To whom does public property belong?

The other day, while waiting for a city center-bound bus to collect me from Kacyiru and enjoying the shade of the newly constructed modern bus stops, I watched in mortification as a rather idle-looking fellow, instead of sitting, decided to stand on the metal bench, obviously stressing the bench joints and making the bench too dirty to sit on.

The other day, while waiting for a city center-bound bus to collect me from Kacyiru and enjoying the shade of the newly constructed modern bus stops, I watched in mortification as a rather idle-looking fellow, instead of sitting, decided to stand on the metal bench, obviously stressing the bench joints and making the bench too dirty to sit on.

I got so irritated at this display that I almost told the chap to get off with a few harsh words. But I hesitated to; why? Because I knew that he’d ask me if the bench belonged to me. How could I explain to the fellow that this bench was public property and therefore belonged to me? He’d probably think I’d lost my mind so I held my peace.

But that display of an ‘I don’t care’ attitude continued to bother me as I rode to town and, actually it continues to bother me even today. Not the bus stop incident but, rather, the larger problem posed by what I call ‘public ownership and responsibility’.

In an ideal society, citizens have a sense of ownership and fight for the ‘greater good’ because they know that fighting for it [the greater good] will make their won standard of life better. In other words, if an individual fights for the greater good, he/she, in fact, is fighting for his/her own individual benefit.

Sadly, it seems as if we here in Rwanda haven’t exactly learnt that life lesson. I have an interesting case in point. While chatting with a concerned citizen about the environmental damage in Rwanda he showed me photos that shocked me.

These photos, taken a couple of months back, showed construction of the Gitarama-Ngororero road. The sight of huge structures, built right on the banks of the Nyabarongo River in Ngororero District just immediately after the main bridge at Gatumba, caused me great distress.

These photos were particularly shocking because they plainly showed how truly damaging the road-works were. Heavy machinery, major earthworks and rock extraction was slowly choking up the river.

So, one of the major tributaries of the mighty Nile was slowly silting up at its source. And what did the local administration of the area think about the looming disaster when confronted with the plight of the river?

Nothing really; all they probably cared about was the money that was entering their coffers as a result of the extraction for the road-works.

This was a classical case of the ‘I don’t care’ attitude that has caused me such great vexation. The local authority cared more about its immediate needs [quick money] and not about the greater benefit of such a major river system.

If, instead of being obviously self-centered the local authority refused to allow such destruction, then they’d have finally understood what ‘ownership’ is all about.

Posters all over the country beseech us to ‘treat each child as our own’. That will be tricky if we, as a society, act like we care only of the immediate satisfaction of our wants.

How can you expect me to treat each child like my own if I don’t care about anyone else save myself? It doesn’t make sense.

Instead, if there was a truly comprehensive civic education programme, using all the forms of the media to spread the message that not only spread the usual message of unity and reconciliation [not that I’m demeaning them in any way], but a larger message of social consciousness.

People have to start claiming ownership of the public patrimony. I live in an area of Kacyiru that some people will call ‘posh’; sadly however, this posh area has some truly atrocious roads.

These neighborhood roads, if you call them roads anyway, are deeply rutted in places, choking with dust in the dry season and dangerously slippery in the wet.

So, what do the rich neighborhood fellows do about their nasty road system; nothing other than just monthly cleaning up on ‘umuganda’.

I personally wonder why these fellows don’t just put some money together and do something about it. I mean, don’t they understand that with a nice road leading up to their homes their house prices would sky-rocket?

That’s the interesting think about seizing responsibility for the public patrimony; the more you take time to get concerned, and actually do something about your concerns, the more benefit you’ll derive from the same public good - be it a road, river or even bench.

Instead of posters asking to ‘treat each child as our own’, I’d prefer to see posters beseeching us to ‘treat public property as your very own’.

Contact: sunny_ntayombya@hotmail.com

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