A letter from Kay Day in Rwanda
Dear Friends and Family,
Greetings from Butare. Today I have two blisters, several sore arm muscles, and a tender hip joint. I’ve learned to use a machete and have been a part of a community and am grateful for all of it, including the pain. It is part of the experience. I have been part of Umuganda.
Umuganda is best translated “community service.” It is a monthly activity required of all Rwandans since the Genocide. It is part of the government’s program to rebuild community after the destruction of the fabric of African culture of community life. In most African cultures the center of life is the community. People live together and depend on one another. The village headman is the decision-maker in many aspects of life. The village chiefs know who is in need, who is able to help, who is bright enough to continue studies, and so forth. Together the community makes decisions about such things. But this was destroyed in Rwanda in 1994 when neighbor killed neighbor. How can that be restored? One of the government’s ideas is that if people work together for the good of the community, they can begin to respect each other and over time rebuild trust.
I confess that I was a bit skeptical at first, and as an independent American I wasn’t certain about the government making decisions about working together. (But then as an independent American I took some convincing about the community making decisions for the individual, since it would never happen in the States. But I have come appreciate it as I have lived in Africa.) The same has happened today with Umuganda. I reluctantly joined the group of students, faculty and staff in front of my house to cut the grasses on the public walkway between the main campus and the housing area of the campus. The administrations had decided that we, as a community, should join the region in an Umuganda project. So at 8 a.m. on a Saturday morning we obediently gathered. We were handed machetes and began to cut. Well, the others did—I watched for a moment. I have seen my gardener do it many times, but had never tried it myself. Slowly I began to imitate what I had seen. It is harder than it looks, believe me. As I started, students and staff stopped to watch the mzungu (white person) swing the machete. They applauded and a few offered suggestions. As they resumed their work, they began to call comments to one another and finally to tease the Director of Research for aggressive cuts and a first-year student for his bold strokes. Directions were offered for who should work where. Encouragement was called when someone new joined or someone took a rest. When I stopped to take photos, several others took out cell phones with cameras to take their own and one of the students took my camera to take a picture of me. Soon others were encouraged to rake the cuttings or to bag them. We were making progress. As new workers came, they took the equipment from the hands of the “older” workers, to take our places and share the work. In about an hour and a half all the grass was cut and the clippings collected. But more than that, staff and students were laughing together, the students respecting the efforts of Ph.D. lecturers to join in the manual work of cutting grass and earning blisters. The formality and stiffness of the first hour was lost, replaced by a spirit of teamwork. Umuganda was working.
I’ve spent time thinking about this in the context of the early church. After Pentecost, we are told, all the believers were together and shared things in common (Acts 2:44). I pray that this Pentecost brings a blessing of community to you as this Umuganda has for me. Thank you for your prayers and for your support to make this all possible. I couldn’t be here without you. I know that for certain. You are part of the community of faith that Acts speaks of. May God bless you for that.
Yours in love,
Kay (Cathie to the family)