Umuganda: Should absentees be denied service at umudugudu?

Member of the community taking part in Umuganda. Courtesy photo

Sometime last year, I failed to get any transport means to work as Umuganda was underway, so I walked to work.

Along the way, I met a traffic police officer who stopped me, as well as other people who were walking by, saying that movement on the roads was prohibited until Umuganda was over.

We were immediately showed our place of work and asked to begin doing what other Rwandans we left in our midugudu were doing—cleaning up. I tried to argue out my case as a journalist with deadlines to beat for the next day’s issue, and with proof of my work ID, I was dismissed.

Out of the over 50 people, mostly young people, that were stopped, I was the only one allowed to go my way as the rest did not have substantial reason not to participate in Umuganda.

What am I saying? While there are some groups of people exempted from participating inUmuganda, that is foreigners, or the sick, I don’t see any reason why all able persons aged 18 to 65 years should not participate in Umuganda.

The police officers and security guards can only get hold of the defiant citizens on the streets, how about those who deliberately choose to stay at home while their neighbours are working to develop their communities?

How are midugudu leaders supposed to believe that you belong to their communities when you have never appeared in any of the communal activities? How are your  neighbours supposed to vouch for you when they have never seen you around?

Umuganda was reintroduced to Rwandan life in 1998 as part of efforts to rebuild the country after the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi. It is something that our ancestors deemed more of a communal activity and necessary in the sense that if a member of a community needed help, such as planning a wedding, building a house or paying — neighbours would pitch in.

In this era of “lazy-busy” every Rwandan should adopt this spirit because you never know when your community will be of help.

Umuganda takes place every last Saturday of the month from 8am to 12pm. That is just squeezing in a few hours of your time to meet with your neighbours and pool collective efforts in order to achieve a common goal beneficial to the community.

Though there are some people who perceive it as a waste of their time, it is something that has earned this country respect when it comes to cleanliness. And also because the people have become groomed in a way that they endeavour not to litter the streets of Kigali.

Denying citizens who deliberately refuse to attend Umuganda without substantial reason services at their Umudugudu level is out of sheer honesty that these leaders actually do not know you.

In as much as fines are an alternative punishment, they have been belittled as anybody with money will get away with anything.

Cases of Rwandans being denied these services should, therefore, be a lesson that Rwandans should be organised with a sense of taking care of personal responsibilities so as to make a significant impact in the community.

I have a confession to make; I have not been consistently participating in Umuganda and other village activities. In no way has this been intentional, on days I could attend I did attend but there were times when these activities found me out of town, engaged elsewhere or I was just too tired from a long week, or in this case month. 

I got a rude awakening this week when a lady shared her story of how she lost her national ID and other documents in Nyabugogo, and when she went to her Umudugudu chief, she was not assisted.

Apparently Marianna stays in a home the chief has visited before but he has never met its residents during Umuganda or any other village meeting. He expressed his anger and rage over their sense of irresponsibility. 

One of the first things I was told when I had just moved to Rwanda was that Umuganda was compulsory and I was perfectly okay with it. I never envisaged a scenario where that day would come and I’m unable to participate.

Now for someone like me who is truly vested in this activity and I only miss when I cannot avoid it, why should someone give such harsh punishment? And I knowUmuganda is extremely important but look at a national ID, is it not more important? Has someone thought of how traumatised one would be for not being able to access other services including health services without an ID? Why would I not be made to pay a fine, learn my lesson and never miss again?

I asked Marianna if she told him how she has an incapacitated child to look after and does not have help and she said the man did not allow her room to say anything, to him, those were just excuses.

It is possible that the Umudugudu chiefs are seeing a reduction in the number of people participating and have resorted to tough measures that will cause them to reform. House parties are now planned for the Friday before Umuganda, even music and sports shows at times fall on that Friday because there will be enough time to sleep the next day.

Considering there are different reasons for missing, it would be advisable for chiefs to go knocking on doors and if they find someone deliberately stayed away from the village meetings, then that is the person to punish.

There should also be levels of punishment if someone missed because they were working in another cell that one could be asked for proof that they worked elsewhere.

If one had to take care of a young one or a patient then probably they should buy water for the people working, and if one missed after a long night out, he should be forced to work whenever they sober up or have had enough rest. It is not fair for there to be a blanket form of punishment yet the reasons for missing vary.

A person could miss because they are sick, should we now hold it against our Umudugudu chief for only wanting to see us at work and never caring about our families and our health? Punishment is good but it should be reserved for only those that deserve to be punished.

If you feel it is right for people that miss Umuganda to be punished then spare some time and draw up a list of punishable circumstances so that some of us who don’t deliberately abscond do not suffer. And retribution is meant to help someone reform, is that possible if they will be denied an opportunity to benefit from Mutuelle de Sante?