The Road South

There aren’t many bus journeys in Rwanda that culminate in ice cream, but this one does. It’s a bright, clear Thursday, and I’m on the bus to Huye. This city in the Southern Province, along with being the home of the national university and the intellectual heart of the country, features the best ice cream [possibly] in East Africa. There’s a new gelato place in Kigali’s slick new mall, Kigali Heights, but I haven’t been there yet and I want to believe that this is still the best place, so I’ll hold onto it for the moment.

But it’s been a slow ride. I scheduled a meeting for mid-afternoon, and planned my journey time specifically around the promise of ice cream. But it’s been a slow journey; an extended police checkpoint stop, an expanse of unpaved road clotted with traffic, and the steady pace of the bus are whittling away my ice cream time. The speed thing is new; I was told by a few Rwandans right after arriving that the government recently introduced speed governors. When I first heard about this, I pictured a new class of police officers, the Speed Governors, out on the roads near the cops with the hairdryer-shaped speed guns. But the Governors would be more resplendently attired, perhaps in capes crisscrossed with traditional back and white beading, like the fantastic designs coming out of local Rwandan ateliers.  But alas, speed governors are simply devices which prevent the bus from traveling over 60km/hour, instituted to curb the reckless driving of national bus companies looking to increase the number of trips and thus their earnings. The result is basically a one-third increase in travel time, but also a more enjoyable journey with fewer panicked reverse-fantasies of buses plunging off winding mountain roads and subsequent death. Now, the buses chug pleasantly along, occasionally gathering enough speed to pass a fume-belching construction truck.

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This is what we bus for… well, among other things

To take buses through Rwanda, especially the Southern Province, is to wind through the reality of ordinary people outside of the capital. Rwandan roads are used by all, not just those in cars or buses. You will see men pushing bicycles like beasts of burden, loaded with lumpy white woven bags, probably cassava or carrots or potatoes for market. Occasional motos zip past, especially when we get closer to cities, their drivers wearing blue or red or high vis green pinnies marked with the names of their moto taxi cooperative. There are always police, dressed in navy uniforms with shiny lug-sole boots, and sometimes military (RPF) vehicles, immediately apparent by their particular shade of green. SUVs blaze up and down the roads, some with radio antenna that bob along with the car as it speeds past our slow boat, almost all bearing logos or signage from some NGO or another. We’re overtaken by battered Toyota Carreras, sleek Prados with black-tinted windows, and RPF-green military Corollas. I’ve said it before, but this continent runs on AKs, Blue Band margarine, and Toyota.

We pass one of my favorite buildings: a square, cement mosque just past Muhanga with a misshapen dome, which I appreciate not for its beauty but it’s vibrant robin’s egg, almost Tiffany Blue color. Mosques are easy to identify – there are often no minarets but diminutive crescent moons atop their roofs. Other buildings are similarly identifiable: the road to Huye has at least four significant genocide memorial sites. They are recognizable by their common design: there are often wide cement slab placed over mass graves, and bricked, open-air patios with walls inscribed with victims’ names. Sometimes you will also see gated cemeteries, individual graves built up with platforms of white tile and wide, standing crosses. While the start of the genocide and the week of commemoration come early in April, beginning on the 7th, the months of April, May, and June are part of the memorial period, and nearly every organization, business, and school is slung with a commemoration banner inscribed with the kwibuka flame and the line “remember, unite, renew.” They are everywhere, and especially evident on this road: banners in pale gray with the unmistakable flame.

But most of the time, it’s a road ping-pong between rural areas and short stretches of strip-mall-like shops, some raw concrete gray, others painted bright blue, yellow, red, green. The colors are shorthand for the sponsoring company: they provide the paint, slap on a large logo, and your shop gets an upgrade. You learn quickly to recognize the color and the sponsoring company: MTN mobile’s unmistakable, Africa-wide sunshine mustard yellow, bright cobalt for Primus, a regional beer company, red for Airtel, another airtime and internet provider. There’s not much variation in the shops that pass the window, and while English might be the language of academic instruction, shop signage remains consistently French: paperterie for all of your paper needs, salons and coiffeur decorated with painted pictures of hair braiding and trim and fade services, a multitude of Chezs – Chez Jean, Chez Dieu – usually small cafes and buffets or guesthouses.

