How time flies! Just two decades ago, garbage was a common sight in Kigali and other Rwandan cities.
Gone are the filthy sights that characterised Rwanda’s capital in the early 200s, when the country was rising from Africa’s most devastating wave of genocide.
Today, the country lacks the ever-present roadside rubbish piles and the ditches choked with plastic bags that plague many African countries as is the case in Malawi.
Rural areas in Rwanda are also clean, much cleaner than cities in Malawi.
One reason for the cleanliness of Rwandan cities is a decade-long ban on plastic bags that are being tolerated in Malawi, despite a nationwide prohibition the government imposed in 2015.
Other countries, like Kenya and Tanzania, have also outlawed plastic bags.
Although the clamp down on the outlawed plastics is largely enforced, litter still blights parts of Rwanda’s larger neighbour—Kenya.
The other reason for Rwanda’s tidiness, of course, is a practice called umuganda.
Last year, I went to Rwanda to do research. I remember going out one Saturday morning in Kigali to buy something. I cannot remember what it was, but I noticed that the city was eerily quiet that day and shops were closed.
It was surprising because the city is always bustling with people on Saturdays.
Then I approached a police officer, who was nearby, to inquire why there were not many civilians in sight. I was not satisfied with his explanation, so I turned back and asked my hosts.
They told me it was called umuganda, which literally means “coming together in common purpose” in Kinyarwanda.
It is a practice that I was unfamiliar with prior to going there, but has long existed in Rwandan culture and only recently became mandatory. On the last Saturday of every month, from eight to 11 am, businesses close, traffic halts and citizens across the country take to their neighborhoods, shovels and hoes in hand digging drainage trenches and cleaning streets and open grounds.
All able-bodied citizens are expected to participate and one can get fined for dodging this civic duty.
Rwanda institutionalised Umuganda in its current form in 2009.
It is compulsory for all citizens aged 18 to 65.
Even President Paul Kagame and Cabinet ministers take part in this monthly community service.
Not everyone participates, especially in cities where it is harder to keep track of the citizenry.
Some are excused because they are caring for their children or are ill.
Others simply stay at home until 11am.
The Rwandan government also employs professional street sweepers, gardeners and road crews.
But ordinary citizens do their part. Since litter is now so scarce, Umuganda people often do other community service, such as building roads, repairing houses or cultivating vegetable gardens.
This could benefit our cities here in Malawi, which are filthy to say the least.
As a proud resident of Lilongwe City, it makes me sad that the it is inundated with piling waste.
For example, Tsoka road, which is right in town, is grubby. When one crosses the Lilongwe River, all what is seen is uncollected trash on both sides of the road.
I do not even need to mention the bus depot—a sad sight that speaks volumes of a crap town.
These are some of the sights that tourists and investors encounter when they first come into the country. This is bad for tourism and foreign investiment.
So, can umuganda be replicated in Malawi?
I reckon that umuganda is uniquely Rwandan, but there are many attributes of this initiative that can be imitated to create our own version of umuganda.
Malawi urgently requires an initiative that would make cleanliness and community service seep into the country’s consciousness.
I am sure that city councils and the Ministry of Local Government can work on something similar to umuganda.
A better Malawi for all will not happen if waste keeps piling as if we love it that way. We can do something about it.