KIGALI, Rwanda — On the last Saturday of every month, silence blankets this African country for four hours. The ubiquitous motorcycle taxis that stream across the city are gone. Stores are shuttered, streets emptied. It feels like Yom Kippur in Israel.
Once a month, the entire country takes part in government-mandated community service called “Umuganda,” a Kinyarwanda word that means “coming together in common purpose to achieve an outcome.”
Rwanda’s monthly “Good Deeds Day” is the government’s creative – though mandated – solution to the challenges the country faced after the 1994 genocide, when more than 800,000 people were killed over 100 days of fighting. In addition to the massive loss of life, the genocide destroyed infrastructure and institutions, plunging the country into chaos.
Israel marks the 10th annual “Good Deeds Day” on March 28 this year, a few days before the rest of the world on April 2. Billionaire philanthropist Shari Arison initiated it in 2007 in Israel, and the project has grown internationally in the past decade, though few places have embraced it with the vigor of Israel.
The 2016 version of Good Deeds Day included 1.5 million people participating in 14,000 projects in 75 countries. But, quietly, Rwanda has been observing its own version of “Good Deeds Day” every month for more than a decade.
“You have [umuganda] in Israel, too, it’s just like the kibbutz, right?” said Faustin Zihiga, as he put down a hoe during Umuganda Day on February 25, 2017. Zihiga and about 100 of his neighbors spend each Umuganda cleaning up Kimana Village, their middle-class neighborhood in the capital, Kigali.
“We call it ‘Made in Rwanda,’ unique things that Rwanda needs to do to overcome our unique challenges,” he said. “After the genocide, leadership had to look for ways to rebuild a shattered community. They came up with things that will help people revive the voluntary spirit.”
“After the genocide, leadership had to look for ways to rebuild a shattered community. They came up with things that will help people revive the voluntary spirit.”
In the 23 years since the genocide, Rwanda has developed at a rate far exceeding anyone’s expectations. A steady 8% growth in GDP over the past 15 years has catapulted Rwanda beyond its struggling neighbors and it is now an orderly country with excellent roads, spotless cities, almost no corruption, and effective government institutions.
Some international groups such as Amnesty International and the European Union argue that the government is too effective. In 2015, 98 percent of Rwandan voters approved a constitutional amendment enabling President Paul Kagame, in power since 2000, to stand for additional terms, possibly until 2034. The international community roundly condemned the vote, and then-US president Barack Obama called such referendums to keep existing leadership in power the “first step down a perilous path.”
Zihiga, who works at a bank in Kigali, noted that the Umuganda tradition predates the genocide as “ubudehe,” when communities would gather to cultivate fields together. Ubudehe slowly faded out of use as Rwanda transitioned from a bartering to a cash-based society in the second half of the 20th century. After the genocide, the government revived the practice with a focus on community beautification and development.
According to Kigali Today Press, a pro-government English-language news agency, Umuganda has saved the country 106 billion francs ($12 billion) over the past decade. In some areas, a number of villages might band together to undertake major infrastructure projects, such as building and paving roads or building health centers and schools. Other work includes repairing broken water pipes, laying irrigation lines, painting crosswalks, gardening, weeding, street sweeping, and general beautification.
According to Kigali Today Press, a pro-government English-language news agency, Umuganda has saved the country 106 billion francs ($12 billion) over the past decade.
Participation is compulsory. Every household must send at least one representative over the age of 18. People do Umuganda with their local village. In a city, residents are divided into neighborhoods for Umuganda work, with about 150 people per neighborhood.
If someone misses too many Umuganda sessions without an approved excuse from the local council, the local government levies a 5,000 Rwandan franc ($6) fine against them, a huge amount of money for many people in a country where the average income is $718 per year, or less than $2 per day. Police set up checkpoints to ensure that anyone traveling during Umuganda time has a legitimate commitment.
Umuganda work consists of about three hours of community beautification work and one hour of community meeting. Local leadership decides what kind of work will be completed each month, and send trucks with loudspeakers around their neighborhood or village to inform people where to meet and what kind of tools to bring with them.
“Most people like it because it’s the only day you meet your neighbors,” said Zihiga, switching from a hoe to a panga, a small machete-like knife with a curved blade, to cut grass next to a dirt path leading to his neighborhood. “See those people over there, talking?” he asked, gesturing to a lively group of men leaning on their hoes and laughing. “They haven’t met all week, and now they are meeting up. It helps a lot because the more you get to know each other, the more you’re socially connected.”
