Rwanda – “undone but dusted”

published on 31 Oct 2014

I was privileged to spend the past weekend in Kigali, the capital of Rwanda, as a last-minute replacement guest at The Salvation Army’s ordination event for ministers (known as officers). It was a wonderfully blest time as I was embraced by their warm welcome and enveloped by their contagious joy and festive spirit as they celebrated eight new “home grown” officers, boosting the national officer-strength by more than 33 per cent. There was much to inspire as I listened to the commitment expressed by Salvationists to serve God in the Army, regardless of their circumstances. There was much to challenge as I heard of some of those circumstances. I came away, as I so often do when leading church services away from home, having received far more than I gave.

My weekend visit was filled with Army events, so my only ‘sightseeing’ took place as we travelled from one venue to another, chatting to the two Rwandans who graciously ferried me to my various appointments, along with the lofty views I managed between dozes some 32, 000 feet overhead as the plane flew from Addis Ababa to Kigali. Nonetheless, Rwanda has left an impression on me.

I know that a weekend is far too short a time to be able to formulate anything other than a first impression, and one would be foolish to believe that an initial impression gained is grounded on knowledge that is sound and informed.

Now, when I choose to write about my impression of this country after three brief days visiting a small part of the capital city and being exposed almost exclusively to Salvationists, I am fully aware of the risk I take of upsetting some reader by waxing lyrical about a country I barely know. My apologies in advance.

So, what is it that struck me about Rwanda at first glance and which continued to impress me throughout the weekend? Cleanliness – the place was so clean! In the three days I travelled around Kigali, I did not see one piece of litter lying around – not a pile of rubble, not a disused tyre, not an empty bottle, not a scrap of paper: not a thing! Now, this would be impressive in any city centre anywhere in the world, but my visit was not confined to the city centre. I was taken to several suburban areas – no litter! I was taken into what South Africans would call a township, where the houses were a lot simpler and the atmosphere more ‘African’ – no litter! At the national football stadium – no litter! Outside and inside the airport – no litter!

While I am by no means a globetrotter, I have visited a number of places across five continents and I have not seen a place so consistently litter-free and tidy. It is so neat, so orderly, that one is struck by it, immediately. My aide-de-camp and driver proudly explained that it was as clean throughout the entire country, in towns and villages alike. They spoke of how mayors compete with each other to gain the epithet “Cleanest town in Rwanda”. When I mentioned this to the (expat) leaders, they confirmed that it was as clean wherever they had travelled in the country. I have since had several visitors to Rwanda corroborate that they, too, were struck by the cleanness and orderliness of the country.

Talking about this phenomenon, the Officer Commanding for Rwanda and Burundi shared an interesting experience. On a particular Saturday morning, one of his leadership team was stopped while driving to the hospital. He was asked to explain where he was going. The reason? On that particular Saturday, it was the monthly dugnad (a Norwegian word which means ‘the community in voluntary service together’), where everyone, including the President, is expected to be tidying up, cleaning and generally making the surroundings look good. I’ve always admired the Norwegians for being able to mobilise a community – a group of flat owners, a football team, a corps fellowship or a neighbourhood – to do something like clean up or decorate. But in Rwanda, they have mobilised a nation!

The result is astounding – a whole country that is clean and tidy! But here, my knowledge has to lapse into interpretation and speculation – I don’t really know whether the end justifies the means, whether having such clear-cut parameters cause the community to be obligated rather than impassioned. But, I could see the pride of the Rwandan officers when I complimented them on what I saw. I heard from them how this focus on orderliness was owned by them and it seems as if a real sense of ubuntu – the African philosophy that the individual finds his humanity in society (literally ‘a person is a person through other people’) has been engendered.

What I witnessed in Rwanda of community working together for the common good led me to think about the Church, about the Army. Would that this spirit of ubuntu – which is called koinonia in the Greek Scriptures – prevailed in our local corps! If an entire nation can embrace a vision to act for the collective good, why not the local corps! What an impact we would make in bringing about order, and cleanness into our troubled societies!

Of course, Rwanda is far from perfect – not all is ‘done and dusted’, but, then again, neither is the Church! The sense of togetherness that this initiative fosters provides a good basis on which to deal with the serious challenges that face the Rwandan nation. We would benefit from seeking consistently to model their commitment to community in our dealings with each other, and our service for the Lord in and through the Army!