In America, we make convicts do community service. In Rwanda, they make everyone do it. In fact, they make everyone do it once a month. This monthly compulsory service is called umuganda and we Peace Corps trainees were able to participate in it last weekend.
In preparation for umuganda each PCT (Peace Corps trainee) was issued a hoe and given brief instructions: “Hold the hoe like this, don’t accidentally cut off your own toe.” Then, the next morning, we all met together in small groups based on our villages and we shouldered our hoes and marched off to work.
Umuganda lasts from 8a-12p. My (female) two sub-site mates and I arrived at 9a and even an hour into umuganda there were only about fifteen people there, all men. Predictably, every eye locked on us when we arrived and heads turned to follow our progression as we bashfully proceeded to the end of the line and tentatively started hoeing.
We had been told that this month’s umuganda was aimed at stopping soil erosion so we were surprised when they told us to start digging up a hillside – uprooting grasses and trees. Eventually, though, it emerged that the purpose was to widen a foot path into a road for “imodoka” – “motorcars.” After that we felt more productive and purposeful.
Shortly after our arrival many more people started showing up, including women. Soon, there were 50-75 Rwandans each wielding a hoe, quickly dismantling the hillside, redistributing the dirt and flattening it and packing it to make road.
We worked for a little more than an hour. During that time I was bitten by an angry baby ant. Does being bitten by a baby ant, whatever its mood, sound insignificant? I assure you it is not.
Hoeing diligently, I had uncovered an ant nest. A local shopkeeper, Francois, held it up for me to inspect and then tossed it but not all its former residents down the hillside. A few minutes later people around me began saying “ibisimba, ibisimba.” I didn’t know what that meant so I ignored it. Then, I felt a sharp pain on my foot. I looked down and saw an ant – pincers clamped on my foot, body wriggling furiously. I shrieked, pulled it off and watched a drop of blood form and slide down my foot into the dirt.
I turned to Francois, “Iki?” – “What was that?” His illuminating answer: “Ibisimba.” “Ibisimba” means “ant.” All the people saying “ibisimba” around me obviously had already known that. I repeated “bad ant” and the Kinyarwanda equivalent of “no bueno” a couple of times and shook my finger at the ants which made everyone laugh and then shooed me down to an ant-free section of dirt.
We persevered hoeing for a little whil longer and then, sore and dust-coated, we again shouldered our hoes and walked home. Thus ended the first of many umugandas.