The New Times (Kigali)

23 January 2013

Rwanda: What Is the Point of Voluntary National Service? Make It Compulsory

When I read yesterday's The New Times that 'Govt launches national service today', I danced a little jig. The idea of national service was something that I'd always felt was something that was missing.

The idea of asking 'not what your country can do for you but rather what you can do for your country' to paraphrase John F Kennedy, is one that I've attempted to hold dear. I've certainly fallen short - make no mistake. I live a selfish life; I pay my dues to society by paying my taxes and, if and when the mood strikes me, I give a few coins to those less fortunate than me. As you've probably noticed, I have no issue giving away a few coins. However, you will find me a bit more Scrooge-like if you ask me to spare my time.

This is something that I struggle with. Certain problems cannot simply be fixed by throwing money at them. They need a hands-on approach. You know the saying, 'if you give a man a fish you feed him for a day. But if you teach him how to fish, you will feed him for life'? My problem is that I simply don't have the time to teach the man 'to fish'. Not because I don't want to, but simply because I don't have the time anymore. I have bills that need to be paid and deadlines that must be met. It's so hectic that when the weekend arrives all I want to do is crawl into my bed and not resurface until Monday.

So forget about the 2013 version of Yours Truly going to the rural Rwanda to teach English, safe sex and planting trees. But if you'd given the pre-university version that opportunity, he'd have given the idea some thought. However, I still wouldn't have done it. The thought of leaving the comforts of home to tackle village life would've been too drastic a move for me. The only way I would've left Kigali would have been if I was forced to.

One of the most rewarding two months of my life was spent in the Ingando grounds on the outskirts of Ruhengeri town. I will not pretend that I didn't find parts of it difficult because I did. I hated the food and I quickly learnt that boiled maize and beans weren't my cup of tea. And I couldn't for the life of me understand why all the drill instructions were in Kiswahili, a language I still can't understand to save my life.

On the plus side (and their were plenty of pluses), I learnt lots of skills, I tested my, admittedly small, physical limits, made friends from all parts of the country and learnt a lot about this small country we call our own. Would I have learnt all I did if I wasn't forced to go there in order to enjoy government sponsored university education; certainly not.

Which brings me to the national service that was announced by Boniface Rucagu, the Chairperson the Itorero National Taskforce. His version of national service centers on the 40,730 members of the Itorero ry'Igihugu. These young men and women will voluntarily partake in activities that benefit the entire community. Which is great. However, I would have gone about the national service differently.

First of all, I would have incorporated it within the Ingando system. Instead of having a bunch of differing programmes, why not simply make each and every high school graduate be a part of the national service programme? You notice I said 'make'? That is because I don't believe that national service should be voluntary. Paying taxes isn't voluntary. Neither is umuganda. Why should national service be?

If the thousands of young people graduating from high school sitting at home for almost a year awaiting examinations results and university placement were put to work, instead of engaging in all sorts of mischief, we'd have a win-win situation.

They have the energy, the passion and, frankly, the time. They'd learn more about the country, learn what real patriotism is through hard labour, open their eye to the realities on the ground, learn new skills and become better attuned to the needs of their community. And the community would benefit from their energy and drive.

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