Sometimes the bus will stop, often to pick up more passengers or let a few off. It’s slow going outside of Muhanga, where over and over again a passenger will knock on a window or tap a coin against the chassis of the bus, alerting the driver to let them off. When we make “official” stops, sometimes just on the side of the road near an outlet for the bus company, young men and woman come to the bus, pulling open the windows, and showing off their wares: clear plastic buckets filled with small bags of groundnuts, milk in liter jugs shaped like jerry cans, loaves of bread wrapped in white wax paper, water, Fanta, glutenous biscuits. But nothing can compare to the thought of ice cream and I attempt to send impatient vibes to the driver: come on, mate, let’s get this show on the road.

But there’s no changing it: the speed governor means you can’t go any faster, and as usual, I am often the only one in a hurry. So maybe there’s the lesson: chill out, Leanne, relax, enjoy the scenery. We pull back onto the main road and quickly find ourselves behind a dump truck slowing to a crawl as we reach the section of road under construction. The pavement turns quickly to red dirt and clouds of dust mean that the passengers pull the windows closed. Outside, a brave cyclist, clad in the sponsored spandex that indicates his place as a Team Rwanda rider, maneuvers the bumps of the dirt road.

Almost there, I tell myself. Ice cream awaits.

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Into the Field (Part 1)

Day 1. Back in Rwanda after a two-year hiatus. Not jet-lagged, since it’s only one hour ahead of the UK, but definitely sleep-deprived. As an old hand at Kigali city buses, I rock up to the bus shelter outside of Chez Lando and call at the man hanging out of the window of a wide white bus to ask if he’s headed for Town (Kigali speak for the downtown district, rather than the line that goes to the coach station, Nyambugogo). He gives a noncommittal yes and I attempt to board with three 100 franc coins clutched in my hand. But the man is a passenger, not the cash collector who would normally sit in the window seat and beckon at potential riders; this colorful character has been transformed into a small plastic yellow circle, bolted to the handrail. Passengers push past me and press keycards to the circle: it’s a card reader like those used at my university for building access. It chirps and the driver nods them on. And here am I, the sweaty muzungu troglodyte, trying to give someone my coins to get a ride to the downtown district.

It’s kind of a cliché among foreigners in Rwanda – leave for a month, they say, and there will be a new skyscraper when you return. It’s not so far from the truth. My first trip to Rwanda was in 2014; since then, Kigali has added a convention center, multiple upscale hotels with rooftop cocktail hours far out of my price range, and a bevy of high-rise glass monstrosities favored by Chinese construction companies. As a result, the government has rerouted roads and converted areas to pedestrian-only to accommodate it all. And, apparently, upgraded to a 21st century bus ticketing system.

Since I’m blocking the door and holding up the flow of capital city traffic, a kind woman loans me her card and I pass her the coins; I take a seat in the back and three more people shoehorn in next to me. The bus takes a route that is mostly familiar, but brighter, somehow. A shopping center seemingly modeled after Soviet design sensibilities is behind fences that advertise the construction company and preview the coming remodel: the flat, rain-puddle roof has been replaced with a wide, sweeping parabola recalls a cruise ship lido deck, bare concrete walls are now plated with shining, slick tile like a three-story Mac store. As we round the curve that starts the climb toward Town, I spy the new high rise that protrudes from the top of the hill like a glass needle and we pass a new hotel, half white, half brick, punctuated with the geometrical lines of imigongo, the traditional Rwandan art form that uses cow dung and clay and colors that mimic the mustard and ochre of the countryside. In a sea of soulless glass edifices and cruise-ship chic, this particular building could only be found in Rwanda. It’s beautiful. It’s a statement of identity. The whole city seems different to me – perhaps just when taken in contrast to my sunny, sepia nostalgia, my memories of clear blue skies and pink bougainvillea by the Embassy pool and the aqua curtains of my Parliament classroom.

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Not exactly high rises; man with beer bike on a dirt road 

Kigali has changed; I have changed. Who I am and what I’m doing here is completely different, and I can’t tell if the city actually looks that different or if I am projecting myself upon it. In 2014, I first arrived here as a teacher – I was totally unprepared for the next two years of my life, but eventually I fell into a rhythm with Rwanda, a sort of peace with how to get by and how to operate and who I was in that space. And now, I’m back, for a much shorter period and with a completely different brief. Researcher, not teacher.

The road to get here with this new title was far rockier; without a contract from the U.S. Department of State, the Embassy was not available to jump through all of the bureaucratic hoops for visas and permissions. My colleagues at Bristol have lovingly suffered through months of my nail-biting and anxious outbursts over the multi-stage research permit and visa process; from just trying to figure out what to do to flipping my lid when hearing that the reason no one is responding is because the government shifted research permitting to an entirely different department. They probably did this to spite me, I cried in exasperation and resisted the urge to hurl university property out of the doc room window.

But here I am: through Immigration, permit promised for pickup this week. And it has all become very real, that deep, gnawing realization that all of the preparation, two years in essence, has led to this point, to this change of positionality: researcher.

[to be continued]

 

A Trip Takes Us

“I know I like to dream a lot, and think of other worlds that are not.”

Lou Reed, “Who Am I (Tripitena’s Song)”

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Twelve years ago, almost to the day, I boarded a similar flight at San Francisco International Airport, clutching a passport that was empty save for a pre-issued visa for the United Kingdom, heart hammering with anticipation and anxiety at the thought of the first international flight of my life. I can imagine how I must have looked to other passengers: a small person trying to make herself smaller, watching carefully to understand how others behaved, how they opened their passports and handed over their boarding passes. Not wanting to seem green or stick out, to seem awkward or ignorant in the procedures of international air travel – learning, ultimately, to fly, metaphorically and practically. I took a similar position, as a cautious observer, for the next few months living in London: my first stint of life as a foreigner and outsider.

Very soon, I will be back to the same airport, bound yet again for the United Kingdom. My passport is hardly empty, but contains similar clearance for study in the UK, this time for four years of the British PhD and not a few months of study abroad. Now, I have equal parts swagger and languidness in passing through security and navigating the terminal; it’s the fruit of those twelve years, four continents, more than thirty countries – those statistics stamped into my passport, emblematic of experiences that have grown me and directed the course of my life, up to this very moment.

But the anticipation and anxiety still hammer in my chest, coupled with “hot palms and the lurch of stomach high up under the rib cage,” as Steinbeck once wrote in describing the preparation stages of travel at the start of Travels with Charley“A trip, a safari, an exploration, is an entity, different from all other journeys. It has a personality, a temperament, individuality, uniqueness. A journey is a person in itself; no two are alike. And all plans, safe-guards, policing and coercion are fruitless. We find after years of struggle that we do not take a trip; a trip takes us.” 

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James Town, Accra, Ghana

A trip takes us – there is some comfort in leaning into that lack of control. We can plan, we can state our purpose from the beginning. But ultimately, we have to give over control. The start of each adventure is the start of a new chapter of life: knowing that you will change not only your personal geography, but how you see the world and how you see yourself. Today, though, this journey feels less like the start of something and more like the close, the end of an era, turning the page not on a chapter but an entire section of a book: returning to the first country I visited beyond my own, British bookends sealing in one section of my life.

In the past twelve years, I’ve traveled for many reasons: work, school, research, service, love. Did I ever really know what each of those journeys would bring, outside of those clear, guiding goals? I look back at that girl, 19 and terrified (though she would never admit it), and I wonder who she would be without London, Windhoek, Ferrara, Kielce, Port-au-Prince, Taipei, Musanze, Kigali. Travel is powerful for so many reasons. For me, one is that it creates those memorable blocs – instead of a inky, run-together year, it has a clear start and finish – clear in that you get on a plane and go, and get on a plane and return. Those are dividers in my head, like chapters. But what you learned often comes later, how you grew becomes evident in later chapters of life. 

