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Notes on Coming to Rwanda

By Dolapo Aina
01 September 2015   |   9:29 am
As the plane entered Rwandan airspace; I could see the hilly landscape of the land of a thousand hills called Rwanda. Was I apprehensive as to what new transformation I would encounter? Not at all. Succinctly put, one comes to accept the fact that Rwanda is a country that is constantly on the move; economically,…

As the plane entered Rwandan airspace; I could see the hilly landscape of the land of a thousand hills called Rwanda. Was I apprehensive as to what new transformation I would encounter? Not at all. Succinctly put, one comes to accept the fact that Rwanda is a country that is constantly on the move; economically, technologically, education-wise and not forgetting infrastructure-wise. This invariably means that, you would always spot something new, which you are sure; was not in place during your previous visit(s).

Without being grandiloquent with words; Rwanda reminds me of a Nelson Mandela quote-it is impossible until it is done.
Within minutes of arrival; I had chatted with several Nigerians (especially a lady who works up country close to the Congo border.) You see, Nigerians abound in Rwanda as Federal Government experts who train or partner with some institutions; Nigerian professionals and consultants in the corporate world or self-employed Nigerians e.g. a young Nigerian from the South West who is a fashion designer (the Nigerians who informed me, preferred to call him a tailor.)

While some Nigerians and Ghanaians waited for our pick up to our destination; a Nigerian based in Ghana began conversing in flawless French with some Rwandan ladies. The expression on his face, reminded me of my first time in Rwanda (you are never quite ready for the surprise). At this juncture, I would posit that; it gets to a point; one has to let people make up their minds about visiting Rwanda (and without fail, just one visit would dispel any misconceptions.) My compatriot chatted endlessly and on our way into Kigali; my French-speaking compatriot turned to me and said “I have heard so much about Rwanda but I cannot believe what I am experiencing. It is obvious I would relocate here”. You see, we were at the airport for a while and the interactions the well-travelled travel operator had; influenced his statement. He had not stepped outside the gates of the airport and he was already intrigued by the hospitality.

On our way into Kigali; I noticed a bit of traffic. I pointed this observation to a Nigerian resident in Kigali and I was informed that the capital is evolving, new structures, new businesses which invariably would bring in more people and this increases vehicular movement.

With an observant writer’s eye; I sought out the little details synonymous with Kigali (orderliness, policemen at strategic locations etc) were all still in place. And not forgetting the neatness of the capital city. That Kigali is the cleanest city in Africa is not by happenstance; but by “collective and deliberate effort through some aspects of the Rwandan culture and traditional practices to enrich and abduct developmental programmes to the country’s needs.” This culminates into what is called Umuganda in Kinyarwanda (Rwandan language). Nigerians might want to call it environmental sanitation but it is much more.
Umuganda can be translated as “coming together in common purpose to achieve an outcome”. According to rwandapedia; in traditional Rwandan culture, members of the community would call upon their family, friends and neighbours to help them complete a difficult task.

As part of efforts to reconstruct Rwanda and nurture a shared national identity, the Government of Rwanda drew on aspects of Rwandan culture and traditional practices to enrich and adapt its development programs to the country’s needs and context. The result is a set of Home Grown Solutions — culturally owned practices translated into sustainable development programs. One of these Home Grown Solutions is Umuganda.

Modern day Umuganda can be described as community work. On the last Saturday of each month, communities come together to do a variety of public works. This often includes infrastructure development and environmental protection. Rwandans between 18 and 65 are obliged to participate in Umuganda. Expatriates living in Rwanda are encouraged to take part.

And with this bit of information, off the team hit the road with some officials of Rwanda Development Board on Saturday, the 29th of August 2015 for Umuganda and we journeyed to Karama in Nyamirambo in this part of Kigali. En-route the hilly roads and streets; I could see farms, breathtaking landscapes and different forms of houses; and I realised that this country is sincere enough about her past, her present and future. And the collective resolve; is ubiquitous.

At Karama; I found it intriguing that shovels etc were aplenty and residents were at work. Alas, not only residents but also foreigners and guests living in Kigali.

Shovel in one hand and my camera in the other hand; I moved with my team. Some metres away, I spotted a famous face in the African Diplomatic circle. Rwanda’s Foreign Affairs Minister Louise Mushikiwabo was busy mixing cement.

Rwanda’s Foreign Affairs Minister Louise Mushikiwabo mixing cement

Rwanda’s Foreign Affairs Minister Louise Mushikiwabo mixing cementPHOTO: Dolapo Aina

I was shocked that a minister of such repute would do this (knowing where I come from). Other government officials were busy working in groups. Residents of Karama were working and when President Paul Kagame arrived; he went to work.


President Paul Kagame (in glasses) working PHOTO: Dolapo Aina

But what arrested my attention and that of Teagan Cunniffe-a South African photographer; was of a little girl of about 4-5years old; who we saw with a shovel in the midst of some women.


Even a 4-year old came to work PHOTO: Dolapo Aina

Not that she was working; she came with her mother and her aunt (a medical student at University of Rwanda) who became our impromptu interpreter. This struck a cord with some Nigerians (seeing a girl leave home just to watch her mother take part in Umuganda.) As a Nigerian reading this; you might wonder if such is possible where there is a collective effort towards our own form of environmental sanitation.

After Umuganda; there is usually a get together meeting (town hall-like) better known as “Inama rusange”- literally meaning “general assembly.


Inama rusang PHOTO: Dolapo Aina

I was informed that if the get together is mixed with some drinks and maize sharing; Rwandans call it “Ubusabane”. At such gatherings, government officials talk to the people and believe it when I say that after the talk, people dance to songs and the August Umuganda was no exception. After President Paul Kagame spoke to the residents; the Deejay on the wheels of steel (the turntable) showcased dexterical skills; spinning Rwandan hits and Rwandan dance moves and steps became the order of the day.


You cannot be a frequent visitor to this country and not learn their dance moves. And as Nigerians, we took a crash course on Rwandan dance moves on the spot.

After the Inama rusange and as people moved to their various homes and destinations; some Nigerians got talking and in summary; we wondered how a montly community initiative could turn out to be engaging and fun and most importantly attract foreigners? I found the answer and I leave you to ruminate on it.

Today close to 80% of Rwandans take part in monthly community work. Successful projects include the building of schools, medical centres and hydro electric plants as well as rehabilitating wetlands and creating highly productive agricultural plots. The value of Umuganda to the country’s development since 2007 has been estimated at more than US $60 million.

Dolapo Aina,
Kigali, Rwanda.
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