“Umuganda is helpful beyond cleanliness,” Zihiga continued. “For example, if we see someone who can’t afford health insurance, it’s 3,000 francs [National Insurance costs $3.50 per year for all Rwandans and is compulsory], and we hear about it then we can all contribute to try to raise the money. If we see an elderly person who is struggling, perhaps they need a new roof built, then people will help out to build it together.”
The hour-long meeting is a chance for communities to hash out issues and get information. Representatives from the health ministry or local clinics may deliver a short lecture on basic sanitation or avoiding malaria. At the community meeting in Kimana Village on February 25, 2017, a nurse gave a talk on children’s vitamins, and the neighborhood community officer, a former soldier, lectured about the dangers of drug use.
“If there are specific problems or social issues, like maybe a neighbor is making a lot of noise, you can say something about it, and the community members may decide to visit and see what the issue, is” said Zihiga. “They will ask you what is going on. You make sure you don’t want to look bad with the community because we are a community-based society. You don’t want to be isolated. This is a social commitment you have to have.”
The meeting is also an opportunity for residents to take part in the national “100 Program,” which encourages families to deposit at least 100 francs (12 cents) per month into a savings account. The community accountant keeps track of everyone’s contributions. There is no interest, but it has helped families save large amounts of money for school fees or national insurance, Kimana resident Yvonne Nshuti said. “It’s to help people change their minds and think about saving money,” she said.
Nshuti said she often looks forward to the last Saturday of every month. “I like Umuganda, we are happy to work and we meet up with friends,” she said. “Every morning we wake up and go to our jobs, we don’t get to see our friends.”
Despite the positivity surrounding the day, most people said that they came because it was a government mandate, and if the government stopped requiring attendance the tradition would probably fall apart.
“The government asked us to come; it is an order, so we have to respect that order,” said Nshuti.
Across the country, everyone takes part: policemen, politicians, Catholic nuns, businessmen, farmers, store owners, and students. Every Umuganda Saturday, more than 120 senior high school students from the Agahozo Shalom Youth Village in eastern Rwanda troop outside the school gates to join the local village in community work. The high school is modeled on Israel’s post-Holocaust youth villages, especially Yemin Orde in Haifa, and was founded by Anne Heyman, an American-Jewish philanthropist.
The school is renowned for its emphasis on creativity, including the first year of schooling, which is called “enrichment year.” It is a non-academic year focused on building community, helping students adjust, and ensuring that all of the students are on similar academic footing. The school recruits vulnerable teenagers from all 30 districts across Rwanda, so many come with emotional or psychological distresses.
One of the school’s core pillars is the concept of “Tikkun Halev/Tikkun Olam,” which translates as “Healing the Heart/Healing the World.”
“Tikkun Halev is about the family setup and enrichment year, how do you help yourself heal,” explained Jean Claude Nkulikiyimfura, the director of Agahozo Shalom. “After you have healed yourself, then Tikkun Olam is for the community.
“Tikkun Olam already exists in Rwandan culture,” he continued. “People have been doing work like Umuganda for 300 or 400 years.”
“Our traditions, like Umuganda, like gacaca — these are traditional things that have helped the country, bringing tremendous change,” said Zihiga, the bank worker in Kimana Village. “Gacaca” means “grass courts,” and refers to 1.9 million community court cases heard after the genocide in almost every village. In the same period of time, the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda heard 79 cases.
Zihiga believes other countries can replicate Rwanda’s community building through volunteer work. “We’re looking to our tradition, our tradition is Umuganda,” he said. “But all cultures have a way they used to live together. It’s about finding what used to bring the community together and modernizing it, but taking something that is inborn to the place.”
In February, after three hours of weeding and pruning under the sun, the Kimana neighborhood was ready to start its meeting. Residents slipped into a shaded grassy area and signed in on the attendance sheet, sitting quietly as they waited for the meeting to begin.
“It’s about helping each other,” said Moshe, a Kimana resident in his 20s, as he put down his hoe. “When it comes to something that requires more effort, like building a house, you can’t do it alone. If you help others, then they will help you when you need it.”