umuganda and shopping

on the last saturday of every month, rwanda closes down for business and all able-bodied men and women, and some not-so-able-bodied, pull out their hoes and machetes and stick brooms and attack the streets, roads, and footpaths for what’s known as umuganda – “community service”. potholes are filled. grass is cut. shoulders are cleared. dirt paths are swept (yes, rwandans are so clean they sweep their dirt). as foreigners we’re not expected to participate, but to respect this collective community development project by not going anywhere or doing anything (and because everything is shut down we can’t really do anything anyway). i’ve now been around for six umugandas, which means almost six months. typically we sleep in, make a nice breakfast and mark papers while around us is a beehive of activity. last month however, we decided to participate in our way. we borrowed hoes and machetes (we already have a stick broom) from the school and attacked our jungle of a backyard.

there are two methods of grass cutting here. if you just want to trim it down, you use an odd-shaped machete that’s long with a bend at the end, and you swing it back and forth a few inches above the ground. super fun and very effective, but watch the back swing. if you want to clear out the weeds you use a hoe, chop everything and rake out what you’ve chopped (using the hoe because you don’t have a rake). when you’re done you have a nice rototilled patch of dirt that you can plant stuff in or you can wait till the rain flattens it and then sweep it with your stick broom to make something like a cement-free patio or the closest thing musha gets to a sidewalk.

the sight of two mazungus in raggedy t-shirts and shorts carrying hoes and machetes down the road was too much for some of our students. the prefet de discipline, mugisha, who’s in charge of umuganda around here, sent fifteen students over to do what we were about to do for ourselves. can’t have the whites doing manual labor now can we. after unsuccessfully trying to turn them away, we let them join our efforts, blared some swahili hip-hop that amanda picked up in tanzania, and hit the yard. redid the front garden, put in some flowers (finally!), chopped down waist-high bramble patches, hoed the back, picked up rocks and had a pitching contest with them. by the time we’d finished we had a crowd of about ten kids peeking over the fence laughing at our antics and taking sides on which mazungu, the big one or the small one, could get the rock in the blue bucket first. i won.

here are some pics of my beloved housemate, just to break up the massive amount of text that is this entry.

our living room slash office at the rapsida performance in all her glory

the success of this event has led us to decide that umuganda cannot happen just once a month chez-nous, but should be a weekly event. we call it ‘uzuganda’ or mazungu umuganda. each week we do general cleaning and one project – reorganize the kitchen or clean the windows or put up a shelf in the bathroom or chop the grass or whatever seems to need doing. it’s a nice way to get my mind off marking papers and make me feel like a real person. and it gets mugisha and the director off our backs for having a sloppy yard.

it’s only really possible these days because we don’t have to go the market in rwamagana twice a week. miracle of miracles, we’ve found vegetables in musha. despite everyone telling us otherwise, you can buy quite a range of food here, though it is rather unpredictable. there aren’t many reliable shops. instead, you just knock on someone’s front door and ask them if they’ve got any tomatoes in the back garden they want to sell. sometimes they’ll say no, but will tell you where to go. often they’ve got a stash of potatoes or flour or bananas for sale. amanda’s made friends with a little girl named francine who’s father can be relied upon to sell us whatever he’s got that day. one day a few weeks ago, she jokingly asked francine if she had any carrots (which seem to be something of a delicacy around here). kind of like asking for ice cream in a house with a dirt floor, mud walls, a pile of potatoes in one corner and fly-ridden bananas in the other. francine smiled, shook her finger, and said ‘uh uh’, which is a typical rwandan way of saying no but appears as though she’s scolding amanda for being silly. then she grabbed her hand and led her up the street, through a gate, behind a house, to an enormous garden full of loads and loads of vegetables. a woman came out and francine, who’s about eight, translated that the muzungu was looking for carrots. the woman grabbed amanda’s hand (much easier to drag someone along than to give directions, isn’t it) and took her into the garden, pulled out twelve enormous carrots from the ground and sold them to her for a hundred francs (about twenty cents). turns out this place is run by nuns from the church and they’ve got onions, cabbage, lettuce (!), spinach, corn, tomatoes, you name it.

so now instead of hauling food up the mountain on my back twice a week, i just hop up the road to the sisters’ garden, chat a bit and play with the kids, and come back with whatever’s in season. fresh and cheap. we’ve also given names to the ‘shops’ in musha, such as chez francine, the green curtain, hole in the rock, chuck-y-cheese, amata, and bright light big city. the other benefit to this garden discovery, outside of uzuganda and getting to know the locals, is that i can spend more time hanging out with the students – watching sports events, attending anti-aids club performances, and just chatting in the road. the downside is that i don’t make it to the internet cafe quite as often. hope you’ll forgive me.

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~ by aliciawolcott on June 30, 2007.

One Response to “umuganda and shopping”

  1. Uraho !

    I finally take sometime to leave a message here. I’ve been reading your blog for sometime. Great to have some words and pictures to remind me of the time spent in Rwanda.

    Great that you finally went for Umuganda ! I can imagine the fun it might have been to see two bazungu cleaning. I tried to do that a couple of times, but there was always a bad reason not to do it. i shoul dhave tried harder …

    Take care and keep writing !

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