umuganda_main

Umuganda

In which we miss out on SEVENTY-FOUR BILLION DOLLARS worth of annual labor!

By Brooke Hartman

When I think of the phrase Community Service, I picture chain gangs in orange jumpsuits, kids on probation, and/or Lindsay Lohan. I also think of church and campus-wide calls for neighborhood clean-up twice per year and scrunched faces of high school seniors trying to recall any act of community-oriented behavior that might pass for service on college applications.

Cyimbili women preparing to help dig a drainage ditch along the side of the road for their village

Cyimbili women preparing to help dig a drainage ditch along the side of the road for their village

But what if once per month, our entire (adult) nation—all 240 million of us—served our neighborhoods for three hours. You, working on things where you live, and me, working on things where I live. Maybe on my cul-de-sac we weed all the cracks in the sidewalk, and on yours someone edges all the yards. Maybe we trim up our section of the Monon Trail, or dig a little ditch so the water doesn’t pool in neighbor Frisky’s backyard. Maybe you rip out that old lady’s bushes that died 8 years ago (the bushes, not the lady) because they are an eyesore and remain a rusty-colored fire hazard year round. Maybe we all get together and chop up each other’s Christmas trees and then divvy up the firewood?

What if it wasn’t mandatory, so you wouldn’t go to jail if you didn’t participate, but what if the social pressure was so high that you could be fired from your job or excluded from social events if you were a known non-attender? What if this was so important that everything else was closed during the community service hours—gas stations, grocery stores, even Starbucks! No doubt, people (who are accustomed to individual freedoms that protect against mandates like this) will jump straight to the dangers of socialism and form a political position (No, of course I am not talking about you, silly. I’m talking about those other people). But let’s pretend this stayed purely community-based: entirely organized, monitored and carried out by the community.

 Even the youngest members of the community come out to participate.

Even the youngest members of the community come out to participate.

It would be called Umuganda. At least, that’s what it’s called here in Rwanda.

The day is called Umunsi w’umuganda, meaning, “contribution made by the community,” and is designed to be a day of service and country-building by the citizens themselves. So, on the last Saturday of every month, all able-bodied persons above the age of 18 and below 65 are expected to participate in volunteer community work in their neighborhoods for three hours. The start of this practice goes back to colonial times and is upheld today.

Everything is closed during this time, including shops, markets, and public transportation. People are seen everywhere cleaning streets, cutting grass and trimming bushes along roads, or repairing public facilities or building houses for vulnerable persons. People with particular skills offer their services for free on this day.  For example, many doctors offer free medical examinations.

Participation is usually supervised by a manager or neighborhood chairperson who oversees the effectiveness and efficiency of community participation, or who can organize people if a specific need has been identified. Kids are not required to participate, but many times they hang around with their parents (sometimes ON their parents, literally) or play together off to the side, each watching the community work.

Men of the village (and Jeff!) participating in Umuganda.

Men of the village (and Jeff!) participating in Umuganda.

So. Rwanda has about 18 million hours of countrywide community service each month (if everyone shows up), and about 5 million little eyes watching the community work.

Most people do show up, because you can get fired or excluded in your community if you’re known not to attend, and because these current workers grew up watching their adult community work when they were little. Plus, it’s necessary and valued. In fact, when we crossed rain-distressed roadways or mudslides covering the path, people were quick to say, “This area here needs Umuganda.”

It’s also a time to visit, fellowship and encourage one another.

Everyone knows on which Saturday Umuganda falls, everyone honors the time, and even as we were trying to work out our own schedules the last week in March, everyone was quick to remind us they would not be available Saturday morning because of Umuganda.

One Umuganda happened during our stay, so we joined our community in digging a drainage ditch along the side of a remote mountain road to divert the rainwater to the creek and irrigation systems. Other groups weeded the side of the dirt road, packed in potholes they saw along the way, and hacked off overgrown grass along the side. Other villages were putting up stones along the same edges and roads to prevent mudslides.

Men and women of all ages take pride in the work done by their community for their community.

Men and women of all ages take pride in the work done by their community for their community.

If this somehow happened in our country, we would have 720 million man-hours of community service PER MONTH! Even if we exclude the over 65’s because they’re all retired and stuff (though you should have seen these Rwandan Grannies rocking their hoes last weekend), we would still have 624 million man-hours per month of community work.

Here’s the sticker price. That amount of labor would be the equivalent of 3,900,000 full-time nationwide workers. At $10/hour, 40 hours per week, that’s SEVENTY-FOUR BILLION dollars worth of community work in our own neighborhoods, schools, roads and parks—for free!

Unimaginable. Somebody check my math. In the meantime, who wants to have a Christmas Tree cutting party at my house?! We’ve got about 3 years’ worth in the Monon, and then we can move to Frisky’s yard and hack off all his weed-trees. Yes, that sounds good.  I’ll see you on the last Saturday in June.