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A paradigm for sustainable rural development in Africa

Development is often viewed as top-down: Principally the work of government, international actors and other institutions. This village on the Rwanda-Uganda provides a case for focus on the rural political economy as the engine of bottom-up sustainable development.


Most readers of Pambazuka News have probably never heard of or read about Kyasano Village in southwestern Uganda, just about three kilometers from Katuna Town, at the Rwanda-Uganda border. Kigali, the capital of Rwanda, is also not too far—just an hour-and-half away. Kabale Twn, the Municipal Council of Kabale District (formerly Kigezi), is about 20 kilometers away from Kyasano. Why interest in a rural part of Africa as a unit of analysis for sustainable development in Africa?

The context for this article is the continued mention of “Africa rising” and the fact that Africa is now officially labeled the second fastest growing continent economically, at around 4 percent per annum. The other related issue is that in Africa over 80 percent of the population lives in rural areas surviving on subsistence farming and the informal sector. This means that the engine of Africa’s economic growth is the rural economy and not the big corporations, cities or even parastatals. But why have scholars, policy makers, governments and international development agencies continued to ignore Africa’s best kept secret— the rural political economy? Ignoring the rural political economy is probably part of the colonial legacy of Africa, where rural areas are seen as reservoirs of raw materials and cheap labour to sustain the metropolis.

I will present a close inspection of one rural area in the heart of Africa—Kyasano—that has a unique biodiversity sanctuary, as a model of rural sustainable development. There are tens of thousands of similar rural areas across Africa, whose strategies for sustainable development can be documented and relied upon to unravel the mystery of why Africa defies standard economic analysis and borrowed formulas for development. The elements of rural development will be examined, the conceptual framework and philosophy that underlies Kyasano’s resilient political economy will also be analysed, and what else needs to be done to keep Kyasano on the road to sustainable development will be explored.

The theoretical and conceptual frameworks that inform this discourse are: rural development, sustainability, indigenous knowledge systems and African philosophy, social and intellectual capital, cosmology, globalization, biodiversity and ecotourism. These will provide the lens through which the political economy of Kyasano will be explored. Unlike Adam Smith who dedicated his intellectual effort to the wealth of nations, it is high time we turned our attention to the wealth of villages or communities as units of economic production and innovation.


As mentioned, Kyasano is a little known rural village on the Uganda-Rwanda border. Like most parts of the Greater Kigezi, Kyasano is very mountainous with breath-taking hills and valleys. The average altitude is about 25,00 meters above sea level .The area has plenty of rugged valleys with ever flowing streams. Before the ever-growing population took a toll on the scarce land, Kyasano used to have lots of wetlands and natural forests. These have since been reclaimed and used for growing sweet potatoes, Irish potatoes, vegetables, beans, sorghum, and dairy farms.

The average population growth rate is about 3.4 percent per annum and the average family size is 7 children. This is among the most densely populated parts of Uganda. Population density is about 200 people per square kilometer. The area of Kyasano is about 20 square kilometers. The overall population is estimated at about 3,000 people, with the majority of the population (about 50 peercent) being below 25 years of age.


Kyasano has rich and diverse climatic conditions and soils that allow diverse flora. Soils range from clay, loam, rich humus, rocky, limestone, murrum to sand. In the lowlands there are some mangrove trees, while in the high mountains there are fir, savannah grasslands and several types of alpine plants. Like most of rural Africa, about 80 percent of the people of Kyasano rely on herbal plants for treating common ailments.[1] Some parts of Kyasano that have not been encroached on for house construction are sanctuaries of rare medicinal plant species. Such places are: Mugobore, Mahura, Owomuguramo, Murutare, Gotera and Rwakazooba. These places are not accessible by road, and people can only walk to the farms to cultivate or harvest crops. Farmers follow long-winding footpaths as they go to work, with plots of land highly fragmented. Some travel as long as four kilometers to the fields. The bonus for such long hikes are sweet wild fruits such as berries (locally known as Enkyerere), and firewood when returning home. In fact most rural folks cannot afford firewood from exotic trees of black-wattle and euchalyptus, so they survive for their energy needs on firewood from natural woods along the path or from plots left furrow.

