Umuganda is a unique Rwandan experience...it is compulsory community service on the last Saturday of the month from 7:00-Noon for everyone over the age of 18. All businesses are closed and EVERYONE participates. It took place last Saturday and my local cell planted trees, cleaned the community garden and put up playground equipment.
Rwanda is, and has been a highly organised society. The country is divided into administrative regions called prefectures (the equivalent of counties); these are divided into districts which are divided into sectors then into communes which are finally divided into cells. This organisation, and the officials who control each region, pass on instructions from Rwanda’s leaders that are quickly carried out by ordinary people. This is how the genocide was able to spread so quickly.
Umuganda is a tradition which dates back to before the arrival of the Europeans. Some Rwandans return to their home cell (for many in Kigali this means going back to the village they were born) to receive instructions from the cell leader. They all carry out whatever type of community service has been decided on for that month – for example picking up trash, planting trees, clearing fields, fixing roads (I have not seen any improvement!), building houses, etc.
No one is exempt from this community service – the President, Ministers, Members of Parliament and even foreign diplomats participate. I will participate on July 25th and give you a first person account.
I found an interesting Opinion article on this subject in the English language newspaper The New Times. It talks about how much more powerful this tradition could be and gives examples of how to improve it.
Can you imagine the impact if we all gave five hours for Community Service a month in our cities or towns? Would Americans embrace this idea and give up one Saturday morning a month? Interesting questions…