This is my first foray into the world of blogging. And while I certainly don’t have the ability to express myself as eloquently as the journalism students here, I hope that I can provide some interesting insights nonetheless.
It surprised me to find that no other interns have written extensively about Umuganda, which I find such a useful, albeit not a recent, phenomenon that is contributing to rebuilding the country. Essntially, Umuganda is obligatory community service that occurs the morning of the last Saturday of each month. Because Rwanda is such a highly organized society (5 provinces devided down a couple of times, ending in “cells” which contain, what I understand to be, about 20 households).
On those Saturday mornings, from 8h00 until just before noon, public life basically comes to a complete halt. Looking out at the city, not a single bus, car or moto can be seen, businesses are closed and the capital of a million people can look entirely deserted. This is because it is basically illegal not to participate. Individuals working in the tourism and security sectors are exempt from this rule, to ensure to physical and economic well-being of the country. Foreign residents are also exempt from the community service. Some typical activities include planting trees, building schools and cleaning the streets.
The last weekend of September - our first exposure to Umuganda - the mandatory community service presented itself as inconvenience to us. Since everyone participates, and everyone knows when it happens, no publicity is needed. Having only been reminded about Umuganda the day before our planned trip to l’Espérance Orphanage, one hour outside of Kibuye on Lake Kivu, we had to arrange our plans accordingly.
So much for an early start.
But this month, I decided to see if I could participate. I dragged myself out of bed last Saturday morning, still working to convince myself that this early morning labouring was a good idea.
Christelle, our day security guard who converses well in French, advised me that I needed to bring some kind of tool with me. I’m not sure why this hadn’t previously occurred to me. She pointed to a type of machete ending with a curved blade, which is used to “cut,” or rather slice at, grass.
I was definitely not initially unexcited about wielding a tool with such a negative connotation, at least in the minds of many foreigners, reflecting on the weapon that mercilessly killed so many fifteen years ago in Rwanda.
I asked her if we had any other tools around the house. She started walking to the side of the house, and I obediently followed suit, eager to find a more docile alternative.
She pulled out giant pruning shears. I liked this option better. So I left our house with machete and shears in hand, looking for someone to ask about what I could do to help.
After introducing myself to a group of men next door, I asked if they knew who I could talk to about working. They tell me to wait, so I stand with them as they also wait for the administrator of the area - who assigns tasks - to make his rounds. After about ten minutes, a friendly-looking older man wearing large black rubber boots came over to inform us that this Umuganda would involve doing work around our own house.
Great. The one time I can participate and I can’t have the “full” Umuganda experience of working together as a community.
There are four men still with me, and together they have one shovel. Needless to say there was ample supervision of our work. I showed them my tools and they showed my how to cut branches from the tree between our two properties.
I soon realized that academic smarts don’t really translate well into domestic skills. But I managed to wield the shears, sweep the cut brush underneath the hanging branches, and use the shovel to remove weeds from the area. By this time I had become quite the attraction.
I was feeling pretty proud of myself and feeling more energized despite my (relatively) early start. About two hours in, the men informed me that it was time for a beer.
While that ended my spontaneous Umuganda lesson, I still wanted to complete the morning by doing something to clean around our house. With Christelle’s help perfecting my technique, I successfully “cut” a patch of grass in our backyard with the coupe-coupe. There really was something satisfying about slashing away and watching the blades of grass fly out in every direction. After about half an hour, I decided to call it a day.
Reflecting on the day, it seems clear that Umuganda contributes to a sense of community and shared responsibility that is not found anywhere in North America or Europe.
And while I suppose I didn’t get the full Umuganda experience, I did meet some interesting people, learned some domestic skills and I feel like I gained a little more understanding about what makes Rwanda tick.