On a sunny early morning in Kigali–Rwanda is nicknamed “the land of eternal spring”–I spotted a group of people slinging mud out of a drainage area surrounded by tall trees. Others were using a “slash” to cut grass and weeds along the side of the dirt road. It was the last Saturday in June, the day for “Umuganda” in Rwanda, and I asked if I could join. A bit surprised, they welcomed me with handshakes, smiles and a bit of snickering from some young men who seemed to be wondering what this “mzungu” was doing there. One older woman explained to me that each person would do a bit of the work. When someone got tired, she said, they would pass on their shovel or slash to someone else who would take over.
Umuganda, which in the national language of Kinyarwanda translates to “coming together in common purpose to achieve an outcome,” is the community work that Rwandans are required to do on the last Saturday of each month. Umuganda projects take place throughout the country, and everyone between the ages of 18 and 65 is expected to report to the project in their district. Many businesses I passed that morning were closed. When I tried to arrange other activities for that day, many people said they wouldn’t be available until late afternoon because they had Umuganda. It is a part of life. The activity for the day may be to build a health center, classrooms or houses. Committees decide what project is most needed at the time. After three hours or so of work, the community gathers to have a meeting where they can discuss local or national issues that may be affecting them. Not surprisingly, not everyone shows up, and some seem to come begrudgingly, but many also seem to take pride in Umuganda.
I had heard about Umuganda before I came to Rwanda and knew I wanted to participate if I could. I asked several people in the week leading up to it, but no one knew for sure the location of the project in Remera, where I was staying. I got conflicting information about when it started. The front desk person at the guest house where I was staying finally suggested that if I just walked down the hill, I would find it. If you don’t know already, in addition to “the land of eternal spring,” Rwanda is also called “the land of a thousand hills.” I walked downhill, across roads, up hills. “Umuganda?” I asked to various people, unable to communicate much in Kinyarwanda. They pointed roughly in the same general downhill direction, but I was not finding it. I was close to giving up when I met a young man named Jack. He was on his way to Umuganda and offered to take me with him. And he spoke English. Bonus!
After we arrived, Jack introduced me to the person coordinating the activity, as well as some of his friends. I shoveled some of the mud and used the slash to cut down some grass on the side of the road (ok, maybe some blades of grass; I wasn’t so good with the slash!). When I got tired, I passed on the shovel and the slash.
Umuganda was part of traditional culture in Rwanda–one neighbor/friend/family member helping another–and first became an official government program in Rwanda in the 1970s. It was brought back after the genocide as a means to rebuild the decimated country and unite the people. As one person described to me, after the genocide not only did the people who had remained in Rwanda during the genocide need to find ways to somehow come together again, but there were also many Rwandans who had left the country and were returning. They, too, needed ways to reconnect. Umuganda is one of the tools the country has used to bring people together as Rwandans rather than Hutus or Tutsis.
You can learn more about Umuganda here. And here are some photos from the day, which included a walk to Jack’s home nearby the service project.