Here, Still a Girl

  • Women Leaders’ English Class
  • Women’s Parliamentary Forum English Class
  • Girl Effect Journalists’ English Class

Lately, my schedule reads like the notes of a gender-language task force, with every class populated only by females. Today is my favourite group, if I’m allowed to play teacher favourites: the nine female journalists who work at Girl Effect and produce the Ni Nyampinga magazine and radio shows that target girls around Rwanda. They are a unwieldy group, pleasantly so, forever forcing me to clear my throat and wrestle back control of the room. I love it. There’s nothing quite like a rowdy group of girls – something I would label an abnormality in a country where a proper Rwandan girl is calm, quiet, and subdued, with her head metaphorically bowed. In reality, it’s what happens here in a single sex classroom: a raucous freedom that emerges when you remove the male factor from the room. This gentle liberation is most evident in body language: gone are the stiff-backs and crossed ankles; instead, two journalists lounge in chairs at the back of the room, bodies languid in comfort and ease, one leaning her head on the other’s shoulder.

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The journalists’ work room

Really, though, they aren’t girls. When I set up the classes, they were introduced to me the “girl journalists,” probably because they produce the media which is for girls, so it’s stuck with me. The youngest of the group is 19 – an adult female in both her country and mine – and the eldest is 23, the age I was when I began graduate school. They come from all around Rwanda, their home geography something that I can often deduce from their style of dress and how they wear their hair. Worn natural like a puffy halo above her ears, one journalist is obviously from a rural village, evidenced in her low level of English and her covered knees and shoulders, always in mid-calf skirts and cardigans. Another, more cosmopolitan with a wide, wound bun styled of honey brown extension braids. And my favorite, impeccably stylish with natural dread worn thickened with oil – not quite Namibian Himba style, but approaching.

But I continue to use the girl indicator – perhaps because the alternative – woman, adult – seem like something I have barely yet adopted for myself.

 

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Girls on fire: Dramas to act out phrases for one student to guess

I talk about this often with friends – when will we become adults, the way we viewed our parents when we were growing up? Ten years old, looking up to my parents and their friends, they always seemed so adult: weary with financial and spiritual preoccupations, addressed with terms of respect, Mr. and Mrs. So and So. Yes, my generation is different from theirs, but our achievements are just as adult: houses, careers, families. At what point do we look at ourselves and abandon the title of girl or guy for the more foreboding “adult”? As a female, when am I no longer a girl?

For Rwandans, the answer appears more cut and dry.

Here, Girl

Here, the distinction between girl and woman is a strong one. A friend here was once asked by a moto driver if she was a girl or a wife – no third option. A girl is unmarried, young, holding a certain status in society. A woman is of a different status: married, children. Both are well-respected in Rwandan society: this is not a female-bashing culture, there’s no tradition of female genital mutilation or some of the other gross physical crimes levied against women across this continent and beyond. Women are valued and respected; but respect takes a certain form: they still expected to find that respect rooted in a certain definition and construction – really, like every society.

On thing I have always appreciated it how much you, the teacher, can learn from what seems small and banal. I gave them a task: act out a phrase and get your classmates to guess what the phrase is. At a loss for ideas this morning, I lead with one that is near and dear to the Girl Effect cause: gender equality. Their short sketches, accompanied by much gleeful laughter (and only 10% of that from me) demonstrated their realties: told by parents to cook food for their brothers instead of studying for exams, staying home from school because they had their period and no sanitary products, parents preferring to pay school fees for a boy over a girl, having to advocate for one’s self to attend university even when placed through national exams.

I can copy down anecdotal accounts, and for those familiar with the challenges faced by girls in developing nations, they won’t come as any shock. Their sketches read like news bulletins posted by Human Rights Watch, UNESCO, and other organizations with proper gender task forces. Domestic gender bias that favours sons, issues with menstruation and a lack of private sanitation faculties at schools contributing to absenteeism, girls being required to shoulder a larger portion of domestic work in addition to their schooling. Anecdotal from my journalists in our garden classroom, recorded more authoritatively by websites that end in dot org. The challenges faced by girls are often rooted within these cultural identities: the pull of what girls are supposed to do. It always throws me back, to compare my situation with theirs, what I have considered challenging in the face of what they constantly maneuver.

And they are still “girls” – none are married, though all have told me that they expect to be transformed into “women” with this important step, probably within the next few years. Essential, in their culture, to be married before a certain age. This is what makes you serious, culturally obedient, maybe even Rwandan, if I can purpose my interactions to go so far to say.

