The last Saturday of every month in Rwanda is Umuganda, or community service. All across Rwanda, in every community, people come together to work for a few hours on something important in their community, and then they have a meeting about issues facing the community. Umuganda could be leveling ground for a new school building, building a water ditch, fixing a road, or various other things. But everyone is supposed to come: you can be fined for not attending; all the stores are closed, and Saturday market day is moved to Friday.
I went to July’s Umuganda for the first time in Rusizi. Sister Adelinde walked me over to where they were breaking ground for a new house, introduced me to the mayor, and then she walked home to do her umuganda at the church. It was like that moment when you’re dropped off at kindergarten for the first time and you see your Mom making her way towards the door.
The 50 or so people who were there stopped working and just stared at me for a good ten minutes. No one spoke. Just blank stares. I took a deep breath and tried to quell the urge to run home. I grabbed a hoe and started digging. More people arrived, and more stares ensued. I finally broke the ice by making a lame joke: a guy working next to me had a shirt with “USA” and an American flag on it, and I asked if he was “umunyamerika” like me. It was crazy to see the difference this little gesture made. People laughed (a lot harder than was deserved by the aforementioned joke), people came up to me and asked me questions in kinyarwanda, and several young women pulled me aside during a break and told me they wanted to be friends—when could I come visit them? I was overjoyed.
It’s not perfect, but I think the idea of Umuganda is really wonderful, and it’s funny thinking about what Umuganda would look like in the U.S. First of all, no one would show up at 8 am on a Saturday. Secondly, there would have to be some big registration event in advance. Thirdly, there would definitely have to be doughnuts and coffee involved. You’d get a t-shirt at the end with the event’s corporate sponsors listed on the back. And there would probably be a lawsuit involved if the U.S. government ever mandated even one community service event. While I’m being a little facetious, I really think Umuganda is an amazing idea, and that America could learn a thing or two from it. Just get past the staring.