Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Rambling thoughts--privilege, identity, and sex.

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 na├»ve 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.

Monday, April 22, 2013

Host family.

The fam plus some: Mum, me, Maman Bijoux, Kevine's grandmother, and Kelly.

Ariane and I with an aunt.


We are now in week three of ISP: Independent Study Project.  As I mentioned when I first started this blog, the culmination of our studies here in Rwanda is a month-long research project of our choice.  I’ve been “working” at a nearby youth center called La Maison des Juenes de Kimisagara, or the Kimisagara One-Stop Youth and Productive Center.  I’ve finally settled into somewhat of a schedule and end up spending every day at the center from about 8/9am until 5pm.  The center has a ton of different projects—English classes, ICT training, entrepreneur skills training, voluntary counseling and testing (VCT) for HIV, debates, dance classes, and tons of sports.  I’m headquartered in the office of VCT (the voluntary counseling and testing) because I’m interested mostly in the center’s sexual education program.  They do testing and counseling for HIV but also provide a lot of information about sexual health, safe sex, protective methods, etc.  They focus a lot on ABC (Abstinence, Being Faithful to your partner, and Condoms) and especially stress to young people that they should wait until marriage.  If they “fail” in doing that (their words), youth are encouraged to use condoms, distributed at the center.

After getting over the initial awkwardness of inserting yourself into a new place, I’m actually having a lot of fun!  It’s my first attempt at doing ethnographic research so it’s been an interesting process trying to figure it all out!  (There are lots of ethics about interviewing people for research and there’s a protocol that I’m having to learn about how to present my project to interviewees and make sure they’re ok with using their words in my research.)  But mostly I hang out in the VCT office with two peer educators, who speak only a little English, and try to plan out my project.  The language barrier has been a challenge—the coordinator of VCT services also only speaks a little English—so it’s been a bit difficult these past few days!  But my program gives us a stipend that allows use to hire translators for some of our work.  So I’ve been doing that a little bit and it’s helped a ton!

This past week, the center held a soccer tournament because it’s the last week of vacation for a lot of the youth in the area.  (Students get three weeks off and go back to school next week.)  The youth form teams in two divisions, ages 14-18 and 19-25, and the center provides uniforms, balls, volunteer referees, and announcers.  In the morning, a team of little boys takes a super long string and a bag of flour to mark the lines of the field, and the center sets up an announcement stand where young volunteers report on the soccer games and make intermittent announcements about the center’s free HIV testing.  Literally hoards of people show up to this—mostly boys, I would say (because it’s soccer) but of every single age possible.  Little boys toddle around in dirty shirts filled with holes, possibly orphans or maybe neighbors from the surrounding houses; skinny boys with hand-made soccer balls line the edge of the field cheering their teams on; well-dressed businessmen stand solemnly behind the happy, jittery boys, come to watch some free soccer.  It’s a great way to get people to come to the center to receive info and get tested.

So far, I’ve done several interviews, lots of participating, and a youth debate about the usefulness of condoms.  The youth debate was particularly fascinating; the center held a debate in one of their classrooms for 10 young men (ages probably 12-22) to argue for or against using condoms.  They mostly reiterated information that the center provides but I requested to talk with them at the conclusion of the debate and found out some really interesting stuff!  More to come as I keeping talking with people!  

Thursday, April 18, 2013


(Wrote this a week or so ago)
April 7th, the date of this past Sunday, marked 19 years since the genocide in Rwanda.  For what feels like the first time, I’ve witnessed just how much this atrocity still impacts Rwandans today.  Most of the time, you can barely tell that a genocide happened.  When I first arrived in Rwanda, I remember feeling surprised that people didn’t wear more evidence on their faces saying that something horrible had happened.  But now it’s a time of remembering—and how could you not?  If the date doesn’t initially get you—this was the day when the majority of my family was killed—the constant discussions about genocide on TV and the music videos of songs specifically written about the genocide will.  This week of mourning—of commemoration—makes you remember, forces you to relive the memories.  It must be horrible.

I went with some family members to the annual Walk to Remember, which started at the Parliament building, preserved in its bullet-ridden state as a reminder of those attacked there in 1994, and ended at the national stadium.  Lots of people showed up, mainly young people and wearing purple, the color of mourning.  Lots of foreigners were there too, providing an ironically large presence in contrast to their absence in 1994.  The president himself did the walk as well, and try as we might, we couldn’t walk fast enough to catch up to him.

Once at the stadium, which was packed with thousands of people, many people gave speeches and music performances.  My neighbor at the stadium told me that despite the difficult subject matter, many people attended the ceremony as source of comfort.  About half of the attendees were given candles so the whole stadium flickered—in hope and in memory.  The songs focused on messages of hope and believing in God to find strength.  One hundred names were read to represent just a tiny portion of those killed.  Youth in matching white shirts formed the shape of a candle on the stadium’s field to symbolize hope and faith in the young generation.  It was incredible.

