After dinner with friends- two Rwandans, a Malawian and another American- a few nights back, the new Rwandan acquaintance (let’s call him Emmanuel*) inquired about the topics I write about in The Independent. I scurried into my apartment to snatch the latest issue where my piece, Accelerating Change, is featured in the Business section. In the article I highlight female motorcycle taxi drivers in a discussion about gendered labor segmentation and how these women can leverage gender stereotypes to pursue entrepreneurial opportunities.
Emmanuel was none-too-please. To my surprise, he immediately chastised me for writing about such a controversial topic, claiming that I must consider the audience I write for and that this is not an appropriate discussion to have in Rwanda.
“Do you know what I would say to a woman taxi if I saw her at night?” Emmanuel asked rhetorically, an incendiary smirk on his face. “I would ask her why she’s out so late. That she should be home.” He chastised the thought of his (theoretical future) wife driving a moto, insulted at the mere thought of a male passenger straddling her from behind.
Without reading the article, he wouldn’t see that the [male] driving school employees believe women are better, safer drivers than their male counterparts. He also couldn’t have known that my proposal is for women moto taxis to in fact drive other women. But more importantly, he would fail to consider the market demand of women motos by women passengers. Speaking to his patriarchal- achem, protective- sensibilities, some women passengers would feel more comfortable pressed up against a woman on a moto, given the strength of gender roles as they are represented in fashion with most women wearing skirts and dresses. In his haste to take leave for the night, and after an evening of debate about a variety of other topics, I chose to challenge him further about the protection and comfort of these women upon our next meeting.
Sharing this exchange with one of the magazine editors, he was dumbfounded. He marveled at how Rwandan social conservatives acquiesce to concepts of gender that undermine “survival.” Economic survival, that is. The ability to care for one’s self and family rather than to stay home and “do nothing.”
But gender identity and self-representation is another conversation entirely. The week prior, I entered the office in a dress (as opposed to slacks) for the first time. Like most of the other men, the editor complimented my attire. He reinforced his approval by expressing how much “smarter” women appear in dresses and skirts, and that pants are not “nice.”
He was sure to differentiate his “conservativism” from Emmanuel’s. That transgressions against gender norms are tolerable in the context of economic survival, but should remain in tact in how we present our gender and thus ourselves to society. Connecting dresses with femaleness, he claimed that “this is how God made women.” In dresses? I’m no Christian, but I’m pretty sure Eve was delivered naked, covering her loins with leaves.
In Rwanda, some women are construction workers and taxi drivers. Many also wear pants, although I’ve seen many in the former profession don dresses as they lay cement and set bricks.
But it’s not merely about riding motorcycles and wearing skirts. It’s about value and control. Girls and women valuing themselves. Girls and women having control over their lives, their behaviors and their choices. And society valuing girls and women’s fulfillment of their own ambitions. For if girls desire wifehood and motherhood, she should be supported in achieving that as much as being a motorcycle taxi driver. If a woman prefers dresses and skirts over pants, by all means wear skirts every day.
The attitudes of Emmanuel and my editor illuminate the social pressure for girls to conform to “conservative” gender ideals that may inhibit them from valuing themselves or perceiving themselves as in control of their own lives.
That is not to say that all girls and women feel this way, but based on Restless Development and Bell & Payne Consulting’s action-oriented research on The State of Girls in Rwanda- a study designed to be youth-led and participatory- gender inequalities and low self-confidence persist among young girls between 15-18 years of age. Girls ”drew an important distinction between boys and girls, arguing that, whilst boys have value, girls have to get value” (31). Girls’ value is contingent upon fulfilling societal expectations of them, from working in certain professions to wearing certain clothes. This leads girls and women to compromise those ambitions, behaviors and choices that are peripheral to the core of gender normativity in their country.
Of course the stories of so many young girls in Ni Nyampinga (meaning: the beautiful girl who makes good decisions), a magazine produced by the Girl Hub, promote positive role models for girls from within their own communities and is testimony to girls defying traditional and gender-stereotypical endeavors of young women. Among them, they are girls who build homes, play guitar and prepare to be doctors.
