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Go Africa: Rwanda could be Africa’s cleanest country thanks to ‘Umuganda’

Rwanda’s “Umuganda” program is contributing to the transformation of the country. Citizens below the age of 65 participate in community service which is a way of bringing people together, and caring for the environment.

Three months ago, I discovered this most curious Rwandan practice called “Umuganda”,  which loosely translates as “working together”.

According to Rwandapedia, “Close to 80 percent of Rwandans take part in monthly community work.” While the city council is largely responsible for the clean Kigali streets, citizens are conscious about keeping their respective property and areas clean.

As a Kenyan who would walk past Nairobi’s dirty streets, I wonder if such a program would work back home

Umuganda began in the ’90s and takes place every last Saturday of the month, between 8am and 11am. Citizens come together to clean and maintain their community. Some of the tasks include cutting grass in fields, repairing bridges, building homes for widows and even book drives in certain neighbourhoods. During the Umuganda hours, circulation of traffic is stopped for non-essential movements except for expatriates, medical and military personnel on duty or people seeking medical attention.

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Rwanda is a country that cares deeply about the environment, tidiness and the enforcement of rules. The thing that impressed me most about this program is that people actually turn up, and your plastic bags will be confiscated as I learned during a recent visit to the country. You see, as a Kenyan who would walk past Nairobi’s nauseatingly dirty streets, I wonder if such a program would work in Kenya where community service is not as prominent in the way it is in Rwanda.

President Paul Kagame joins residents in Umuganda to build homes for the needy. Photo: Paul Kagame Flickr

I realized that Umuganda works because there’s a sense of duty and discipline in Rwanda that citizens are encouraged to employ. No one is coerced into doing the work, but in seeing your neighbours and friends contributing in some way, one feels compelled to jump in and help. Expatriates can also take part if they wish, but the program largely calls on locals to take care of their own communities.

Every time I go to Rwanda, I am reminded that Africa should and can expect more from its people. Rwanda’s Umuganda is a testament to the fact that citizens can change their communities.

If Rwanda were a High School student, she would be Head Girl for being clean, conscientious and all about community service. If only her East African classmates and their neighbours (Uganda, Kenya, S. Sudan, Tanzania, Ethiopia) would follow her lead.

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