houses are equipped with essential furniture, including beds, mattresses and sofas.
Besides the fully furnished houses the resettled families were also given a cow under the government’s one- cow per family program which will help them get milk and manure for biogas and farming.
According to the Rwanda’s Economic Development and Poverty Reduction Strategy II, by 2020 all Rwandans living in high-risk zones will be resettled in safer zones where they will also benefit from better access to social services and basic infrastructure.
Rweru Green Village is part of the Government of Rwanda’s efforts to promote a green environment and better living conditions. Working with the support of UNDP and other stakeholders, the Rwanda Environment Authority (REMA) through SERPG- VERP programmes is building Modern Green Villages in different areas of the country. Some of the existing green villages include Gashaki Green Village which is accommodating 152 households and Kibangira Green Village which has been set up for families which used to live in high risk zones on the banks of Cyagara and Rungunga Rivers in Rusizi District.