Reading about Casey Legler, female male model shattering gender normativities in NY inspired me to discuss the change I’m observing in Rwanda. Parallel in both countries, we see that women are retaining control of their choices and their lives, with and without interventions, and that social attitudes are transforming in favor of greater freedoms and opportunities for women. Regardless of repressive and “conservative” attitudes endemic in their respective localities. These transformations are manifested differently, but in both locales female trailblazers are positively transgressing gender ideals and norms in order to establish more control over their lives and achieve greater levels of self confidence in order to fulfill their ambitions.
*Emmanuel is a fictitious name.
People tend to consider being vulnerable a bad thing. It’s not. Vulnerability reminds us that we’re human. It keeps us open to giving and receiving love. Without at least a little, we can become someone living in a prison of our own making, where the walls are so thick that no one can get in or out.
Misao and Fukumaru. “We will never be apart.”
12 years ago, Japanese photographer, Miyoko Ihara (伊原 美代子) started to take photographs of her grandmother, Misao. Born in 1981 in Chiba (Japan), Miyoko Ihara has studied under Kenji Higuchi (樋口健二), after graduating from the Press Photography Course at the Nippon Photography Institute in 2002. Miyoko is also a member of The Photographic Society of Japan.”
“Under the sun, everyday is a good day. Another good day, Fukumaru”, Misao. Eight years ago, Misao found a odd-eyed kitten in the shed. She named the cat “Fukumaru” in hope that “God of fuku” (good fortune) comes and everything will be smoothed like a “maru” (circle)”.
“We’ll never be apart!”, says Misao to Fukumaru. Both of them live in a tiny world, with dignity, with mutual love. Still today, under the blue sky, Misao and Fukumaro work in the fields and in these natural surroundings, where they shine like the stars.”
The U.S. Embassy in Kigali, Rwanda recently popped my absentee voting cherry. Anti-climactic as it was, I now agree wholeheartedly that new voter ID laws in states such as Ohio, Arizona, Florida and Virginia are indeed to disenfranchise left-leaning American citizens rather than to mitigate voter fraud.
Conservatives sensationalize the threat of fraudulent voting on domestic territory despite the reality that more fraudulence occurs during registration than at the ballot box. If they took voter fraud seriously, they’d look more closely at the process of absentee voting, especially for ex-patriots.
In Kigali, standard procedure at the U.S. Embassy requires security to confiscate your passport upon entrance. Along with my passport, I was directed to leave all electronics behind the front desk and sample contents of my water bottle before proceeding into the compound. As expected, embassy security is adept at protecting employees from external threats.
Granted entrance, U.S. and local visa-seeking citizens continue to a room with tellers behind glass windows. Security at that door requested I sample my water a second time. Thankfully it was hot and I was thirsty.
After announcing my intention to vote, I was never asked to furnish identification or confirm my last state of residence. Instead, the teller asked me my county, found the corresponding address in a huge book guiding embassy employees through the voting process, and handed me a blank ballot. I could have falsely used the identity of an adversarial voter in a swing state, knowing only their name and address, to stack the election in my candidate’s favor. In theory, non-U.S. citizens could easily have done the same.
But let’s assume I’m a legitimate voter. Let’s also assume I’m not as informed as perhaps I should be; perhaps I don’t have the propositions memorized, but I’d recognize them when you see them. Or what if I forget the name of the local representative I’m voting for?
Well, then I would’ve be SOL because neither the names of candidates and propositions, nor their descriptions/blurbs, are provided for expat voters at the embassy. If voters are not prepared with the names of presidential candidates, local representatives, or propositions on their state ballot, they must return home to seek the information or leave most of their ballot blank. The former scenario is particularly confounding for expats working in remote locations with limited access to city centers where embassies are often situated.
But let’s flip the script and assume I’m shrewdly political, or extremely anal and come prepared with notes. I know the names of my preferred candidates on my stance on the propositions. And now, so do the embassy employees. Although security is tight for threats against the embassy, these same standards are not maintained for the security of voters and their right to privacy and non-interference with the voting process.
While voters are supposed to be given an envelope to seal their ballot, I was not given this envelope until I (absentmindedly) turned my ballot over to the teller behind the glass window. In fact, the first teller skimmed my ballot- from my identification information to my vote. For some reason or another he was unable to provide an envelope for me, so he passed along my ballot to the next teller, who proceeded to skim through all pages of my ballot as well. A clear transgression of my right to vote in privacy.
