How to Prevent a Genocide in America

How Rwanda’s monthly ritual of reconciliation changed my life as a privileged American

Victims of hate that never asked to be heroes or martyrs — photo taken by the author

“Rwanda?” Marisa responded in surprise, “Isn’t that a dangerous place?”

A land of extremes, constructed over decades of dissonance

Their only crime was that they were different.

Or rather, that over the course of decades a ruling elite had painted them as different as a way to promote and maintain power.

Their only sentence was death.

Death in some of the most violent and repulsive ways known to mankind. Many were hatcheted to death by friends and family, others buried alive. Women and children were raped before being killed.

From the Genocide Memorial in Kigali — photo provided by author

While Rwanda still struggles under the weight of poverty and its past, it is globally recognized as one of the safest, cleanest, most promising countries on the planet.

How Umuganda changed my life

The word Umuganda is translated as ‘coming together in common purpose to achieve an outcome’

“Is this Umuganda?” I asked the first group of locals who I encountered, pointing into the field.

This was the least inspiring aspect of Umugandu

Working together on community gardens — photo taken by author

“Everyone is considered an equal in Umuganda,” a friend tells me with pride. “We all work together to make great things happen.”

Instead, there was nothing but love, joy, and acceptance offered to me by my new neighbors.

White man can’t dance — photo provided by the author

This, I assumed, had to be the pinnacle of Umuganda; a crowning moment of unity that helped take a country once ravaged by hatred and transform it into the beating heart of Africa.

Again, I was wrong

“I bring you the love and best wishes of our President and other leaders,” she began. “We cannot all be with you in person today, but we are all with you in spirit.”

“Do you think anyone will ever love you more than your own family?” she boomed. “No! So do not go looking elsewhere!”

“Take your hands out of your pockets,” she pleaded. “Only then can you make your home and nation great!”

It turned out she was the opening act for the best part of Umuganda

“Now is your time to speak,” she commanded. “I want to hear your thoughts. I want to be your advocate!”

Photo provided by author

“Where is the woman?” the Parliament leader boomed.

“Give me your phone number child and I’ll give you mine,” she said. “I want to make sure this is resolved.”

I watched in amazement as person after person rose, each with concerns or ideas on how to make life in the community better:

This, it turned out, was the heart of Umuganda.

In Umuganda, we can see a practice that not only unites communities but also makes reconciliation a daily practice instead of a momentary movement.

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