March 21, government closed Rwanda’s land border and airspace in frantic efforts to block possible carriers of the COVID-19 virus from entering.
For communities living along the 217km Rwanda-Tanzania border, not only are they buying goods from inside Rwanda at a higher price, their livelihoods have been greatly impacted.
The Tanzania border is very significant to Rwanda in several ways; amid poor relations with Uganda up north, as well as with Burundi to the south, and a chaotic DR Congo to the west, for the past two years, Tanzania has been Rwanda’s lifeline.
Rwanda’s districts of Nyagatare, Gatsibo, Kayonza and Kirehe – are what makes up the border with Tanzania’s Kagera region which has several towns.
Imports that came in via Uganda from the Mombasa-Kenya port, have dropped to a trickle. The Rusumo One Stop Border Post, located in Kirehe district, is the entry point for more than 80 percent of Rwanda’s imports today.
While the cargo trucks arrivals were never affected – actually increased, the human cost of the pandemic on the ordinary border communities is all too visible in the surrounding villages.
We toured Kigarama and Nyamugali sectors of Kirehe district that directly touch on the Tanzania border. Nearly 80,000 people live in the two sectors, according to current local figures.
Local businessman Habineza Maurice from Kiyanzi cell in Nyamugali, in a rather disappointed tone, puts a figure to how much life has changed since March; “Our livelihoods have gone down by more than 70%,” he states.
700 Rwandans crossed border daily
Firstly, from Monday to Friday, for the many years before the pandemic, the border people were each allowed one day to cross to Tanzania using special passes known locally as “Jeton”. Businesspeople and everyone looked forward to that day of the week.
Traders involved in wholesale business brought in vast amounts of goods, which they supplied to other areas inland. Local youths got jobs ferrying the goods, and above all – a thing everyone remembers, goods from Tanzania were cheap.
“We bought nearly everything there very cheaply; rice, fruits and vegetables, juices. Life was enjoyable back then,” says Habineza.
Local resident Havugiyaremye Fortunee added his voice:”I often bought Tanzanian wheat flour. A kilo including taxes cost Rwf 400. However, now with border closed, we get supplies from Kigali that cost Rwf 600.”
He added: “I usually bought watermelon for my children. Vegetables, rice and body lotions and jelly all came in at low prices. Things have really changes since border was closed.”
According to data reluctantly provided to us by Kirehe district, during every border crossing day, at least 700 people crossed to Tanzania side.
The mechanism was organized in a such a way that anyone seeking to travel to Tanzania, had to apply for the “Jeton” pass from the sector. So every week day, different groups were scheduled to cross.
Mukandarikanguye Gerardine, the Kirehe district vice mayor in charge of social affairs officer said the Jeton passes were introduced to allow border communities travel freely and also so that they can be differentiated from other travellers. “The Jeton passes also showed that these local residents are legitimate traders, not smugglers,” said the vice mayor.
Except for Burundi, Uganda border
All year round, youths operating bicycle taxis had a field day. They carried goods for some traders, and transport for others.
Nshimiyimana Francois from Nyankurazo cell, Kigarama sector is redundant these days as there is no work. He said: “We transported vegetables or cassava, and we also took that opportunity to shop there at very low prices. All that has changed. We have to buy from shops here.”
When the border was shut, local traders came up with a way to keep the flow of Tanzanian supplies. They deal with former business colleagues on the other side, who buy the goods from Tanzanian towns, and deliver at border crossing. This new way of doing business has brought its own challenges and most businesspeople have opted to restock from Kigali.
For example, according to wholesale trader Ruhumuriza Jean Bosco from Nyankurazo cell, he is able to get about 20% of the amount he used to bring in using the new system of Tanzanian middlemen.
Ruhumuriza was specialized in bringing sorghum, beans, cassava and maize. He is also having to deal with another problem as he explained; “When you open the produce delivered, you find the quality isn’t as good as it would have been if I had gone to shop myself. The other issue is that for every crossing day, I brought in Fusso truck with goods worth Rwf 6m. Today, I’m only able to get a Fusso truck in a month or even two months. Losses are a problem because we are not doing the shopping ourselves.”
Another wholesaler Nyampinga Jamviere was dealing in rice. She is having to deal with higher costs to stay in business, up by over 25%.
Nyampinga told us:”Before the pandemic, a 50kg sack of rice was at Rwf 28,000. For me to keep working, I currently pay Rwf 34,000 or 35,000 for the same sack.”
Border communities on all Rwanda’s borderline have had to completely change. The latest periodic food security assessment by the Famine Early Warning Systems Network (FEWS) has also carried out a review of these border regions. The USAID-funded agency monitors east, horn of Africa and many other regions.
FEWS says the mainly poor farming households that relied on cross-border activity for income in the Western and Southern provinces before COVID, have lost access to this income source due to the COVID-19 related border closures.
For the southwestern border region, bordering DR Congo’s South Kivu province, days after the March border closure, they were already feeling the impact. Rwandans actually had farmland on the other side, and were unable to till or harvest their crops.
When it comes to the borders with Uganda and Burundi, residents there were already used to having not to cross as those were already closed even before the COVID-19 pandemic.
For Burundi, it closed its border accusing Rwanda of involvement in the failed 2015 coup. As for Uganda, both sides have since last year ordered their border residents not to cross to the other side. Some have even been shot dead as they tried to cross.
By UWIZEYE Augustin Camarade
This story was produced as a collaboration with Radio/TV IZUBA, community broadcaster based in Ngoma district, covering Eastern Province