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Events

In:sight on Rwanda: Community spirit and culture

BI WORLDWIDE's Event Professionals Katrina Rannard and Teresa Allen were eager to get their hands dirty and discover more about Rwanda's community spirit as they took part in the monthly Umuganda morning, which coincided with their trip, as well as visiting the local villages.

Umuganda

Umuganda means ‘coming together for a common purpose to achieve an outcome’ and is a mandatory community service morning where all able-bodied inhabitants between the ages of 18 and 65 throughout the country are expected to participate. Shops close, public transport services stop and attendance is logged. President Paul Kagame and other government officials visit different communities each month and join in to show that the scheme is all about working together as a unit without any distinction of hierarchy levels. Whilst this law may seem a little dictatorial, it has proved to be a fantastic way to benefit local communities through cleaning the streets, developing environmental protection and building schools and medical centres to name just a few projects.  Umuganda has enabled Rwanda to become the leader in the ‘Green Movement’ throughout Africa and many foreign officials are coming to Rwanda to learn about their processes and procedures to benefit their own countries.

Katrina and Teresa joined 120 people from the local village where the morning task was to help build the foundations of a house for a poor widowed man and his five children. This involved carrying volcanic rocks gathered from the nearby fields to the plot site to build the base for the mud-brick walls to be constructed upon.

Teresa comments: “Not only were the rocks heavy and cumbersome to hold, but the plot was located down a ludicrously steep hillside accessed via an undulating, thin mud path. The locals put us to shame carrying rocks on their heads that were four times the size of ours and some of the women also had babies strapped to their backs! We certainly felt rather inadequate and weak in comparison to how easily they undertook the task. It was eye-opening to say the least and we gained instant respect for this hard-working and strong nation.”

The volunteering concluded with a meeting where the locals gathered to hear from both the local leader and government secretary. Whilst this is an opportunity to discuss local issues and to put forward ideas for future projects, the leader reiterates the importance of Umuganda and highlights that everyone’s effort as a team benefits the poor and boosts the community spirit.

After the normal formalities had taken place, Teresa and Katrina were asked to give a speech, which was translated by a community leader. Katrina comments: ‘It was an honour to have had the opportunity to take part in Umuganda and the locals made us feel very special and that our help was appreciated. We explained how we felt good to have the opportunity to help and how they must feel this sense even stronger by helping their own community and neighbours, to which they all clapped and nodded their heads looking at one another. When we said that we thought they were fitter and healthier than we were they laughed out loud! Whilst it was hard work, it was a very worthwhile and rewarding experience.”

Whilst speaking with a community leader, he explained: “the locals no longer need a law to continue Umuganda, no-one is waiting for the President to tell them what to do, the initiative is fully bedded in and they feel empowered and self-driven to learn the needs of their neighbours and to provide a better community for themselves.”

For Meetings, Incentives, Conferences and Events groups visiting Rwanda it is possible, like Katrina and Teresa, to join in with local Umuganda projects or indeed if travel dates fall outside of this, a bespoke project can be organised through the local community leaders to ensure that the needs of the area are met.

We speak about peace building at Umuganda and in our families. We help vulnerable families on all sides.

  • Wvariste
  • Association Path of Peace

The local villages

As Katrina and Teresa journeyed from Kigali to the north of the country, they noticed many cultural differences. Teresa comments: “People walk absolutely everywhere. We were astounded that during a three hour journey there was barely a section of road where we didn’t see somebody walking or pushing a bike laden with large precarious items, from enormous sacks of potatoes to six or so large containers of water.  Rwandans also carry all manner of objects on their heads, from large cabbages to car doors! Everyone seems to have a purpose, everyone is on the move from A to B and whilst every journey seems to be very manual and physical it results in an active, fit and healthy nation that puts most of the western world to shame. In the area we visited, even women who are pregnant walk an hour to the hospital a day before their due date, in the hope that they will make it in time.

“We were also struck by how many young children of about five years old were either unaccompanied or walking with their peers or slightly older siblings to school. We were told that it isn’t uncommon for children from the age of four to wander up to 5km away from their homes without supervision because the local community is so tight-knit that the children would be identified and taken back home if necessary.

“Wherever we went the children rushed to the side of the road to wave at us and shout hello and they got great enjoyment from us waving back and acknowledging them. Seeing the children full of joy and excitement from a homemade toy made from a stick and cut plastic bottle to push along a tyre hoop was also a reality check as to how materialistic our culture can be and sometimes the simplest of things can bring the greatest pleasure to a child.”

Katrina added: “The people were very friendly and they liked to greet us by shaking hands. We felt very safe in Rwanda. In Kigali there were thorough security checks, but we were never pestered by the locals or hassled in any way. During our time in the north, we visited a cultural village where we learned hands-on various techniques on how to weave baskets and make banana beer, which is 12%! Without any machines to assist, we made it look hard work, and it was hard work, although the local ladies whizzed through the processes with ease.”

Living off the land

Rwanda is often referred to as ‘The Land of a Thousand Hills’ and 90% of the land is utilised for growing crops. Katrina comments: “There isn’t any wasteland and they farm from the bottom of the hills all the way to the top with different crops grown at different heights, making the terrain resemble a patchwork quilt. The landscape at every single point offers stunning vistas. Families are self-sufficient and live off their land by growing everything from beans and potatoes to avocadoes and bananas. The locals work hard, cultivating crops on steep terrain. In the small villages there is usually a shop where they sell basic packaged produce such as cooking oil, otherwise they have to walk 40 minutes to an hour to get to the next biggest town which will sell other items like clothes and manufactured goods. Although there are undulating hills in all directions, 98% of the roads we experienced were superbly maintained and on these there wasn’t a pothole in sight, which puts the UK to shame!”

Learning from Rwanda

At every step of the journey, Teresa and Katrina felt like Rwanda is leading by example in regards to their eco-friendly ethics, law-abiding morals and principles in looking after their country with pride. Teresa comments: “I definitely think Rwanda is streaks ahead of the rest of the world both in their commitment to their community spirit and their dedication to looking after their land. The 2007 plastic bag ban shows just how far ahead they are. Every two days the roads are swept so everywhere looks pristine. The grass and trees alongside the roads in Kigali are manicured to near perfection and the law against dropping litter means the cleanliness of the city is a refreshing change to other destinations in the world. There is certainly a lot that we can learn from Rwanda.”

Katrina and Teresa experienced some unforgettable moments in the rural areas of Rwanda, which included Golden Monkey Trekking and a pinch-yourself moment of Gorilla Trekking. Read our next blog to learn more.

Check out Katrina and Teresa's pictures take during their trip on our Pinterest Board.

In:sight on Rwanda: Looking at the past to understand the future

In:sight on Rwanda: Amongst the wilderness

In:sight on Rwanda: What it has to offer for the MICE industry

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