KIGALI, RWANDA — Odette Uwamahoro says she is too old to start a new family. So she is counting on the next generation to repopulate Rwanda, decimated by the 1994 genocide of roughly 800,000 Tutsis, including her husband and her eight children.
"You know what happened in this country," says Ms. Uwamahoro, waiting outside the crowded maternity ward at Kigali Central Hospital to visit a friend and her new baby. "For young people, it is part of your obligation as a Rwandan to have children."
Indeed, reproducing has become something of a national duty - on both sides of Rwanda's Hutu-Tutsi ethnic divide.
The maternity wards are so crowded that doctors have started opening private delivery clinics. Up to 10 couples a weekend are married in a single church, where elders urge the newlyweds to get busy reproducing the next generation. One popular T-shirt is emblazoned: "Let's Make Babies."
"There is a feeling among the population to replace lost people," says Claude Dusaidi, an adviser to the minister of defense.
Such baby booms are common after wars and are not a new tactic in the struggle for power or survival: There was a worldwide campaign among Jews to multiply after the Holocaust, and the world's highest population growth is in Gaza, the site of years of ethnic struggle by the Palestinians against the Israelis.
But the problem with Rwanda's boom is that even after the genocide, this Maryland-sized nation remains the mostly densely populated country in mainland Africa. With most people dependent on small farms, poverty and land shortages were severe before the genocide. Some observers have blamed population density as an underlying factor in the slaughter of the Tutsi minority by the Hutu majority. "One of the causes of the political diseases in this region, of the violence in this region, is of course population," says a Tutsi priest. "We had many people in a small space."
Though the current Tutsi leaders have rejected the argument that Rwanda is too small for all its people, they recognize the dangers of out-of-control population growth. That leaves them with a dilemma. "For most of the people, it doesn't make sense to talk about family planning after genocide," says Maurice Bucago, director of the National Population Office. "They expect us to tell them to have babies."
After the genocide, there was at least a 1-to-1 replacement of those killed: About 1 million Tutsis, who fled in the '60s when the Hutus came to power, and their children flooded the country. And the Tutsi rebels who fought their way to power are leading the baby boom by example: Nearly every Army officer has another child on the way.
But Tutsis have no monopoly on reproduction. Tens of thousands of babies were strapped to the backs of the 1.2 million Hutus forced home from Zaire and Tanzania last year after more than two years in exile. Their camps had the highest growth rates in Africa, at least partly because Hutu propaganda said they needed more people to take back Rwanda from the Tutsis.
Now that they are home, "population pressure is worse than it was before," says Andre De Clercq, head of the United Nations Population Fund in Rwanda. He estimates that the number of women using contraception has dropped from more than 12 percent before the genocide to less than 2 percent.
Rwanda is thought to be back to its old population of about 7.2 million people. That was too many for former Hutu President Juvnal Habyarimana, who argued that Rwanda was too crowded to repatriate hundreds of thousands of Tutsi refugees. The population office he created in 1981 was widely resented and unsuccessful: In 1991, the average family had seven children, and the population was projected to reach 25 million by 2030.
For now, officials are focused on making land more productive. Most Rwandans live scattered on hillsides, and leaders want to move them to villages to provide schools and hospitals, and to open huge tracts for agriculture. The environmental impact of the population boom can already be felt: Akagera National Park, a wildlife refuge in the northwest, is being carved up to settle hundreds of thousands of people.