The media in Kenya has lately been awash with debate on the issue of rural homes. I find the discussion not only interesting academically, but also practically empowering to a city like Kigali and a nation like Rwanda that aspires to harness urbanisation to its full potential in the near future.
Rwanda’s vision is clear; achieving 35 per cent urbanisation by 2020.
Alongside the capital, Kigali city, six secondary cities have been launched and there are already efforts to make them more livable, green and vibrant economic hotspots.
What this means is that rural areas will increasingly diminish as they will continually transform to urban areas and all citizens become urbanites.
As we walk this journey, it is always important to keep our ears and eyes open to debates on topics related to our vision, in order to be able to draw parallels to, or come up with discussion notes that can be tables for brainstorming in various policy meetings and academic arena.
In Kenya, columnist Bitange Ndemo strongly argues that rural homes mainly may be wasted investments hence, dead capital, in an attempt to please society or blindly obey cultural practices.
While it is true that, in Africa, the only function of property cannot be an economic one, other contending views have come up to argue that on the other hand, rural homes cannot be framed as any other objects hence pulling a bias on their economic value.
Several emerging voices have concurred that rural homes serve more non-monetary functions that have to be taken into account when deciding to build one or not.
A professor of architecture, Alfred Omenya, has encouraged people to look at the ‘use’ value of a house rather that the ‘exchange’ value.
In this perspective, he argues that a house is the theatre for social reproduction; where children grow, where guests are entertained, where husbands love and fight their wives, where teenagers leave for boarding schools and return with broken voices and where beautiful maidens leave to find their future husbands.
With this kind of mindset, the mind has simply no room to start calculating the market price of a house.
Another Kenyan columnist in support of the construction of rural homes, believes that they are extremely important since they are the places people retire to after a working lifetime, which, he argues, is largely spent in rented houses in the city.
When these people retire, they may not have the income to continue paying rent.
He has further expounded on the need for holiday homes where families retreat to especially during festive season- combining Christmas and new year, when almost everyone is free; children are not going to school and many employees give annual leave and off duty packages to their workers.
Collins has gone ahead to argue that rural homes further help to uplift the face and eventually economic status of several rural areas. Such projects create employment for the rural population around the sites hence boosting their incomes and making rural areas more economically sustainable.
He also believes that good houses constructed in rural areas do not encourage young people there to work hard and dream to own similar property but also compel professionals such as architects and engineers to return back to the village regularly to contribute in rural development.
Therefore contextualising the concept of rural homes, in Rwanda it will have a very different meaning compared to a neighbouring country like Kenya.
In Rwanda, even economically speaking, constructing rural homes seems to be well in line with the country’s vision since when secondary cities grow and expand to their surrounding rural areas, some of these houses are obviously going to become rentals for residential, commercial or civic use hence an integral part of the cities.
This will mean that in the phase of urbanising, there will already be acceptable infrastructure to start from other than having to start from scratch.
Back to Ndemo’s theory, his regret for putting up a luxurious house in his rural home, was only painful as it laid there empty while he was suffering in the city, renting a house for his family alongside his hustling to make ends meet.
He recalls that in fifteen years, he had only been to the house twice and yet each month he had to pay someone to take care of it. Ndemo’s caution is to people that take huge bank loans to construct luxurious homes in the village without a vision for them and it is valid regardless of the context.
Some of these homes can be extremely luxurious and sitting in very big parcels of land in the name of a ‘final resting place’, where one will be buried after death. Eventually no one can buy or rent such homes, as they are full of graveyards.
To this, Ndemo’s reaction is valid that often times the African society is preoccupied with death when the living cannot feed themselves.
In the end, one can only hope that, be it for rural or urban homes or choices that we are confronted with on a daily basis, we can preoccupy ourselves with positive, strategic and smart visions, objectives and actions.
The writer is a lecturer at the school of Architecture, University of Rwanda. An architect and urban designer with keen interest on the dialectical relations between Architecture and Society.