Today is National Tree Planting Day. Therefore nobody is at work. The shops are shut, the market place empty, the post-office closed. But people are nevertheless industriously busy, stomping around carrying small saplings to be planted in a mass gardening session all over Rwanda. Everyone is involved. Everyone is planting. It’s just like an extra day of Umuganda this month. I mentioned earlier about this community day on the final Saturday of each month when people pour out onto the streets to build walls, or paint buldings, or clear weeds or chop down trees as one huge community service session. The Local Defence Force ensures that everyone takes part by checking to see that at least one member from each house is present. Once again I start to wonder whether MP Andrew Turner, back home on the Isle of Wight would be very successful in issuing a radio announcement declaring that all Wighters had to be out on the streets at 8am sharp on a mass litter-collecting day.
Last week there was a national meeting on Saturday morning. Again, everything was closed, and all members of the community assembled in the market place or in the stadium or by the river to hear what news was being brought from Kigali. I find it difficult to find out about things because all the info is passed by radio, and all in Kinyarwanda. Occasionally on a weekday, word goes out at 6am that the day is a national holiday and muggins here turns up to find the offices locked and nobody about. Just as the French enjoy a good monthly strike, national days are frequently arranged with very little notice and very little reason. Today tree planting, last moth, patriotism day, before that women’s day - next week is National Industrialization Day. Yes, in a country where 95% of the population are substinence farmers...
The meeting last weekend appears to show that the government really are interested in decentralizing power, and hearing what people have to say. I am often so stunned by how democratic it appears to be – or is trying to appear to be. It is obviously difficult for people living far away from the capital to make their voice heard but here was an attempt to listen to what people living in the middle of nowhere thought about national government issues. The subject of the day? Whether Rwanda should keep or get rid of the death penalty. Each person was allowed to express their views and there was an open vote and discussion. This is a particularly complex issue because of all the people technically on Rwandan death row because of their actions during the genocide. Apparently the overwhelming vote was to abolish it for being inhumane and a violation of human rights.
It is difficult to judge exactly how democratic these meetings are though – many of the genocide survivors live in absolute fear since they are still having to live next door to those who dismembered or killed or raped their brothers and sisters. Yet the people on death row are the brothers and sisters, fathers and mothers, sons and daughters of the community making the decisions today. Many of the victims are of course dead so their vote will never be registered, and yet the government - the majority of which are from the ethnic group that were decimated - still seem to be (at least on the face of it) attempting to achieve some sort of social cohesion by listening to the opinions of the population who killed their families. There is no way 1994 will be forgotten – it is too ingrained in the psyche of every Rwandan, but there is a need to be able to live together and look to the future. The right steps seem to be being made – but it will take decades before people will actually be able to put it behind them.