Umuganda: Learning from Rwanda’s Community Spirit

Supportive Communities

The government of Rwanda is working hard to rebuild the country and they have embraced some innovative ways of doing so. One of the unique practices in recent years is the community improvement projects called Umuganda.

The origin of the word comes from a long-standing Rwanda tradition of assisting a family member or neighbour when they are building a home. In North America we might think about a Mennonite barn raising as a similar kind of concept. Rwandans are generous people, and they help one another with what the Homes for Humanity calls “sweat equity.” When a Rwandan family is building a new home, friends and family all work together to help them complete the project. And, of course, no one arrives at the work site empty handed. This is what is called Umuganda (oo-moo-gan-dah). It literally refers to the tree which was donated to the project, but today it is used figuratively to mean any contribution made to the building of the community.

Rebuilding Rwanda

In the early days after the genocide, the government faced a daunting challenge. The country lay in ruins. The infrastructure had virtually collapsed. Many foreigners and NGO’s had fled. And the country had virtually no economic resources for rebuilding. But what they did have in abundance, was a hard working population. So the government instituted a weekly morning of reconstruction labour called umuganda.

It is one’s duty as a citizen to participate in umuganda. Local civic leaders called umudugudu (oo-moo-doo-goo-doo. Isn’t that a great word!) determine which project is the priority for the week, and the locals gather on umuganda days to roll up their sleeves to work on this project together. Shops are closed (it is illegal to open your shop during umuganda). Everyone is expected to participate. In fact, you require a note from your employer if you are unable to attend umuganda.

What is Possible

For Westerners, it may seem like a strange concept to have an entire community working together on a project but here in Rwanda participation in the life of one’s larger community comes more naturally. Recently, we were driving in the countryside and our Rwandan colleague pointed out that the road improvements were part of the local umuganda project. Yes! The community builds the roads here! As we drove, we could see the stages of work that were underway: first the trees were cut down and hauled away, then the tree trunks would be dug out and removed, finally an small army of workers with hoes would dig out the road bed from the earth often digging large road cuts in the rolling hills. All this work was done by hand without any power tools.

The other umuganda project we stumbled upon recently involved the digging of water catchment ditches high up on the top of a hill. These ditches run horizontally along the ridge line of the hill so that runoff from heavy rainfall is captured in order to reduce erosion.

In the early years (after 1994), umuganda was once a week. Today it is once a month on the last Saturday of the month. And, today technology has also become part of the planning of this event as participants now receive an SMS with the location and details of the work. A typical work session starts at 7:00 am, and wraps up by 11:00 am.

It is a staggering thought: Every month, the Rwandan government is able to organize and mobilize the majority of its civilian population of more than 11 million people. And, while the remarkable development progress in today’s Rwanda is supported by millions of dollars in foreign aid, it could be argued that the far greater contribution toward this rapid pace of development lies in the hands of the Rwandan people themselves who have given the sweat of their brow to rebuild their nation.

Challenging Western Ideals

I sometimes wonder about Western societies, and particularly North America where the pervasive meta-narrative is built upon the notion of individualism. This has become even more pronounced in recent years with the advent of the ‘smart’ phone and tablet which seems to draw the user into their own little world, isolated and oblivious to those around them. Those of us who are old enough to remember can think back to thriving communities with volunteer groups such as Scouts and Guides; community service groups like Rotary and Lions; and various community projects like fire safety parades, community clean up days and community theater productions. In many communities these things are gone, or a dim reflection of what they used to be. It seems to me that there are lessons we can learn from Rwandans about working together and building stronger communities.

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