It is before 8:00 am on a foggy Saturday morning and all is a buzz on the streets of Kigali. A quick jaunt through the immaculate and tranquil neighborhood of Kacyiru finds children, youth, and even the elderly out and about porting various tools and equipment as they happily make their way through tree lined paths towards the valleys of the city a thousand hills. Their specific destinations vary but their goal is the same. In Rwanda, there is a mandatory community service day from 8:00am to 11:00am on the last Saturday of each month called Umuganda and everyone, even us foreign visitors participating in American University’s recent alternative break trip, seem to have willingly joined the party.
In a country marred by the shadows of it’s divisive history many outsiders may find it hard to envision Rwandans electing to gather together in an effort to collaborate towards a shared goal, yet this nuanced ‘day-today’ characterization is epitomized in the intricacies of Rwandan culture. The meaning of the pre- colonial cultural tradition of umunsi w’umuganda is to contribute to building the country by citizens themselves. By law all able bodied persons above the age of 18 and below 65 regardless of occupation, ethnicity, or class, are expected to participate in volunteer community work.
Still today, and even amongst the well educated echelons of Western developed countries, when one mentions Rwanda, or even Africa, the different stereotypical conceptions range from barren and desolate landscapes to lawless urban slums populated by starving children and governed by unscrupulous warlords. Pundits and policy makers, by and large, have condemned many African nations for developing on a continuum of dependency to foreign aid. This is no less true for Rwanda (one of the top recipients of U.S. and foreign aid packages for almost two decades). The purpose here is not to invalidate those stereotypes whose meanings hold little truth, nor is it to totalize the continent into comfortable categories. The reality on the ground is a far cry from the textbook analysis offered in both academia and diplomacy.
Their criticism is not only misplaced, it is contradictory to their understanding of the relationship between conflict, social healing, and development in across the continent as a whole. On a recent trip to the Great Lakes Region, US Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power along with other Security Council delegates toured the children’s wing of the Gisozi Genocide Memorial in Rwanda. Power’s Deputy Jeffrey De Laurentis simultaneously praised the “relatively calm and stable environment in Rwanda” while also implicating the state in “the waves created by the genocide” as a continuous disruption to regional stability in connection to the “unspeakable horrors occurring in neighboring countries on the verge of genocide”. Referring to the various militia groups infiltrating Rwanda from bases in the east of the of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, he cited the threat of rebel presence in nearly the same breath as a proclamation to a new undefined “commitment to the Rwandan people”. As if this was a foreseeable, necessary, or even desirable supposition. Invariably, the current situation in the Central African Republic has also sucked in thousands of mercenaries from neighbouring countries and is now warned to be “on the verge of genocide” yet many powerful UN diplomats would struggle to find the country on a map let alone appear to be advocating on their behalf to the Security Council. To confuse matters further, De Laurenti’s statements came shortly after the U.S. State Department halted its military aid to Rwanda because of the country’s support for the M23 rebel group, who is believed to be using child soldiers in the neighboring Democratic Republic of the Congo. ‘Never Again’ appears to be resurfacing the horizon of another African nation while the international community prepares only for a repetitious letdown of intercultural faith.
The truth is that foreign policy makers responsible for supplemental development funding and humanitarian intervention often retain a modicum of knowledge on the modalities of collective identity when it comes to protracted social conflict in Africa. In Rwanda, the culmination of the 1994 genocide brought about a dynamic new epoch whose successes and/or failures still remain up for debate by measures by perceptive observations rather than empirical data (let alone political rhetoric). What remain salient are the stories of those living through the struggles on the ground, of those individuals engaging with the small day-to-day activities often forgotten and diluted by the foreign media reports.