Kyasano is evergreen due to regular double maxima rains around February-April and November –December, occasionally in-between. What also keeps the area evergreen are the high mountains that shelter the place from the scorching sun. In fact the main valley of Kyasano and the adjacent Shoko look like massive crater lakes. There are also lots of perennial streams that flow from the massive mountain range which looks like a dam preventing the famous Lake Bunyonyi (the Second deepest lake in Africa after Lake Tanganyika) from flooding the area. Some of the rivers might be overflows of Lake Bunyonyi. Lake Bunyonyi is about six kilometers from Kyasano, and women usually go to collect a special type of material for weaving mats from the wetland around the lake. The men also go to lake Bunyonyi to collect papyrus for making ropes that are used for house construction. Apart from these materials, Lake Bunyonyi also contributes to food security since people get mud fish from there.

Kyasano is home to plenty of rare bird species. The name “Bunyonyi” means small birds! Some of the most common birds in Kyasano include: sparrows, swallows, kites, pigeons, crows, eagles, weaver birds, wood peckers, crested cranes, hammer bird, Ibis, and herons.

The famous mountain ranges are: Rwakazoba, Rutare, Isingiro, Rutooma and Nyakabungo. These mountains are cultivated right from the foothills to the top. Using indigenous soil conservation methods, people are able to make terraces, tree planting, mulching and furrow cropping that prevent soil erosion. When one reaches the highest peak of the Kyasano mountain ranges of Mukibungo, the famous volcanic Mount Muhabura is in full view, even though it is about 20 kilometers away.

To crown the biodiversity sanctuary, Kyasano Valley has a big Catholic Church with a seating capacity of about 2,000 people, where the faithful go every Sunday for worship. As a sign of self-reliance, this church was built with local resources only. But this is not the only church in the area — the Protestants also have their churches at Butuza and Rutare. The three churches all have a school next to them founded by the respective Christian denominations. Kyasano celebrates not only ecological diversity, but also religious diversity. A few people also practice African Traditional Religions, although this is on the decline. Only one family is Moslem!

Before Christianity took root in Kyasano, people used to practice traditional religions with shrines built on some prominent mountains that served as sacred sites. These were: Rutooma and Isingiro. The famous Nyabingyi cult[2] that was practiced in parts of Rwanda, was rampant in Kyasano, but has since then declined. Traditional beliefs were also part of the strategies for sustainable use of plants because some trees such as Ekitoma were considered sacred and would not be cut without grave reason. Other plants used as medicines or for ritual purposes were also preserved with special care. Such sacred places and trees can be restored for eco- and sacred- tourism.


But who are the people of Kyasano? All people who trace their roots from Kyasano know the famous praise song about the place: “Kyasano kya Buriba bwa Muhoozi, eyi empungu ezerera ekabura ogwero.” Translated as: “Kyasano of Buriba son of Muhoozi, where an eagle hoovers above and fails to get where to land.” And indeed there are many eagles that fly over Kyasano and the neighboring planes. The people of Kyasano are ethnic Bakiga and predominantly belong to the clan of Basigi and sub-clan of Bagyeri. Ancient narratives claim that the Basigyi like all other Bakiga came from Ruhengyeri and Byumba in Rwanda during the reign of King Yuhi II. Those who have written about Kigezi such as Prof. May Edel, ‘The Chiga of South Western Uganda’, and Paul Ngorogonza, ‘Kigezi and Its People’, suggest that the Bakiga were in Kagezi by 1500 A.D.

The people of Kyasano have relatives and ancestors in Rwanda, and in narrating stories they mention places and lineages extending to Rwanda: Mubari, Mpimbi of Rugazu, genealogies that include names such as—Yuhi, Rwabugyiri, Ndahiro, Ruganzu, Mibambwe, Ndahiro, Mutara, Kigeri, and Cyilima, who are some of the ancient Kings of Rwanda. So we are into some deep and complex history and anthropology that has more than meets the eye.

