Friday, August 5, 2016

Umuganda or Bust

A few of us participated in Umuganda that last Saturday. It's a national community service day. The last Saturday of every month, citizens are required to participate in sweeping up roads, weeding, clearing trash, painting, you name it.

I love the concept...neighbors and communities coming together for a common purpose; to care for their surroundings. It's not someone else's problem. It's a matter of pride and responsibility. And once the work is done, the community gathers to discuss various issues.
Kids watching Umuganda work. Last Saturday of every month, Umuganda is held. It's a community service day, required of all adult citizens, even President Kagame.
In fact, I wish more neighborhoods in the States had this community spirit. Sometimes you find it; but in my experience, not that often. I realize in Rwanda, this activity is not voluntary as it would be in the U.S. Even if you cannot work Umuganda for health reasons, you show up. But when you speak to people about Umuganda, you find they don't seem to mind it. 

People tell me they generally like the event because it is a way to know their neighbors, and they feel some reward by taking care of their neighborhoods together.
A wall in the school yard where we experienced Umuganda.

Unfortunately, our participation in Umuganda was a bust. 

We were told we were invited to work alongside the Mayor of Kigali, and that staff from the Korean Embassy would join us. We'd be painting a cross walk for a local school. 

But when we stepped out of the bus, there was confusion. Yes, the Koreans were there. They were delighted to see us. But then, they asked politely, why are you here? We said, "to work with you and the mayor."  

The expression on their faces said, "Huh?"

Turns out the Koreans had organized the cross walk painting as their own event. They were not expecting us. They mayor of Kigali was not there. They had invited her, and "hoped" she would come. It was clear there was no work for us. Nothing planned or organized.

I asked a man for a hoe. He gladly gave me one. I worked alongside a lady who didn't speak a word of English. She and another lady seemed to find my attempt to use the hoe rather amusing. They acted a bit puzzled as well.

I worked alongside this lady for a while. She was rather amused at my attempt.
I admit, it was pretty hard work. It was heavy. I had no gloves. But they didn't either. So I gave it my best shot. I felt happy to do a little work alongside them.

But in the end, there wasn't enough for us all to do. No tools. It was awkward for the team to stand around and not help. But we were stranded. During Umuganda the streets are closed to traffic. From 8 a.m. to Noon. 

My SAP colleague Martin digs in, helping to remove trash from drainage ditch.
This is the way most Rwandans get their clean water. Hauling it to their homes in yellow containers.
We ended up hoofing it back to our hotel. An arduous 6.5 mile walk. We wanted to get back to the hotel as quickly as we could to enjoy the rest of our day, so we went at a pretty fast pace.

Did I mention how many big hills there are Kigali?

Lots of steep inclines...and it was hot that day. But we made it. Sometimes we would pass people walking to work. Including a young man named Olivier. He started walking with us. He really seemed to want to talk.

Olivier said he has no family--his parents died in the genocide. He told us he is in a program that is funded partially with US aid, which will allow him to go to Kenya to study at university. Part of me didn't buy his story. But, if it's true, it makes me happy to know that he has a chance to be educated and make a life for himself.

The day didn't turn out to be what I'd hoped for. But I'm glad I went to see Umuganda for myself.

The crosswalk we had hoped to paint. The Koreans got the job done without us. 

Morning Rituals

Each day starts the same here. Our band of 12 meets for breakfast every morning anywhere from 7:30-8 a.m. It is often the culinary highlight of our day. It's dependable. You now what to expect. And a lot of the food is similar to what you eat at home.

Dinner for breakfast. I stick to yogurt.
The one big difference is that in addition to breads, cereals, fruit etc., they have a full menu of hot foods. Some folks like the stews, baked beens, cooked vegetables and other hot dishes they serve. I can't make the leap to dinner for breakfast like that. 

I stick to a yogurt, maybe a fried egg, and always a big plate of mango and pineapple. The fruit is so good here. So sweet. I'm not a huge mango fan. At least, not until now!

The other thing that is great about breakfast is the wait staff. Berlin and Benjamin are our two favorite waiters. Always smiling and helpful. When I arrive each morning they know I want a cappuccino. I don't even have to ask. 

One of my colleagues told me that he was having breakfast one morning, chatting with the wait staff, and it came up that his daughter was sick. They came to him some time later and asked if he needed money to help with her medical bills. He told them thank you, he was able to take care of it. How touching, given they know without a doubt that was have so much more financial security than they do. I couldn't believe it. Such unexpected kindness and generosity.

Berlin and Benjamin, my two favorite waiters. 
Then we zip off to work. Every day, our driver Bernard arrives at 8:45 sharp to take me, Van and Richard to ICT Chamber. He doesn't speak much English. He seems to be a man of few words anyway. And sometimes we can't tell if he likes us or not. Especially when we are late. But then, being late is par for the course here.

We go down cobblestone streets here in our expat-filled neighborhood - Embassy and NGO families mostly live here. We turn a corner and we start to see real Kigali. Ladies juggling all sorts of items on their heads. Workers, mostly seniors, in blue smocks sweeping the streets and other tasks. They are employed through a government program to keep the streets tidy. 

We also see a family living in a dirt lot. It has a cement wall around it. And a small building that they call home. Cut outs for windows and the door. Dirt floors no doubt. Two small children playing, while mom is hanging laundry. Chickens and goats complete the picture. I wave at them every day and they usually give me a smile and a wave back. 
A family home just around the corner.

We also start to see the moto-taxis zipping around. Young men (and some women) on motorcycles who have carved out a swift business for themselves. The first week here, I would see these guys, with ladies in dresses and heels sitting on the back. I thought, "Wow, so many guys on motorcycles here, and they all seem to have girlfriends."

Then I realized, these are not girlfriends. Just paid riders. Ladies on their way to work. Duh. I guess the red vests these guys wear should have given it away?

I'll chock that one up to jet lag. 

Typical morning commuter on moto-taxi.
They say there are more than 10,000 of these moto taxis, mostly men ages 18-35 who have migrated into Kigali from rural areas. I learned that some drivers are the grown children of adults who participated in the mass killing here.  Adults who in some cases were sent to prison, leaving children behind who were ostracized in school. Paying for the crimes of their parents. So they leave school andcome to Kigali to make a new life.
Moto-taxis are everywhere. This is a typical commute.

Apparently the moto-taxi industry - which is informal and not part of the official public transportation system -- is thriving and the drivers do pretty well. They are not considered "poor." There is even an Uber-like mobile app now to help you find the safest drivers to get you where you are going. SafeMotos.
Traffic jam in Kigali. No, those are not parked cars to the left. This is a four-way intersection.

That said, traffic accidents are the number one hazard for visitors in Kigali. I saw--and heard--a moto-taxi collide with an SUV one day on my way to the office. I will not ride a moto-taxi, but a few of my brave colleagues have. They say it's super fun. I'll take their word for it.

Time now to go have one of my typical breakfasts, comforting, almost familiar, before I start the rest of my day which is rarely par for the course. Moto-taxis not withstanding. I wonder what I will see today.