When I lived in South London, before I moved to Nairobi, the local council undertook some landscaping works on the main road I used to walk to the train station every morning. Nothing fancy. A mini-roundabout, widening the pavement, a few new trees. It was nice.
But what was really nice – more than nice – were the tiny flowerbeds an elderly gentleman who lived on the road had created at the base of the new trees. He’d taken it upon himself to carry on the neighbourhood enhancement programme and several times a week I’d walk past as he tended to the blossoming and blooming foxgloves and marigolds. It genuinely made me feel better about living in this part of town, warmed my heart and made me wonder what I could do to make things a little better too.
Perhaps quite obviously the photo at the top of this page ISN’T South London. It’s Rwanda; land of a thousand hills, a million beautiful sunsets and one of the only exploding lakes in the world (Pictured: Lake Kivu http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-16394635). A few months ago I went there on holiday. Bear with me while I make the link between South London and a tiny land-locked country in Africa…
It would be almost impossible, sadly, to write about Rwanda without mentioning the genocide of 1994. But I’m going to try move swiftly on because what strikes the visitor about Rwanda now is its order and tidiness in comparison to neighbouring countries. I’d come from Kenya, driven through Uganda, and crossed the border to be greeted by perfectly surfaced roads, working streetlights and rubbish-free surroundings. Upon reaching Kigali I was even more amazed. Not only can you walk around at night with no real security fears, I saw little baskets with flowers hanging from lamp posts, an attention to detail none but the fanciest of London boroughs has invested in.
Now I love Nairobi (genuinely!) but a pleasant urban environment it is not. Ignoring the fear of stretching a quote… Churchill once said “we shape our buildings, and afterwards, our buildings shape us”. The essence of the point is that our physical environment can play a profoundly important role in helping create the societies we want to see. Nice landscaping shouldn’t take precedence over protection of human rights. But in all seriousness, rotting, stinking piles of rubbish, run down, crumbling shacks and broken roads don’t scream “we are a country going somewhere” and can put off those vital investors needed to build economies and support a nation trying to find a new path.
Kagame, Rwanda’s President, clearly believed something along the same lines when he instituted Umuganda. Umuganda is one of several initiatives known as a “Home Grown Solution”. In other words, when Kagame’s new government set about rebuilding Rwanda after the genocide they had a huge number of social and economic challenges facing them. To make any lasting progress they needed the solutions they came up with to be readily and willingly adopted by a broken and fractured population. To achieve this they put modern-day spins on traditional, age-olds practices.
So what is Umuganda? Well, it’s essentially a legal requirement for all able citizens to participate in community work on a monthly basis. I’m going to cheat here and straight copy and paste from the government’s own website to give more detail:
The word Umuganda can be translated as ‘coming together in common purpose to achieve an outcome’. In traditional Rwandan culture, members of the community would call upon their family, friends and neighbours to help them complete a difficult task.
As part of efforts to reconstruct Rwanda and nurture a shared national identity, the Government of Rwanda drew on aspects of Rwandan culture and traditional practices to enrich and adapt its development programs to the country’s needs and context. The result is a set of Home Grown Solutions — culturally owned practices translated into sustainable development programs. One of these Home Grown Solutions is Umuganda.
Modern day Umuganda can be described as community work. On the last Saturday of each month, communities come together to do a variety of public works. This often includes infrastructure development and environmental protection. Rwandans between 18 and 65 are obliged to participate in Umuganda. Expatriates living in Rwanda are encouraged to take part.
Today close to 80% of Rwandans take part in monthly community work. Successful projects include the building of schools, medical centres and hydro electric plants as well as rehabilitating wetlands and creating highly productive agricultural plots. The value of Umuganda to the country’s development since 2007 has been estimated at more than US $60 million.
You can read other Home Grown Solutions such as justice and reconciliation mechanisms here: http://www.rwandapedia.rw/explore#filter
There are criticisms of Umuganda. For a start, it’s compulsory, and there is a small (largely unenforced) fine for those who don’t attend, which doesn’t sit hugely comfortably for people coming from liberal democracies. But – as is often the case in debates about Rwandan government policy – the situation the country faced after the genocide was starkly different to that in peaceful, prosperous countries; places which can rely on community spirited volunteers such as my green-fingered neighbour.
Of course Umuganda participants don’t build the perfectly smooth highways that wind around the hills (that would be the Chinese who build almost every road on the continent it seems). And as good as the public works Umuganda encompasses are, just as important are the positive interactions with others in the community. But the point holds that Rwanda does seem to be getting a lot right in terms of creating a sense that this is a country taking its development seriously. When I compare to Kenya, I can’t help but feel that appearances – and moreover the effort that goes into maintaining appearances – really do matter.