Last Saturday 31st March, the road to Bugesera was lined with earthmoving machines that were impatiently revving their engines, as they waited for the visitors to pass. They were not doing their usual duty of paving and surfacing the road because that day the road was not being used by ordinary visitors: President Pierre Nkurunziza of Burundi was visiting Bugesera, the south-eastern part of Rwanda, accompanied by his host, President Paul Kagame of Rwanda.
From the ‘Sonatube’ roundabout of Kicukiro, in Kigali, to Imurehe-Rutete at the border with Burundi, the road is in patchworks of dug-up sections, smoothened murram pieces and finished parts that are surfaced with tarmac. The whole length of the road is a beehive of activity, with machines scooping up the earth and others flattening the surface as yet others cover it with tarmac, while people swam the sides to dig up ditches and pave the drainage system with stones.
The Kigali-Nyamata-Rutete road symbolises Rwanda, the country, as a work in busy progress. On that particular day, President Paul Kagame was taking his visiting Burundian counterpart to the countryside so that together they could participate in community work, known in Kinyarwanda as ‘Umuganda’. And so, deep into the Muyange village, the two presidents folded their sleeves and took up hoes to work with the peasants on digging trenches that would hold the rainwater, which would otherwise drain away the top soil and compound the problem of desertification.
Umuganda takes place on the last Saturday of every month and is one of the many aspects of Rwanda’s old tradition that the leadership is putting back to the service of the people, together with others like Gacaca, Abunzi, Ubudehe, etc. Scoffed at at the beginning as an imitation of the political mobilisation ruse used by past dictators to impart militancy into the populace and charge them against perceived enemies, it has proved to be a popular and positive tool that contributes to the socio-economic healing of Rwandans. Those who had equated it to Umuganda of the Habyarimana regime and ‘Salongo Alinga Musala’ of the Mobutu era in the then-Zaïre (today’s D. R. Congo), which used them as hate-campaign opportunities against ‘hostile ethnicities’ among their people, have found out different.
In coming together in the morning of the last Saturday of the month, or Sunday for those, like the Seventh Day Adventists, who go to church on Saturday, the people are able to put their energies together to work on anything of common interest. It may be a bridge or road to connect two villages, recreation area for the children of the village, houses for vulnerable groups like genocide widows or orphans, or it may be to clear the overgrowth of a common path. In all cases, work will have been done without having to dip into the stretched resources of the local government, which are then freed to go into rendering a service that together they are unable to afford.
Moreover, what may not be noticed is that, for a people who only thirteen years ago disembowelled themselves into near-total collapse, perhaps what is of crucial importance is that Umuganda can bring these people together at all! In a country where one section of the people almost succeeded in totally annihilating another, it is a near-miracle that the same people can work together for a common purpose. This working together necessarily generates an exchange of ideas, and it is in exchanging ideas and identifying common problems that the process of what was one time thought impossible is slowly but surely taking root: the reconciliation of Rwandans.
On top of this is the fact that, parallel to the above processes (optimal use of state funds and reconciliation), the people on every ridge and in every valley are beginning to think of tackling the problems of their communities, and appreciating the results of their efforts, as Rwandans and not as Bahutu, Batutsi or Batwa. This, in an environment of decentralisation, but where the central leadership is in close partnership with local administrations, has created a sense of ownership where every individual can identify with the processes that are evolving in the country. It is thus that a feeling of patriotism is pervading the hearts of Rwandans and catching on at a rate that may not be that easily noticeable.
Of course, most of the outside opinion will want to continue seeing Rwanda through the lenses that for long they have come to trust. Interested observers of Rwanda, most times for self-serving purposes, have always been happy to see Rwanda plunged in prolonged anarchy, because then they were able to expertly explain off the sources of such mayhem. Because Rwanda was originally a country of serfs and feudal chiefs, they aver, the country can only live in attendance of a cycle of genocides.
They say this well knowing that the system that existed in Rwanda before the advent of colonialism, imperfections not withstanding, accorded every Munyarwanda equal access to protection and the then available resources and services, through the participation of everyone. By any stretch of imagination, such could not be called a feudal system in the classical sense. In any case, most of the feudal systems of Europe have grown into modern-day welfare states and exemplary-performer economies.
By segmenting Rwandans into classes, one ruling and another one ruled, these self-made experts continue, the colonialists succeeded in tearing the social fabric of Rwanda and the only hope that exists lies in creating a ‘Hutuland’ alongside a ‘Tutsiland’, especially as overpopulation will always be a source of conflict. Lopsided as this line of thinking may be, it does not remember to cater for the Batwa, even if it were to ignore the importance of Rwandans’ shared culture, language, traditional religion, etc. as proof of a people who have lived together since their existence.
This line of thinking also cites the pogroms that marked Rwanda at independence and the departure of the colonialists, and after, to lend credence to their explanations that Rwandans are of diverse origins. These self-styled analysts refuse to see that as the common problem of all colonised countries at independence. After all, it is known that the victims of those pogroms, who were forced into exile, generally continued to live as Banyarwanda in their refugee camps, which they had turned into miniature ‘Rwandas’, especially in the countries ringing their homeland.
Many more other sham theories are advanced than are deserving of mention here of course but, in contrast, by observing the passion with which Rwandans and their leaders come together in a simple activity like Umuganda, one gets a sense of a people who have long been misunderstood. And this misconception may not only be confined to foreigners but, interestingly, may be shared by many Rwandans. Some of them espouse it because they are blinded by their fervent hatred of the current leadership, but there are also those who, even if appreciative of the current government efforts at reconciliation, are sceptical that the past will not come back to haunt Rwanda.
What all these negative forces and doubting Thomases do not realise is that the bond that binds Rwandans together is too deeply ingrained to be uprooted, once rediscovered. Rwanda has rediscovered this bond and continues to discover its ramifications, hence, Umuganda, which can be seen as the symbol of all Rwandans pooling their energies and resources to rebuild their country. And, as again symbolised by the presence of President Pierre Nkurunziza in Umuganda of Mayange last March, they will not stop there: Rwandans are going further a-field to embrace neighbours in an integration campaign that seeks not only to uplift the well-being of the people of the region but also those of Africa.
A reconciled, united people enjoying unprecedented peace, and working in concert for prosperity, is a formidable force that will find no trouble shaking off the mightiest enemy, including a super power like France that has resorted to diversionary tactics of blaming the Rwandan leadership for the death of their erstwhile tormentor, ex-president Habyarimana! Any noises that are aimed at diverting attention from the set objectives should be ignored.
With western capitalism noticing the Rwandan potential, through the relentless efforts of the country’s leaders, Rwanda has risen to the occasion to woo the corporate world for a partnership in the fight against poverty. And Ambassador Andrew Young, former American envoy to the UN, expresses their support when he says: “…..we can make capitalism and free enterprise system relevant to the poor and, ultimately, …make it work for the poor.”
In this season of grieving, there are no better prospects for re-enforcing the slogan: “Never Again!” to genocide.