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Facing east to the Indian Ocean, Zanzibar, Tanzania

I can look back at my experiences in the past twelve years and see the bigger picture, the parts of me that have changed with each trip. I can see how I’ve developed confidence, maturity, intelligence, empathy. Responsibility toward others and not only my nation and my social group. Possessions have become less valuable and people have become more. How authenticity – relationships built on honesty and care – is vital.  How travel brings out the best and worst of you, quickly moving you towards those moments of honesty. How I’ve grown to deal with loss and heartbreak and pain; how I can better weather life’s challenges.

I know my stated goal in traveling today, in this new section of life a few days from my 32nd birthday. I’m more purposeful with this start of an intensive degree program; I’m more knowledgeable and less apprehensive. I know what piece of paper I want to hold in four years – but what flights, what experiences, what growth will happen between now and then – that’s for the trip to decide.


Steinbeck, J. (1961). Travels with Charley. New York: Penguin.

Brazier on the Floor: Mekelle, Ethiopia

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Brizaf

Brizaf isn’t home when we arrive at the compound: an oblong-shaped courtyard with rooms that open onto a grapevine and brick pile, a cooker for injera housed in a sheltered corner. Hannah is greeted by Meron with a bright, luminous face and twin braids that begin at her widow’s peak and wind back around her scalp. It has been months – Hannah has been in another part of Ethiopia, and her Mekelle family has missed her dearly. We take a seat in the house – one room, but not so cramped – and wait for Brizaf to arrive.

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Meron fanning the flames of the brazier, gomen (cabbage) cooking 

This is my second trip to Ethiopia this year; the first was for the Fellow program’s midyear conference held in Addis Ababa in March. This time, I’m on Hannah’s farewell tour, saying goodbye to the disparate places where she worked during the 2014-2016 fellowship cycles. First to Arba Minch, found in Ethiopia’s deep southlands, green crags of the Western edge of the Great Rift Valley; followed by a night in Addis and a flight to the opposite pole of the country, Mekelle (also spelled Makele or Mek’ele, among others) far closer to the contentious border with Eritrea, once unioned with Ethiopia.

Brizaf has come back home, her son Unael beside her. She greets Hannah with effusive hugs and kisses, shakes my hand and kisses me four times – double the Italian style – and forces me into a seat on the sofa. We are banned from any form of work to help her in preparing the food: thus, today is a lesson in Ethiopian cooking and hospitality, to watch the food that I’ve eaten for a week be prepared in front of me, with the loving cook squatting in front of a charcoal brazier on the house floor.

We brought cabbage, tomatoes, onions, and potatoes – the base of the cuisine. Meron works from a cutting board, a worn object with a deep center divot, chopping the cabbage into strips, her knees on either side. On the brazier, a two-tiered cooker with fire in the lower cavern heating an open, upper bowl where a pot is nestled among black and grey charcoal chips, everything is smoldering. In the pot, an inch of oil bubbles with pinches of chopped garlic, tomato, and onion – Brizaf, the overseeing chef, checks Meron’s work and stirs in the gomen (cabbage), settles the lid on top, and sets her daughter to the task of fanning the brazier fire.

In Ethiopian cooking, there seem to be two primary spice foundations – red or yellow. It reminds me of New Mexico roadtrips, where every dish ordered requires either red or green peppers, and waiter follow your request with that question, “red or green?” For today’s gomen, the base will be yellow: alicha, a mix of tumeric, cumin, and ginger, enflamed as needed with hot peppers.

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Alicha, a spice blend of tumeric, cumin, and ginger

The second base – red – is found in another dish for today’s lunch: silsi, an oily, oniony fire blended with pulped tomato, garlic, and Ethiopian magic. The red is berbere, a mix of spices that lies at the root of nearly every dish. Each cook has his or her own berbere blend, consisting of dried and ground chili peppers, garlic, ginger, and basil, and a collection of spices local to the Horn: korarima, rue, nigella, and fenugreek.

