How to be the weirdest person on the Musanze-Gisenyi road:
- Be a white woman.
- Be a white woman wearing Adidas youth soccer shorts (shave your legs or not, totally your decision).
- Walk a medium-sized, moderately crazy dog on a leash.
- Buy one singular avocado from a roadside vendor and hold it in your non-leash hand because it won’t fit in your pocket.
Follow those steps and the people who would normally walk only inches from you are suddenly running to cross the street. Of course, in this moment, people are running from you for #3. It’s not the whiteness, shorts, or avocado (at least I don’t think). Blame the dog.
But its what happens when you put this particular foreign agent in the Rwandan space environment. In walking with the dog, even curious children give you a wide berth: they seem fascinated by this strange pointy-eared zinger of energy, but few have the courage to come up and pet her. They watch and giggle from ten feet as the honey-brown blur chases every available scent on her two-foot tether. Old men call things out at me, though my shameful lack of Kinyarwanda means I don’t understand, and read their furrowed brows and wild hand gestures to mean something to the effect of, “stop walking down the road with that beast.” I smile at them.
Rwandans, like many in developing nations, don’t see dogs so much as a pet as a nuisance or vector: something that carries diseases, steals food, and terrorizes farm animals. In nearly every non-Western country I’ve visited, I’ve had conversations about Americans and our seeming obsession with keeping pets. Cats- no one really understands the point of cats. And dogs? If they aren’t helping rustle up the sheep, what is the purpose? For Rwandans, though, the distrust of dogs goes deeper, related to the aftermath of the genocide. After the genocide, all the street dogs, including those abandoned when Rwandans fled, were rounded up and killed. There’s a distrust (“disgust” according to Dale) for dogs.
Dog on a back road
But beyond that, on walks like this that I see the starkness that emerges when you disrupt the agreed-up space bubble. In my life as a foreign agent in the Rwandan environment, the reverse happens to me daily. When riding the bus from Kigali back to Musanze (which I tend to do when exhausted, after hours of running teacher training), I’m mentally racing across the street to get out of the dog-warpath when a man sits next to with legs splayed wide and continually bumps my knee with his. It’s not as dramatic as the dog, but it’s enough of an invasion into my personal space culture that my cortisol level begins to rise and I focus out the window with silent rage and try to keep myself from kicking him in the groin (or at least smashing my foot on top of his, at this angle).
Space, and our personal sense of it, is deeply entrenched in our cultures and personalities, often so deeply buried that we don’t realize our reactions to it when it is subtly invaded. Edward Hall (yeah, him again) calls it the “hidden dimension,” essentially the “distance-sensing process [that] occurs outside awareness” (p. 115). He terms this as proxemics: our senses subtly create our space bubble through a combination of scent, visuals, and nerve endings, all colored by our cultural understanding of the space spheres of intimate, personal, social, and public.
This means that according to culture, we understand space (and our physical orientation within it) differently. How we determine “crowded” is different between Americans and Arabs, two groups that Hall dedicates much time to understanding. I see it as tied to individual versus collective cultures as well: in Arab culture, perhaps more similar to Rwanda with its emphasis on the collective over individual, public spaces belong to the public (p. 156). There is no “personal bubble” in a public space, simply because an individual cannot expect to exert ownership over a part of that space. One cannot demand a few feet of distance when standing in a line, for example. Americans- we would disagree, wouldn’t we? Everywhere I go, whether I’m on my porch with feet kicked up and a cold Mutzig in hand, or navigating down a Rwandan road (keeps a meter between me and the ditch), I expect this bubble to exist: I own the zone around me. As an American, the edge of who I am is my skin and muscle; to get close is to invade this proximal space.
My ability to cope with cultural differences, especially space-related ones, waxes and wanes with my personal level of stress and exhaustion. Well-rested, I’m modern Margaret Mead. Running on a few hours of sleep, mentally contemplating long to-do lists, exhausted by constant cultural negotiations? Each bump comes like an electric shock. Of course, it took me years to figure out the connection: when mentally or physically overwhelmed, I recess deep into my cultural basement, reverting to my national heritage as a settler in the U.S. west with acres of nothingness. The vast stretches of I-5 in California’s Central Valley. It’s a primal need for physical space, those vast expanses of unpopulated valley land.
Hall explains that we cannot ever truly rid ourselves of these cultural constraints, our cultural space orientation. “No matter how hard man tries it is impossible for him to divest himself of his own culture, for it has penetrated to the roots of his nervous system and determines how he sees the world” (p. 188). So, this means we can try to understand the space difference, we can try to adapt. But can we ever really change something that he argues is as much our biology as my eyes being hazel like my father’s? To Hall, no. And sometimes immersing yourself in a new space culture is like winging a dog onto a Rwandan road. We’re all just a little uncomfortable.
So, I’ve learned the coping mechanism. When I need some space outside of my fortress of a house, walk a dog. Works like a charm.
Hall, E. (1966). The hidden dimension. New York: Anchor Books.