Monday, August 11, 2008

Playing by the rules

Don't even think about throwing that bottle

The Rwandan government is known to be responsible and responsive—if they see a problem, they try to fix it. And the best way to do this, of course, is to set down new laws. Some of the laws, perhaps most of them, would never be accepted in the United States. But Rwanda is very different—rules are rules, and people follow them. And when you hear about a new law, it's almost never surprising.

Here are some that I am aware of:

Umuganda. Essentially, it’s mandatory volunteerism. The last Saturday of every month, all Rwandans must volunteer in their communities, cleaning up shared spaces, picking up trash, fixing a road, etc.

No plastic bags. Since plastic bags have been identified by other countries as a litter problem (and was becoming a problem in Rwanda as well), plastic bags have been banned. Now, when you go to the store, your groceries are placed in narrow paper bags. The no-plastic bag rule goes for expatriates as well—if the police at the airport see you come in with a plastic bag, they will take it from you.

No cutting down trees for firewood. Erosion has become a big problem in Rwanda, because of its numerous hills, almost all of which are cultivated. With the population size as it is, people have been cutting down trees for firewood; in other places, they will burn the wood and make charcoal from it. The deforestation was so severe that the government has banned cutting trees for firewood, and people now use dead brush or charcoal to cook their meals. (This has been a problem for many.)

If you have a paved road in front of your house, you must grow a garden with flowers. Whether you’re a little boutique selling matches and water, a humble residence, or a large mansion, if you have a paved road in front of your building, Rwandan law now states that you must grow a garden with flowers to beautify the road.

No marriage until 21 years of age. This one not always followed, especially in the rural areas, but I’m assuming this rule was instituted as a family planning initiative. None of my Rwandan friends were married before 21 (the ones who did get married were about 25 or 26) and told me that they thought it would be crazy to get married earlier than 21. Quite different from most developing countries I have seen.

No razor wire or broken bottles cemented on the tops of walls in Kigali. This is the newest rule of all of them—apparently someone in the government decided that these security measures were ugly and unnecessary, so now it’s unlawful, and people are being asked to get rid of this stuff.

Motorcycle taxis must be registered and carry an extra helmet. Across Kigali, moto-taxis (also called “ipikipiki”) wear green and yellow vests and green helmets. They also carry an extra helmet for passengers. Failure to wear a helmet, I have heard, is 20,000 FRw (about $40).

No bottle throwing from cars. Around the country, children often beg for water bottles by the side of the road, which they use to carry water to school, to store oil, or to resell in the market. Matatu passengers used to throw these from the van windows to the kids, but this was outlawed when the government realized that kids were running into the roads to get them, endangering themselves and drivers.

No goats by the road. Same justification as above. The part about endangering drivers, of course.

And then, of course, there’s the biggest rule—No discussing ethnicity. I’ve talked about this rule a bit on this blog. Essentially, the government has instituted a policy that ethnicity doesn’t exist anymore—that everyone is Rwandan. Discussion of the different groups is unlawful and you can stand trial for it. They call it “genocide ideology.” Every expatriate has an opinion on this rule—some say that it’s bad, because you’re ignoring the problem (and therefore, it could get worse, and history could repeat itself), and others say it’s good, because the country was so divided that this is a way to bring some semblance of unity. I do believe it’s a good rule, at least for the immediate term of post-conflict reconstruction, with the caveat that some of the underlying differences must be addressed, such as access to secondary and higher education, as well as to the health care system (Mutuelle de Sante). If the Rwandan government is interested in really moving forward beyond the ethnic divide, I believe an affirmative action system based on socio-economic status would be an improvement (which would disproportionately aid Hutus, and yet would be a way around the ethnic labels).


Anonymous Anonymous said...

It is nice that there are some rules but the funny thing is that when it comes to ethnic thing, people talk about it behind closed doors and they still hold some kind of grudges and who can blame them. You can tell who is a tutsi or a hutu if you are rwandan. People still look each other funny and people are getting disicriminated against every day.
Tutsi hang with Tutsi and hutu do the same . Everyone is now Rwandan but I think deep down people are still divided and it will take a while for it to clear.
Thanks for a nice blog.

