It makes you wonder. I’m almost at the end of my time here—only about a month left!—and it’s really starting to hit me that I’m leaving. I’m leaving behind this absolutely wonderful family, who has made this house a home away from home for me and has provided so much love and support during my time here. And this could be it. They don’t often get a chance to use the internet—and if they do, it costs money—so most of them don’t have Facebook let alone email. Rwandans don’t appear to have mailing addresses either and calling from the US costs a fortune. They’ve given me so much to be grateful for and I feel that I can never repay them. It’s an incredible privilege to be able to leave my life in the US for a semester and spend time in another country just learning, not working or volunteering or anything, just learning. After all this family has given me, I am just leaving, with newfound knowledge taken from my experience and a distant, somewhat skeptical hope of someday returning to visit.
I’m spending a lot more time in the poorer parts of Kigali, too. La Maison des Jeunes is home to many orphans and young people with no place to stay. Last week, I had a little girl, probably about 12 years old, follow me onto the bus, all the way to my house, rubbing her stomach and asking for food. How do you turn that away? (I bought her some food and sent her back on the bus with enough money for the fare.) But I can’t stop thinking: it’s such a luxury to look at these theories and the embedded structures that inherently oppress, but honestly, striving to change those paradigms doesn’t feed the hungry girl hanging around at the youth center. It doesn’t help my family here find enough money to rebuild their house’s crumbling wall. It doesn’t get the drunken beggars who greet me every morning off the street in the short-run. It’s a luxury to look past those grievances and say, “It will be better in the future.” It’s easy because my present isn’t a hungry belly and a crumbling house.
Research, I’m realizing, also feels quite exploitative. I’m asking these people to give up their time to provide me with research that I will use in a report that will have little effect on their actual lives. In the case of the nurse I just interviewed, it means that the time she gave me cost a patient an appointment that day. And here I get to just waltz into this clinic, past all of the wailing babies, haggard mothers, and heavily bandaged limbs, to speak directly with the clinic coordinator, barely waiting 5 minutes in line.
We get called “muzungu” hear, meaning “white person.” At first, this bothered a lot of us, since it’s hard to simply be identified not as a person but as a color. It doesn’t bother me in the least anymore. As naïve as it sounds, this is the first time I’ve realized to what extent my color gives me incredible privileges. People are defined by their color every day, even within my own country, within my own town, let alone here in Africa. Drawing on post-colonial theory again (my newfound interest), for the first time I feel like an Other, something that made my whole group uncomfortable at first, only because we weren’t used to it. But how can we hate it, how can we feel angry about being defined by our color, when it happens to so many people each and every day?
We keep talking about the need to dissolve barriers between people—national identity, ethnic identity, racial identity—to just view ourselves as people, as global citizens. It stems from the desire to dissolve the divide between “settler” and “native”, “colonizer” and “colonized” (talked about in Mamdani’s book, also a newfound interest). The identity of “colonizer” should cease to exist, inarguably, but what about the identity of “colonized” or “native”? That “othered” identity, born out of the colonial divide between colonizer and colonized, has grown into an identity to be proud of—minorities take pride in their differences, in their unique cultures that differentiate them from the hegemonic (for example: White, or male) identity. To personalize it, I can say the same for myself, in terms of being a woman. I take pride in being a woman, an identity seeping in inequality (more for others than for myself, I can certainly admit), but I fight to promote my femininity, my womanhood, my right to be a woman. But being a woman means not being a man, yes? Being a woman relies on the existence of a man (whoa), since she is the opposite. That’s what post-colonial theory says, anyways. I’m still thinking about it, personally.
So how can we say that these “othered” identities need to break down the barrier that separates them from others—i.e. their unique identity? Just become global citizens, see yourselves as people, not as citizens of separate nations, not as white or black, not as male or female, just as people. Is there any room for unique identities within that? Is there a huge danger of homogenizing the globe, at risk of falling under the dominance of the majority? I don’t really have answers, just thoughts.
Despite all of this reeling through my head, (and perhaps a little unrelated...) I am finding out a lot about women, sexual health, and priorities of the government in my research. It’s fascinating to hear attitudes about sex and condom use in different settings in Rwanda. The Maison des Jeunes stresses waiting until marriage but if you “fail” you should use a condom. Much of the information is geared towards men; for example, in the literature provided on male and female anatomy, the description for a vagina is “the place where a man’s penis is inserted” while the description of a penis includes an entire explanation of sex/how the man can orgasm/how “the penis is used to penetrate a woman’s vagina”/etc. (This is coming from the National Manual on sexual health.) Just those descriptions say a lot about the assumed hetero-normative nature of sex (only between a man and woman), the focus on the man and his control over sexual intercourse, and the emphasis on only a single function for those body parts (i.e. sex is only conceptualized in one way). The government is trying to implement family planning methods so that women can space out and choose the time of their pregnancies, or, by using condoms, can reduce the risk of contracting HIV/AIDS. Which sounds great except… many women are skeptical about using modern contraceptives because “in the culture of Rwanda,” as I’ve been told, it’s prohibited for women to be having pre-marital sex. Women don’t openly talk about sex, are afraid to let anyone know that they might be having it, and feel skeptical about these new contraceptives. It’s funny, because the government of Rwanda is trying to promote this vision of a modern, developing nation, seen in many ways but also in the promotion of modern methods of contraceptives, but those modern methods aren’t seen as acceptable to many people, especially women. In Rwandan culture, you aren’t supposed to be having sex if you don’t want children. Yet, it appears that young people are having sex, especially young men (and who are they having sex with? Yep, unmarried women) but the protective methods are highly stigmatized. I’m hoping to find out more within the next few days that can add to all of this! But this is just a taste.