The View from the Top

Up here, civilization spreads like a blanket of rooftops and manicured green spaces across Kigali’s undulating hills. It’s grand view of the country from the gated top of Parliament Hill: to the north, the main thoroughfare that runs through Kacyiru neighbourhood, dotted to high rise apartments and hotels, a few embassies and foreign offices. To the south, the ever-evolving convention centre, still in construction with scaffolding wrapped around one dome-shaped building. Progress, in the shape of tall cranes crowned with Chinese company logos.

IMG_9300

The Parliament Building at the top of the hill: seat of the nation’s legislative branch, which includes Senate (upper chamber) and the Chamber of Deputies (lower). 

I’m at this auspicious vantage point to meet with the Rwandan Women’s Parliamentary Forum (which uses the acronym FFRP from the French title) to discuss the possibility of English classes for members of the Forum. It’s an unusual day for me – then again, unusual is slowly becoming my usual. After meeting several representatives from the FFRP, the sort of women’s caucus for the nation’s legislative branch, I’m on the hill for the sort of meeting that calls for high heels, hair down, and a sleeveless wool dress that becomes more and more form-fitting in the rising humidity and clear sunlight of the morning. It calls for another rare luxury as well: a taxi driver.

My taxi driver Evariste pulls up to the security at the bottom of the hill, just off of the main road that connects the airport to Mumugi, the downtown. One officer checks the car – under the body with a mirror, in the doors and all of the possible hidden spaces, while Evariste and I pass through the usual exercise of metal detectors and log book signatures. Security allow me through in return for my passport, and instead of a Parliament visitor badge, my Embassy identification bounces against my stomach. Back in the taxi, up the hill.

He leaves me at the entrance and a woman greets me, touching the inside of her elbow as she shakes my hand: the sign of respect. When I learn her position, a few minutes later when seated at a meeting table, I realise that the gesture should have been reversed: she’s a senator and highly ranked in the FFRP, a well-spoken and genial woman who studied in Sweden and commands the room with a gentle firmness. It’s a humble room where the FFRP meets, with tiled floors, a fresh coat of white paint, shelves full of binders, and a 90s copy machine jammed into a corner behind the meeting table. The women’s titles roll easily off their tongues in their introductions, and I am properly impressed as we move succinctly through logistics: number of participants, meeting times, topics. The women shake my hand at the end and thank me for my time and lead me back towards the elevator and the exit. I take a few minutes to survey the building.

It’s not a remarkable building- perhaps some part of it is gilded and dressed with pomp, but you wouldn’t know from the exterior. In fact, this is purposeful- after our meeting, Speciose, my contact from RWPF, answers my questions about the scars that mar its exterior, visible from the road far below. I noticed the marks on the building from my first days in the country and always wondered.

IMG_9299

Intentional reminders of the past: Mortar scars from 1994 

It’s as I thought: five-foot wide chunks blown from the sides of the building are two decades old, the damage of mortars fired from the military camp controlled by the Rwanda Armed Forces (FAR), attached to the government that carried out the genocide. Rwanda Patriotic Army, the rebel group lead by now-President Paul Kagame, had 600 soldiers in the capital, holed up at the Parliament, later reinforced as Kagame’s forces ripped through the country to bring the hundred day genocide to an end. It’s a rare relic of Rwanda’s tumultuous past. It’s not that the genocide is somehow silenced – it pulses beneath everyday conversations and daily life, but to see such a deliberate reminder of war in a city reborn and reconstructed and more often reminded of its past only in white-tiled memorials.

IMG_9289

A reward poster: eight fugitives still sought for their connection to the planning and execution of the genocide. Hung at the Gisenyi/Rubavu coach stop a kilometre from the DR Congo border

It’s as I thought: five-foot wide chunks blown from the sides of the building are two decades old, the damage of mortars fired from the military camp controlled by the Rwanda Armed Forces (FAR), attached to the government that carried out the genocide. Rwanda Patriotic Army, the rebel group lead by now-President Paul Kagame, had 600 soldiers in the capital, holed up at the Parliament, later reinforced as Kagame’s forces ripped through the country to bring the hundred day genocide to an end. It’s a rare relic of Rwanda’s tumultuous past. It’s not that the genocide is somehow silenced – it pulses beneath everyday conversations and daily life, but to see such a deliberate reminder of war in a city reborn and reconstructed and more often reminded of its past only in white-tiled memorials.

A building that looks back, while those within its walls look ahead. Despite its past, Rwanda has some of the most progressive policies in regards to gender equality, especially for representation in government.