8/12/2008 9:06 PM  
Blogger Morgan C. said...

Very, very true.

8/13/2008 11:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I know you love umudugudu, but ipikipiki is a pretty cool word too.

8/13/2008 2:17 PM  
Blogger Maurice said...

Every Sunday morning I have my guard open my barbed wire gate so that I can walk my goat to the main road to eat the neighbour's geraniums. On the way home I like to collect firewood and carry it home in big black plastic trash bags.

Seriously though, living in Rwanda for 2 years I realised people do ALL of these things. And the E question is a favorite home conversation topic.

I guess censorship just doesn't reach the living room.

And lastly: could you please not stop blogging every time you leave Africa? I know very little exciting ever happens in the States, but surely there must be something....

8/13/2008 2:59 PM  
Blogger The Bohemian Bahamian said...

I enjoyed this post. I love the volunteer law, but all of them were interesting to read and put into a bigger context.

8/13/2008 5:16 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'd like to second Maurice's vote that you not stop blogging when you leave Africa. You're an amazing writer and your fan base looks forward to your posts.

8/14/2008 10:20 AM  
Blogger Mandy Southgate said...

Hi - I found your blog at Expat blogs and would just like to say how beautiful and well-written it is. I enjoyed this post and I enjoy reading your blog. I've read just about every book I can get my hands on about Rwanda and it is nice to see how life goes on now and how normal yet unique it is.

8/14/2008 1:40 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dear Morgan,

My name is Claire. I found your blog online today and I would like to invite you to list it on our Expat Women Blog Directory ( It’s free. We would just love to have your blog listed on our site!

I also invite you to join our community ( Membership is free and enables you to receive our monthly, inspirational newsletter, plus ensures your name is in the running for all of our promotions and giveaways.

Thank you very much and my very best wishes to you,


8/15/2008 9:19 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dear Morgan,

I only found out your wonderful blog today, as i am in search of information fro the country and i must admitt i found a goldmine!
I ve been reading your blog all day and learned fascinating new things. I will be in rwanda (not necessarily in kigali) on the 10th of september until the 22nd for the elections, so i am keen on getting as much information possible.
The only thing that worries me is the language as i understand people speak french there, but is english used as well(as i understand english is official as well). yes i speak english and poor french!
would love some etiquette info!

thanks so much

8/18/2008 1:08 PM  
Blogger Heather said...

Loved this! Thanks for all the insight into Rwanda. Even after my stint abroad, I often find myself falling into stereotyping places.

Can't wait to see when you're back stateside.

8/20/2008 11:56 AM  
Blogger Grub said...

You forgot the other break-at-your-peril Rwandan law! Never, EVER, walk on the grass! lol

8/27/2008 7:10 AM  
Blogger Eric said...

Hi Morgan,
What a wonderful blog! It has really been inspiring as my other half and I were considering accepting positions in Kigali. Now we're on our way this October and I can't wait!

Now comes the next challenge, finding flights (from California) and finding housing!

8/28/2008 3:41 PM  
Blogger Morgan C. said...

Haha Thinair, you are totally right--you're not supposed to cross the grassy part of road medians. You can be fined for it. (I'd always just look around for cops and go for it.)

Maurice and Ellen, thanks so much for the kind words! And for those who haven't seen Maurice's blog, you should check it out:

:) Morgan

8/28/2008 5:50 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I really agree with your words on" affirmative action system based on socio-economic status"

I believe that the whole conflict, and most in Africa, are, at there root, class conflict based on socio-economic status.

And the conflict goes on whether in "peace" or violence.

I would really like to see a more united Africa that works together to try to heal the deep class gashes in African society, and thus preventing and stopping conflicts. It is very possible, we just need 2 tools. Democracy, and Education. And thats the hard part.

8/30/2008 3:57 PM  
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9/01/2008 10:36 AM  
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