Umuganda

In Rwanda, every last Saturday of the month, from 7 to 11 a.m., the entire nation rolls up its sleeves and (by law and custom) cleans up stuff. This is called umuganda (“contribution”), and has been a tradition in the country since before the Europeans arrived. Officially, if you don’t come out of your house and clean up stuff on umuganda day, you can be arrested. Even the president and other high-ranking officials participate. It’s also a day when ordinary citizens can ask questions of their government officials working beside them, so it serves a dual communal purpose.

In 1994, during the genocide, umuganda was utilized by government officials as a means of calling citizens to come out and either kill their neighbors, or to clean up (i.e., hide) their dead bodies. It’s probable that few questions were asked of the government during that time.

Here’s a Rwandan article on today’s umuganda days, and suggestions on how they could be meaningfully expanded. Despite Rwanda’s terrible recent past, it appears that they are at a point where they can talk about moving beyond just “taking out the trash,” whereas here we haven’t even gotten that far. What transformable local traditions (appropriate to our own local culture, not Rwanda’s) have we got when it comes to community service?