But also incredibly hard.  In the middle of a song, we heard a scream from across the stadium.  Gut-wrenching, bone-chilling, a scream of terror and of absolute pain.  Bodies in neon jackets rushed to the surround the screaming woman and carried her out.  A few minutes later, there was another scream, closer to us this time.  The neon jackets carried her out.  This happened so many more times than I stopped counting.  The neon jackets were counselors, specifically hired for this event to help handle the re-living of trauma.  The screams were ones of remembrance, of seeing horrible images relived, of mourning lost family and friends.  At one point there were so many screaming people that it was hard to concentrate on the music.  And my neighbor told me that in earlier years, it was much worse.

It rains buckets everyday, as if the sky is mourning with this country, and every night the government turns the power off in our district so that we stay home and mourn.  The stores close in the afternoon for town-level genocide meetings, and every billboard in the city declares that it’s the 19th year since genocide.

And still, as my sister says, “People just keep dying!”  Last week, our neighbor’s house collapsed, almost killing the whole family.  A close family friend, only 27 years old, was caught smoking pot by the night patrol and beaten so severely that he died, just meters from his house.  A classmate of our little neighbor, Danny, just died a few days ago of a failed liver.  So there’s mourning on top of mourning.  And still it rains.

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Truth, Purpose, and the Power of Ideas: Intellectual Lessons from Rwanda

[This is the first of three essays that I'm required to complete for my program.  I thought I'd include them here because so much of my time here has been focused on academics and these papers, I hope, will reflect how much I've learned!  I've changed them a little bit, in order to protect my program, and I'm also not sure how much is understandable without having heard our class discussions/being present here in Rwanda... I hope they make sense!  This one particularly is supposed to be a personal essay--no citations or anything.]