Today’s meal could be a fasting one – in Ethiopia, fasting refers to vegan food, instead of absolute abstinence. Sudan might be the most Muslim place I have visited, but Ethiopia is the most Christian – practiced in the orthodox variety, with dogma infiltrating everyday aspects of life (the definition, after all, of Orthodoxy). Menus list “fasting” items separate – always the vegan accommodation. When the gomen is finished, Brizaf starts the shiro, spooning the ochre-colored powder from a Quaker oats can. Shiro is ground chickpea and spices, a powder mixed with water and oil and sometimes, if you have the means, onions and tomatoes. She mixes it slowly with oil and berbere, scrapping the powder from the edges of the pot as it boils and bubbles, thickening like like an orange edible lava. Americans, sometimes we forget – oil is not just for taste but needed calories, especially when your diet consists of injera and gomen and berbere. In my photographs, the finished shiro comes out smooth, silken, deep orange.

 

I follow Hannah to arrange my plate: unroll injera, the bread base. Injera is made from tef, a local grain, mixed with water and allowed to ferment for a period before being cooked on a smooth, hot surface – the cooker from the yard, with a space beneath the griddle surface for open flame. The result is a vehicle for both arranging food and a getting that food to your mouth – no utensils, just torn strips of injera to pick up gomen and shiro.

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Lunch plate: injera base, with shiro, gomen, and silsi, clockwise from 12

 

Brizaf continues her hospitable chores as we eat. She is a woman of the village, now settled in one of the largest Ethiopian cities. Her forehead sweeps back from her brows, crossed by a thread-like braid, Tigryan style. A chain from one side of her forehead to the other, gathered at the middle, demonstrates her status as a married woman. She is tattooed as well: a faint circle between her brows and spaced chains on her neck. Meron makes a plate to split with her brother, and gives the first bite – a pocket of injera with shiro, silsi, and gomen in a happy mass – to her mother. Brizaf’s hands are busy – she’s begun the coffee ceremony, roasting green and pale brown coffee beans in a small pot. She shakes them like popcorn, popping and darkening and calls after her daughter, who roots through the curio cabinet for fancier cups – a  prerogative for guests.
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Coffee ceremony, beans roasting

As with Ethiopian coffee tradition, a full spread is laid: beans roasting in a pot on the brazier, a smaller incense burner pipping with charcoal and a stick of incense, small china cups and saucers that resemble espresso cups. Coffee is an ancient ceremony in Ethiopia, outpacing the Italian occupation and the West’s obsession with the beans. She shakes the smoking pot, beans now roasted black, for us to smell – the beans almost oiled black and deep brown. She puts the jebena – the round bottom traditional coffee pot – onto the brazier coals as we finish our lunch, the oil of silsi coating our fingers.

We drink cups of coffee, three in total, stirred with sugar. Throughout, Hannah uses her Tigrinya and Brizaf speaks to us – sometimes through her older son, able to translate, often through smiles and phrases we cannot understand.

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Cup Number Three

There are moments, though, that we speak the same language. She laughs as Hannah takes photos of her son and shows them to him, his bashful smiles becoming peals of laughter. I show her pictures of my niece and nephew, 4 and 2, dressed in their Easter best and she smiles and kisses my phone. It’s the universality of the human experience, that we don’t always need the same language to communicate. She speaks to us with her food, we speak to her by our enjoyment of it: the heart of hospitality.

Much love to Hannah for always explaining Ethiopian ways to me.

Peace,

LC

 

Capability (n): power and ability

To describe a culture, a place, a country, an environment – it’s the job of a writer, but never an easy task; entire fields of academic inquiry have emerged in its pursuit. When asked tell me about where you live or tell me about Rwanda, I —we— tend toward two modes for response.

Last Friday evening, during a Google Hangout with an American high school, both were in full effect. The event was an interesting concept, engineered by Steve, my friend/colleague just across the border in Bukavu in the Democratic Republic of Congo: discussing our experiences in DRC and Rwanda to a group of high schoolers studying the Rwandan Genocide. Six thousand miles, I joked, is the most effective amount of distance between myself and one hundred high school juniors. The event took place in an auditorium and the teacher set up smartphones around the room, streaming video to the Hangout link so we could move between the feeds, seeing either the main projection of our own video transmissions or the kids themselves, hunched over their notebooks. Flipping between feeds triggered flashbacks of my own high school: a rainbow of coloured hoodies, eye liner, persistent adolescent acne. 

It’s a peculiar feeling, to talk without having the interpersonal signals of turn-taking, present in a conversation or judged facing the audience from the centre lectern of a university hall. Talking into a chat, answering a question that you’ve rehearsed earlier in the day, skimming notes. Here, the mild discomfort of public speaking is exacerbated by distance, time difference, and the continual finger-crossing that your internet connection wouldn’t fail.

What is it really like to live there? I listened to Steve answer that seminal question, relating his observations of the state of the country to the earlier discussion of DRC’s history as King Leopold’s private colony. Today: broken roads, broken buildings, broken economy, broken society. I think we always want to understand why – why is the DRC so seemingly broken – is it the years of stress, the trickle down depression of a lack of opportunity: why strive when there is nothing to strive to? This is what happens when power, money, and opportunity are so heavily concentrated with a small elite, leaving the rest of the country to fend for themselves.

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Sambaza fishing boats at dusk on Lake Kivu, the primary border between Rwanda and DRC

I glanced down at my own notes to prepare for my response. Thinkers, we gravitate toward statistics to flesh out the background or foundation of the environment: something cold, hard, empirical about listing numbers, even if math was forever my poorest subject and statistics even more dismal. For Rwanda, when talking about the past, it’s a bleak numeric parade: of those who lived through the Genocide, 99.9% witnessed violence, 69% witnessed someone being killed, 87.5% saw dead bodies (UNICEF, National Trauma Survey, 1995). Earlier in the week I’d calculated brighter statistics – completing my program’s midyear report with its requirement for quantifying five months’ work to produce statistics – how many served, how many trainings ran, how many additional projects – the language that Congress requires when determining the efficacy and value of English Language Programs and whether it merits continued operation.

These are the two descriptive tendencies: to list what is wrong, or to rely on numbers. The first is a natural tendency, especially for Americans, with our cultural orientation that — problems can be surmounted, challenges can be fixed, so we quite naturally focus on what is wrong, what is not “right.” Tell me what is wrong, and I will know what I can work to fix. Give me the numbers, and I will drive them down to a more reasonable rate. 70% illiteracy? The right band aid, and we can make that 40%.

When describing our work in our respective countries, we do this constantly, especially for those of us working in Africa, where the challenges often appear insurmountable, the proverbial hummingbird transporting droplets of water to quell a raging inferno (see: Wangari Maathai). It’s a problem of orientation and focus: what if we flipped the orientation, instead of finding the negatives, look for the places where opportunity exists?

This describes, in a poorly constructed nutshell, the framework for evaluating well-being proposed by economist and philosopher Amartya Sen: Capabilities Approach (CA), the evolving effort of his lengthy career which has been co-opted within the past decades for its significance in education in low-income or developing contexts. CA involves a comprehensive framework for conceptualising – describing, to borrow my earlier word – what he terms “functionings” achieved by individual persons and translated into capabilities that indicate well-being and freedom (Sen, 1990). Actual capabilities are many, and functionings can be decided according to the context, possibly including “the ability to be well nourished, to avoid escapable mortality, to read, write and communicate, to take part in the community, to appear in public without shame” (p. 126). Instead of measuring a country’s position by their GDP, CA focuses on their well-being and capacity to “bring about changes that they value” within their communities (Tikly & Barrett, 2014, p. 7).

At its simplest, CA looks to change the language that we use and see how it automatically disempowers a people, to focus on the disadvantages that emerge when compared to a wealthier group. It’s not just political correctness at work – it mirrors the word choice with handicapped and disabled, focusing on what they don’t have, now reframed to different-abled and handicap able. It’s returning power to people, returning their sense of ownership over their persons and possibilities.