If voter fraud was a legitimate and actionable concern, surely the attention and energy now channeled towards minorities, the elderly and the poor should be redirected towards absentee voters abroad. Equally, expats and absentee voters surely deserve full access to information about candidates and propositions, as well as respect for their voting privacy.
Ishyo Arts + The Goette Institute is Kigali’s cultural hub. Weekly events range from film screenings to musicals and Brainstorming Sessions; all are free (musical notwithstanding) and open to the public. Thus far I’ve been blown away by Rwanda’s first live musical and impressed by Rwandese cinema as it grapples with state opposition and influence and limited technological capabilities.
Mboka, a sophisticated musical that critiqued how Rwandese interact with their country’s colonial history and present circumstances, belonged Off Broadway. I deeply regret attending the final viewing because it was well worth a second go, especially with a 5000 RWF ($8.50) cover.
Film nights also provide a forum for contemplation and perspective. Dominic Allen’s award-winning film, Grey Matter, explored how psychological trauma uniquely manifests in the genocide’s perpetrators and victims, and even its penetration into the diaspora. Chora Chora, a film by Richard Mugwaneza, depicts a boys’ coming of age and his descent into drug trafficking between the Rwanda and DR Congo border. Both Rwandese directors were present for their viewings and welcomed Q&A from audience members after the screenings concluded.
Yet Kinyarwanda is my favorite film thus far. The story weaves several strands of genocide and post-genocide experiences. Unlike Hotel Rwanda or the like, it adds several layers of nuance to the relationships between a patchwork of Rwandans: Tutsi, Hutu, “mixed,” Christians, Catholics and Muslims.
Most of us with some semblance of knowledge about the genocide are familiar with the oft-sensationalized Hotel Rwanda (in real life: The Milles Collines). We also know the brutal betrayal by so many Christian and Catholic priests that harbored Tutsis only to release the Interahamwe on them inside the churches. Yet have you heard about the bravery of the Muslim community in the genocide (see Rwandan Genocide section)? Probably not.
Kinyarwanda sheds light on the heroic role of Muslims in the genocide. The vast majority of the Muslim population refused complicity in the killings. Many also refused complacency: they harbored Muslim, Catholic and Christian Tutsi alike in their homes and in the mosques. The film mainly depicts Al-Aqsa Mosque in Kigali’s Nyamirambo and the brave Imam in charge, but it also sheds light on the impetus for the phenomenon. The “Grand Mufti Rwanda,” Sheikh Saleh Habimana, was instrumental. He issued a fatwa during the genocide forbidding Muslims to murder Tutsis, Muslim or otherwise.
I look forward to what I will learn next Tuesday when we screen Sweet Poison and engage in a discussion about development aid in my first semi-academic development discussion in an African country. Let’s hope that Rwandese typical reserve and politeness is overcome by passionate debate!
Two days after arriving in Rwanda, my ThinkImpact peers and I were welcomed to our communities during a rather large community meeting. Local leaders discussed development objectives enshrined in Rwanda’s Vision 2020 and introduced the ThinkImpact team to the community members. Patrick, Audrey, Lazri and I briefly introduced ourselves and our backgrounds to our audience of 500+. We formally met elected local leaders and businessmen like Rwamagana’s SACCO* Director. Translators followed, introducing themselves and their subjects of study. Mugisha, the man facilitating the meeting, opened the discussion for translators to ask our team questions. Filbert asked the first question: were we single? Next: What is your religion? I don’t recall who asked…
I tensed up. I wasn’t sure what to say. The last time I was asked that question was in Lebanon, under imminent threat. (And to think I used to chastise a Ukrainian Jew who, when traveling, tended not to be forthcoming about his religion. Sorry again, mate.)
“I’m Jewish,” I said simply.
You know when your cat or dog looks up at you and cocks their head to the left or right, looking confused? Multiply that expression by 500 Rwandan faces. Dumbstruck. I could tell that no one had a clue what Jewish was. No one inquired further that day…
Rwanda is a majority Christian country, composed mainly of 7th Day Adventists and Protestants, in addition to Catholics and a small Muslim population. Unlike Uganda, Rwanda’s neighbor to the north, there is no Jewish population of note. (When Jews were planning modern-day Israel and considering different locations, Uganda was at the top of the list.) Knowing how much they loved Jesus, I thought I had a good strategy: I tried to relate Jews to Jesus, telling people he was part of the Jewish tribe. That was his people. Epic fail.
One day I approached the Pastor from my community’s Protestant Church to request that we borrow the church’s sound system for a farewell bonfire, or Dancefire. We engaged in an energetic conversation about my time in the community, ThinkImpact’s purpose and approach, and my experience living with my family. Then he asked me about my faith. After identifying myself as Jewish, he paused for a moment and said: “Ah, Jehud- you are my sister! We are the same!” Following it up with a classically Rwandan hand slap-shake.
We found a winner! I’m not so sure about how much “we are the same,” especially after attending his lovely sermon the Sunday after our Dancefire, but I definitely felt welcome and comfortable.
I thought Jewish recognition would change once I returned to Kigali, but not so much. I haven’t promoted my Judaism by any means, but it has come up from time to time and the bewilderment continues.
From what I’ve been told, I have only experienced one side of the rather bi-polar relationship Rwanda seems to have with Jews: either we’re strangers, or intimate confidants.
A friend of mine knew a Jewish guy who lived here for a bit. The Rwandans he met identified with the shared histories between Tutsis and Jews. Both were targets in genocides within 50 years of one another, and both share prolonged persecution in their homelands (here I am referencing more modern forms of persecution against Jews… leading to the pogroms, ghettos and Holocaust). Many people may be unaware of the decades of diaspora that Tutsis endured, long before 1994. They moved to neighboring countries- from Uganda to DR Congo, some fleeing to Tanzania and Burundi as well- while others followed Rwanda’s colonial links to Belgium and elsewhere in Europe. Periodically, remaining Tutsis were slaughtered in their segregated villages. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? And so their knowledge of the Holocaust and possibly other Jewish history imparts a certain level of intimacy between the Tutsis, and the Jews.
That is, if we actually learn about each other’s history and present…
*SACCO is a Savings and Credit Cooperative Organization. They take many forms around the world but in Rwanda they are essentially micro-credit institutions. People can open individual accounts, but SACCOs are geared towards providing access to capital to “teams” and cooperatives. Loan recipients receive loan amounts depending on their current account, the feasibility of their investment, the “innovativeness” of their proposed project, the social aspect of their project, and whether it is in line with the development goals of the recipient’s community. Some people use SACCOs to save money, but it is rarer.
Kibera is known as Africa’s largest slum, housing between 170k and 1M residents in makeshift homes along unpaved ground for miles. No one knows the official count because there hasn’t been a “legitimate” census attempt in decades. Ironically, the slum is located in the southern corridor of Nairobi, just a hop, skip and a jump away from Nairobi’s famed Silicon Savannah.
The matatu ride into Kibera reminded me of visits to Khayelitsha, a township in South Africa’s Western Cape. Yet Kibera seemed more vibrant and colorful. Shops are hues of pink, green and orange, with paintings depicting their wares such as rice, cakes, beans, meats, baked goods, beauty products, and books. Plenty of bookstores, to my surprise - a stark contrast even to the urbanity of Kigali!
The purpose for my visit was to meet with Shining Hope for Communities (SHC), a grassroots NGO. Alix, a friend of a friend, is a Shining Hope Fellow and she kindly offered to guide me through the variety of services and resources SHC offers the community.
The core of SHC is gender equity and women’s empowerment, achieved through the progressive education of young girls in primary and secondary school. Yet the school is only one facet of services on offer. SHC built the largest water tank in all of Kibera and sells water at a fraction of the cost of community taps (depicted above). They have a health clinic on-site that serves all community members, regardless of their affiliation with SHC. At a separate location the NGO owns a cyber, also at a fraction of market rates, which has recently launched creative design courses.
But to me, the two most impressive aspects of this growing NGO are: 1) its variety of mechanics for community-led projects and community participation, and 2) the focus on the arts, from digital to journalistic and theatrical.
