Radio Rescue: farmers turn to airwaves over violence in Rwanda

by Massimiliano Colonna

on February 12, 2017

Every Sunday afternoon, thousands of listeners across Rwanda tune into a radio show that became a lifeline for farmers at risk of losing everything.

The studio where it is recorded belongs to a local station, Radio Isango Star. It is hidden up a narrow staircase in an unassuming building in downtown Kigali. Today, Jean-Baptiste Ndabananiye, the show’s host and a member of Search for Common Ground Rwanda’s team, invited me to watch one episode live.

He greets the policewoman stationed by the entrance and guides us up a couple of floors. We turn into a deserted indoor market, each shop with its shutters pulled down, until we reach a door displaying Radio Isango Star’s logo. Despite the popularity of the show, the studio is simple and austere. The whole thing is crammed into a single windowless room. The furniture is essential: a wide desk, a few chairs, three computers, a flock of microphones bending their long necks from the center of the table, wires of all sizes carpeting the floor.

Jean-Baptiste eagerly described the content of his program during the drive to the studio. “The show’s name is Ubutaka Bwacu, which means Our Land in Kinyarwanda,” he said, straining his voice to overcome the loud drumming of torrential rain on the roof of the car. Every week, the program tackles one issue related to land conflict, usually with the help of an expert in studio. “Land is the main source of income here. 80% of Rwandan people depend on the land to live,” he explained. “Naturally, it becomes a primary source of conflict and violence.”

Even though Rwanda’s tertiary sector has been growing at a steady pace, agriculture is still the bedrock of the country’s economy. Rwanda is known as the land of a thousand hills (“and a thousand smiles,” as Jean-Baptiste remarks), and each of them is covered with plantations: banana, cassava, potatoes, beans, maize, rice. A majority of the cultivated land belongs to small farmers. Rwanda’s fertile soil and favorable climate yield regular harvests that families rely on for food and income. And yet, 22% of Rwandans—about 2 million people—are food insecure, as a result of deforestation, soil erosion, and a growing population.

“The size of the Earth never changes, but our population does,” Jean-Baptiste said. “We have lots of mouths to feed.” In a country as big as Maryland, resource scarcity is becoming more and more apparent, and owning a piece of land provides safety from hunger.

It’s not surprising then that land conflict is so common. In most cases, it is tied to inheritance, family disputes, or quarrels with neighbors. Often, farmers in rural Rwanda don’t have accurate information on the laws regulating land ownership and property transfers. Couples ignore the legal binds that they enter through marriage, and land owners disregard laws of succession. Lacking knowledge of their rights and a consultative body that they can appeal to, many people involved in land conflict decide to take the law into their own hands.

Since 2008, when Search opened an office in Kigali, we have prioritized solving land conflict as a way of decreasing violence and improving livelihoods in Rwanda. Together with a vast training curriculum for local traditional mediators, our media programs are revolutionizing the way communities deal with these issues. Ubutaka Bwacu is one of the longest-standing among them—and, thanks also to Jean-Baptiste’s talent, one of the most successful.

Jean-Baptiste didn’t set out to become a peacebuilder. As a university student, his dream was to become a journalist. It was after he left school, working as a reporter for Contact FM, that he met Search. He was working on some stories about conflict transformation and was impressed by our mission and methods. He decided that he wanted to be a part of the organization, and joined in January 2012.

Jean-Baptiste has been hosting radio programs since he was a student.

Jean-Baptiste has been hosting radio programs since he was a student.

Five years later, he is Search’s very own radio celebrity in Rwanda. Each Sunday afternoon, his voice reaches listeners all across the country, from Kigali to the rural areas. It’s radio primetime: Rwanda’s most famous brands, including telecommunications giant Tigo, compete for ad space during the show.

Ubutaka Bwacu is an interactive program. Listeners can call in, ask questions, and seek advice from Jean-Baptiste and his guests. This time, the expert is John Zikamabahari, a law professor at Kigali Independent University. He is a familiar face at Radio Isango Star and an expert on matrimonial law. Since the reallocation of property after divorce is one of the most frequent causes of land disputes, he has been on the show many times.

Professor Zikamabahari takes questions during the program.

Professor Zikamabahari takes questions during the program.

While Radio Isango Star’s Sunday music program airs the last few songs, we set up shop in the studio. The sound technician informs us that we’ll be live in a few minutes. I ask Jean-Baptiste whether knowing that thousands of people are listening makes him nervous.

He flashes a big smile. “I built the experience during university, so I’m not nervous now,” he says. “I would not be nervous even interviewing the President.”

The technician counts down to zero. “Mwiriwe,” says Jean-Baptiste as the show begins. For the next hour, he speaks in the mic with a friendly, charismatic tone, as if commanding a room packed with people who hang on his every word. He exudes confidence and skill.

Later, as we pack our equipment, he describes a call from a woman named Mariah. She was chased from her home by her husband, who also forbid her from accessing the land that they both own. She and her four children are now struggling to scrape together a meal. When she appealed to the local authorities, they supported the husband’s case; that’s why she decided to seek advice from Ubutaka Bwacu. Jean-Baptiste and Professor Zikamabahari reminded her of her rights as a land owner and suggested a course of action.

In addition to the anecdotal evidence provided by stories like Mariah’s, our team regularly collects data to assess the impact that the show is having on people’s lives. The results are remarkable; 90% of the sample we analyzed find Ubutaka Bwacu helpful, and 77% put into practice the lessons that they learned through the program.

When we step outside of the studio and walk back to the car, darkness is setting on the city. The rain has stopped, and far more people than earlier are walking in the streets. As we drive back, we pass by the impressive, brightly lit dome of the Kigali Convention Center, Rwanda’s newest symbol of prosperity.

“There is a positive atmosphere here,” Jean-Baptiste reflects, “because we have lots of resources that can help society advance. But we still have problems exploiting these resources that God gave us.”

Jean-Baptiste hopes that he can point the way to the sustainable use of land, decreasing both violence and poverty. “Conflict creates poverty and poverty creates conflict,” he says. “A hungry person doesn’t listen and is manipulated easily. If we solve conflict we solve poverty, and vice versa. That is what I want to do with the show. That is my dream.”

Massimiliano Colonna is a Communications Manager at Search for Common Ground, based in Washington, D.C.

Learn more about our radio programs here.

Learn more about our work in Rwanda here.