Rwanda has a designated day called Umuganda or Community Day where everyone comes together to volunteer for a particular project in their community. It’s a traditional idea that kind of faded away but Paul Kagame, the Rwandan president, reinstituted the model after the genocide with the belief that it would help heal the communities. I was eager to attend the event last month to see what it was all about!
To prepare, Marcella and I asked what we should bring to the worksite and the teachers suggested machetes, hoes or “slashers” (a tool for cutting grass, see the picture above). Darn. I forgot to pack any of that! I took that time to explain how I cut the grass at home- sit on a riding lawn mower and basically wait for the task to be over. They laughed out loud at this idea. And I felt pretty stupid because I had always dreaded and complained about the chore.
The next morning I was regretting my commitment to go when we left the house bright and early at 8:00 AM. On the way, some people were clearly on their way to the worksite but many were just walking to their usual Saturday destinations. I felt pretty cocky when a man on the main road in charge of Umuganda, shamed nonparticipating people by saying into his megaphone “Even the muzungu (white people) are coming to Community Day! Why aren’t you?”
We showed up at the site on a side dirt road, where it turned out most people didn’t have a tool either and everyone was taking turns working. Of course, everyone crowds around Marcella and I to see our physical labor skills, so I grab the hoe and try to push it into the ground. Key word is try because the ground is rock hard and the Rwandans laughed hysterically at me for my unsuccessful attempt. However, I looked around and noticed mostly men hoeing- they just let me for comedic appeal :p After my botched hoeing attempt I helped shovel away the freshly turned earth, which was more doable for me although it resulted in no less laughter among the Rwandans. A few Rwandans I spoke to were fascinated that I had ever used a hoe or shovel before, although I couldn’t say the same about a machete or slasher and was NOT about to try to learn with an audience.
|End of event and people are heading home.|
Throughout the day we slowly learned that the community was helping to repair a road that goes around Nyamata and was now covered with grass, holes and erosion strips. As men were hoeing the side they found a pile of abandoned cinder blocks that I carried to fill the holes for about 30 minutes. Now the locals seemed impressed and kept suggested I was tired and might need to rest. But I refused, still trying to prove myself.
In the end, I think people were surprised to see us, considering foreigners usually don’t typically come. And despite their laughing, people definitely respected us for working so hard to integrate into the community and do our part.