A number of recent articles in the press have highlighted the fact that there has been a massive reduction in the use of plastic bags since a charge for their use was introduced. To put some numbers to this, the number of single-use bags handed out in shops dropped to 500 million in the first six months since the charge, compared to 7 billion used in the previous year. This amounts to an impressive reduction of 85% – but still seems like a heck of a lot of bags!
There are some useful facts and figures for use in the classroom in these articles published in the Guardian and Times newspapers:
Reading these articles reminded me of my last school trip to Uganda, when we flew via Kigali in Rwanda. As we came in to land in Kigali, I remember being impressed by the announcement that explained how plastic bags were banned in the country, and advised passengers to ensure they had none in their luggage.
Rwanda’s enlightened attitude to land pollution also came to light while reading Levison Wood’s excellent book ‘Walking the Nile’. In this really well-written travelogue, Wood describes his incredible adventures as he walked the length of the river Nile from source to sea. While searching for the source of the Nile in Rwanda, he came across a custom particular to Kigali itself. It is called ‘Umuganda’, and refers to events that take place from 8.00 am to 11.00 am on the last Saturday of every month when the entire population of the city is required to devote itself to Kigali’s upkeep. For this one day each month, business in the city grinds to a halt, and every man, woman and child turns out to sweep the streets, or tend the parklands and green spaces.
The word Umuganda can be translated as ‘coming together in common purpose to achieve an outcome’. By law all able bodied persons above the age of 18 and below 65 are expected to participate in this community work.
Participation in Umuganda is usually supervised by a manager, or Umudugudu chairperson who oversees the effectiveness and efficiency of community participation. On this day, business activity halts, public transportation is limited, and people are seen everywhere working. People participate in cleaning streets, cutting grass and trimming bushes along roads, or repairing public facilities or building houses for vulnerable persons. People with particular skills offer their services for free on this day. For example, doctors may offer free medical examination.
The benefits of Umuganda are not merely economic. The day is intended to build community involvement and strengthen cohesion between persons of different background and levels. One such a benefit is that people can access authorities to articulate their needs and voice opinions on various issues. The labour cost from Umuganda contributes to national development programs. By reaping the rewards of the volunteer labor and by having more capital to invest in the country, Umuganda has contributed to the growth and development of the Rwanda.
Today close to 80% of Rwandans take part in monthly community work. Successful projects include the building of schools, medical centres and hydro electric plants as well as rehabilitating wetlands and creating highly productive agricultural plots. The value of Umuganda to the country’s development since 2007 has been estimated at more than US $60 million.
Other countries have followed Rwanda’s lead, including Nepal:
So, I welcome the shift in behaviour in relation to plastic bags – but I can’t help but wonder how much further we could go to improve our community environments if we were to follow the example of a small economically developing nation in central Africa. Worth discussing with your students?