KIGALI, Rwanda -- Could these be new laws in tiny Singapore? Plastic bags in the entire country are illegal, as part of the fight to save the environment. Use leads to a fine equal to 10 U.S. dollars. Same fine for smoking or spitting in public. Civil guards in red uniforms carry rifles to enforce the laws.
On the last Saturday of each month, every citizen, including cabinet ministers and the president, must go outside and clean the streets. Each day, shopkeepers must sweep the sidewalk in front of their store. Paved streets in towns as well as dusty alleys in poor villages, and the highways in between, are spotless. A cigarette butt or old newspapers or abandoned coke cans on the ground are so rare as to be remarkable.
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Bikes and walking are encouraged over cars and buses. In the center of the capital, traffic flows easily even at peak times. A car blowing black exhaust fumes risks being impounded on the spot.
OK, here's the punchline: It isn't Singapore, it's Rwanda. But on an African continent of desperately congested and polluted cities, why this startling emphasis on cleanliness here, in a country with so many other problems?
Fourteen years after the genocide, when Hutus killed 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus in 100 days, Rwanda is still coming to terms with its months of madness. Local courts still try killers, who apologize and finger other killers still at large. But parallel to this ongoing purging of the psyche of an entire nation, is a cleansing of the physical world as well as of the inner one.
It isn't only B.G. (Rwandans refer to life as B.G. and A.G. – Before the Genocide and After the Genocide.) Street cleaning was also mandatory B.G. But we sometimes forget that the 1994 Genocide was not the first, but the third, assault by the Hutus on the Tutsis in thirty-five years, so the physical purging element may still somehow be related to mass murders, only earlier ones.