The Spotless City

How could a city in a developing country be so completely litter-free?

From the airport taxi, the streets of Kigali, Rwanda’s capital, looked swept and spotless; not a sweet wrapper or plastic packet fluttered in the wind; there were no cigarette butts on the ground  or pockmarks of chewing gum defacing its pavements. Every street, boulevard and alleyway was scrubbed up and swept. How could that be?

(This post is part of a serial post called Letters from the Heart of Africa. It can be read as a self-contained narrative or if you want to read the background too, a table of contents can be found here)


One Saturday morning Peter my security guard arrived outside the kitchen window holding two machetes (he wasn’t much use as a security guard, he couldn’t even stop my socks from getting stolen).
“Dépêche toi, we are already late,” he shouted.

Every last Saturday in the month, from 8am to 11am, neighbourhoods in Rwanda come together to do public works; they clean, they sweep, they prune and cut bushes, they repair and rebuild.

 The Rwandans call this activity ‘umuganda’ which loosely translated means coming together for a common purpose. It isn’t voluntary – by law all people between the ages of 18 to 65 are expected to do it. And as they work together everything else in Rwanda, transport, shops, businesses, all come to a standstill.

Rolling up your sleeves and cleaning things up together is a wonderful leveller. No matter your status, you all get mucky and sweaty in the same measure; mud and dirt aren’t fussy when it comes to choosing people to stick on to; it fosters a sense of cohesion at grass roots level, Hutu and Tutsi alike, bringing orderliness and re-engaging lost bonds and forming new ones. 

At one level, it seemed to me to be a reaction to savage days of the 1994 genocide; however umuganda is an old concept in Rwanda which even predates the Belgian colonisers of the early 1900s.


We reached a field overgrown with brambles and weeds and beyond them lines of flaking wooden shacks which would normally have been selling beer and phone cards on a Saturday morning but were closed and bolted up.

People were already busy using hoes and machetes, hacking away at earth and undergrowth, cutting grass, chopping at weeds, some bent at the waist with swinging machetes, others pulling up bushes, flattening ant-hills.

Peter had more skill than me; his patch was cut short and uniform, mine was patchy. Holding the implement at the right angle, with the right speed, hitting the grass at the part of the stem that provides resistance, commands some skill. Three hours of work with a machete is a proper work-out.

The machete carried dark significance to me as a foreigner, for my knowledge of Rwanda up till then, was nurtured on an exclusive diet of genocide films and books – the machete was the implement that symbolised the genocide; imported from China in their 100s of thousands, it enabled the mass-production of cruelty, a systematic and cost- effective way to propagate unadulterated evil.

Would this simple blade, with three screws to hold it in a wooden handle every lose its stigma here? I’ve seen it on my travels splitting open baby coconuts in Assam, cutting sugar cane on the banks of the Nile in Luxor, making a path through a forest in Peru and here in Kigali, they were being used to clean up a city. In its purest form, an object for improving human lives.

By noon we were sitting in the shade of a wall of an unfinished building in the middle of the field the humid air carried the tangy sweetness of freshly cut grass. The chef de secteur, the local headman made some speeches. People listened sitting on their haunches. The unkempt clearing was now tidy with banks of red earth. Lice and ants that once enjoyed darkness, scurried away in the midday light.


In Kigali everything appears to be in a state of order; the climate is neither too hot or too cold, there are no snakes, even mosquito bites are barely noticeable and disappear in a few days.

There is general relaxed air which manifests itself in how people walk – like all hill people, Kigalians walk at a relaxed pace; there’s no point in rushing up gradients and getting all puffed out. Mountain people the world over know they have hard shins and big lungs, and that is all you need. Everything is calculated in terms of hills. If you ask for directions in the city, people will reply with something like ‘you’ll find it down that valley, after the third hill along’.

On top of the general cleanliness was a tremendous respect for the police – at nights, in the small hours, I could walk home safely down back-roads in lamppost light past silhouettes of capped and armed policemen. Kigali was the safest city I had ever lived in.

They could though at times appear over-zealous; a colleague got cautioned for stepping over a grass verge instead of at a designated crossing point; another was cautioned for taking photos of an advertising billboard; motorbike taxi riders get fines if they don’t wear a helmet.

No beggars sit on the city’s pavements or side-walks, the alleys at twilight have no sex-workers, and the transport hubs are without the crazy rush of hawkers eager to sell pirate DVDs that you might find in neighbouring capitals of Dar Es Salaam, Nairobi and Kampala.

No stray dogs roam the streets, and there is a sad reason for this: in the genocide, with their owners killed and with nothing to eat, dogs would roam the land in packs and they would scavenge on roadside corpses. Even today, many Rwandans despise dogs, although they are slowly making a comeback.

The seeds of change were already apparent when I was there in 2008. You could just feel the sense of ambition in the air, amongst its building sites and high cranes, that it had grand plans to take the city to new heights. Shopping malls, coffee chains with cosy sofas, a mega-supermarket called Nakomat that sold everything from Kellogg’s corn flakes to pop tarts at western prices had already started to appear. There were no ATMs in 2008, but all of that has now changed. There were a wonderful selection of restaurants in Kigali and my favourite was sol et Luna in Remera, a pizza place with an upper tier from where you could eat watching the the stars appear beyond distant violet hills and merge in to the lights of the city.


Critics say Rwanda’s orderliness are symptoms of it being close to a police state. Security is understandably paramount for the country, not just because of its history, but geography too; it is an island of relative calm next to turbulent neighbours, Kivu Province in DR Congo, one of the most dangerous places on earth, and unstable Burundi, whose chaos might overspill anytime.

Tens of thousands of the killers from the 1994 genocide are thought to live on unpunished beyond Rwanda’s borders, and her armies have made incursions in to those territories to try to wipe them out. Already there were whispers of genocide denial, a feeling that something might erupt if left to fester.

Critics and human rights organisations campaign on the darker side of Rwanda’s excessive compulsion for a clean city. Hawkers, beggars and sex-workers are alleged to get herded up and locked away especially in times of international conferences.


When I was there in Rwanda, my place of work, the Kigali Genocide Memorial, suffered a grenade attack that killed our security guard Ignace. It happened in the most sacrosanct time: the commemoration week of the genocide. (I’ll write about this in a later post). Clearly there were nasty characters still lurking, having no respect for the memorial or the dignity of dead buried there; if left untended, these one-off clandestine acts could spiral in to something sinister. I personally was happy for the police presence.


Rwandans generally are very law-abiding and the only example I ever saw of them helping each other out for minor indiscretions was on long drives down the long and windy highways; drivers have devised a system of forewarning each other about police check-points. If a passing car suddenly flashes its lights, it means the police are ahead. If the driver points down to his dashboard with an index finger it means you are approaching a police check-point. If the finger points upwards – you’re okay.


Since I was there in 2008, when the seeds of Kigali’s grand plans were seen in snippets of large cranes and concrete mixers, the city’s growth has spiralled in to a new confident era. Central streets are car-free. There are many new shopping malls and there is free wifi. There are concerns that such growth may exclude people for Rwanda is still a rural and poor country. When I was there a local businessman had built a large office block in the centre of Kigali. At its inauguration, the press pointed out to him that there were no bathrooms on any of the floors. He replied, “I pay my staff to work, not to use the bathroom.” I hope such attitudes are rightly corrected.


After the umuganda, Peter and I walked round the city and in a local version of Starbucks we ordered cafe lattes and sat down amongst expats transfixed to their MacBooks.
“So many muzungus,” he said. “It’s just like Johannesburg – but safer.”



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