For my work and my context, CA requires understanding of the environment and forcing my perspective away from the continued parade of what “isn’t” there. I have to ask myself, instead of filling holes, does the EL Fellow Factor broaden a person’s capabilities within their context? What are my students able to access after they have left my class?  How does my work, the work of every Fellow in their unique and separate context, hoping that we operate in ways that value and promote our teacher trainees and language learners’ existing capabilities and enables them to channel this into the improvement of their communities. How do I report on this community in a way that demonstrates what they can accomplish, instead of what they lack?

Steve, in closing his response about life in the DRC, gravitated, CA style, to the humanity of people he encountered, those with materially little but an unending supply of hospitality, grace, gratitude, compassion. Westerns often report being shocked by how those in developing countries will share their last food with you – how we are shocked by the kindness of strangers, how we think of the selfishness we might have if we faced their daily challenges of feeding their families and escaping commonplace violence. So, we already do this: we end with the positive.

So that’s my goal, moving forward. To look for the potential positive, to understand what Rwandans do that we Westerners don’t have even the ingenuity to enact, to evaluate and reflect, to think in terms of capabilities instead of disabilities, to figure out how to present this to the world … or even just to American high school students on the other side of video feed.

Sen, A. K. (1999) Development as freedom. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Sen, A. K. (1990) Gender and cooperative conflict. In: I. Tinker (ed.) Persistent inequalities. New York: Oxford University Press, 123-149.

Tikly, L., and Barrett, A. M. (2011) Social justice, capabilities and the quality of education in low income countries. International Journal of Educational Development, 31 (1), 3-14.

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.

A Daily Border Crossing

No water, no power.

I’ve woken up to this situation five out of the past seven days. On the other two, there was water but no power- a more preferable combination. Kigali, as I can best I can deduce from Facebook posts and informal conversations, is struggling to serve its continually growing population, resulting in shortages of essentials.

Three weeks in, and my routine has grown around these shortages. Wake up, check the water, check the power. In the case of neither, prepare coffee with water from a jug and boil it on the gas stove. Substitute a real face wash for a disposable wipe. Pack for the day, leave the house, catch a bus. Save basic necessities for the workplace.

Even though I’ve lived in Rwanda for nearly a year, with a two-month hiatus back home for the summer, life in Kigali is an adjustment back to African reality. I no longer walk everywhere; instead, I take two buses to get to the U.S. Embassy, first flagging down a small matatu bus on the road outside of my house. Each morning, en route to work, I shoehorn myself into the already crowded hull which has been stripped to its bones to accommodate custom benches welded to the body, allowing four rows of seats, four on each bench, and an extra two in the front. Twenty people in total. One man crushes the accelerator and coaxes the engine to life while another calls out the window and collects the fares, which you pay upon exit. I press 200 francs into his hand when we arrive at the Kimironko bus depot, where I tend to be the only white person. The station is a hub for transport moving all around the city, a nerve center with uneven cobblestones and no signs. Everyone seems to know where to go, and now I’ve learned, so I know as well.

Another bus: the 305 to Nyambugogo. A bigger one- a white Coaster with four seats in a row, the middle seat a fold-down contraption that requires the passenger to move each time someone further back in the bus needs to get off. You don’t want the middle seat. It requires constant moving, shifting and looking for a more permanent position for the ride. The bus lurches to each marked stop as passengers signal the driver by clicking coins against the bus windows, and eager new passengers often clot the open row as you try to get out. It’s a microcosm Rwanda: people, everywhere, my American space bubble constantly on hiatus.

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On the 305

I clamber out at the Kacyiru bus stop, located at the bottom of one of Kigali’s many hills. Buses pull in, men hanging halfway out calling the name of their final destination, attempting to wave you onto his bus and not his competitor’s. Several bus shelters are plastered with advertisements for cement and Tusker beer, but you rarely need one- buses circle in and out in what feels like a constant motion. From the bus stop, I trudge up the hill, on a path that cuts between the Ministry of Immigration and the Ministry of Education, spitting me out on the main road often nicknamed “Embassy Road” for its line of diplomatic buildings. At one end, situated on a roundabout, is the American Embassy: a hulking, grey brick of a building skirted by a tall, metal-bar fence. I arrive a few minutes later to the consular entrance security building, ragged breathing from my short hill climb, coated in a sheen of red dust from open bus windows and trekking across station yards.

