I’ve been told that Rwanda functions relatively efficiently for an African country, partly due to the authoritarian government. For instance, plastic bags are banned in an effort to preserve the environment, and no one’s supposed to refer to the “Tutsi” or “Hutu” ethnicities out loud in an effort to further national reconciliation since the genocide of 1994. Everyone is Rwandan. Period.
The strong hand of the government regarding community cohesion and environmental issues was apparent as soon as I arrived in Kigali. It was “Umuganda” – the monthly, mandatory day of community service. It’s the last Saturday of the month, 8am-11am. Everyone 18- to 65-years-old is expected to do yard work in public parks or help the community in some other way. (The start of this practice goes back to colonial times.) Business stops, public transportation is limited. There were no cars on the road. Our driver had a special government permit that allowed him to drive our diplomatic mission around, but every few minutes we were stopped by police barricades, and he had to show his permit. The police presence was everywhere. I’m told that not everyone is on-board with Umuganda, and it’s not uncommon for people to hide in their houses until it’s over.
– Rhonda Fleischer is Cultural Orientation Coordinator at RSC Africa (Resettlement Support Center Africa), which is run by Church World Service.