            Learning is a constant process.  Immediately upon reaching a “solution” or basic understanding of an intricate concept or relationship, a new insight propels you back into the exhausting yet exhilarating process of thinking and rethinking the complexities.  The peace and global studies discipline in particular fosters this opportunity to think critically and to continuously evaluate one’s field and one’s place within that field.  I find myself constantly absorbing new information—regarding social and economic development, political identity, humanitarian aid work, the relationship between capitalism and political space, the challenge of legitimizing alternatives, etc.—that will aid in my work with future peacebuilding efforts.  My program in Rwanda has advanced my studies in these areas significantly.  In particular, my time in Rwanda has allowed me to unpack three lessons crucial to peacebuilding: the danger of a single truth in peacebuilding efforts, the discovery of a space to change the theoretical within the concrete, and the necessity of believing in the power of ideas.
            First and foremost, this program has reiterated my understanding that no single truth exists.  In the field of peace and conflict studies, it is tempting to search for the answer—the one “right” solution—to the myriad global problems we analyze and discuss.  However, in realizing that each person comes from a unique environment, with a particular frame of mind and set of values, it makes sense that their story is their truth, fabricated from the unique circumstances life has presented him or her.  These contextualized truths must be viewed as valid and legitimate within the unique history of that person’s experience.
In learning to contextualize and historicize individual truth, I believe that I can better meet each person on his or her own level in a way that can foster greater understanding.  Only accepting one truth as the “right” way to view the world completely discounts an individual’s unique experience and hinders any sort of mutual understanding or desire to move forward together.  The danger of recognizing only a single truth constantly manifests in aid projects.  Their very specific plan to build peace, often focusing on development and short-term provision of goods and services, is praised for doing so much “good” in the world while it actually falls prey to an overarching, unjust system.  We heard myriad examples during our program: the alleviation of poverty via the Millennium Village Project, the Rwandan Development Board’s plan to modernize the country, the Invisible Children and Save Darfur advocacy projects for mobilizing masses to prevent genocide.  Despite these programs appearing to do “good” on the surface level, they operate within a system that perpetuates unhealthy dynamics like continual reliance on foreign aid, the privileging of “easier” economic development projects over complex structural problems, and the dehistoricization of incredibly intricate conflicts.  In other words, the very foundation of these programs meant to do “good” aligns carefully with a system based on harmful assumptions that continually oppress the very people these organizations are meant to help.  Thus this single conceptualization of what is “good” distracts from the main issue: the necessity of deconstructing an inherently oppressive system.
So what does this say about truth?  When these projects are championed as the “best” ways to encourage lasting peace, and their advocates—found among the majority of our speakers in class—truly believe that their actions are helping create lasting peace, how can that mindset—their truth—be doubted?  Do these advocates and speakers recognize how well their views align with the official government narrative, and do they realize that this narrative causes fear and alienation for certain groups of people?  Do they actually believe in the concepts on which they present or do they knowingly regurgitate the government’s narrative?  And the single question lying foremost in my head: are these people knowingly causing “bad” while operating under the guise of “good”? 
While this will remain an ongoing question for me, this program has helped me understand the danger of assuming one truth and how crucial it is to deeply evaluate every aid program and attempt to help.  In grappling with this very issue, I have reached a greater understanding of my own purpose in peacebuilding work.  I originally struggled with the aforementioned dilemma of concrete, on-the-ground projects perpetuating injustices on a grander scale and, if this truly was the case, dismayed over where I could work as an advocate of peace.  I could not imagine a definitive way to challenge the harmful assumptions that constrict the way people think: how could big picture paradigm shifts operate within concrete, action-based projects? 
However, I mistakenly isolated theoretical paradigms from on-the-ground structures and institutions, failing to realize how the two inescapably work together.  Dangerous paradigms do not simply appear but are constructed through specific structures and institutions.  Within those institutions, the seed of a harmful paradigm lies within the minds of individuals in the shape of specifically constructed assumptions and biases.  Hence these colossal paradigm shifts can only take place on the ground, within the minds of individuals.
Unfortunately, this raises uncomfortable issues like the presumption that I have the right to impose different mindsets on people and the critique that working within the system cannot break down unjust structures nearly as well as working outside of the system.  Yet, the final lesson I have gained from Rwanda is a strong belief in the power of ideas.  Engaging in theoretical discourse, believing in alternatives, and simply discussing new ideas are all crucial to seeing long-term change; if alternatives cannot be imagined, they will never come about. 
The immensity of some of these structural injustices tends to discourage and frustrate many, myself included.  The utter domination of harmful and biased systems like capitalism, neoliberalism, and nation-state organization is overwhelming.  Specifically, if capitalism as a concept is harmful in itself, how does one even begin to deconstruct such a pervasive mindset?  This point of discussion arose during our conversation in Uganda, pointing to the extent of capitalism’s infiltration into so many ways of life and its probable role in provoking conflicts in Africa.  If one views capitalism as a dominating system in its essence—a claim substantiated because capitalism’s very existence relies on the domination of some over others—then the system of capitalism serves to pacify and suppress those who do not fit neatly into its rigid model of how to organize life and economy.  Hence, in nations with a strong state and a highly integrated system of capitalism, little room exists for dissent or opposition.  It is in response to this intentional narrowing of political space that rebel groups arise and violence becomes the only option in which to voice opposition.  Yet with a less integrated capitalistic system and a weak state, one could argue that opponents have more space to disagree with the current system and highlight other alternatives, for the simple reason that capitalism has not fully pacified the nation under a single system.
Therefore, if capitalism rests at the foundation of many oppressions and conflicts because of its inherently closed political space, it seems to me that resistance needs to take the shape of establishing a space in which to share alternative ideas.  An opening of political space creates an opportunity to at least conceptualize that there can be another option rather than capitalism—or that there already are other options out there that deserve attention.  Encouraging this kind of open dialogue and critical thinking requires that all voices be heard, even allowing the “bad guys” to have their say.  Yet this brings up issues of voice and whether every voice should be heard, despite how harmful or violent it is.  Should we shut out harmful discourses or listen to them?  If we continue to engage with these discourses, will discussion serve to legitimize them and perpetuate their very existence?  Completely opening up political space certainly raises some major issues, ones that I hope to continue unpacking in the years to come.
All the same, I see positive movement occurring in this “play” of ideas: I think positive change lies in the ability to simply conceptualize and begin to believe that there are alternatives to these intimidating systems of capitalism, neoliberalism, and nation-states.  Thus, I leave this program believing even more in education, in the value of critical thinking, and in the spread of knowledge to let people make their own decisions.  Education has the power to influence ways of thinking, ways of conceptualizing, and ways of believing to the extent that entire paradigms are shaped—and hence can change—within this setting.  With an education that invites every individual to think for herself, the thoughts, possibilities, and ideas are endless—and within those rests the possibility of alternatives, even to grand paradigms. 
In synthesizing a semester of work, discussion, and observation, I arrive at these aforementioned lessons: the danger of assuming a single truth, the ability to work within concrete structures to change injustices existing within the mind, and the power of ideas to change abrasive systems of control.  All of these are crucial when examining their implications for pursuing aid work, for wanting to “do good” in the world, for trying to deconstruct complex paradigms within concrete structures, and for focusing on capitalism as a route cause of global conflicts.  I know that I will continue to confront these lessons from Rwanda when I return to my home institution and hope that they will guide me towards even more opportunities to explore the complex relationships in our world.