If ever there was a Cabinet review of presidential visits this year, the one that President Museveni, his wife Janet and more than half a dozen of his ministers made to Rwanda in August, must rank there as a source of several topics of reflection.
Speaking to Rwanda’s Parliament, First Lady Janet Museveni, also the Minister for Karamoja Affairs, praised Rwanda’s communal work ethic that had been institutionalised across the country through the Umuganda programme.
She urged Rwandans to teach their Ugandan counterparts the spirit in which it is done.
Trade and Industry Minister Amelia Kyambadde was similarly all praises for the programme, saying she would import it to her constituency.
And it was not just talk. During the Umuganda exercise at Nyarugunga Primary School, which Presidents Kagame of Rwanda and Museveni participated in, all Ugandan ministers who had travelled, folded their sleeves and got fully involved beyond just the ceremonial moments for the camera.
Foreign Affairs Minister Sam Kutesa picked a hoe and dug while Jessica Alupo (Education), Irene Muloni (Energy) and Ms Kyambadde ferried bricks to the construction site. Yet, less than six months since that visit, and in spite of promises to return home and inculcate a similar work ethic within their communities, Uganda’s ministers have done little to come good on their promises while in Rwanda.
As the year ends, and a country that has lurched from one political crisis to another reflects on what has happened this year, questions are likely to arise on whether any lessons can be taken from a programme that many of Uganda’s cabinet officials clearly waxed lyrical about. So how has Rwanda developed the culture of Umuganda? Which programmes can Uganda adapt to mirror that initiative?
The Mayor of Kigali, Mr Fidele Ndayisaba, who was one of the leaders spearheading the construction of classroom blocks at Nyarugunga Primary School on the day the Ugandan delegation took part in the exercise, said Umuganda has been a part of Rwanda’s social fabric for generations.
“Umuganda means support and mutual assistance. Now it has been transformed into a national programme supporting the government to achieve its goals and support the budget… From the very beginning of our country, they used to have Umuganda,” he explained.
Mr Ndayisaba said the cost of one classroom block is six million Rwanda Francs. However, the government only allocates one million for materials such as iron sheets and cement. “The remaining part of the budget is supported by the community through labour and fundraising. Even bricks are made by the people themselves,” he said.
Every first week of the month, Rwandans are expected to dedicate their mornings to Umuganda. Work starts around 8am and ends after 10:30am, depending on the amount of work to be done.
Thereafter, according to officials, the people can have a meeting in which they share ideas about issues relevant to their community. On special occasions, they share food and drinks during the meetings. Rwanda’s Finance Minister John Rwangombwa said: “Across the country, we do it once a month, but depending on the challenge we have in different areas, they can even decide to do it more than once a month.”
Mr Ndayisaba says Umuganda has grown into a fundamental part of the Rwanda national calendar because the activity that was already entrenched in the culture of Rwandans, is now backed by institutional organisation.
“We have committees from the lowest level called Umudugudu and we have got a law governing Umuganda; all that helps to back the culture. If you talk to anybody in Rwanda, they know that if they are above 18 years, they should carry out Umuganda,” he said.
According to Mr Ndayisaba, although punishments are prescribed for those who do not participate, it is really “the pride of participating in Umuganda” that is responsible for the massive attendances. He believes the massive attendances are indicative of the successful civic education supported by cultural values.
Mr Ndayisaba’s view is shared by the Chief of Staff of Rwanda Defence Forces (RDF), Lt. Gen. Caeser Kayizari, who believes that an individual’s guilt for not participating is often worse punishment than anything written in the law.
“When somebody sees people are working for the common good of everybody and you avoid it without a reason, you will feel guilty and that is a punishment to yourself,” he said.
Gen. Kayizari says one does not have to be an expert in construction, for instance, to get involved. He said the organisers of Umuganda normally factor in the need for expertise when carrying out any activity. “In every technical work, there is something for the layman to do,” he said.