Sure, laws aren’t the only agent of change when upending cultural attitudes about women and their role in society, and it’s a worthless agent when unaccompanied by development in economics, education, and social change. Just as the Civil Rights Act of 1964 didn’t erase racism in the U.S., life isn’t all rosy for women in Rwanda: they continue to face domestic violence and the highest instances of poverty in the country. Colloquially, I’ve heard people say that women might be 64% of the Parliament, but they hardly speak during the government session: a reflection of the traditional role for women in Rwanda.

Sure, laws aren’t the only agent of change when upending cultural attitudes about women and their role in society, and it’s a worthless agent when unaccompanied by development in economics, education, and social change. Just as the Civil Rights Act of 1964 didn’t erase racism in the U.S., life isn’t all rosy for women in Rwanda: they continue to face domestic violence and the highest instances of poverty in the country. Colloquially, I’ve heard people say that women might be 64% of the Parliament, but they hardly speak during the government session: a reflection of the traditional role for women in Rwanda.

Dinah Musindarwezo, head of women’s rights group FEMNET surveys the situation: “Of course, deep social changes take time, especially when dealing with communities where education levels are still low. But it’s clear how, pushed along by political leadership, there is a change of attitudes in people toward women in Rwanda that I do not see in almost any other African country” (thanks, Nat Geo).

Maybe English has a role here, and maybe that’s something I can contribute. Language is best when used outside of the classroom: Rwandan parliamentarians communicating with their East African colleagues, using the lingua franca of the EAC: English. English to advocate for what is needed to change, to present themselves as an example. In this room full of women, in a scared and once-crippled building, you can see the start: when change begins at the top, there is the opportunity for it to roll downhill – into schools, businesses, homes.

IMG_9305

Kigali skies at sunset, Parliament Hill invisible in the left quadrant of the image

More on this, as it comes. From back at the bottom of the hill…

~ L

Advertisements

A Few Frames: A Glimpse of Work Life

I haven’t posted in a long time, a combination of too many projects and continued adjustment to this new city. So, to restart my creativity, I offer a few photos of recent life (so at least my grandmother will know that I’m doing ok).

IMG_8988

Working with Young Emerging Scholars (YES) at the Embassy library. These twelve kids were chosen out of nearly 800. In the YES program, funded by EducationUSA, they receive standardised test prep (via yours truly) and help with applications. Applying to U.S. universities is prohibitive to a majority of Rwandans I’ve encountered: the $100+ exam costs and application fees equal more than a few months’ wages. The kids in this program are extremely bright and some of the top students in the country. 

IMG_8894

Nadine and Natasha practice delivering their responses to TOEFL speaking questions. 

IMG_8893

Robert practices his speaking response with no partner, only the window. The students have to get comfortable with the awkward situation of talking to themselves in a room full of test-takers doing the same thing… So they practice by all talking at the same time and conversing with windows and bookcases.

IMG_9102

Another day, another group of students. These girls are part of Akilah Women’s Institute, a certificate program that prepares women for work environments in fields like IT, Hospitality, and Leadership. I worked with the other two Fellows and a Fulbright ETA to do a three day workshop on academic honesty.  

IMG_9118

The event was inspired by my previous life as a pre-university teacher in the U.S.: students engage in activities to better understand plagiarism (and, in this case, practice a variety of techniques for paraphrasing) and then sign a pledge. Our pledge was a simple one: “My work represents me.” More than two hundred  women students added their name and thumbprint. 

IMG_9147

With my fellow Fellows at the event. Jessica insisted I be in the middle. She works with a university in the East; Robert works with the Association of Teachers of English in Rwanda, and he’s my upstairs neighbour. 

IMG_8918

Another day, another event. Another great program sponsored by the U.S. embassy is the Access Microscholarship Program – a weekend English and culture class that helps groups of students improve their English in a communicative environment for two year class groups. It’s a public diplomacy offering: to win hearts and minds. In Africa, as in many places throughout the world, you can win both via language teaching. 

IMG_8913

The conference helped orient new Access teachers on the first day. Here they are at the Embassy in Kigali, in a digital video conference with my supervisor, the Regional English Language Office.

IMG_8930

I’m looking forward to January, when I will host a week-long training with these teachers for the curriculum I wrote, which focuses on teaching values (such as civic responsibility, compassion, care for the environment) through the narratives of Americans like John Muir, MLK, Susan La Felsche Picotte, Jane Addams, and eight others. 

IMG_8928  

Day 2: More than three hundred Access students and alumni gather to talk about possibilities after Access and hear from inspiring young Rwandans, including a 24 year-old who created Rwanda’s second largest media site and Rwanda’s first fashion designer. 

IMG_8931

And here I am again with my Fellow – despite the chaos of the past two months, I appreciate that for all of this, I am not alone.