Friday, February 27, 2015

Gender Stereotypes by Grace M.




Grace Mullin
Muhanga District, Southern Province
PC Rwanda Health 6




Rwanda still has a ways to go in regards to gender equality... But so does the world. Living in a developing country, so very far from home in many aspects, has illuminated the strength with which gender stereotypes still exist in the United States. To some extent, it is much more pronounced in regards to men, as the stereotypically "masculine thing" has become much more blurred than the stereotypical "feminine thing."

Clothing is an area where these American stereotypes are still significantly pronounced, mostly in the sense of "men's colors" and "women's colors." While many women, especially those living in the villages, still wear skirts exclusively, many other clothes, clothes that in the United States would be clearly defined as either male or female, are equally shared between the genders. The stereotype of colors does not exist here. Men and women wear all colors of the rainbow without a second thought, it is not uncommon to see grown men in bubble gum pink shirts, floral attire, or rocking the Hello Kitty, and most shirts are worn extremely snug to the body. In fact, at our latest Southern District BE Camp (Boys Excelling), we had issues with the shirts because none of the boys, even those in their upper teens and beyond wanted anything other than small! They like it, they wear it (tight). It is that simple. Yes, poverty exists in this country, but despite what a fellow volunteer once suggested to me, these choices are not based on poverty. Given the choice between two clothes of equal quality, size and price, it is solely personal choice that make the decision, and personal choice can swing in either direction. There is no notion growing up that certain colors can only be liked by either gender. It is often impossible to tell the gender of a baby, and there are no outside cues to help you out. Blue, pink, loose, lacy... unlike in the "progressive" United States, these are all exchanged across the genders at free will. I like to think of myself as extremely progressive in my views of gender equality, yet even I often shock myself with my assumption of the gender of a baby or small child because they are wearing a blue hat, a tight purple sweater, or wrapped in a blanket that is fluffy and pink. These cues are so ingrained into our perceptions that it is hard to completely ignore them, even if you are conscious of them.

Another extreme example of stereotypes that exist in the United States can be seen by the touching culture that exists in this country. While homosexuality is not illegal here, it is not a protected class, and is by no means socially accepted across the population. What is interesting about this, is that for a country so fearful of relationships between those of the same gender, there is no stigmatization given to PDA amongst friends of the same gender. While the world is, in general, pretty accepting of this tradition among women, as it is often seen as sensitive and therefore "girly" in the viewpoint of much of the world, it is almost unheard of, in a variety of countries, especially in the United States. Men (as do women) hold hands here, they hug, and they sit on each other's laps. All of the time. It is interesting to see how this bothers many of our male volunteers. It has become a joke. We tease them that they are going to be holding hands with each other walking down the street before we leave, they laugh, but most of them shake their heads and have slight glimpses of panic in their eyes. Here though, not a single Rwandan would bat an eye. They are friends, they are close, they respect and cherish each other, and most importantly they were never told it was "girly" to hold someone's hand. It is only through our American eyes that it is "not normal."

Saturday, February 21, 2015

St. Francois of Shangi by Rusty O.

Rusty Ott
Nyamesheke District, Western Province, Cyangugu

 
When you first move to a new place, it is good to have a comforting place with a few familiar and friendly faces to turn to every now and then. As a newly sworn in Peace Corps Volunteer who arrived at my site, which has never been home to a PCV, last December, I have been lucky to be a twenty minute walk down the road from the Catholic girls' secondary school St. Francois of Shangi, former home of such illustrious PCV's as Keri Rogers and Amanda Cook and current home to my sitemate Sarah Howard. The place has been a refuge for me; aside from dropping in to visit Sarah when I need some American conversation and company, I have had dinner with the nuns a few times, bought eggs, collected food from their gardens, and wandered on the schoolgrounds. I find it to be one of the most peaceful and wholesome-feeling places in the area, and the nuns have an air of quiet and calm kindness which is backed up with generous actions. Even on the days when I don't stop in, just walking past the school is comforting to me, and on the days when the girls are out, amusing ("When will you come teach us?" "You have a teacher!" "Yes, but we like you!" "Like me! You don't even know me! Trust me, Sarah is a much better teacher than I am. Just ask my students down at ES Gafunzo!" "Why do you walk with a stick?" "Because I'm an old man." "Tee-hee-hee!"



To fulfill my assigned duties of posting a blog about fourteen days earlier than I ended up fulfilling the task, I decided to interview a nun named Sister Emerance and hear her thoughts about the school, girls' education, and women in Rwandan society. She caught my eye for a couple reasons: first, she has been particularly close to several of the PCV's who have served at St. Francois, so as I see things has a particularly unique perspective of American women. Second, the woman is just this amazing ball of energy and spontaneity. You can only know her so long before she catches your attention. In America, we (perhaps even "I," before I made the acquaintance of the Sisters of St Francois) have this caricatured view of nuns as being stern, scary old women who beat your knuckles with a ruler if you put a word in the wrong place reciting your "Hail Mary" or fail to turn in your homework. I have never seen Sister Emerance brandishing a bloody ruler, and I cannot imagine her or any of the other nuns ever harming a fly. Sister Emerance is a woman whom I first met when she was coming to watch "Spiderman" with a friend, with whom she was constantly cracking jokes. She's a woman who walks into the dining room with a bounce in her step, grinning from ear to ear because she has just solved one side of Sarah's rubik's cube. Her hobbies include unwinding at day's end doing yoga with Sarah. I don't do yoga because I'm too much of a stodgy curmudgeon.



And so yesterday evening, in a room which has been home to at least three PCV's, after a week of hard work for everyone, as the room slowly darkened and the sun set behind the hills of the Congo and illuminated Lake Kivu in its last darkening, golden rays within view of Sarah's garden, I sat down over a cup of jasmine tea with Sister Emerance, Sarah, and another teacher at St. Francois named Jean-Marie (that's a man's name; don't be fooled by its Frenchness) for some much anticipated, good, solid talk. This is what I heard.



Long before Sister Emerance was born, before a single brick was laid in the walls of St Francois, before the Germans and Belgians overran the country, Rwanda was a place where women could not even speak in public. If a woman was walking somewhere, and she encountered, say, a grove of trees in which stood a group of men, she had to walk around and give those trees a wide berth. According to Emerance and Jean-Marie, this began to change under colonialism, when women started to be educated. But even then, if a family allowed a daughter to be educated (often she stayed home to work), her education was solely viewed as being for the benefit of her future husband. Only in recent, post-colonial decades, under the influence of good government, has this begun to change.



Against that backdrop, St. Francois of Shangi entered the picture to teach girls skills that would enable them to make a living and be valuable members of society. It started in 1961, simply teaching girls embroidery, knitting, and crafts. As society changed, so did the skills the school passed on to the girls, gradually becoming more academic. In 1982 it became what most would consider a true school, training girls to become teachers of primary school. Not long after they added "modern languages" (in practice consisting of French and a little English) to the curriculum. In 2004, ten years after the war and Paul Kagame's commencement of the Presidency, the St. Francois became a scientific school, offering various combinations involving computer science, economics, mathematics, geography, physics, chemistry, and biology. It was two years later that Sister Emerance joined St. Francois, and though she left in 2008, she returned in 2011 and has been there ever since.


Today the school has 588 students, ranging in age between eleven and twenty-five years.

Throughout all of these changes, the mission of the school has not changed: to teach girls skills that will make them economically productive, to teach them to be good members of society, and to be healthy and comfortable in their futures. The school has strived to stay connected with its past by continuing to teach the same crafts between and after classes as it did in its beginning days. While I had trouble uploading photos of some of the beautiful jewelry, decorative spears, and postcards, the girls do sell them and turn the profits towards charitable causes in the community. If you are interested in buying anything, or know of any hotels that might sell some of their postcards, you can contact Sister Emerance at emukantazinda@yahoo.com.



The school helps the Shangi community by giving parents a school close to their homes, saving on the transportation costs they would otherwise spend sending their daughters to larger cities. Families become involved in the church and in community activities. Emerance hopes the girls will become leaders, just as much as any man can be. Reconciliation is emphasized in the girls' education, as well. Furthermore, local people are hired by the school in jobs such as security. In fact, one girl who graduated last year with a Physics/Chemistry/Biology combination is now working as a lab technician at the school.



I asked about the future, what Emerance hopes will happen for Rwanda and its women, and how. She said, more or less, that she hopes things continue to progress. She thinks good governance will be crucial for that, but she also spoke about talent. She said women have a particular talent to help society progress, a talent rooted in motherhood, as first and foremost a Rwandan woman is a mother. It is the women who raise the future. It brought to my mind a Brigham Young quote: "You educate a man and you educate a man. You educate a woman and you educate a generation." Emerance also expressed hopes that jobs are created for women, and that the girls coming out of St. Francois are able to execute any responsibilities they are given charge of. Also, Emerance hopes that violence which has been perpetrated against women will not be repeated against a generation of girls who know the law and their rights.



For my last question, I couldn't resist asking what Emerance thinks of American women, as she has known so many. She said she admires how motivated they are, how they simplify their lives by coming to Rwanda and having the humility to live here and help. She admires their flexibility in being able to adapt to any life, and appreciates how they help girls be more confident, raise their self-esteem, and teach them to boldly express themselves. I had asked if there was anything she did not admire about American women, and while she did not add anything, her closing remark was that the American women at St. Francois are irreplaceable. While that was genuinely meant as high praise, perhaps it contains a grain of truth regarding Peace Corps' relationship to the school that speaks to a deep question in aid work: do we really want to be irreplaceable? Don't we want to help Rwandans be self-sufficient, so that we are indeed replaced by Rwandans? Or perhaps that is an excuse to create distance; we want to help out for a few years, and "solve" as many problems as we can so that we can walk away in good conscience. Perhaps neither are true, and I am overthinking all of this.



While the reader may discern that for themselves, I will close by saying that whatever else is happening, St. Francois is a place where 588 Rwandan girls are receiving a good education and have a nurturing and safe home, and a place where women of Rwanda and America are meeting in friendship and learning from each other. I've long since decided that one of Peace Corps' flaws is that it tends to give citizens of other countries a false view of a "typical" American, as most Americans have too many ties and obligations to live abroad for two years; it takes a special kind of crazy to do Peace Corps. That is most apparent here at St. Francois; the volunteers here have been extraordinary, of the highest grade America has to offer, and, like the women and children of Lake Wobegone, are all strong and above average (for you Garrison Keillor fans, to follow the quote properly, it is the men who are all good looking, and I may humbly add that I try my best).

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Everyone's Welcome at the Table by Amanda C.

Amanda C.
Nyamasheke District
Southwestern Province



"How can we affect change in the world when only half of it is invited or feel welcome to participate in the conversation?"



This past week UN Goodwill Ambassador, Emma Watson, gave a speech on gender equality to launch the HeForShe campaign. Her speech formally invites men to participate stating "men don't have the benefits of equality either." I agree. There is a saying in Rwanda that men keep their tears in their belly. Showing emotion and being vulnerable is not a commonly valued trait among Rwandan men.

But what if it was?

There are some amazing Rwandan men who value honesty, family, and equality. They don't just talk about it. They show it- like my friend in Giseyni, Papa Treasure. He loves cooking for his wife and learning new things in the kitchen, and the best part is he's not ashamed. Or my friend, Papa Prince, who will wear his infant daughter on his chest in public and will come home after a long day to play and help feed her. These are just a few of the men breaking tradition and taking small steps towards equality.


I'm beginning to truly believe men are the change agent for gender equality. "When they [men] are free, things will change for women as a natural consequence. If men don’t have to be aggressive in order to be accepted, women won’t feel compelled to be submissive. If men don't have to control, women won't have to be controlled. Both men and women should feel free to be sensitive. Both men and women should feel free to be strong. It is time that we all perceive gender on a spectrum, instead of two sets of opposing ideals." 

Together we are stronger. Together we can elicit change.

If not me, who? If not now, when?


To listen to Emma Watson's full speech, Click Here.


Saturday, August 16, 2014

Basket-Weaving Into the Future by Hannah N.


 Hannah N.

Ruhango District, Southern Province




One of my favorite things to do in the afternoon is to go to Mpanda village and basket weave. I have been going to the home of Mama Deline since last October to visit and converse over brightly colored thread, needles, and ibyatsi—long, dried strands of grass. We sit on straw mats against her compound’s wall and share our daily goings-on with one another, as well as with her two daughters, Lucy (age 11) and Deline (age 5). As we weave together, Deline may spontaneously erupt into laughter, or Lucy will look up at me, smile shyly, and return to her basket. 

Sometimes, neighbors will join us, proudly weaving and joyfully discussing any and all topics. Which, of course, is the best part of these afternoons: sitting back and listening to a mother, her friends, and her daughters talk amongst themselves. It is a beautiful thing, to see love and friendship flowing between them in the form of conversation. There is a strong bond created over this activity, and it is by no means secondary to the income generated through the selling of the baskets. I admire these women for their talent and their camaraderie; they use their skills to build relationships AND to build their fortunes and lives. 

Mama Deline, her children, and her neighbors are affecting positive change in this community through a most simple, and artful way. Together they form healthy relationships and earn the respect of their peers and husbands for their ability to basket-weave. I am so grateful to be a part of this pastime with these empowered ladies.