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Published on 18 November 2021

For farmers struggling to make ends meet because of poor harvests caused by heavy rains the slightest shock, such as having crops destroyed by a neighbour’s cow can cause bitter resentment that can spill over into conflict. Here we learn how Christian Aid supported peace-building projects are helping to prevent disputes from spilling over into violence.

It was falling dark when the two men met in Musenyi to recall their shared story. The village, which is located in Mabanda commune in Makamba Province in southern Burundi is home to 44-year-old father of six Ezekiel Hinyuza and 38-year-old father of seven Simon Sinzumunsi.

Ezekiel is a farmer and rents a plot of land for around €34 a year where he grows cassava, taro and maize which he sells at the local market to earn income. Simon keeps a cow and also grows rice, beans and maize on a rented plot of land which is not far from Ezekiel’s.

As Ezekiel explains, his farm has struggled in the face of increasingly intense weather in recent years.

“Last year’s heavy rains have affected the harvestI planted vegetables but the harvest was so bad. I made a loss.”

The impact of heavy rains and the flooding it can cause is particularly devastating in a country like Burundi where 90 per cent of the population rely on farming to be able to feed and support their families.

But heavy rains have also had broader impacts in Burundi beyond damaging crops and farmland. Since the rainy season began in Burundi back in March, heavy rains have caused the water levels of Africa’s second-largest lake, Lake Tanganyika, to steadily rise and flood causing the damage, destruction and displacement of many neighbourhoods in Burundi’s lakeside provinces, including Makamba.

For Ezekiel, the final straw came from a source quite literally closer to home. Simon grazed his cow on the neighbouring mountainside and along the way, it would encroach on Ezekiel’s plot, eating his crops and damaging the land. As Ezekiel explains, the damage done by the cow took a considerable economic toll on his family.

“I was in constant conflict with Simon. His cow destroyed 40 to 50 kg’s of maize and each kg sells for 1,000 Burundian Francs at the local market. For cassava, I would say that we lost up to 70 kg that can also be sold for the same price.”

The loss of potential earnings also took a psychological toll on Ezekiel.

Image credits and information i
Ezekiel Hinyuza speaks about the toll the damage done by Simon’s cow took on him and his family. Credit: CAI
man standing in field

I used to tell Simon that I would rather see the cow dead than see it growing fat and healthy while me and my family suffer from hunger.

- Ezechiel.

“The dispute was a big concern. I reached the point where I felt I would even kill him or get killed by him,” Ezekiel adds.

Simon saw things differently. As someone who grows crops of his own, he sympathised with Ezekiel’s plight and in no way intended for this to happen.

“Although my cow went into Ezekiel’s farm, this happened independently of my will. I am also a farmer and I know how it hurts when animals destroy my field by eating my crops.”

Image credits and information i
A cow owned by Simon Sinzumunsi caused damage to Ezekiel’s crops. Credit: CAI
man standing in field

Simon saw things differently. As someone who grows crops of his own, he sympathised with Ezekiel’s plight and in no way intended for this to happen.

“Although my cow went into Ezekiel’s farm, this happened independently of my will. I am also a farmer and I know how it hurts when animals destroy my field by eating my crops.”

Relations between the two men began to quickly spiral out of control and according to Simon, Ezekiel increasingly began to confront and threaten him because of the damage his cow caused.

“I was living in fear. In one week, I was threatened four times. I then decided to reach out for support,” Simon says.

Simon and Ezekiel reached out to their community leader who put them in contact with a local disaster committee which was set up with support from Christian Aid’s local partner National Council of Churches of Burundi (CNEB) with funding from Irish Aid.

With support from Irish Aid, CNEB provides dispute management and resolution training to committee members who use their skills to prevent conflict within communities which range from disputes over land borders to debt repayments and disputes between farmers and cattle herders.

As Ezekiel explains, reaching out to the committee for help was the turning point in his dispute with Simon.

“One of the disaster committee members Damas said to me that you have children and Simon has a cow and if it happens that your child does wrong in Simon’s field and he decides to treat you the same way you are treating him, how would you feel? Those words really touched me, and I decided to forgive Simon straight away,” Ezekiel says.

Reaching out to a committee for help with resolving a dispute is beneficial in many ways. Often the courts are faced with many cases to hear which can leave people waiting a long time for their cases to be dealt with. The services provided by committee members are also free of charge, which allows particularly vulnerable people to access them.

For Simon, being able to resolve their dispute peacefully through talking to one another rather than seeking to impose penalties like fines on either person for what had happened was a key benefit of the process and its long-term success.

“We live in challenging circumstances so getting money to pay a fine is not easy. It would require someone to sell something which in return creates frustration and causes people to hold grudges. I am very thankful I was not obliged to sell my cow which would have impacted on my field as I would not have had access to manure,” Simon says. Ezekiel agrees.

If I kept grudges against Simon, we would all be living with financial challenges and there would be hatred. It was important we resolved our dispute because now we live in peace and harmony which was not the case before. If I ever need something in the future, I will not be afraid to reach out to Simon.

- Ezekiel.

Following their dispute being resolved, Simon took steps to ensure that what had happened before would never happen again.

“After we resolved our dispute, I started to keep my cow on my land because I saw the consequences of what happened to Ezekiel.”

Ezekiel feels strongly about the positive role the committees have to play in communities and hopes that other Burundian’s will be able to peacefully resolve their disputes with their support.

“The support really helped me because I remember the words that Damas told me and this makes me more understanding and tolerant. Now when I meet Simon, we sit together and share drinks,” Ezekiel says.

“My hope is that as many people resolve their disputes the way ours was because what we see these days is that people are pushed to go directly to court without trying this first. If in Burundi we had more people like the ones who supported us, people would live in harmony,” he concludes.