Today is the last Saturday of the month – and it’s the day of Umuganda. This means that every Rwandan aged 18 to 65 (apart from those who are ill or unable to participate for a reason) is expected to be taking part in some sort of activity to benefit the local community. It could be anything, from cleaning streets to building a classroom or planting trees. The country basically shuts down in the morning, between 8 and 11am. Traffic stops, all businesses are closed, and if you need to drive somewhere during this time, you need a special permit. Foreigners living in Rwanda are also encouraged to participate. As this is my first week here, I haven’t even had the chance to figure out how to do it (there are dedicated committees which plan activities with their communities), but I’m hoping to be part of Umuganda at some point soon. I’ve been advised not to go outside while all the work is taking place as wandering around idly would simply be a bit weird and probably frowned upon. So I stayed put, but luckily there are quite a few photos on the Internet to give you an idea of what is going on!
The everyday meaning of the word umuganda is a pole that supports the roof of a house but it is used to denote “coming together in common purpose to achieve an outcome”. The whole idea dates back to pre-colonial times but was formally introduced by the government in 2009. At present, about 80% of Rwandans participate in Umuganda. It’s believed to foster the sense of national unity and assist with the process of reconciliation as the country is still healing from the tragic events of 1994 (I’m planning to go to the Kigali Genocide Memorial tomorrow so will write more about it soon). As people are OBLIGED to participate, there has been some controversy around Umuganda being forced upon Rwandans. If you don’t want to do it, you need to pay a fine of 5,000 Rwf (Rwandan francs; about US$8) and this money is then used to fund Umuganda activities. While some people have criticised the fact that it’s not voluntary, the monetary value of work done during Umuganda seems to be very high and amounts to millions of US dollars. There is also a competition which awards the most outstanding achievements across the country. I’m not in the position yet to have a fixed opinion about Umuganda but I quite like the principle of it. Many people seem to take pride in this sort of community service, and it certainly helps in building the sense of oneness and promotes the idea of working together towards a common purpose. After all, if you’re working with your neighbours to build a school for the kids in your village, there is a much better chance of success and of people simply socialising and getting to know one another, and of understanding problems others are dealing with. And Rwanda owes its reputation as a very clean country precisely to Umuganda.
If you’re interested in finding out more, check out those links: