Happy Umuganda To You!


A week ago, I spent my 43rd birthday as a more-or-less willing prop in a photo op. Here in Rwanda, the last Saturday of every month is designated “Umuganda,” a term that translates as “pillar” or “contribution”. Whatever you call it, it is essentially a mandatory community effort for all adults in Rwanda. Like everything else, they take their “volunteerism” seriously here: Rwandans are fined if they don’t show up – supposedly there’s a little more wiggle room for unreliable visiting foreigners.

As part of the orientation program for the American faculty and families involved in the new HRH program, the Ministry of Health had kindly arranged for us all to participate in Umuganda in the hilltop village of Byumba in the Gicumbi district, an hour and change due north of Kigali. After weeks of dealing with creature comforts and petty logistics like water filters, kitchen gadgets, and mosquito nets, it seemed like a great opportunity to finally do some tangible good for a change.

Umuganda is an old concept, hailing back to colonial days and beyond. In the years after Rwandan independence, the tradition took on a life of its own: equal parts genuine collaboration on a community endeavor (think: build a school or clean the roads) and community meeting with an element of public service announcements and propaganda dissemination to a captive audience.

After the ’94 genocide the Rwandan government added an element of reconciliation and national pride to the Umuganda ritual, but otherwise carried on the tradition largely unchanged. The official Rwandan description now states: “The benefits of Umuganda are not merely economic. The day is intended to build community involvement and strengthen cohesion between persons of different background and levels.” Essentially, a bit of agitprop with some constructive side effects for the participants.

We were late. Our bad – getting fifty Americans stuffed on to four busses early in the morning must have been like herding cats. As always in densely populated Rwanda, the sheer mass of humanity we encountered upon arrival after the breathtakingly beautiful drive north was a bit overwhelming. Byumba may just be a two-bit town off the main Kigali-Uganda road, but the place was packed. Sure, it was Umuganda Saturday, so everyone in the area was obliged to be present, but still: thousands of people were there, kids watching us in disbelief, adults of all ages stoically doing their part, digging trenches or lugging rocks by hand (or head or shoulder) up several hundred feet of treacherous hillside from a makeshift quarry to the construction site near the village primary school.

A locally appointed Umuganda supervisor supposedly calls the shots and plans the days’ event, and I’m sure he had tried his best. The fact that we didn’t understand Kinyarwanda probably didn’t help, but it still seemed like an incredibly chaotic undertaking. There were no clear directions, and people kept getting in each others’ way, while scrambling up and down the hillside with or without rocks. It was absurdly inefficient and rendered the productive part of the Umuganda ritual largely and lamentably symbolic. Before we really got started, it was over. No more rocks, we were told. Now we talk.

The preceeding chaos made it all the more striking how well planned was the 2nd half of the package, complete with the substantial presence of politicians and regional power players. A couple of local big shots put in their $0.02s worth in front of the assembled muzungus and an audience of a few hundred villagers, and then Bosenibamwe Aime, the governor of Rwanda’s northern province (a pretty big deal), put in an appearance as equal parts leader and aspiring stand-up comedian. Squat and intense in his blue rain boots, he reminded me of Hugo Chavez before the Venezuelan strongman let himself go completely. Governor Aime cut an energetic and engaging figure and got the largely lethargic audience fired up with some quick one-liners and chants.

But I confess that an hour later, when at long last he felt ready to wrap up his speech, my love for the Governor was significantly diminished. I (still) don’t understand Kinyarwanda, but later learned that his talk had not been about health care or the school building project or anything of immediate relevance to the villagers, but was instead just a political stump speech. More power to him for seizing the opportunity to toot his own horn, I suppose, but I felt sorry for the hot, bored kids (ours and the villagers’ alike) who had to sit through his schtick. And as if things weren’t bad enough, a handful of the visiting doctors then insisted on singing at the poor villagers…

Since the honorable minister of health was in attendance and had brought with her busloads of white doctors from “away,” a skilled PR operative had thought to bring along a couple of video and still cameras to capture the spectacle for posterity. Which was probably why The New Times (Rwandas unofficial government spokespaper) featured a two page photo-spread of the event the following day. Kudos to their editors – they made it look as if we accomplished a whole lot more than the facts on the ground would have indicated.

It was a memorable outing, and certainly a birthday I’ll never forget. I appreciate that there is more to Umuganda than just getting the job at hand over and done with. It is intended to be a choreographed exercise in togetherness and community building, an occasion for villagers rich and poor to prove to one another their commitment to shared goals and all that. But I can’t help but despair: if someone had just thought to plan the morning a little better, the foundations for the new school building could have been completed in a fraction of the time, and the photo op might have seemed a bit less contrived. Rwanda has so many unmet needs, but is blessed with an incredibly energetic and engaged population – it seemed a terrible shame to squander a perfectly good opportunity to get stuff done on grandstanding and speechifying. Maybe that’s just how they roll, but I thought we had come to Byumba to help the villagers accomplish something tangible. Instead we spent most of the morning wilting in the midday sun while the governor bent our ears to no avail.