What Rwandans have taken part of is an amazing evolution led both by grassroots-level civil society groups alongside national government initiatives to eradicate genocide ideology. Sixteen years after the atrocities and the simultaneous abandonment by the international community, Rwanda still seems to be emerging as a regional leader. Not coincidentally, this trend towards rapid macro-level political, economic, and social restructuring has occurred simultaneously with massive foreign aid packages from the United States and other foreign agencies. While at the state level Rwanda remains to be considered the ‘donor darling’ of many foreign aid agencies like USAID, DFID, GTZ and the like, in the field many practitioners are beginning to argue that it is young civilians who exhibit a special kind of energy and willingness to embrace change. The overwhelming support of citizens advocating for social change through outreach, education, and the empowerment of stakeholders like youth are increasingly being spotlighted for their potential ability to work towards sustainable peace. Other localized Rwandan rehabilitation processes such as the famed Gacaca systemare not without their own controversies, however, the trajectory for Rwanda has been generally positive especially in in light of the government’s unyielding support for policies bolstering genocide-prevention advocacy, economic growth, and civic participation.
Never the less, and especially as a Western student of peace and conflict resolution, it is difficult to get through a full day in Rwanda and not hear someone mention the word ‘trauma’. After our group’s trip to the country, my experiences in talking more intimately with Rwandans leads me to believe that most individuals recognize how greatly the population was, and still is, affected by the genocide. Today, survivors and perpetrators alike are struggling to prosper in the legacy of their humanitarian crisis.
Perhaps this is the genesis for Umuganda. Dr. Nancy Morrow-Howell of Washington University has conducted many of the relevant studies showing that community service provides clear health and psychological benefits, including greater longevity, reduced depression, and a greater sense of purpose. “Service enables them to find their value outside their own suffering,” says Barbara Van Dahlen, the founder of Give an Hour, a group of mental-health counselors who work with veterans, headquartered in Bethesda, Md. In the U.S., a country where support for community service is spotty at best and generally condemned to those unfit for actual employment, it is rare to find an honest critique of how service minded projects relate to our own individual and interpersonal development. Only recently has the conversation about a national service program progressed to a wider audience. Time magazine’s collaboration with the Aspen Institute’s Franklin Project chaired by General Stanley McCrystal is one example. The crux of their project is to jump start the evolution of balancing civilian and military service, a civic relationship indistinguishable to most Rwandans.
When it comes to traumatic experiences the consensus seems to be that those who keep themselves busy fare better than those who languish in the repugnance of their situation. Worst off are the young people whose lives are truncated by the loss of elders, parents, and mentors. Having something to care about and to recommit to allows civic participants the opportunity to feel better about their future, an issue none too familiar to the developing world. In light of the recent research, it seems that Rwandans are decades ahead of us in working towards social healing.
Interacting with Rwandans about their experiences working towards greater prosperity in the essence of what happened reveals a sense that many citizens realize the magnitude in which their lives were ultimately altered by the burden to understand the roots of their conflict but also prevent such atrocities in the future. In terms of conflict resolution, peace is driven by the characteristics of creativity and critical thinking; traits particular to successful ‘bottom up’ processes. Not ironically, many grassroots level leaders and policy makers have recently begun to argue that one of the most important forces in the evolution of positive development has been the strategic empowerment of persuasive individuals for participation. Resiliency is a byproduct of environment, opportunity, and individual commitment. It is more than a learnt behavior or personal human quality.
As a scholar-practitioner myself, I struggle with positioning the desire to understand with that of being purposeful yet the foremost important takeaway that the Rwandan stories have provided me is that reconciliation and conflict transformation, be it on a personal or community wide level, is a collaborative process. Much like proving resiliency, it takes time and commitment to the cause. Rwanda has transformed in so many ways it is near impossible to correlate Umuganda directly to the reconciliation processes, however, there is a subliminal connection here somewhere.
While it is entirely hypocritical to make the assumption that experienced trauma renders us vulnerable to future despair, Rwandans are not ashamed of their past; they embrace opportunities to share their stories and identify challenges they still face. This is exactly what is necessitated through the connection between Umuganda and social transformation: in the face of adversity we should not shy away but rather search again for a new purpose, work together, and lean on our community and shared values where they still exist.
Much is missing from the reconciliation and development process in Rwanda and they have challenges ahead still. Yet, mark my words, despite the pivotal outcome of either meeting boisterous goals for economic growth or outlawing ethnic identity, ten, twenty, maybe even thirty years from now we will still find people marching up the hill from Boulevard de l’Umuganda before dawn on their day off maybe dragging machetes and rakes, singing songs, and holding hands to celebrate what it means to be Rwandan.