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Thursday, November 11, 2010

Umuganda, village style

The primary school in my village (years 1-6) is expanding to include the first 3 years of secondary school, meaning it will provide all of the free “basic 9” years of education. The secondary school is targeted to open with the new school year in January, so umuganda in my village has become a weekly activity that occurs mostly on Thursdays, as far as I can tell. A month ago and today I participated by carrying giant pieces of stone to the latrine hole, down a steep 100-meter slope covered in underbrush and stumps of eucalyptus trees (the air given a healthy perfume for the workout as the tree trunks are burned nearby to produce charcoal). Each time I’ve hauled my fair share of stones down the hill, a great cardio and arm workout. The first time I was feeling great about my contribution until a young woman in flipflops with a baby on her back passed me carrying a humungous stone weighing at least 40 pounds on her head.

Three Thursdays ago there was a different activity: helping to lay the brick walls of the 4 new classrooms. That day I attended umuganda without a translator and there were many more participants to gawk at me. Through hand motions and Kinyarwanda littered with building vocabulary I do not possess I came to understand that I should take a trowel and scrape the 6 faces of the homemade bricks before handing them off to men who’d lay them in cement. At first I thought this activity was rather pointless, then I thought it might be good to dislodge loose irregularities from the bricks so they’d better stick in the cement, and then I went back to thinking I was useless when I saw that some brick layers skipped this step and my bricks were usually done again.

I wasn’t entirely useless, though - not only is it good community relations for me to participate in umuganda, but I provided much needed entertainment for various workers and allowed a soldier who was helping out (at least he was helping, others lingered idly on the hillside) to practice his pickup skills - and believe me, they needed practice. In the end I went and held an umbrella for my friend as she used a homemade notched metal grabber-thingy (see, I even lack the English vocabulary!) to bend pieces of metal around nails into squares that would be used to shape cement pillars. I made a quick escape around noon as I saw my soldier-suitor approaching.

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