I am plopped on our sticky leather couch in a pink negligee dreading the fact that it is Umuganda Saturday here in Rwanda. A quick glance outside reveals a traditionally-dressed family headed to church (presumably the Protestant congregation not far from our house) and a man carrying what looks to be a stack full of eggs to a shop nearby. I think about frittatas, huevos rancheros, and eggs benedict. Delicious. Especially with some Louisiana hot sauce.
Clearly, I’m hungry.
Too bad I ate oatmeal, peanut butter, banana, and a handful of almonds approximately 20 minutes ago. Oops?
Putting my stomach aside, I sip lukewarm coffee. Though the roads appear empty, I can almost hear the foot traffic slowly approaching the newly-built market across the way. Neighbors in our particular community will gather soon to engage in a morning of community service. This happens every month (on the last Saturday) in Rwanda. It’s mandatory, roads shut down, and everyone better be there. I read recently that around 80% of Rwandans show up and so certainly, you can skip out or perhaps pay someone to attend for you. Alternatively, you can just go and expect that from around 8:00am until late morning you will be working manually, watching others do the same, and followed by local authorities disseminating news, announcements, and discussions that members of the community need to have.
Umuganda is translated as, “coming together for a purpose to achieve a common outcome,” and from what I have been told, has been around as a cultural unifier for a long time. It hasn’t always been mandated; it was simply considered the social responsibility of every Rwandan to attend. It undeniably has done great things for the country; when I lived in Kayonza, our community projects involved the health center, fixing the road, and helping re-construct parts of the school.
Umuganda is an admirable institution and frequently toted to be a brilliant approach to community integration; however, I am also not afraid to deglamorize the reality of what may happen.
Not everyone works; some sit on the side to watch. Some sleep in, work at home, or maintain their own schedule. When talking to a friend about this, he commented, “Umuganda! I have never been once in my life.” Also, the projects seem a bit…unclear? Once, in Kayonza, we moved rocks from one location to another. I never found out why. We just did it for about 3 hours and they sat there for the next 14 months that I lived there. So, while it’s a valuable cultural tie, it’s not perfect. Nothing ever is.
I imagine the kind of scene that will happen when Julie and I roll in with our athletic clothes and sunglasses. Because many people observe intensely from the side of the road during service work, they’ll whisper and wonder and offer up husbands. Creepy men will make some kind of inappropriate comments at some point. A lingering hand-hold, a slurring of words, get excited.
And so, confession. I don’t really want to go. Yet, our room-mate just confirmed, it’s on. Get your shoes. Get your sunscreen. Let’s go. I suppose I should get out of these PJ’s, eh?
I’m glad I went. I trudged out of the house with Julie and we went to meet the group gathered just 20 feet away from our gate. Umuganda had begun; 60-ish men and women were together with dust particles and dirt sediment filing the air quickly. The task for this particular Saturday would be moving cement-filled-rocks and dust from the top of a hill into the middle of the road. Yes, the same road that we run on, walk on, and take motorcycles on, occasionally. Perplexed, we have grabbed shovels and got a couple of digs in.
After about 15 minutes, we picked up some trash (Kigali, yes, is crazy clean, but still has bottles, pants (a real find), and other intriguing garbage pressed into the soil at times) and then aimlessly joined the circle of people listening to the community discussion topics for the day. Proposing an opportunity to create a cooperative-driven market, leaders encouraged all to begin contributions towards a general fund. Money is hoped to be used to develop the shops, stalls, and even purchase a car to pick-up food so that they could generate larger returns on their food profits. The sun started to beat heavily, so as skepticism was raised toward the suggested amount, Julie and I found solace in shade nearby.
Glancing around, a particular woman caught my eye. With deeply frayed skin, I thought about the long days she may have had outside; perhaps fields that she has seen, work she has done in the soil. She stood by and in a few short minutes, introduced herself to us. We laughed; when I asked her name she looked on like I was crazy. In slow Kinyarwanda she told us that her name was simply ‘Mama Chirabo,’ as that’s how names for mothers are given around here. Everyone is Mama depending on the name of your child. For example, my own mother would be called ‘Mama Heather’ with preference deferred to the elder of siblings.
Mama Chirabo pulled us in a side conversation and jumped quickly into her story. This happens in Rwanda – but not all the time, at least with the kinds of things she was telling us. She showed us the scars on her body, and they were numerous from damage during the Ntambara she said, that is, the Genocide. We didn’t get a fuller version of the story until later. Our neighbor that helps us around the house in the case of rain leaks or faucet issues decided to follow Mama Chirabo home so we would know how to go and visit her when we had the time.
He returned a couple hours later.
When he did, he shook his head in incredulity. She has so many problems he told us. Her story weaved in and out of the Congo, involved her losing 6 of her 9 children, and even included the intense, unbelievable situation of her being stabbed – fully – and surviving. This woman has been through hell.
I stood with my mouth wide open in our spacious, white kitchen when our friend filled in more about her story. I couldn’t believe it. I couldn’t believe that a little, old woman, still walking around with a good amount of strength had been through all that. My heart ached and hurt just thinking of where her life may have taken her.
There’s stories like that all over the place. Rwanda doesn’t have the monopoly on this. Think about it. Each and every person you pass daily has been through something – Genocide or not. Rwanda awakens your conscience on a different kind of level, but it doesn’t change the fact that everyone is battling something, everyone has had their heart broken at some point.
Still, there are people in pain, in trauma, in hopelessness all around us. It’s important to remember that they are there, and they are waiting to be heard. Waiting to be seen. Waiting to be loved.
That’s why I love writing, that’s why I like exploring, making new friends, and paying attention.
I didn’t want to go to Umuganda, and yet if I hadn’t, we wouldn’t have had the chance to hear those stories or have those reminders. Goes to show that you never know what might happen.
He isn’t arbitrary in where you are or who you are with. We don’t have to like it all the time. Sometimes, our life situations can be uncomfortable, less than ideal, or even extremely difficult. Sometimes, we have seasons of loneliness that never feel like they will end, or waves of doubt. Yet, all of those comings and goings are fleeting. He is permanent; He is right there with us.
Psalm 102:27 says, But you remain the same, and your years will never end.
I hope to visit that old woman soon. To be honest, I’m not sure what we would say. But I know we would listen. I know we would make sure she knew she was seen. More than that, I would thank God for the chance to know her and to know her story. It’s a story of suffering. But even in the midst of her explanation the other day at Umuganda, I am certain she knows that God has not left her. I could sense that, and that gave me hope.