Blame the Dog: Humans and Space

How to be the weirdest person on the Musanze-Gisenyi road:

  1. Be a white woman.
  2. Be a white woman wearing Adidas youth soccer shorts (shave your legs or not, totally your decision).
  3. Walk a medium-sized, moderately crazy dog on a leash.
  4. 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.

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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.

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The Stories of Women

Tuesday evening, INES computer lab, sun slowly seeping behind the clouds leaving a wash of watercolor blue and pink across the sky outside the window. The choir practices on Tuesday, running through songs familiar from my parochial childhood. Two women have arrived for Staff English class, both working as administrative assistants in different departments at the university. “Beatrice” and “Josephine” could be sisters; they style their hair the same, without plaits or twists, a few centimeters from their scalps. Like many professional women at the university, eschew traditional kitenge wraps in favor of Western clothing: mid-calf skirts, sweaters, scarves wrapped around their shoulders. Glasses.

The Staff English class has slowly shrank, the problem of all my non-credit courses, leading me to favor conversation and English communicative practice over structured lesson plans. I started tonight with a question from a conversation book, one that I thought would be sufficiently light-hearted: women discussing men.

Would you choose the have a partner who is much smarter and more attractive than you? Why or why not?

They smile at the question and take a few moments to think, formulating their responses. They look ahead, at the chalkboard which still bears notes from December classes. I sit to their right, and they continue to look ahead as they speak, not making eye contact- something I have found to be common among the women I work with here.

“I didn’t have choice when I married,” Beatrice begins. She lapses into her story, staring ahead as she speaks. She married a few months after the genocide. “You know why, I think,” she says and looks to me. I have an idea. Josephine begins as Beatrice finishes, her story following the same lines: married young, quickly after the three months of extreme upheaval in 1994. Like many women around the world, she married for protection.

During and after periods of violence, as studies and news reports demonstrate, many girls enter marriages for protection: a husband means you decrease the chance of rape or assault. This phenomenon is occurring at an even younger level among Syrian refugees in Jordanian and Turkish camps at the moment, where child marriages are spiking and children as young as 12 are being married off for “protection.” In Rwanda, after the genocide, both women quickly married and with their marriages, let go (at least for a period) of the dream of attending college. Or, as they put it “completing my education.” Separated from their families, they formed new unions. Their husbands are not bad, they tell me. But marriage wasn’t about love; instead it was for protection, which subsided into cultural duty.

We move to the next question. What is your greatest accomplishment? This time, they look at each other. Josephine begins. Completing her education. A college degree. Beatrice nods and indicates that for her it is the same. They tell me how they had to fight for permission to attend. Josephine’s in-laws vehemently opposed her, accusing her of everything from being a bad mother to sleeping with men from the university. I’ve heard this from another friend as well: women in more rural areas who seek to improve themselves through higher education are accused of being loose. A good woman stays home and raises the children, she caters to her husband and manages her house. She stays home. Outside of the home, of course, looms the temptation of extra-marital affairs and shameful behavior.

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I think of the women in my credit classes, women who are already working as teachers and attending weekend/break classes. Outside of our room is a makeshift daycare, younger children with babies tied to their backs with fabric that is often the same as their mother’s dresses- marking their parent. Sometimes the women dart outside to breastfeed, still listening to the lecture through the windows of the class. I watch this and realize how different I am, as if being a Western woman involves participation in a different species altogether.

But there are moments when we are the same. We talk about challenges- women’s participation in job fields, undergraduate, and especially graduate education, the familial and social expectations placed upon us, often microcosms of culture that dictate so much of our lives and development. While I grew up in a celebrated liberal bastion in Northern California, my childhood was distinctly counter to this culture. I haven’t done such a good job of living up to the expectations of my upbringing; living alone in a Rwandan town wasn’t exactly what my parents imagined- some how the picture is missing a husband, a few children, and a quiet suburban existence.

We can find common ground here in struggling to find ourselves and our voices in cultures that require us to follow a more traditional path. They tell me how they pushed, in Josephine’s case for three years, for permission to attend school- something she was not able to accomplish until her mid-thirties. Since high school, she says, she wanted to attend university. But she never spoke out, she never voiced her opinion or defended her desire. I see this in the women in my classes: the men who miss assignments come up and barter with me; the women accept the zero and don’t rock the boat. The men are the quickest to answer, hands flying in the air when I ask a question, typically dominating the room even when they are the minority population. I realize that my teaching style, communicative and active, subtly favors these men, and I look for opportunities to provide women a voice. I can see myself in them, just as I see flecks of myself in Josephine and Beatrice’s shared story: younger, unable to find a voice, usually knowing the answer in class but somehow silenced by my self-doubt and shame.

Josephine and Beatrice, with their tandem stories, are examples. Josephine is completing a Master’s through a Dutch university- a part-time endeavor that dominates all of her time outside of work hours. She feels guilt for leaving her children, especially when her husband forgets to coordinate dinner.

“But I want to be an example to my daughter,” she says. “I want her to know that she can do the same.”