Kyasano like the Greater Kigezi, is intimately connected to Rwanda’s political history of state formation. Kigeri II Nyamuhesera (1576-1609), the famous great conqueror, attacked Kigezi. Ndorwa in which Kyasano is located, which was an older kingdom in Kegezi, was conquered in the 17th century. Parts of the original Rwanda that existed from 1321 to 1346 AD include a place known as Busigi.[3] The people of Kyasano who are from the Basigi clan, then can trace their origin from Busigi. Kyasano also has other people who belong to the Banyangabo clan whose women swear by Mubali, another part of ancient Rwanda that was conquered in the 18th century. Since according to Kiga customs one is not allowed to marry from one’s clan, the Basigyi tend to marry from the Banyangabo who are traced to Mubali.

This complex anthropology and historiography can be use to make a case for greater regional integration, since basically people from southwestern Uganda and Rwanda are from the same ancient roots. Some of the names of places and people are in fact the same in these territories: Kabare, Rushaki, Rutare, Kibungo, Bwimba, Kaberuka, Musinga, etc.


The people of Kyasano value so much knowledge and wisdom inherited from ancestors. Among the specialists that ensure self-reliance are: traditional medicine men and women who treat most common ailments; black-smiths who make basic tools (pangas, knives, axes, spears, arrows, hoes) from iron and metal scrap; weavers who make mats and baskets; potters who use clay to make pottery; and carpenters and sculptors who make mortar and pestle, stools, shields, boats and canoes.

In general individuals are trained in some practical skills l even construction of houses. But with time some have specialized and are hired to build houses for pay. Cultivating crops is also done by families, with a few who get hired. Values and philosophy of self-reliance, responsibility, knowing one’s limits, and hard work are instilled to the young through Kiga proverbs such as:

1. “Akawe nakakurara omunda”—What is yours is what has spent the night in your stomach.
2. “Ameizi genshabano tigamara niziro”—Borrowed water does not make one sufficiently clean.
3. “Omworo tatunga nte”—A lazy person does not keep cattle.
4. “Owu basigyire ati bandinzire”—The one who is left behind says, they are waiting for me.
5. “Ku oyehanga omutego oyahanga n’okushura”—If you set a trap you go to check on it.
6. “Owamani makye ayegura omwezigye”—The one with little energy carries husks.
7. “Obusheija obwetera”—You make yourself a man.
8. “Wafukana n’omuhango orahendeka”—If you wrestle with a big person, you break down.
9. “Nkunde nsimwe akaheke iba ebiguru bya yata esaano”—That I may be praised, a woman carried her husband while grinding and the legs spilt flour.
10. “Aka bikirwe tikabura mugasho, omukeikuru akazoresa enza omuriro”—what is kept will not fail to have some value; an old lady used kept pubic hair to light fire during a rainy season.

Since sustainable development also requires some fairness and due process in economic affairs, and conflicts are bound to arise, there are some proverbs that call for justice and a fair hearing:
1. “Otaricwa ogwa muhara wawe mukwe wawe atakeijire”—Do no not decide on the case of your daughter before your son-in-law has come to tell his side of the story.
2. “Enkobe tecwa ogweihamba”—A monkey cannot preside over a case of a forest.
3. “Oine ekibunu tashekerera owesheshe”—One who has buttocks should not laugh at one who has diarrhea.
4. “Enkoni eteire mukabaro ku ogibona ogyirenzya orugo”—If you come across the stick that was used to beat your co-wife, you throw it over the fence.

The philosophy of being open to other world-views, endurance, and exploring new opportunities is contained in the following proverbs:

1. “Aka nyonyi katagyenda tikamanya eyi bwezire”—A bird that does not travel does not know where millet is ripe.
2. “Omwana otagyenda agyira ngu nyina niwe ateka kurungi”—A child who does not travel says that his mother is the best cook.
3. “Oteine bwengye asiima obwe”—One who lacks wisdom praises his own knowledge.
4. “Owo bwengye bamusiiga nayehemasiriza”—One who is wise, smears himself while they are smearing him.
5. “Ku oza burya eshohera neiwe ozirya”—If you go where they eat flies, you also eat them.
6. “Akeizire kemerwa, Kapa ekemera amashuyu”—What has come has to be endured; the cat endured mumps.
7. “Akeizire kemerwa, eshekuro ekemera omuhini”—What has come has to be endured; the mortar endured a pestle.

