This article by Jillian Keenan originally appeared in Foreign Policy.
When Pierre Gahungu thinks about the small farm in the Burundian hills where he grew up and started a family, he remembers the soil—rich and red, perfect for growing beans, sweet potatoes, and bananas. He used to bend over and scoop up a handful of the earth just to savor its moist feel. To Gahungu, now in his 70s, the farm was everything: his home, his livelihood, and his hope. After he was gone, he had always believed, the land would sustain his eventual heirs.
But then, in an instant, his dreams were thrown into jeopardy. On a dusky evening in 1984, Gahungu was walking home when he heard a noise behind him. He turned and found himself face to face with Alphonse, the son of a cousin. For months, Alphonse had been begging Gahungu, whom he called “uncle,” for a portion of the farm. Alphonse’s polygamous father had many sons—more than 20, Gahungu says—which meant each one would get just a tiny plot of his land. (In Burundi, generally only men may inherit property.) Alphonse wanted more space, a rapidly shrinking commodity, on which to build a house and a life. Gahungu had a much smaller family—ultimately, he and his wife would have three children, but only one boy, named Lionel—so he had plenty of land to share, Alphonse reasoned. Why shouldn’t he get a piece of it? Gahungu, however, had refused repeatedly. When he saw Alphonse that night on the road, he assumed they were in for another round of the same exhausting refrain. […]
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Photo credits: screenshot from Foreign Policy