Here, [American] Girl

For me, to be female, and to be white, and to be unmarried: this creates something of a conundrum. Especially for a woman over 30. In Musanze, to tell others that I was my age and unmarried would invariably warrant a reaction: confusion at the most mild, distrust at the most extreme. In more progressive Kigali, the question continues, but with less surprise. It’s as if this is expected of foreign women: to be something weird, different, culturally abnormal.

All white women here, we have our own stories of mild indignities, our tactics for defending and deflecting uncomfortable questions and advances. Invariably, this involves a man in power scoffing mildly at my presence as a professional or the elevator look, sizing you up physically and sexually, a reminder that you are female first and professional second. Asking, “are you married” or “do you have children” is not the personal inquest it would be in America, but a common question that has arisen in nearly every new group business meeting I have been part of. So we have our stories. One friend always answers when asked, “do you have children?” with “none that I know of!” I changed my WhatsApp photo to feature just me and saw a massive uptick in random uninvited male messaging which tapered off as soon as I replaced it with a photo with my niece and nephew: she must be married, I imagine they think, and move on to the next profile. Another friend last year, 27 years old, told by a colleague that when she first began teaching at the university campus, he wondered, “who is this little girl and why has her father let her come here alone?” He told her this. To her face. And then laughed. Yes. Being infantilized and marginalized because of your gender. How hilarious.

Again, it’s what she told me. This is often the problem with identifying gender bias: it relies on hearsay. What she said he said. It lacks the stout imperialism of numbers and thus indignities lose some of their punch and flirt the line with whining, bitching, complaining, man-hating. We watch how much we say about it to avoid sounding like broken records, to sound like we are making mountains out of mole hills. But I think savvy women, white or black, figure out how to operate, and even in my short time, there’s a lot I’ve learned. A diverse group from East Africa will react better to a male Master of Ceremonies for a conference; I will attend a meeting in which the men in the room joked that a women must be elected to leadership for the sake of gender balance and suggest that I should run when there are two other Rwandan women present: three women in a room with thirteen men. Do women here do what I do, bottle it up, smile tight lipped, ignore the idiocy, and blow up later, usually at someone who has nothing to do with the gendered inequity? It’s an everyday challenge, operating in a traditional culture dragged forward by future-leaning politics, so often reduced to a slogan or even a punch-line.

I’ve written about this before, how being a white woman feels as though I’m part of a different species – not quite Rwandan woman, but not a man. Somewhere in between. I can sit in a bar with a group of men from the teacher association, and not be labeled as a loose woman or prostitute – that’s what my skin allows. Because I’m outside of the cultural boundaries, both by privilege of my passport and because, even with the barbs, I’m still a highly educated, experienced professional, I’m granted some privilege, this weird middle ground between man and woman (girl).

I wonder what it is then that I can accomplish as a white women working with all of these groups of Rwandan women, from businesswomen to parliamentarians to journalists. What is the point of this outsider, who is occasionally subjected to but never held to cultural norms (an essential distinction), coming in and saying, women, have more confidence, speak English with more force, feel within yourself more power that your voice needs to be heard, even in this second (or third) language. There really isn’t an answer these questions, and I’m forever thinking that this experience is of greater value to me than to anyone I teach.

But we stand on common ground: finding ourselves in places that attempt dictate our identities, slowly working to overcome the thought that I need someone else’s permission for power, to feel capable and confident, or whether it even matters if I feel that for myself if they look at me sidelong and chuckle. And for these female journalists, I see pieces of myself in them- enthusiasm, optimism, tempered by insecurity and the struggle of self-understanding, echoing Beryl Markham: all of us, “being only a girl, just waited to grow up.”

Whatever that means.

———-

Markham, B. (1942) West with the night. New York: Open Road.

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Mountain at My Gates

July 2015

For two days afterwards, I picked pieces of glass- not shards, since safety glass seems to shatter into confetti- out of my hair. My phone case was smudged with black that came up iron red when rubbed: blood. And I couldn’t remember anything.

Trauma – the universality of a horrible experience in which a person is no longer able to control what happens around them, resulting in gross bodily or mental harm. I lost two hours- a crash occurred around 5:30pm, and when I regained full consciousness a few hours later, I was lying on a gurney in a neck brace that cut into the back of my skull. I could strain to recall a few moments of consciousness in the ambulance, racked with fear as I couldn’t understand why I couldn’t remember how I got there, panicked, wondering if I had been drinking? Was that why I couldn’t remember what day or time it was, what had happened to me, why I was blinking at the bright light coming in through the window? And a few hours later, closing my eyes to block claustrophobia caused by the whirring CT scan machine that encased me in a tube, I could flash back to moments lying on the lightening hot asphalt of a northern California freeway in high summer, my forearms burning where the jacket that protected me from the pavement had slipped.

