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The Dark Side Of Keeping The Streets Clean In Rwanda's Capital


One of the first things that you notice upon landing in Kigali, the capital of Rwanda, is how clean it is. The city has become a shining example of positive urban transformation. But there is also a dark side, as NPR's Eyder Peralta reports.

EYDER PERALTA, BYLINE: Very early in the morning, this is the dominant sound in Kigali.


PERALTA: Alice Chuzuzo starts her day at 6 am and she sweeps until 3 pm - seven days a week.

ALICE CHUZUZO: (Through interpreter) When we started, people would throw things everywhere. But now people know that they have to put the thing in the bags. Then there will be a truck who will come and take it.

PERALTA: Unlike other East African capitals, Kigali is sparkling. Single-use plastics have been long banned. There are trash cans on corners, flowers on medians and crews of street cleaners keeping roadways and sidewalks not only clear of trash but free of dirt.

CHUZUZO: (Through interpreter) When I see my town very, very clean, and I know that I'm part of that job, that give me - it's like the dignity of my country.

PERALTA: Dignity has been a big sticking point for Rwandan President Paul Kagame. His government has banned secondhand clothes and thatched roofs and instituted national cleaning days - for what he says is the benefit of his people's dignity.

LEWIS MUDGE: But there is a really dark side to that striking image.

PERALTA: That's Lewis Mudge of Human Rights Watch. They have found that Rwanda uses punishing tactics to get clean streets. They've documented security forces killing people for stealing bananas, a cow or a motorcycle. They found that police sweep Kigali for street vendors, street children, beggars and sex workers and send them off to what the government calls rehab centers.

MUDGE: These are horrible places where, in many instances, they're beaten by other detainees. They're kept in unsanitary and unhealthy conditions. There's real questions around women who are arrested with their children and their children being detained at the same time.

PERALTA: Essentially, Mudge says people are being punished for being poor. And, yes, he says a safe, clean Kigali is something positive.

MUDGE: However, personal fundamental rights also should be respected - these individual rights. People should not be detained arbitrarily just because they're dirty.

PERALTA: On the streets, however, I find very different opinions. Eric Murindabi is playing basketball at a public park. He says, not long ago, you would find guys urinating right here on the court. This change, he says, is about much more than punishing those who throw garbage or don't clean up. It's a philosophical change.

ERIC MURINDABI: (Through interpreter) You know, our country comes from far away - from very, very far. Genocide happened in this country. And we start by zero for everything. So if you can build everything, the easy thing to do is to clean the city.

PERALTA: His friend, Arsene Mokubwa, says this is also strategic. President Kagame has seen great cities, he says, and now he's trying to sell that vision to the masses.

ARSENE MOKUBWA: So to come and implant that kind of vision in people who have never seen whatever, it's sometimes not easy.

PERALTA: Cleaning up, he says, is easy. And it lets Rwandans quickly see that change is possible. Eyder Peralta, NPR News, Kigali.


Eyder Peralta
Eyder Peralta is NPR's East Africa correspondent based in Nairobi, Kenya.