Rwanda is the only country in the world where people alongside their President Paul Kagame come together every month to participate in community work.
The activity is dubbed “Umuganda” and occurs on the last Saturday of every month for mandatory nationwide community work from 08:00 to 11:00.
The name of the event is a Kinyarwanda word that translates as “coming together in common purpose.” But this seemingly positive definition belies a dark legacy.
The program was re-established in 2009, and has resulted in notable improvement in the cleanliness of Rwanda.
It involves cleaning, or doing maintenance work.
One reason for the country’s cleanliness is a decade-long ban on plastic bags. Other countries, like Kenya, have also outlawed plastic bags, and though last year’s ban there is largely enforced, litter still blights parts of Rwanda’s larger neighbor.
It’s compulsory for all able-bodied people ages 18 to 65, and the president and Cabinet members pitch in, too, for this monthly community service.
Not everyone participates, especially in cities where it’s harder to keep track of the citizenry. Some are excused because they’re caring for their children or are ill. Others simply stay at home until 11 a.m.
It’s not a volunteer project. Police monitor the streets and can stop Rwandans who aren’t participating and make them clean up on the spot. Rwandans who don’t participate in the cleanup can be fined 5,000 francs, nearly $6, not a small sum when average income is about $150 a month
Rwanda’s government also employs professional street sweepers, gardeners and road crews. But ordinary citizens definitely do their part. And since litter is now so scarce, for Umuganda people often do other community service, such as building roads, repairing houses or cultivating vegetable gardens.
The other reason for Rwanda’s tidiness, of course, is Umuganda.