Hatching Free Range Ideas

The Power of Community

In Africa stories on March 31, 2011 at 3:02 pm

Obvious disclaimer: This post is based on casual observation from an outsider. The errors are mine. I hope that my Rwandan friends will correct and refine what I post here.

My perspective of Rwanda before my visit was one of divided community based on past history, Hutus against Tutsis. Today, I think of Rwanda as a united community with all eyes toward the future. I learned two community practices that I wish we could adopt here. The degree to which Rwanda has committed to these practices is total, from the top government officials to neighborhoods.

The first is Muganda, a kinyarwandi word I was told. I’m going to trust my source and hope that if the term is wrong, one of my new Rwandan friends will correct me.

Muganda is the clean up that occurs country-wide the last Saturday of the month. Everyone, I mean everyone, gets out and cleans Rwanda, from chopping weeds in ditches to picking up garbage, of which there is actually very little. I’ll write more about that in a future post, The Useful Life of Things. Muganda is supported by the Rwandan government. No one drives or walks on the streets between 8 and say noon, unless they are involved in cleaning. Needless to say, Rwanda is clean. The country banned the use of plastic grocery-type bags in the last few years. These bags were said to litter the African countryside. Today, you won’t see a one.

After the clean up, communities meet to discuss community business. Imagine getting together once a month to discuss issues and improvements for your community. Imagine having every member of your community committed to clean up. Our home owner’s association meets once a year. We have great intentions which disappear within a month. I wonder what we might do if we met monthly.

The second national community practice is Gacaca, a system of community justice, used now to process the perpetrators of the genocide. I won’t explain how it works in detail here because Wikipedia has a great article of explanation. But the source is the village court originally used to settle village or family issues, presided over by elders elected by the village for their honesty and fairness. A primary function of the court is to provide a space for a truly public hearing of the issues and settlement.

We are the world?

Africa is both connected and divided by language, scarcity and tribal history. I wonder about the bonds of community. How do we build them when we don’t have a common language or common history? When I say common history, I think about tracing common ancestry. I know we unite around shared problems, but what happens after the problem is solved, at least at one level? We say, “Well done.” And we move on to the next?

About 2/3rd of the plane between Washington DC and Ethiopia was made of up people from NGOs, medical schools or those on missions. Those from NGOs are paid for the good work they do — yes, not well-paid but they can think of it as a daily vocation. It’s full time even if their work on the ground in Africa is not. The missionaries and medical folks are there on a temporary basis, a short hiatus from their normal lives. They come to build schools, provide medical support, build homes.

It’s a working vacation from the day to day. I’m not saying that these contributions aren’t valuable. But are they artificial experiences with little evidence of struggle or failure? Aren’t the bonds we form through struggle and failure those that survive? We don’t really need company in our happiness. Sure it’s nice to be able to laugh together and to share celebration but we truly need each other in hardship, even when there is nothing to be done but to share tears.

The morning of my last day in Rwanda, a colleague from Kenya and I were talking over breakfast on the hotel terrace. I wondered aloud what it might take to sustain the focus on Africa after leaving. I don’t know the answer. I know that some people manage, like the woman with Blue Sweater; and Pencils for Kids. I would like a sustainable practice, a permanent extension.

I’ve written about Donald Miller’s book before — A million miles in a thousand years, where living a better life is about living a better story. I’d like my story to be one of building sustainable community. I wonder what that requires.

If we limit our work to those stories provided to us by others, do we also allow others to determine our story? What story do you want to tell with your life?

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  1. Thanks for these Posts! I am thoroughly enjoying your trip to Rwanda. It’s close to being there. Not quite – but close!

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