The philosophy of unity, cooperation, solidarity, heeding advice and avoiding trouble is conveyed in the following proverbs:

1. “Agetereine gata eigufa”—Teeth that work together break the bone.
2. “Omwana omwe tarinda mishure”—One child does not keep away the Mishure (a bird that eats crops).
3. “Okutakwatanisa kukatuma orufunjo rwasa ruri omu amaizi”—Lack of cooperation let reeds burn while in water.
4. “Nowawe takiri wawe, amaizi ga kateka ekye nyanja”—Yours is no longer yours; water cooked fish.
5. “Ekyara kimwe tikigura mana”—One finger does not open a vagina.
6. “Ku oyenda akanuka, oyeshegura omwoyo gwembwa”—If you want something smelly, you use the anus of a dog as your pillow.
7. “Nyantahurira akambukira omu bwato bwebumba”—One who does not listen to advice used a boat of clay to cross the lake.
8. “Bati oruhu rwembwa tibaruhekamu, ati nkahekamu nyakwegyendera”—They say that no one uses a dog’s skin to carry a child on their back, and you say, I used for the one who died.

Note the stylistic devices used in those Kiga proverbs as sage or ethno-philosophy. They are very graphic, pithy and dramatic in their impact. Some are really full of mischievous humour and you will never forget them. The message is passed on very effectively for all time. Some may need PG 18+ posted before them, and may be embarrassing to use in some settings such as when preaching in a church! There is a certain liberalism and bluntness in Kiga linguistics, that makes some people accuse the Kiga of being too straightforward both in speech and in interactions.

These proverbs reflect a complex ethical and philosophical system[4] distilled over the years to guide social, political and economic life of the people of Kyasano. They are also the norms and basis of Kiga social capital that has been handed over from one generation to the next for centuries. Each of those proverbs can be studied and analyzed with a whole research project the way biblical verses are studied by scriptural scholars. Like in all literary genres, the proverbs need to be interpreted and not taken literary. There are about three levels of meaning that a perceptive listener will have to unravel. Unfortunately, the younger generation who spend most of the time in modern schools and on computers do not know these proverbs. Elders who knew these philosophical gems are also dying and since they did not write them down, they are lost.

The proverb which says that “a bird that does not travel does not know where millet is ripe”, has inspired people of Kyasano to migrate to other parts of Uganda, Rwanda, Tanzania, USA and Europe, for studies and for jobs. There are more people from Kyasano living in other districts of Uganda such as Kibale, Fort-Portal, Hoima, Kasese, Ibanda, Mbarara, and Kampala than those who are currently in Kyasano.

Migration from Kyasano started way back in the 1920s when land scarcity drove people away. Temporary labour migration was very common. Young men from Kyasano, unmarried or newly married would migrate to places such as Fort-portal, Hoima, Kyegyerwa, Ibanda, Masaka and Kasese (Kilembe) in search of work in tea, coffee and cotton plantations, as well as in copper mines. It is estimated that about 20,000 people migrated from Kigezi in the 1940s. Some settled permanently in those places. There was also a resettlement scheme inaugurated between 1944-53 by the then District Agricultural Officer Purseglove, whereby people were encouraged to migrate to less populated areas of Kigezi and Ankore, such as Rujumbura, Kinkizi, Kabuyanda, Kikagati and Ibanda.[5] Thus migration is one other strategy for sustainable development—move around for better opportunities.

A crucial area of rural political economy where indigenous knowledge has been applied in Kyasano is in the land tenure system. There are some sophisticated strategies developed for land distribution. Some few individuals in Kyasano have accumulated wealth and thus bought land from the less industrious. Those who have plenty of land are able to rent land in a system known asas okwatira[6] or okupangisa. After harvest the one who leased the land will pay some money to the land owner. The land is not sold off and yet the owner benefits from its good use—the landless gain and the land owner gains as well. The other strategy is ‘okuhungura’ or inheritance whereby land from one’s mother is given to the newly married son as his patrimony. Some liberal parents also give land to their daughters up getting married.

