My wife and I just returned from Rwanda, where we trekked to visit a family of mountain gorillas living in the rainforests of Volcanoes National Park on the slopes of Mount Bisoke.
Rwanda is the most densely populated of all African nations. Kigali, its capital, is a proud and bustling city on a hill whose citizens rely on hiring motorcycle and bicycle taxis for transportation as we hire Uber and Lyft autos. Just 25 years on from the Rwandan Genocide, when radical Hutus slaughtered 800,000 Tutsis, the Twa (pygmies), and their moderate Hutu brothers and sisters, Rwandans have an established New Democratic government, enjoy a cautious détente, and possess a bold new eco-friendly vision for the future.
As we drove through Kigali in a green Toyota Land Cruiser we were stunned by how incredibly clean and well kept Kigali’s streets, sidewalks, and businesses were. There was no litter, no graffiti, roadside vegetation was manicured, and there were no foul vagrants living along the sidewalks or in the parks.
I asked our guide how the Rwandans manage to keep their city so clean.
“Umuganda!” he shouted. “Before Umuganda, there were piles of garbage everywhere! Look! Now, no one is now allowed to even use a plastic bag, no one is allowed to buy water in a plastic bottle. We are solar. Rwanda is green!” He explained that on the last Saturday of every month, all able-bodied Rwandans (18–65), including the president and his Cabinet members, are required by law to go out and clean the areas around their homes and businesses. The police fine eligible citizens who fail to participate 5,000 Rwandan francs (about U.S. $5.00). These fines and traffic tickets are sent via text to the violator’s mobile phone. The fine is paid via the phone. Mobile phone transactions have all but overtaken those involving currency in Rwanda.
A4 is the two-lane highway between Kigali and the park. Like all of Rwanda’s highways, it is kept impeccably clean by crews of maintenance workers who sweep up litter with wicker brooms and hand-snip the flora and fauna growing on its shoulders. Small farms with modest cottages line the highway. I was reminded of Switzerland — a far less wealthy Switzerland, but a nation of proud citizens. The fascinating difference is that once outside Kigali, there are only a handful of buses and trucks. There are virtually no automobiles except for the safari wagons carrying camera-toting tourists in khaki outfits.
Rwandans of all ages walk along A4. Frail old men with walking sticks, whole families including grandparents, parents, aunts, uncles, and cousins, an entire village walking to celebrate a wedding, the birth of a child, or the death of a neighbor. There are schools of children in bright blue and yellow uniforms. There are women in elegant mushananas, wrapped skirts tied over the shoulder and bunched at the hips in colors of the sky, the lakes, and flowers parading along the shoulder of the road carrying exotic handcrafted baskets to and from the market stalls in the villages. There are porters carry lighter 50-pound bundles of bamboo and sugarcane and sacks of vegetables on their heads. Larger loads such as multiple sacks of potatoes weighing up to 300 kilos (600-plus pounds) are strapped onto the racks of the bicycle taxis, whose Sisyphean drivers laboriously push them up each hill and struggle to hold them back from running away downhill. Given the distances they walk, the hills they climb, and their mostly healthy vegetarian diets, there is no need for Weight Watchers in this African nation!
We began comparing Rwanda’s A4 to our stretch of U.S. 101 that runs from the Cahuenga Pass near Universal Studios, past the Hollywood Bowl and the Hollywood sign, past the star-studded Walk of Fame, then down into the Los Angeles Civic Center, Staples Center, and the opulent Arts District. This stretch of California 101 serves motorists in one of the world’s most vibrant and richest cities, yet little money is been spent maintaining it, never mind beautifying it. It is a dull, dreary, and sad stretch of highway. The freeway is bounded by ghostly trees and weed patches covered in layers of litter — empty beverage cans, soiled diapers, discarded cigarette packs, snack wrappers, and more. Befouled homeless shanties dot 101’s shoulders, line its overpasses, and occupy its underbelly in tableaus similar to those found in Kibera, the grand slum of Nairobi; Dhavari in Mumbai; and the Rocinha in Rio de Janeiro. U.S. 101 reflects our city’s, county’s, and state’s lack of leadership and vision.
There are too many areas in Los Angeles that are equally neglected.
California and Los Angeles promote our city to poor, uneducated Latino immigrants. We wondered why our government could not declare Umuganda throughout Los Angeles, why it does offer the uneducated, the poor, and the able-bodied social services recipients minimum-wage jobs maintaining our roads. We wonder whether Nuevo Los Angeles will be a proud, revitalized city under the sun or a jumble of tiny islands of wealth in a sea of slums.