The plight of refugees from Rwanda, Burundi, and Democratic Republic of Congo made international headlines between 1993 and 1998. Throughout central Africa, roughly 3.4 million refugees crossed international borders, 2.3 million persons became internally displaced, and 600,000 exiles returned to their countries of origin. In this context, nearly 1.3 million people sought refuge in western Tanzania. Kagera and Kigoma regions have a total Tanzanian population of nearly 2.5 million. The refugee influx therefore represented an overall population increase in these regions of more than 50 percent, while in some areas refugees outnumbered locals five to one.1 Although some refugees left after a few months, others stayed for several years. In December 1998, some 344,000 remained.
The drama of such numbers attracted considerable international attention. In response, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and international non-governmental organizations (NGOs) established massive relief programs to address the needs of refugees and, in some cases, local hosts. But less attention was given to the effects of this situation on the ecology, economy, and politics of those already living in western Tanzania. Together, the sudden presence of refugees, aid workers, and relief resources significantly altered all aspects of life for people in this previously-neglected corner of the country. This project, based on twenty-two months of participatory field research from October 1996 to August 1998, examines the implications of the presence of refugees and the relief operation for host communities in western Tanzania.