Refugees rebuild their lives one brick at a time

At six-thirty in the morning, in the refugee settlement of Ndego that sprawls throughout the base of hills that mark the border with Tanzania in the very east of Rwanda, a group of about twenty women begin to make mud bricks.

At six-thirty in the morning, in the refugee settlement of Ndego that sprawls throughout the base of hills that mark the border with Tanzania in the very east of Rwanda, a group of about twenty women begin to make mud bricks.

It is already heating up and with few trees, there is little shade. The bricks are made from earth and water; it’s a tedious and difficult job that’s made to look easy by those involved.

The earth is mixed with the water through shovelling and then stamping the muck with bare legs and feet. This mud is then hauled to the brick maker’s area. Brick moulds are packed with the heavy mix and left to dry.

Peter, the head of construction, explains: “African women are strong and can easily make these bricks, European women, perhaps not.”

The refugee settlement in the area of Ndego is made up of approximately 1,700 repatriated Rwandans from Tanzania living in a part of the country that is usually considered national parkland for the hippos, giraffes and elephants that roam these plains.

So far, the people don’t seem to mind the packs of hippos in the near lake, or the huge elephant they call Mutware that lopes between their homes.

The refugees – families from Rwanda who fled in the 1970s, 80s and 90s - were expelled from Tanzania in 2006. Although fully integrated in Tanzania over three decades, problems arose over ownership of land and of cows and they were (sometimes forcefully) told to leave. With nowhere to go, they returned to the outermost borders of Rwanda.

Beatrice, working for CARE International as social officer for the village, begins a tour of the 20 hectare site. The most pressing need for the community is housing, specifically to move the 1,700 people from mud, stick and plastic sheeting huts to proper stone and brick homes.

The priority is for every village member to play a role in this re-building development. CARE provides materials, construction techniques, logistics, and supervision, but the families build their own homes.

Housing projects of this kind are not unusual in Central Africa, but the method in Ndego is different. Providing a situation where the villagers themselves build their houses brings incentive, purpose and a will for survival back to the refugees.

The community has broken itself into associations of approximately 40 or so members made up of family units. Each house needs 1,800 mud bricks.

The challenge of the endeavour is laid bare and as I dig my hands into the wet dark muck to transfer an armload of the mess to the mould, my legs begin to buckle, my face goes red and people start to laugh. I feel every inch a ‘European woman’.

Two women and a man dig earth from the ground with tools that look heavy and crude. Two men then mix it with water, while another transports it to the brick makers: three women. They tell me these roles change daily and that they currently make 400 bricks a day. 

Beatrice has established a weekly inter-association competition to establish which group can make the most bricks. To date, the families of the Twisungane Association are the unbeaten champions.

I believe this is due to their Ford-production-type system of water collectors, mud cutters, mud mixers, mud transporters, and brick makers. They create a chain where two to three people focus on different parts of the process. Other groups tend to focus on each phase together in stages. 

Having visited most of the associations, exhausted and thirsty, we’re invited to the village ‘Milk Bar’. This does exactly what it says on the tin and provides milk in exchange for money or goods. The bar is housed in one of the four-room dwellings completed in an earlier phase of construction.

Mary is the young lady running the show and serving the milk. Due to illness she has difficulty standing, but from a sitting position on the floor she serves fresh milk in wooden pots, to low tables. When some are unable to build houses due to injuries, old age or sickness, they are encouraged to provide any other service to the village that they can.

While housing is the obvious imperative, instilling a sense of purpose is also critical to the lives of these displaced and marginalised people. 

Since the beginning of the year, this community has made 282,200 bricks for 156 houses, and dug 15 latrines. When all the houses are complete they will construct crèches, schools and shops.

Having abandoned their homes, land and all their possessions in Tanzania, these displaced Rwandans are rebuilding their lives.