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Saturday, November 5, 2011


Today something incredible happened in Gihara, but to describe it I have to explain umuganda. To be honest, I’m surprised umuganda hasn’t come up earlier. My Kinyarwanda-English dictionary defines umuganda as simply “community work,” but Umuganda (capital U) is a practice that exemplifies Rwandan development rhetoric in action like nothing else I’ve seen. On the last Saturday of every month, shops and local businesses close down all over the country and everyone turns out en masse for community service. People do whatever needs to be done, from clearing roads and sweeping out gutters to weeding gardens and repainting buildings. Their compensation? The knowledge that they’re making their country more beautiful. It isn’t bottom-up development in the purest sense, but it is a policy that seems to have fostered a national culture of volunteerism that I find inspiring.

Though no one in Gihara really expects me to, I do my best to participate in umuganda. It’s sort of like working out or doing chores. I always feel better when I’ve done it, but I don’t really look forward to it and it never seems to get easier. People always think it’s hilarious that the muzungu wants to join in. It doesn’t help that I’m not particularly adept at doing “basic” tasks like cutting weeds with a machete. Last umuganda I got a blister on my hand from wielding a hoe with too much enthusiasm, effectively confirming everyone’s suspicions that I’m too delicate to do any real work. So you can imagine my consternation when I went out walking this morning on a day that was decidedly not the last Saturday of the month and got asked by every other person I met, for the first time, “Where are you going? Aren’t you doing umuganda?” After the tenth or eleventh person to question me I had to go back to the town center to investigate.

As it turned out, today was declared an extra day of umuganda for a special community project: the planting of dozens of trees all over the sector. All of my neighbors came out with hoes and shovels and ministry people distributed saplings from the back of a pickup truck. Then they went from one end of Gihara to the other together, alternately digging holes and planting. Soon I was swept up in the crowd. Someone handed me a sapling and a shovel. I’ve never volunteered to plant trees before in my life, but I think I’m going to start as soon as I get back to the States. It was exhilarating and surprisingly addictive, especially in a place as starved for shade as Gihara.

When all the trees were planted we convened at my school for a big celebration that included live music and traditional dancing and, of course, a lot of speeches by local officials. It was a hot, sticky, breezeless day and I was tired and covered in dirt but nonetheless, I was happy to be there. They say people join Peace Corps to change the world, but it felt good just to do my part alongside everyone else. I think that’s what bottom-up development probably feels like: everyone gets to plant a tree.