Although SHC is fully funded by donors, from foundations to individuals who sponsor its girl students, the organization has well-developed mechanisms for participatory development. SHC’s young female scholars’ education is free, but their families are still required to make a contribution. A girls’ family member (usually her mother, but sometimes her father, cousin, or even neighbor if it conflicts with everyone’s work schedule) serves the school five weeks per year in 1-week increments. This service entails cleaning the property and helping to prepare breakfast and lunch for all the girls on campus. The families elect committee members who are responsible for coordinating schedules and managing these responsibilities. They even worked in coordination with Africa Yoga Project to create the children’s playground using all locally sourced materials.
SHC supports community members to lead projects and activities tangential from the school, that community members believe in. The Kibera Mirror, Shining Hope’s weekly newspaper, is written and edited by Kibera’s youth. The paper tackles the issues affecting their everyday lives: police brutality, corruption, women’s empowerment, unemployment, slum upgrading, education and more. Not entirely somber, the Mirror features cultural events like the Slum Film Festival and emerging hip-hop artists from the slums. The Mirror is an outlet for resistance; an educational, outreach and capacity-building tool; a resume builder and a way for slum dwellers to control their image and amplify their voices.
Their youth project also includes a theatre group who produces and performs their own material. Often based on a serious theme like family planning or gender based violence (GBV), their performances double as entertainment and education.
Ultimately, SHC believes that through these and other initiatives, girls’ value will manifest in higher primary and secondary enrolment rates, lower incidences of GBV, and expanded opportunities for young women’s futures.
As for Kibera, I had been warned by many Kenyans to tread lightly while there. That it would be a terrible idea to walk the < 1 mile distance from Shining Hope to the Silicon Savannah, and that maybe I should coordinate with them (a Kenyan) or one of their friends so I wasn’t alone.
Without going on a rant about my distaste of fear-mongering from expats and locals alike, I would simply like to say that it was a delightful stroll. In fact, Alix recommended a small restaurant called Arusha Dishes that served delicious pilau and cabbage. As expected, I passed the restaurant and had to ask people for directions. Two different people not only gave me directions but insisted on walking me there so I didn’t miss it.
I definitely don’t receive that kind of hospitality in New York or Los Angeles…
When was the last time you stripped down to your skivvies, bathed under the stars in the moonlight and prided yourself for conserving water? If you bucket bathed, you’d experience it much more often.
I understand that the idea of bucket bathing is daunting. When faced with the ultimatum, I asked myself: How am I supposed to fit into a little bucket? How can I feel clean by washing with a fraction of the water I’m accustomed to… and it’s not even running?! How do I shave? Won’t I be freezing cold? What is the minimum amount of baths I can get away with?
Yes: these are questions we all ask ourselves. But with some creativity, persistence and adaptability, none of these concerns are insurmountable. Now that I’ve done it for a couple months, I think the world’s privileged should bucket bathe for at least a few weeks of their lives. The experience imparts perspective on the quantity of water that’s actually necessary for bathing and it helps us to “check our privilege” and appreciate what we have- namely technology, infrastructure, public goods/service delivery… and wealth.
But let’s get to it. Here’s Asha’s step-by-step guide to bucket bathing, targeted at the ladies.
Step 1. Gather your materials. That is, your bathing materials such as: bucket, water jug/jerry can, cup for pouring and wash rag. Also, your toiletries: soap, shampoo, conditioner, face wash, shaving crème, razor, comb, tooth brush, etc. And don’t forget your towel, change of clothes and flippy-floppies.
Step 2. Pour a small amount of water into your bucket. If you’re shaving, you may want to fill ½ a cup with filtered drinking water for shaving purposes… Undress…
Step 3. Squat down outside of your bucket. Despite the name, you should not be bathing from inside the bucket. If you are washing your hair, bend your neck so your forehead is close to the bucket. If you have long hair, soak it in the bucket. If you have short hair, use a cup to pour water on your hair. I recommend you start pouring from your neckline and hold your hair in your hand as a water-catchment system. Make sure you’re leaning over your bucket and catching all the excess water. Pour this water from the bucket back into your cup. Continue pouring water on your hair, catching it in your bucket and repeating. Once it’s all wet, apply shampoo-conservatively- then refill your bucket with a moderate amount of water.
Step 4. Begin washing your limbs. Methodologically place each extremity in the bucket and then wash up. For example, place your left hand in the bucket. Dampen your left arm, apply soap and wipe down with wash cloth so that the water returns to the bucket. Repeat with your left arm. Then each leg. Move on to your chest, belly, and all your other parts. Toss out the dirty water.
