Saturday 30th August 2014 – Umuganda: Helping to foster the community spirit

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The last Saturday of every month in Rwanda is set aside for umuganda. 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. In contemporary times this translates to communities coming 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. It is estimated that 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. So, with it being the 30th August, it was off to work that we went.

Phil and I drove to the Umubano hotel to meet with the Umuganda group from the Ministry of Health. The group was heavily boosted by the inclusion of members of 120 faculty members from the US who had visited Rwanda as part of the Human Resources for Health (HRH) Rwanda programme. We had to be at the hotel before 8am – all personally owned cars have to be off the road by that time on Umuganda weekends. As a group we had breakfast at the hotel. This was a lovely way to meet with the other people present including ex-patriots, local Rwandans and members of the HRH programme. I was introduced to Maureen (a former coordinator of the MSc in Public Health) at the University of Glasgow, and her American colleagues Jen and Maria. They have been working to improve health-care standards amd support the development of nurses in a district hospital about 2.5 hrs outside. I was very interested to learn about the important work that they are doing.

After breakfast, our large team of men, women and children boarded four buses and made the one-hour trip into the countryside that sits beyond Kigali. Our destination was the Centres de Sante Mwendo, which sits in the Ruthango District of the Southern Province of Rwanda. Our mission today was to spend 3-hours turning and weeding a field in preparation for crops to be grown there.

We were all supplied with either a pick or hoe with which to turn the fertile, red earth. It was hot and sweaty work, but there were also good laughs to be had as well. At one stage I was joined by a couple of hard-working local ladies (dressed in bright, locally produced fabrics) who were chatting away in Kinyarwanda (the official language of Rwanda, along with French and English) and seemed to be having a good laugh at my less than perfect technique. It was a fantastic group effort that saw local people working with those who were visiting Rwanda, and by the end of the 3-hours the land was transformed and was ready for sowing.

After the work was completed, we had a variety of speeches from local dignitaries and representatives from HRH. There was then time for singing and dancing from people from the local community, before we boarded the bus and made our way back to the hotel for lunch. As the bus made it’s way through the villages close to Centres de Sante Mwendo, smiling children and local people would stop and wave to those on the bus. It was a joy to connect with this rural community in this way, and the opportunity to undertake some civic duties was very rewarding. I think there is a lot to be admired about Umuganda,

After lunch, the hotel hosted a combination of singers, drummers and dancers performing traditional songs and rhythms. The energy and intensity of the performance was mesmerizing. I was fortunate to catch some of this on video to share with friends and family when I get home. My friend, Gameli Tordzro, who works with Pan-African Arts Scotland is an expert in drumming and I’m sure that he will be particularly interested to hear the beats.

Phil then kindly took me over to Kimironko market in the Remera area of Kigali that is not too far from the National Stadium. The market featured a wide range of goods including fruits, cereals, meat, fabrics and craft. Phil has managed to get to know many of the stall owners and it was great to be introduced to them. I managed to pick up some interesting pieces to bring back as reminders of my time in Rwanda.

In the evening, I met up with Stefan and Darius for dinner. We were also joined by Dr. Eugene Rutembesa (who was mentioned in yesterday’s blog). Together we had food and discussed some plans for potential collaboration. It was great to swap notes and come up with some exciting plans.

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