The Last Saturday

“We already have a dishwasher…you.”

This was my mom’s favorite comeback to my childhood moaning about not having a dishwasher in our kitchen.

I was grateful that we already owned a lawnmower and clothes washer.

Though household chores were standard for most of us during childhood, a recent survey of U.S. adults said that while 82% had regular chores while growing up, only 28% require their own children to do chores.*

I find this disheartening. While household chores teach personal responsibility, chores that support the entire family (like dishwashing, lawn mowing and laundry) can also support prosocial behaviors like empathy.

How might this reversal impact the way our next generation contributes within their communities?

With this question still fairly fresh in my mind while visiting Rwanda, I awoke to an eerily quiet morning in the capital city of Kigali. The motos with their friendly “need a ride?” beeps were nowhere to be found.  Neither were cars. Walking to the highest point in my neighborhood of Kimihurura, I could see that the streets on all of the other hills of Kigali were similarly empty.

It was 9:00am. I would have loved to enjoy a morning coffee. But all businesses were closed.

Because it was the last Saturday of the month. It was Umuganda.

The word “Umuganda” translates from Kinyarwanda as “coming together in common purpose.” In traditional Rwandan culture, it refers to members of the community calling on their family, friends and neighbors to help complete a difficult task.

In current day Rwanda, it refers to a mandatory day of community service. It takes place from 8:00-11:00am on the last Saturday of the month. Every household with members 18- to 65-years old is expected to participate. It might be doing yard work in a public park or planting trees or crops. It might be leveling a local dirt road, as I stumbled upon a group doing in my neighborhood.

Umuganda was reintroduced to Rwanda in 1998 as part of the effort to rebuild and reunite the country after the 1994 Genocide Against the Tutsi. Ten years later, Umuganda was formally institutionalized nationwide. Not participating without authorization can lead to a fine or even arrest.

Not everyone likes to be told what to do, so I’m sure not every Rwandan is a fan of Umuganda. For some, it’s likely a restful morning to sleep in.

But the results of Umuganda can be measured. Monetarily, Umuganda’s contribution since 2007 is estimated at over $60 million. Visually, Rwanda is among the cleanest countries I have ever seen (see “Where Am I?”).

But the qualitative result of improving your environment with your own hands is a sense of ownership and dignity. There is pride, camaraderie, and teamwork. In many villages, the afternoon is a time for community members to gather to share news, discuss problems and propose solutions.

While businesses re-open in the afternoon, I noticed that many Rwandans remained at home, trimming trees and sweeping the patios in their own yards. Feelings of dignity and pride are addicting.

I wish we could implement a form of Umuganda in the U.S., but I’m realistic enough to know that telling people what to do would never fly.

So perhaps we can start small. Pick up that trash on your street. Work as a family to clean the kitchen.

My doing the dishes was the least I could do for my household after my mom cooked a meal.

And with a sense of pride over a clean kitchen, I might have even been inspired to clean my room.

* Study by Braun Research 2014, as cited in The Wall Street Journal “Why Children Need Chores” March 13, 2015 http://www.wsj.com/articles/why-children-need-chores-1426262655

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