I’d never experienced it before: the trauma of hours erased, later tempered by a gnawing fear that I would remember, that I would relive the moment of impact and fire and being trapped in my vehicle. Moments earlier, slowing to a stop for traffic and peering ahead to see why it has slowed so dramatically. Then being smashed from the rear by a gas tanker trawler – this is what they tell me and the newspaper reported. And that is a constant fear- that seeing my car, a burned, gutted hulk of metal and glass- or hearing about the details, meeting the man who saved my life, all of these things might trigger me back to the experience. I couldn’t read, I couldn’t keep my hands from shaking, I couldn’t think.

That is trauma. Trauma trumps all other moments of fear or paranoia that I’ve experienced. Trauma overtakes your identity- impacting both the way that others perceive you and your own sense of self. I was no longer the woman who had spent ten months in Africa, but now the crash survivor that everyone could view online, my car on the front page of my local paper, engulfed in a haze of orange flames. Conversations with acquaintances who hadn’t seen me in a year would veer in this direction: the drama of the event, and rarely move back toward the achievements of that past year that make me proud, passionate, self-assured. Trauma redefines.

I wasn’t travelling – I was at home in a geographic sense, but a foreign state of mind: out of control. Travelling both horrifies and appeals to me for its lack of control: being forced from one’s comfort zone to confront the new and challenging. Being in a new environment is an exercise in this freedom, perhaps especially challenging for we Americans who are so accustomed to controlling our environments. Spending a summer back in the US after ten months in the developing world, I expected that control- and the comfort I glean from it. Controlling our climate (indoors at least), our time, knowing how long something will take (microwaves and washing machines) – but to come home, and be cast into a position of zero control. Mechanisms that I thought I understood left me into a place I hadn’t known before, wondering if this was how immigrants felt all the time. Insurance. How to see a doctor. How to see a doctor if you don’t have insurance. Legal problems. Do I need a lawyer?

And on top of that, restarting life. Purchasing and setting up another laptop to replace the one melted into a puddle on the front seat (a CHP officer’s words, not my own). Sobbing when you realize you lost nearly all of the photos from the past year, ensconced in that puddle. Getting another copy of your drivers license. Getting around without a car in a car-addicted state. Being too rattled to drive, and strangely, even more rattled to be driven. Having no phone number. All of these things- have you ever been outside, out of control, even in your own system?

In Rwanda, I expect that I am an outsider with little control, and the victories- getting motorcycle insurance, visa paperwork, etc – feel like victories. But the sense of loss, of being lost, in my own country? The unexpected impact of trauma.

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Virunga range, Northern Rwanda

Today

Back in Rwanda for a few months now: something I imagined impossible six months ago. On my back pourch, drinking tea, lodged in a contemplative place that is months in the making, and listening to the same song on repeat for an hour: Foals’ “Mountain at My Gates.”

The past months back on the continent haven’t been easy – a different kind of hard from last year’s variety. I no longer teach intensive classes with 90+ students or struggle to function within the university bureaucracy. Power is more constant in Kigali, transportation provides more options, and a burrito is only a 15-minute moto away.

But it’s still been a few months of frustration: seeing projects I plan fall to the wayside, postponed or preempted by Embassy funding or local government intervention. Offering classes where no one shows up, sitting alone in a sterile classroom, wondering how to alter the situation. Listening to friends go through worse than my own lot from last year, wanting to help or encourage but not knowing what to say.  It’s a struggle: to redefine myself as someone outside of these professional achievements, when professional achievements are hard to come by.

Give me my fate

Give me my lungs

Give me my voice

Rwanda too struggles to redefine itself, to not be viewed only through the lens of its trauma. It’s my inverse: because their trauma was 21 years ago, they can focus now on their progress. For me, it is an exercise to look back, before the trauma, to remember what I am capable of, and excuse myself when I cannot easily grasp what was once simple for me.

So this is the ultimate lesson of trauma for me, clambering over the mountain: I don’t have control, and there is peace in that understanding. Leaning into the freedom that comes when control is impossible, like flexing against the edge of my snowboard and leaning straight down the mountain on a run. The distractions – meeting new people, reading the same shark book a dozen times to my nephew, reminding myself that I am not this event and it does not define me. Nor am I the sum of my work, what I can produce, what I can manage or enact.

Ultimately, it’s an exercise in pressing myself toward the light, relieved for the newness of 2016 and the possibility it holds.

Love, peace, and everything else

LC