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Tuesday, 2 September 2014

Community work - Umuganda - in Rwanda

Quiet streets on Umuganda morning in Kigali
On Saturday, around 100 members of the international Human Resources for Health faculty and their families met in Rwanda's capital Kigali for early breakfast. We had been invited to join local Rwandans for Umuganda, a countrywide community integration and work programme which takes place thoughout the morning on the last Saturday of the month. No traffic on these mornings is allowed except by permit to contribute to a Umuganda activity. 
Other countries may have community work times on an annual calendar - for example the embryo Mandela birthday (18th July) 67 minutes call for of community contribution in South Africa and internationally; or the annual post-winter melt environmental clean-up by students in Kazakhstan. However the scale of engagement in the Rwandan programme is astonishing, with an estimated up to 80% of those eligible taking part.
 It is estimated that these monthly Rwandan communiity efforts, for example through land clearance and building projects, may be saving the Rwanda economy in the order of $60 million per year.
Rural Rwanda
The traditional form of Umuganda is said to date back at least 150 years, and continues to be coordinated by local village (Umudugudumayors. In modern, post-genocide Rwanda, the Umuganda process has also been applied as an important tool to help to promote local and national integration and reconciliation. Citizens with mental health problems currently may be exempt, however, in recognition of the potential benefits, there are plans to engage these people too in Umuganda, where practical.
We travelled in convoy in small white buses around 10 km into the countryside, passing wetlands and a turbid, storm-swollen river. Once off the excellent main road, we had a challenging drive into the hills, up unmade roads crevassed by early Autumn rains.
Our task was to work with villagers to clear weeds from the brick-walled grounds of the Mwendo 
HRH team and villagers 
Community Hospital, preparing the area for planting vegetables for patients and staff. Under a hot late August sun, we formed a close line, armed with pick-axes, mini-ploughshares and hoes to break the hard earth and remove at least the worst of the deep roots. The atmosphere was relaxed and happy, with frequent ad lib breaks to make new friends. In the background, loudspeakers played cheerful Rwandan instrumental music.
The morning ended suddenly with a call to refreshments - the typical conscious Rwandan
Local HRH staff with Permanent Secretary Dr Solange Hakiba
choice of warm or chilled soft drinks, speeches by local and national Rwandan leaders, and invitations to join energetic village Rwandans in free-for-all dancing.
Our brief first experience of Umuganda showed its power to bring together visitors and Rwandans in a spirit of mutual understanding and respect, while making a modest but real contribution to a local community - a good 300 man and woman hours of tough manual effort donated by and for the community. From our shady marquee, we had however a glimpse of other realities of local cooperative life: an ill farmer borne at speed towards the hospital doors on a makeshift stretcher held shoulder high by four young men.

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