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Meet female street cleaners, unsung heroes behind the famous clean Kigali

Marie Anne DUSHIMIMANA

Anyone who visits Kigali City whether from Europe or from the United States wonders how clean and green the city is.

The worrying story is that cleanliness comes with a cost. The life of female cleaners is always in danger. They decry lack of consideration and work in a poor environment, things they appeal to the concerned authority to deal with.

These women are among the most vulnerable people in Kigali, they clean the city but the houses they live in are unclean. 

They make happy people who visit or live in the city but they are not happy at all.

All they need is the little money to put food on the table, to rent small houses, and afford public schools for their children.

They live in the simplest suburbs to find the cheapest houses to rent and modest food for their families. They live a hard life but they don’t quit for the sake of their children.

However, they are behind the high-ranking hygiene found in Kigali. The capital of Rwanda has been ranked by the various organisations including World Economic Forum, among the cleanest and greenest cities in Africa, and worldwide.

 Kigali, the cleanest City

For someone who never set a foot in Kigali, it is taboo to throw a bottle on the street, better wait until you arrive behind a dustbin, set all along all the streets and roads.

Plastic bags are now history, as they are even banned from entering the countries through all borders and on Kigali International Airport.

Families have to pay Hygiene fees to some companies which correct garbage from homes at least once a week, and it is mandatory.

To ensure public spaces like roads, streets, and gardens are clean, City Council hires some cleaning companies, which, at their turn hire women for daily cleaning.

The city council estimates that cleaning companies bag up to 1.4 billion Rwandan Francs per year as cleaning fees.

Despite the huge amount, female cleaners get almost nothing considering their efforts.

This is how their (women cleaners) work schedule is designed: They wake up early as 5 am, they walk and around 6 am they start their job of cleaning roads, streets, and gardens.

Julienne TWAGIRUMUREMYI wakes up at 5 am to make sure she will be at work at 6 am.

The 35-year-old mother of two walks about four kilometers to reach the Remera site around the Amahoro National Stadium where she spends the entire day cleaning.

To ensure she does not get tired before the 10-hour work per day ends, she resorted to attaching a wooden long stick to her artisanal cleaning broom.

 Whether it is a sunny day or a heavy rainy one, she has to work, so that the city of over 1 million people and an international meeting hub remains clean.

She is very proud of her work which contributes to the super hygiene in Kigali but her worse working conditions deprive her of enjoying the fruit of her sweat.

“I came here because I needed a job to help my husband to satisfy my family needs. However, we are not paid on time, they always have some unpaid months for us and it affects our daily living,” she said.

“We work two months and we get paid once. I always owe money to various people. We don’t even have contracts,” She added.

Olive (not her real name because she fears losing her job if her bosses recognize her) said because of the bad living conditions they have, people don’t value their work.

“For example, look at me now, I don’t even have hand protectors, I’m just picking waste with my hands and sometimes we get various infections,” she said.

“We don’t even know any manager from this company we work for, we didn’t have any meetings since I started working here. When the boss changes, the new one meets us just here, in the streets,” she laments. 

In case of an accident, they are responsible for the casualties, some even lost their lives in road accidents, she remembers.

“At least they may come and sit down with us, then we tell them our wishes and how we need to perform our duties safely and happily,” she said.

Jacqueline Mukeshimana 46, a mother of four children, never takes a break as her home is far away from where she works. The work is hard, but she needs it to survive together with her children, she said.

“I’ve not registered anywhere, we work and at a certain time, they come to pay us. It is all about trust,” she said.

“We need the salary increment, protective gears, and work contracts so that we can even use it in banks to request for loans and health insurance coverage,” she added.

An official from one of the companies contracted for Public Cleaning said some of the problems cited above result from bad collaboration with the contractors, which are the City of Kigali and Districts.

“The contractor doesn’t pay on time, and the tenders lack necessary requirements to be carried out efficiently,” he said preferring anonymity. 

Civil society speaks out

Transparency international Rwanda recently released a report on various challenges that Women cleaners meet.

According to the report, the lack of job contracts, salary delay, lack of insurance and not having access to saving schemes are some of the main challenges against these women.

Ingabire Marie Immaculée, the Chairperson of TIR said local authorities should work on resolving all these problems that city cleaners are faced with.

“It is unfair to not pay someone for three of four months, knowing that it is the only this they do to gain a living. Local leaders have to own up these issues and resolve them,” she said.

In 2021, Transparency International received 3,612 cases from women cleaners related to various issues they face, which makes 86% of all job-related cases they received in the same year.

Jordy Michel Musoni, Vice-Chairman of Rwanda Workers Trade Union Confederation said street cleaners belong to the informal sector of the economy which is still difficult and complex in Rwanda, despite legal recognition.

The Rwanda Labor Law of 2018, recognized all informal workers and designed the rights they deserve, including insurance, timely salaries, and other different protecting provisions.

“Public authorities in charge of labor didn’t conduct awareness campaign of this new law and its specific new provisions on informal sector among workers and employers. Both parties have to know that they have to abide by the current law, if not, there is a complaint mechanism for these issues,” he said.

“Sometimes these investors, including cleaning companies only look at their own interests and they don’t pay their employees. Sometimes though they are not paid on time, however, they have to be strong enough to continue paying salaries even before receiving their money from the Government,” he said.

Several efforts to get comments from the City of Kigali authorities have been fruitless. 

THIS STORY WAS SUPPORTED BY SIRI- SOCIAL IMPACT REPORTING INITIATIVE

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