The word ‘UMUGANDA’ can be translated as ‘coming together in common purpose to achieve an outcome’. In traditional Rwandan culture, members of the community would call upon their family, friends and neighbors to help them to 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 programmes to the country’s needs and context. The result is a set of homegrown solutions -- culturally owned practices translated into sustainable development programmes. One of these homegrown 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.
Today close to 80% of Rwandans take part in monthly community work. Successful projects include the building of schools, medical centers and hydroelectric 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. In the period immediately after independence in 1962, UMUGANDA was only organised under special circumstances and was considered as an individual contribution to nation building. UMUGANDA was then often referred to as UMUBYIZI, meaning ‘a day set aside by friends and family to help each other’.
On February 2, 1974, UMUGANDA became an official government programme and was organised on a more regular basis - usually once a week. The ministry of district development was in charge of overseeing the programme. Local leaders at the district and village level were responsible for organising UMUGANDA and citizens had little say in this process. For this reason and because penalties were imposed for non-participation, UMUGANDA was initially considered forced labour. While UMUGANDA was not well received initially, the programme recorded significant achievements in erosion control and infrastructure improvement - especially building primary schools, administrative offices of sectors and villages and health centers.
During the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi, the meaning of UMUGANDA was distorted to describe ‘finding Tutsi where they were hiding and chasing them out’. It wasn’t until 1998 that UMUGANDA was reintroduced to Rwandan life. This was done as part of efforts to reconstruct Rwanda and to nurture a shared national identity.
UMUGANDA is credited with contributing to Rwanda’s development, particularly in the areas of infrastructure development and environmental protection. Common infrastructure projects include roads (especially those connecting sectors), bridges, heath centers, classroom construction (to support the 9 and 12 Years of Basic Education programmes), housing construction for poor and vulnerable Rwandans (often to replace grass-thatched housing) and the construction of local government offices and savings and credit cooperative buildings.
Environmental protection projects undertaken include tree planting and terracing to fight erosion, wetland rehabilitation, renewable energy construction and crop planting.
Monetary value of UMUGANDA and participation
From 2007 - 2010, the activities valuated at $40 million consisted mainly of the construction of houses for vulnerable people, roads, class rooms for the Nine Year Basic Education Program (9YBE), health centers, public offices, tree planting, terracing and other infrastructures to protect against erosion.
National UMUGANDA Competition
To measure the impact of ‘UMUGANDA’ and encourage greater participation, the government introduced the National ‘UMUGANDA’ Competition in 2009. The aim of the competition is to create awareness of the best projects carried out, award communities that have completed good initiatives and to encourage communities to plan properly and maintain what they have achieved.
The competition includes all levels of Rwandan society - from the village up to the national level. The best activity in each district is awarded with a certificate and funding for future projects, and the best three projects in each province are awarded prizes. The best three projects from across Rwanda are awarded a cash prize of between US $1,500 and $2,300.
Reconciliation and Unity: UMUGANDA is also credited with assisting in reconciliation and peace building in Rwanda. This is because neighbors are brought together to build their community and have the opportunity to discuss problems and solve them collectively.
UMUGANDA can be replicated in Bangladesh
In Bangladeshi society nowadays that, people are losing empathy for each other, though this had been one of the best practices in our communities everywhere in the past. The main reason of that seems to be politics and this trend is spreading to even in the small villages. It is not that politics is new to the villages but it was not the way it is now. The main problem is that we are losing cordial relationship with each other due to the political views and differences. This is not supposed not to happen. It is also generating unethical activities in the society, creating a distance and resulting in a worsening situation everywhere. Considering the development of togetherness of the Rwandan people through this concept and increasing empathy for each other in the community, the UMUGANDA concept of Rwanda can be a tangible way of bringing people together and in order to develop our beloved Bangladesh.
* Jamilur Rahman Chowdhury writes from Kigali, Rwanda.