Letter from Rwanda

beathe-and-janna

Letter from Rwanda

By Janna Graham

Over the past year, I spent four months living and working in the little town of Butare, in southern Rwanda, a couple of hours south from the hustle of capital city Kigali.

Butare is the hometown of the National University of Rwanda. It has a welcoming, small town feel. Within days, I was exchanging greetings in a mixture of French, English or Kinyarwanda with new friends and perfect strangers on my daily walk to the radio station, where I worked with journalism students at Radio Salus.

The subject of my master’s thesis – community radio as an educator – brought me here. Most of my days were spent working with journalism students at the radio, the first university-community broadcaster in Rwanda. Since the radio station was founded three years ago, it’s been a dynamic independent news source for the entire country. And unlike most under-appreciated community radio stations in Canada, Radio Salus is a favourite in stores, on the bus and in the portable boom boxes carried around by so many people.

In Rwanda, I came to learn about the role cooperatives are playing in building sustainable economic initiatives. In a little village called Maraba, just outside of Butare, I discovered an exquisite cup of coffee – fresh, rich coffee beans roasted to a deep cherry chocolaty perfection. Maraba is smallholder coffee farmer cooperative. Profits are shared between farmers. Upon visiting the coffee washing station with Gilbert Gitali, a young Rwandan Canadian who handles the marketing aspects of exporting this coffee as a premium specialty coffee, I discovered how Rwanda’s cooperatives helping to boost economic self-sufficiency and rebuild national unity.

Another inspiring observation: Rwanda is litter free. The first reason is simple – plastic bags are banned. As you leave the airport in Kigali, there’s a large sign on the wall reminding visitors that plastic bags are against the law! Grocery stores and shops will put purchases in paper bags but most shoppers bring their own cloth bags or baskets.

The second reason Rwanda is so spotless probably has a lot to do with umuganda – a Kinyarwanda word that means contribution. One Saturday a month between 7 and noon, all Rwandans over the age of 18 are required to push up their sleeves in service of their country. On umuganda, all stores, restaurants and Internet cafes are closed. Buses do not run and car travel is seriously frowned upon. Until afternoon, everyone is expected to be outside pitching in: cleaning roadsides, digging ditches, dealing with irrigation problems or whatever else municipal authorities deem priority work.

According to Rwanda’s national newspaper The New Times (June 2, 2008), Umuganda “gives opportunities to the local population to mingle with the authorities and pose questions directly on matters that affect the local community and the nation as a whole” and connects communities so that they can “share concerns and solutions to common problems”.

I’ve observed that, for the most part, people participate. I watched entire families, tools in hand, walking down the road to join a work project. Local police keep watch, particularly over rural areas, and this official day of work is generally respected.

The day I wanted to visit Canadian photographer Tony Hauser, who was planning on staging an impromptu photo exhibit in an Eastern Rwandan town, happened to be umuganda. As we head east towards Nyagatare, not far from the Ugandan border, the slopes gradually ease and lower, marshier land emerges. Still, as far as the eye can see – deep greens and red earth.

Tony has retuned to Nyagatare five months after visiting Rwanda with the Photo Sensitive team. After taking hundreds of photos of this particular community last December, Tony returned with beautifully matted photographs that he intends to distribute today to the people he photographed. And aside from a small contribution from the Canadian embassy, Tony (who has shot everyone from Lennon to David Suzuki) is financing this himself. This just doesn’t happen every day and we are determined to join up with Tony and crew despite umuganda.

Despite the long trip and frequent stops, as umuganda wraps up for another month, I marvel at how this collaborative community action – a tradition long before the arrival of the Europeans in Rwanda – is leagues ahead of our put the ‘trash and recyclable on the curb for pick up’ mentality.

When we arrive in Nyagatare, Tony Hauser figures he will find a place to exhibit his photos downtown. Without any promotion or prior warning, he sets up an afternoon art show in an abandoned village market stall. Within minutes of tacking the photos to the wall, a curious and excited crowd gathered around to check out the images. Many recognized themselves, their relatives and neighbors. There was no bravado promotion or fanfare. Solidarity is often silent.

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