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Labour Day: Celebrating mindset shift and nation building

Yesterday was International Labour Day and a public holiday. For most people this last bit is the more significant aspect of the day. It is simply a day off from work when you can pretty much do as you please. You can sleep without feeling guilty about it, and when you get up, can laze around or read the book you have been meaning to without ever getting down to doing so.

Yesterday was International Labour Day and a public holiday. For most people this last bit is the more significant aspect of the day. It is simply a day off from work when you can pretty much do as you please.

You can sleep without feeling guilty about it, and when you get up, can laze around or read the book you have been meaning to without ever getting down to doing so.

 

The more outgoing will want to visit friends and relatives.

 

Part time farmers will get time to visit their holdings and probably find a lot going wrong and come back angry with everybody, including those who thought of making Labour Day a holiday.

 

Few of us take time to think about the real significance of the day. We forget that it is a moment to recognise the men and women whose work makes it possible for us to lead a decent life. Or that work is necessary for our survival and prosperity. We are simply content with the idea of doing ‘nothing’ even if it is only for a day.extol

Until a few years ago, Labour Day was a great public spectacle in Rwanda. Workers, clad in colourful costumes, hired or specially-made for the occasion, marched in a long parade. Floats loudly proclaiming supposed progress in the industrial sector rolled along. Even school children who knew little about the meaning of labour joined in, perhaps to add an element of optimism about the future.

It cost a bit too – the costumes, floats and parties that followed the public display. No doubt some smart people made money out of the celebration.

But missing from this carnival-like celebration was the majority of this country’s workers. The smallholder farmers from around the country who ensure that we have enough food to eat and the energy to put on such a spectacle were excluded from the jamboree. Never mind that they are always praised as the backbone of the economy.

That is the extent to which the event has been appropriated by workers in the formal, paid sector, which is itself a reflection of the origins of Labour Day – from factory and other organised workers in the industrialised world.

The small farmers hardly know anything about Labour Day and certainly do not take a day off from work. They labour daily.

We can all take heart that this injustice to our unheralded workers (of genuine or wilful forgetfulness) is now in the past. We no longer have those lavish celebrations. The speeches, too, are gone.

We used to hear long speeches from workers’ representatives, invariably denouncing the exploitation of workers and containing a long list of grievances and demands for better pay and improved working conditions.

Employers too would make insincere noises about how workers were really partners and co-owners in the various enterprises.

The government would follow with pronouncements extolling the value and dignity of labour and pledging to ensure that workers’ contribution to national development was duly recognised. Everybody would go back home happy or pretending to be.

Labour Day, like most public events in Rwanda that used to be celebrated on a national level, has since been decentralised to the work place. The parades, floats and speeches have been replaced by talks and discussions (ibiganiro) at the various work places. I don’t know whether these are actually ibiganiro (which implies full participation) or speeches by another name. I don’t even know how well they are attended. The pull of a day off from any form of labour, even as basic as locomotion, is probably stronger than answering a civic call.

Whether discussions at the workplace are held or not, there are certainly benefits from doing away with the annual fanfare. The most obvious is the money saved. Presumably it goes into improving the workers’ welfare.

Less visible but perhaps more significant is a lesson about celebrations. It does not take much to make Rwandans celebrate. Sometimes it appears as if we look for an excuse to do so. And no expense will be spared to put on an impressive show. Hopefully the way we now mark public events will teach us a thing or two about the need to pay less attention to pomp but think more about substance. Excess does not sit well with scarcity while thrift and prudence contribute to prosperity.

Whichever way we choose to mark Labour Day in Rwanda, we have reason to celebrate our labour. We have rebuilt our country largely with our hands and resources, of course with some support from friends and partners. In the process we have had to create new attitudes, not least to work and the very concept of a nation.

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