Our journey to Rwanda began five years ago in Salt Lake City while Marisa, my wife, was teaching a private French lesson to a friend.
They were working on the conditional tense. Marisa had prepared a number of hypothetical questions as part of the lesson.
“Si tu pouvais vivre dans n’importe quel pays, ou est-ce que tu vivrais?” (Translation: if you could live in any country, where would it be?)
Without a second thought, our friend responded “Rwanda.”
“Rwanda?” Marisa responded in surprise, “Isn’t that a dangerous place?”
The only thing Marisa knew about Rwanda was the only thing that most other Westerners know: genocide.
Why would anyone want to live in a place known for heart-wrenching conflict and mass violence?
A land of extremes, constructed over decades of dissonance
In April of 1994, Rwanda erupted in a full-scale genocide.
In a period of three months, close to 1,000,000 innocent men, women, and children were murdered.
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.
It is safe to say there have been few times in the history of the world as dark as those 100 days of springtime in Rwanda.
And yet, twenty-five years later, Rwanda has risen from the ashes of hate and death to become a shining beacon of hope in Africa and the world.
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.
Much of this is thanks to Umuganda.
How Umuganda changed my life
Umuganda is a monthly tradition that began in Rwanda not long after the genocide.
The word Umuganda is translated as ‘coming together in common purpose to achieve an outcome’
On the last Saturday of every month, communities across the country gather together to work on a task that can only be accomplished together.
Awaking on Saturday morning, I walked out onto our terrace (in our very comfortable rental home) and discovered locals gathering in the field next door; not just ten or twenty people, but hundreds converging with machetés and other garden tools in hand.
Having heard mention of Umuganda, I decided to walk out and see if I might learn more.
“Is this Umuganda?” I asked the first group of locals who I encountered, pointing into the field.
“Yeego. Yes. This is Umuganda,” they responded, their stern faces softening with my obvious interest.
“May I help?” I asked, hoping not to offend.
“Come,” they responded, taking me by the hand and pulling me onto the field like the newest player on a soccer team.
Next thing I knew a big man approached me with a well-used macheté and a warm smile. Handing over the macheté he pointed and said in broken English “Start cutting here.
This was the least inspiring aspect of Umugandu
If Umugandu were nothing more than a monthly organized service project uniting communities across a nation, it would already be worth adopting in America.
The service project, however, turned out to be the least impressive aspect of the morning.
With the project accomplished, I was then told we needed to go to the community meeting. This is where members of the community all unite to celebrate their achievement of togetherness.
“Everyone is considered an equal in Umuganda,” a friend tells me with pride. “We all work together to make great things happen.”
Approaching the meeting, I could hear the \singing and dancing break out with the ferocity of an afternoon thunderstorm.
Being largely rhythm deficient, I wished to respectfully watch the celebration from the periphery but, again, was immediately pulled into the group.
As I awkwardly jumped, hollered, and hooted, I should have felt the shame of being an outsider in a world I could not fully understand or appreciate.
Instead, there was nothing but love, joy, and acceptance offered to me by my new neighbors.
An elderly woman gently took me by my waist and swayed with me, helping me wade into the flow of the music. Another gentleman took me by two hands and gently pulled me into the inner circle.
As a crowd danced in a circle around us, I lost myself in the moment and simply followed his kind lead and kinder smile.
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
As the music died down, everyone took a seat in the field for the third and final portion of Umuganda.
There then arose from the crowd a representative of the Rwandan parliament.
“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.”
She then began speaking with power and passion about serious issues facing the community: increasing divorce, teen pregnancy, malnourished children, and the ills of idle unemployment.
To the husbands of the crowd, she commanded they stand up and be strong chiefs in their home. She pleaded with them to stay even when things got tough and stay true to their marriages.
“Do you think anyone will ever love you more than your own family?” she boomed. “No! So do not go looking elsewhere!”
It was both awe-inspiring and heartbreaking to hear her speak on such vulnerable topics. In conclusion, she turned her attention to the whole crowd once again, reminding us all of our duty as members of the human race.
“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
Following the representative’s sermon, she turned the time over to the community for comments, questions, and concerns.
“Now is your time to speak,” she commanded. “I want to hear your thoughts. I want to be your advocate!”
I then watched in awe as person after person stood to have their voice heard by the community and leaders.
Each person commanded the respect and attention of the 500+ attendees.
We laughed with a radiant elderly woman as she hugged the Parliament leader.
We cried with the young girl who stepped forward, having been thrown out of her home by her stepmother, leaving her and her siblings without food or shelter.
“Where is the woman?” the Parliament leader boomed.
The stepmother rose to plead her case, but five words in she was cut off. “Do you think their father would want his children on the street?” the Parliament leader attacked on behalf of the child. “No! The home belongs to the children, not you!”
As she passed judgment, the crowd cheered and nodded in approval. She then looked to the young girl and, with compassion in her voice, asked her to come forward.
“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:
- Get harsh on underage drinking to prevent underage pregnancy
- Close the betting houses to strengthen families
- Add lamps to dark streets where moto pedestrian accidents happened regularly
The collective conversation went for well over 90 minutes.
This, it turned out, was the heart of Umuganda.
People, working together, dancing together, laughing and crying and thinking together, all in the spirit of building a better world one day every month.
To call it inspiring would be an understatement.
It was life-changing.
It was something I wish every American could experience, especially today.
Americans might look at Rwanda’s violent past and see a drastically different situation but it’s hard to ignore that there are frightening similarities:
- Longstanding supremacy
- Tension between groups
- Widespread violence
- Incomprehensible deaths
There are many on the frontlines of the racial divide in America, offering their very best to help eradicate this destructive virus from our national consciousness.
In Rwanda, we can look to those that have moved beyond extreme internal conflict to find peace.
In Umuganda, we can see a practice that not only unites communities but also makes reconciliation a daily practice instead of a momentary movement.
While no home or community or national government is perfect (including Rwanda), there is something magically utopian in Rwanda’s idea of everyone in a community joining together regularly to do something bigger than what you could ever do alone and doing it often.
As the local Parliament leader says to all of us, “Take your hands out of your pockets! Only then can you make your home and nation great!”
Let it begin with Umuganda, no matter where in the world we stand.