Another method by which a woman acquires land is from her family when a father has died as consolation during grief—that land is called “ekyemiziga”—literary of tears. A blood-brother (when two men make a blood pact to be friends for ever) can also give land to his blood-brother. And finally, even when one cannot to rent land, he or she can work on the land of the land-owner and be given food in return—a process known as ‘okucwa encuro’. This method is, however, despised since it is considered a sign of laziness. With all these strategies everyone has some means of livelihood and no one will go hungry or lack the basics except the really lazy person who refuses to work.

Intellectual Capital and the Creation of Prosperity

Kyasano Village is served by a number of educational institutions that date to the early 1960s. The first primary school, Kyasano Primary School, was started by Catholic Church in the early 1960s and has educated many people from the area and beyond. Other schools in the nearby areas include: Butuza Primary School, Kibuga Primary School, Rukore Primary School, St Barnabas Secondary School, Rukore High School, Kamuganguzi Secondary School, and Rubaya Secondary School. There are also many other schools in Kabale Town. One other strategy for sustainability is investing in education.

Clearly those families that have educated their children up to university level are generally better off economically than those who depend solely on subsistence agriculture. It is those families that have their sons and daughters employed in Kampala, the capital city of Uganda, and even abroad. Kyasano has four academics who lecture at the prestigious Makerere University, and three of these have doctorates. Another is a senior microfinance specialist at the World Bank. These high-profile people from Kyasano have brought Kyasano to the global village. Some people from Kyasano are also part of an organization that bring the Bakiga together for social and economic development known as International Community of Banyakigezi (ICOB) that holds an annual conference overseas and in Uganda—thus linking the rural and the global.

The next generation of people who trace their origins in Kyasano can take off from the current development and move a step further. Participation in politics at the national level has been limited. The social and intellectual skills that people of Kyasano have honed for decades can be brought to bear on national political economy using the paradigm that has worked in Kyasano. This can be done through intellectual discourse and praxis.

In a knowledge-based economic system, the people of Kyasano did well to invest in education at all levels. Even though a small percentage of the population is connected to the global economy, given its proximity to Rwanda, it can in the near future benefit from regional integration by having access to the regional market for the food crops produced in the area. Those who are well qualified can also access jobs in the East African region. With ICT innovation, if one were to design a virtual university, the people of Kyasano would immensely benefit from the process of globalization that offers lots of opportunities. This is an area that needs to be explored in the near future.

Were such an innovative virtual university to be set up, it would offer the following relevant programs and courses: 1.International Development; 2. Globalization; 3. Social Ethics: Self as agent of transformation; 4. Political Philosophy; 5. Indigenous Knowledge Systems and African Studies; 6. International Political Economy; 7. International Relations and Diplomacy; 8. Strategic Management; 9. Peace and Conflict in Africa; 10. Leadership; 11. Governance and Democracy; 12. Policy; 13. Regional Integration; 14. ICT and Innovation in Africa; Environmental Studies; 15. Eco-tourism and Rural Development; 16. Political Leadership in Africa; 17. Natural Resources, Conflict and Development in Africa; 18. Gender and Development

Due to investment in education, migration and shift into trade, land in Kyasano is still secure. The terraced rolling hills are still largely used for cultivating food crops and growing trees. Some people have even started planting more exotic trees. With rural electrification, over-dependency on firewood is likely to reduce in the near future.

With all the natural and cultural resources of Kyasano, the area has great potential for ecotourism and cultural tourism. How can the great potential be actualized? First, the ecosystem needs to be preserved so that the flora and fauna remain. While continuing to cultivate food crops, some plots can be spared for ethnobotany where rare medicinal plants are preserved, especially near homesteads. The ongoing re-afforestation project that some have started needs to be supported through government and private sector grants. The three universities in Kabale Town can also agree with the local community to set up extension programs on ecotourism in Kyasano. Some of the tourist activities in Kyasano would include: mountain hiking, camping, bird watching, and mountain athletics.