Step 5. If you’ve washed your hair: fill another cup with water and slooooowly rinse your hair in the same position you were in when wetting it. The water should be caught in the bucket and reused for rinsing.
This is all the water it took to rinse the dirt & shampoo from my hair.
This is the total amount of water needed for me to bathe (not including hair): approx .7 liters.
Step 6. Optional. If you find it necessary, you can use a small amount of water to rinse off again if you don’t feel clean after washing much of your body with dirty water.
Step 7. Shave now that you’re clean. Ensure that you have a separate cup of clean water to rinse your razor in. Conservatively apply lotion, conditioner or shaving crème. Shave. Rinse your razor in the separate cup and rinse off your smooth skin with water.
Step 8. Toss all your dirty water. Dry off with your towel. Get dressed.
Step 9. Return your bathing materials where you found them. The bucket, jerry can & water probably has other important uses around the house. Hang your towel in a well-lit and/or warm area and put away your toiletries.
That’s it! You’ve successfully learned how to bucket bathe! Now get out there and practice!
Tips & Tricks:
Do you have a special method or other tips & tricks? Please, share!
I’ve been passing the time by reading the Economic Development and Poverty Reduction Strategy 2008-2012 for Rwanda (EDPRS). [Nevermind that it’s not normal for people to read national economic development plans for pleasure…] As I read, something caught my eye.
The EDPRS reports: ”Gender parity in net primary enrolment had already been achieved by 2000/01 and now the rate is slightly higher for girls (87%) than for boys (85%). Thus, by 2005, Rwanda has achieved the Education for All Goal of eliminating gender disparities in primary education in terms of attendance” (Chapter 2, Paragraph 48). Read it again. Does something seem a little off to you?
Since when does higher performance/participation of females equate to the elimination of gender disparities? From what I understand, disparity means inequality, difference or dissimilarity. If that’s the case, then how can females out-performing males be the elimination of gender disparity?
Sure, my professional focus is women’s entrepreneurship. I am deeply committed to women achieving equal rights as men. I’ve proclaimed my alignment with feminism loud and proud for years, and act accordingly. My personal commitment extends beyond professional credentials: I’ve performed in the vagina monologues in New York City and marched for legislation to protect women against domestic violence in the streets of Beirut. And the list goes on… Yet despite my dedicated activism, my views about seeing men as allies and educating young and adult men has been criticized by some of the more radicals among us.
I have no doubt that I’ve read quotations like this before. I simply failed to think about them critically and I expect that many others have too. But now it’s clear that we overextend the term gender to mean women, or female, and I find this to be very problematic.
Of course when some men attack feminism and women’s rights campaigns, they demand “men’s rights” and claim feminists vie for “female domination.” To which I generally scoff. “You’ve got it all wrong,” I say. That’s not what feminism is all about. We don’t want to dominate men. We don’t think we’re better. We’re simply striving for equality and choice. We want respect and equal opportunities, de jure but also de facto. But when language such as “gender equity” likens “women’s superiority,” as it is written above, it is dangerous. Dangerous for the feminist movement, and dangerous for men and boys. Explicitly, it reinforces the stereotypes we feminists have tried to deny for decades.
Implicitly, and perhaps more importantly, it undermines boys’- and therefore men’s- potential. By reducing our faith in boys, the standards we set for them and our expectations of what they can achieve, or even what they want to accomplish, we negatively affect their dedication to the initiatives. We prime boys not to invest in community and development because we are not investing in them. Further still, we are blaming the outcomes of patriarchal socialization on boys’ “nature.” How is this any better than attributing women’s submissiveness or domestic work to their “natural” desires and duties?
If we continue with this mindset, that we value women more than we value men in a national development context, then we will create a self-fulfilling prophecy. We will say: boys care less about developing their community and country, and so we care less about developing boys. The cycle will continue as we lower our expectations of their participation and performance; and in turn they will fulfill our expectations and opt-out of developmental initiatives and halt their nations’ economic, social or perhaps political development at the national and community levels. In case it wasn’t obvious, this will negatively impact women’s opportunities, personal development, freedom and safety.
Thus, it’s in everyone’s best interest to put boys and girls, and thus men and women, on an equal playing field in order to truly eliminate gender disparity.
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