For every day I work, I cross a border: from my Rwandan life, sardined into buses, weaving between vegetable stalls at the market, crossing my fingers that turning the tap in the morning will produce water and not sputtering, empty pipes. Here, I enter through the consular entrance, my yellow security badge acting as my passport. This badge means that I can skip the line of Rwandans and non-badged Americans leaving all of their electronic earthly belongings with the security desk. I can blaze through the metal detector, no one caring if it blares as it reads my laptop and phone and flash drives, while others go back through their pockets and backpacks to find offending devices to forfeit in the process of this modern strip search.

Always water, always power.

Today, my schedule is light with only a meeting at 3:00pm, so my first stop is the pool, settled in the back of the compound near the Marine residence with a view of Kigali’s glass-and-steel downtown sector. The path edges past a line of plumeria shrubs, their deep, warming scent channeling Hawaii. The pool is bright blue, reflecting the Kigali sky. It’s usually empty at mid-day, so I can swim laps and take a hot shower in quiet with only the sounds of the city in the background.

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Plumerias on the compound

Inside the Embassy building, I beeline for the water fountain to fill my canteen. I’m not the only one, but my water-oriented behavior is more common with Rwandans than the Foreign Service Officers who staff our nation’s international outposts. I see the local staff come in, like me, with canteens and small water jugs to fill.

Sometimes, the power drops. A few beeps and the flights flicker out, giving a few seconds of darkness before resuscitated by a few more beeps and the buzz of fluorescent tubes coming back to life. The generators which provide the power are somewhere on the embassy compound, but never something that you hear. The power blinks off, and then back on, as if by magic. Life, and the operations that make it possible, continue on.

My work hasn’t changed so much from the last year: while I answer to Americans, I liase with Rwandans. They populated my classes; we partner for workshops and conferences. At present, I’m waiting for the space where I will teach and lead programs to be completed, so my classes take place in the Embassy library and I meet with colleagues and supervisors in the compound’s conference rooms, when needed. It’s become a slow transition back to my life in Rwanda after a summer in California- a foot over each side of the border, never all the way in Rwanda, never all the way home.

But I can’t say that I don’t enjoy it, the novelty of a few hours of a very American existence while still living in a developing country: working in air conditioning, the stopgap of Embassy showers and water fountains, a cafeteria that serves tomato basil soup and Coke Zero. Last year in Musanze demonstrated to me how so much of my productivity in the States is based on a life ruled by convenience. The convenience of a shower that gets hot in seconds, having a car to get between jobs, power that never goes out, a dishwasher, a clothes washer. Last year, elbow-deep in wash water, I could see how that machine not only made my clothes clean but freed up my energy and creativity.

Does indulging in these apparent luxuries actually make me more effective for my work outside of this lead-lined box? Is that the notion behind well-paid NGO CEOs and the comparatively more comfortable life of the Foreign Service Officers? Lunch was simple: a bowl of tomato basil and a small cinnamon roll, but saved me the time of cooking between my 45-minute bus and foot commute and eliminated much of the risk of food borne illness, a panic developed after multiple issues last year. A small light.

Despite my reverie and in the midst of my existential crisis, my security badge swings forward and baptizes itself in my soup, swinging back toward my abdomen and raining holy soup water down the front of my dress. Bruised knees and a right elbow gash bear witness to my recent disagreement with a dirt road. My hair is still wet from a post-swim shower and pulled in a low bun over the collar of my dress.

An attractive man with careful blonde hair and polished wingtips passes my table. A woman, dressed smartly in a wool blend sheath dress and stiletto pumps, removes her lunch from the microwave. All around, a dearth of wrinkles and a sea of dry-clean only.

Somehow, I don’t quite fit in either place, so I continue straddling the border, exiting one side when I become exhausted with either place. Crossing, five days a week.