Cultural tourism is also a great possibility. The indigenous architecture in Kyasano can be a great tourist attraction. Many people are shifting to using iron sheets for roofing houses, but a few houses can be preserved that retain indigenous roofing with grass. The mud and lime walls are still the norm since bricks are very expensive. A cultural village with museums can be set up. Kiga traditional music and dance can be part of the tourist amusement. A lesson can be borrowed from Kenya where such villages exist and bring income.

And since the people of Kyasano have great religious devotion, sacred tourism is also an option. The awesome mountains such as Rwakazoba or Murutare can be used to establish some religious shrines where pilgrims can come. Something similar to the Resurrection Garden in Karen, Nairobi would be a good idea. Kyasano is very much sheltered from the noise and air pollution of urban life—it thus provides an ideal quiet escape or place for recollection or retreat. The Catholic Church at Kyasano has the Blessed sacrament where one can spend a day of quiet meditation, praying for peace and progress in the African Great Lakes region.


If Africa is to claim the 21st century and keep rising, then there is need to look at the rural political economy. Kyasano has been explored as a paradigm for this new way of thinking about sustainable development in Africa. This is a model of sustainable development from below. The elements of this model are known: indigenous knowledge in people’s native philosophy, age-old coping strategies for sustainable development, integrating intellectual capital with local wisdom, innovation, and investing in ecotourism and cultural tourism. For long economic development has been looked from the lens of the state, it is high time we looked at the rural political economy where the majority of Africans eke a living, often times with little government support. Africa will claim the 21st century a new paradigm of community-based development is embraced and supported by policy makers and development agents.

* Odomaro Mubangizi, PhD, teaches philosophy and theology at the Institute of Philosophy and Theology in Addis Ababa, where he is also Dean of Department of Philosophy.


[1] Paul Ngologoza mentions some shrubs that are used for death rituals: Omuhoko, phytolacca dodecandra;Katooma Erlangea cordifolia , see Paul Ngologoza, Kigezi and its People (Kampala, 1967), 44, 55-56.
[2] See Basell M.J., ‘Nyabingi’, Uganda Journal, 6(1938), 73-86; Brazier, F.S., ‘The Nyabingi cult: Religion and political scale in Kigezi, 1900-1930’ (EAISR Conference, 1968); Freedman. J., Nyabingi: The Social History of an African Divinity (Butare, 1984); Hopkins, E., ‘The Nyabingi cult of South Western Uganda’ in R.Rotberg and A. Mazrui, Protest and Power in Black Africa (New York, 1970), 258-336; Rutanga M., Nyabingi movement: People’s anti-colonial struggles in Kigezi, 1910-1936.
[3] See, Frank. K. Rusagara, A History of the Military in Rwanda (Kampala: Fountain Publishers, 2007), 21, 208.
[4] For a detailed treatment of Kiga worldview and philosophy see: Paul Ngologoza, Kigezi and its People (Kampala, 1967); Turyahikayo-Rugyema, B., ‘A history of the Bakiga in South Western Uganda and northern Rwanda c1500-1930’ (PhD, University of Michigan, 1974); Turyahikayo-Rugyema, B. Philosophy and Traditional Religion of the Bakiga in South West Uganda (Nairobi, 1983); Yeld, R.E., ‘The family and social change: A study among the Kiga of Kigezi, south west Uganda’ (PhD, Makerere, 1969); Edel, M. M., The Chiga of Wesern Uganda (Oxford, 1959); Denoon, D. J. W. (ed) A History of Kigezi in South West Uganda (Kampala, 1972).
[5] See, Grace Carswell, Cultivating Success in Uganda: Kigezi Farmers & Colonial Policies (Oxford: James Currey, 2007), 56-62; Geraud, F., ‘The settlement of the Bakiga’, in D.J.W., op. cit.,
[6] Carswell, op. cit., 93-97.



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