Reflection from Time in Rwanda


Editor’s note: This post is part two of a three-part blog series from the author. Read part one here: Learning to Use my Voice for Good.

Close your eyes and picture the United States government requiring everyone to do community service once a month. What does your state look like? How connected is your community? It seems too good to be true right? In Rwanda, this is the reality and is one of the reasons the country has grown and developed significantly since the genocide. For Rwandans, the first Saturday of every month is called Umuganda day, and on this day, the government makes it mandatory for everyone to participate in a day of service.

My experience with Umuganda day began at the crack of dawn as my team, and I journeyed three hours out to Nyange, a village where previously visited the week before.  When we last reached out to Nyange, the community members explained to us that they were going to be expanding a small narrow path that they use to retrieve the clay for their bricks and tiles. Since this clay located at the bottom of a hill posed a difficult challenge for the villagers, they hoped that by expanding the path and building a road it would create more efficiency. When we arrived, the whole community was already out working on expanding the route, but some still came to greet us from the roadside. They were covered in dirt, making the whites of their teeth stand out with their big smiles. I felt instantly comforted by their warm welcome. The women advised me to cover my recently braided hair from the dirt like they had, shielding the dust and grime with a kitenge headwrap. I was amazed I had only been in this community for less then 10 minutes, and they were looking out for me as if I was one of their own. I wasn’t used to this hospitality, and I found it interesting that despite all the cultural barriers between myself and these women, there was still a strong feeling of support.

I can recall staring at the men and women and noticing how frail and light they looked compared to the pickaxes they were holding to dig up the earth. This perception of them being weak though was quickly squashed by a blind man named John. During Umuganda day, he came up to me and grabbed my hand. I couldn’t understand what he was saying, but I went off with him, and everyone followed behind. We came to a halt right at the place we were going to dig. I wondered how he had decided that this was the right place to dig. I looked down at the ground and noticed his bare feet wiggling in the burnt auburn looking soil. We were both handed hoes, and as I tried to lift mine, he had already swung ten strikes into the dense clay. He was a machine. They all were, and they all worked in sync. They were far from being weak and nimble. Within less than half the day, they cleared a significant portion of the trail and surpassed their goal. Nyange villagers individually might be small, but collectively, I realized they are extremely determined people who will power through and work in unison to achieve their goals.

What I learned that day was the importance and emphasis of collectivism. For me, although I love my community, I am constantly battling my society’s individualistic tendencies. In the United States and especially Silicon Valley, everything centers around getting ahead. We are so focused on our success that other things, such as community growth and development, get pushed to the back burner. There is nothing wrong with wanting to reach personal achievements, but it comes at a cost. Individualism creates isolation, a lack of community, and ignorance towards the problems of others. Nyange recognizes that other people’s problems affect them too. If it’s hard to bring up clay for one person, it affects someone who needs bricks to build a house. With the collectivism, I experienced how nice it was to have other people looking out for you (ex. the women worried about my hair). This support takes some stress and pressure away from the individual, and I genuinely believe it makes for a happier environment. Therefore, working more as a community is so important because we are only as strong as the people around us.

In Mumeya, the oldest Pico Community, we saw how strong the community had become. They worked together as a community to help themselves. A woman named Speciosa shared with us a story of how they identified a critical problem in their village. Mumeya desperately needed a clinic because too many pregnant mothers were dying due to a lack of proper health care. One Orhan baby named Pico tragically came into Speciosas life because the baby’s mother died in labor. Something avoidable had the nearest clinic not been miles away. When Speciosa adopted Pico she realized that too many friends of hers have passed away from delivering a child. Speciosa, together with her community, made an action plan to build a running clinic.

We got to see this clinic when we visited Mumeya and were impressed. It was fully functioning and offered an amenity of services. When Speciosa spoke of the clinic and baby Pico there was some sadness recalling all the people who lost their lives before, but also pride because she and her community accomplished something together. I wasn’t surprised to hear that on top of her being president of her cooperative, she is a veterinarian and is also trying to install a program in her village to educate youth about teenage pregnancy. What did surprise me was to hear that she used to be extremely timid before PICO. Upon hearing this, I realized that transformations are possible and that even when you reach a level of success like becoming a president that shouldn’t be a reason to stop and slow down.

As amazing as Speciosa is, many people I’ve told about her assume she is an anomaly, and that’s a mistake. Many other women are doing incredibly impactful work transforming their communities. When talking about these people making a change, I have been asked, “Who helped them to do that?” inferring that their work would not be possible without help from outside. When I explain that they did it all on their own, their reaction is as if I told them pigs could fly. I always have had to explain to people since I’ve been back from the field that I didn’t sleep in a tent and people there aren’t all living in huts. Being half Ugandan, it sometimes feels like people are labeling half of who I am with false depictions of Africa.

Reflecting on the workshops we did, I think about how some people who attended barely had completed primary school. The workshops became a fun and exciting environment for them to learn and explore in. For me, the workshops became a place to realize my privilege. I am very fortunate to have received the education I have today, but I still wake up sometimes and don’t want to go to class. I even indulge in complaining about the workload I have, and I still think about just quitting. I didn’t realize the influence I can have because of my privilege until I was standing in front of a classroom and being perceived as a teacher, even though I was younger than most of the room. Toward the end of the workshop, I remember receiving praise for coming to Rwanda to teach and couldn’t understand why I should be receiving that praise. I questioned if I deserved it. It wasn’t until one of my post-workshop evaluation interviews that I realized that they were praising me because they felt fortunate to have been allowed to learn.  I remember visiting Nymatta, a village where many participants in the workshops resided. We visited them after the workshops to figure out what they thought of them.

When we arrived, I walked into the church where they hold their cooperatives meeting, and upon my first footstep, my ears flooded with the noises of an electric piano playing an African beat. The people of Nyamata were waiting for us and sprung up to their feet. They clapped their hands, and the drumming began. I knew what I had to do. I put down my bag and started swinging with a woman who was singing a melody. She had a soft yet powerful voice, and it was ever so welcoming. Midway through the dance as beads of sweat started to form on my forehead, I realized how much energy these men and women have. All of whom could have probably danced for three more hours if it wasn’t for the group interview.

As my Co-Researcher was listening to them speak, I noticed her nodding and smiling. She whispered to me, “I think this is one of the best interviews we have done.” Now I know she was right because Nyamattas energy and desire to learn set them apart from the rest. It was one of their first workshops, and it meant more to them than I even realized. For the other older cooperatives who had had other workshops before this was exciting but not wholly new. For Nyamatta, the workshops to them represented so much more than just acquiring more knowledge. It meant finally recieving  a chance. Pastor John always said, think about what Nyamatta could do if they put all their energy into a project of building their community. The workshops allowed them to see what he meant. One man said with glee that he’s going to save money and work with others to help his community.

“I am thankful to PICO Rwanda and all the people involved in making these workshops possible you help ignite the confidence within us. You gave us a chance to meet up altogether, and you helped us meet with entrepreneurs like from the bank of Africa and people from the Bank of Africa. When they came, they explained to us what they do and how they do it, so I decided right after the workshops that I was going to open a bank account… I think my mind is opened. I am now starting to see that my future is going to get better. I think I am going to work hard and work with entrepreneurs/investors”.

It is with that energy he had along with the boost of confidence the workshops ignited within him that helped him develop the drive to take action. I then realized education has the power to instill confidence into students. The way I viewed education before was just something that you do. You complete grade school, then go to college, and because of these previous notions, I took for granted what school has done for me. Now I see that it has impacted me more than I think. Just like the man from Nymatta, my education has given me confidence and a drive to take action to make impactful change.