Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Teaching Gender and Intersectionality, by Caroline G.

Caroline Golub
Rulindo District
Northern Province
Here at GAD, our focus, and our namesake, is Gender and Development. Our job is to develop gender related resources and programming, plan gender empowering events or activities, and spread awareness about gender news, in regards to both progress and continual struggles. 

But GAD efforts go beyond just the committee itself. Within their many GLOW (Girls Leading Our World) and BE (Boys Excelling) clubs and camps, volunteers seek to educate youth about gender, trying their best to convey dense and often abstract concepts in digestible, comprehensive forms. They facilitate lessons and exercises in gender equality promotion, women and girls' empowerment, thoughtful leadership and gendered allyship.

I cannot speak to others' experiences, but in my own, it has been incredible to watch the strides a number of my students have made towards understanding the complex notion of gender, and discussing and devising ways they can promote gender equality in their homes, schools, and communities. I can see many of my girls displaying increased confidence in class, volunteering to answer questions, and thoughtfully contributing to discussions during club or class time. Moreover, I have seen evidence of some of my boys beginning to defy traditional gender roles, proudly telling tales of their efforts to help their mothers and sisters around the house, and actually trying to understand the meaning behind that mysterious phrase "gender equality," instead of simply regurgitating it as a known ideal.

Proud as I am of my kids, I do not want to present a false optimism, the idea that these kinds of behavior changes and attitudes have come about quickly or easily during my short tenure at site. Many of my students had been exposed to these ways of thinking long before I arrived, by previous volunteers or teachers, by attending past camps or workshops. Some of the most drastic changes I have personally witnessed have taken over a year to really bloom, aided by frequent encouragement and reinforcement in the form of clubs or personal friendships.

Yet perhaps above all, I also recognize that many of these accomplishments, these small triumphs towards our expressed goal of "gender and development," have not, could not have progressed to the extent they have by a merely singular discussion of "gender." After all, gender itself is not solely responsible for a given person's life experience, though no one can deny its tremendous influence. I am approaching now, the thesis of this post, an aim that I try to incorporate throughout all of my teachings on gender, for it has been tried and true that individuals learn and retain best from lessons or narratives they can relate to in multiple fashions. I am talking about intersectionality.

What is intersectionality? It is, quite simply as it sounds, the interconnectedness of many different social identities coupled with their respective social institutions or systems of oppression. It means that you cannot have a discussion about say, gender, without also addressing factors like race, class, sexual orientation, location, or religion, that together heavily contribute to an individual's identity. Even if we are focusing more directly on one of these narratives over the others, each identifier remains a factor that affects each person's unique experience. That is to say, that a more privileged, upper class woman or girl living in the city may view the societal constraints of her gender much differently than her lower class, village dwelling counterpart. 

Intersectionality is important when talking about gender, because gender itself is not a singularly uniform concept. It is of course true, that women/girls and men/boys have many definite shared experiences within their respective genders due to societal gender norms, but these may vary greatly depending on subsidiary factors. While you can promote certain ideals for gender equality or equity, share common goals towards development, it is necessary to entertain a diversity of experiences so as not to invalidate any individual's unique gendered reality.

Of course, this undertaking isn't easy, especially for those of us who have no means or counterpart to express the subtleties that intersectionality often requires. Additionally, some identities, such as sexual orientation, prove much more difficult to openly discuss, in a culture that still fraught with prejudice and taboo. However, I absolutely believe, that as much as you can incorporate intersectional thinking into your lessons, your clubs, or even private discussions (even in rudimentary form), your students or colleagues will reap the benefit of better understanding themselves and their societal positions, and can therefore work towards a better understanding and strategy of how to break down those barriers, how to approach those systems of oppression for themselves. And that kind of personal growth, multiplied by hundreds, or thousands, is the real means to which Rwanda can continue to progress on its path of development.

Monday, March 21, 2016

A Love Letter to America, by Tara S.


Muhanga District, Southern Province

My Love Letter to America

Dear America,

This is my love letter to you.  You, America, are far from perfect and continue to develop and change but I want to take this space and time to express why I love you.  In my opinion, most people love you because of your economic and diplomatic leadership, or for your glory in war and foreign affairs or your global media and cultural domination, but the reasons I love you America I would have never discovered if I had not left you.

As a young woman from a rural area in America, there are natural factors working against my success and opportunities in life.  In many parts of the world, young girls education is not valued and they are not given the skills and opportunities to thrive.  Yet even though I am from a town of just 5,000 people, I was able to receive a high school that allowed me to go to college and receive scholarships.  My education was individualized, pushing for my success while the education system also worked with my peers who struggled, so at the end we were all prepared for the next step.  In that education, I was taught skills such as critical thinking, public speaking, and using the resources I had available.  As a woman I was never shamed for things I said, but instead encouraged to express my opinions and successes.  While to another American, this may seem like a standard, but it is not necessarily so.  Around the world children, especially girls, from rural areas struggle to access good education.  Girls especially are not encouraged to hold their own opinions or be anything more than a a wife and mother in their cultures. America, I love  you because you allowed me to be more and to dream for more. 

When I finished my secondary education, I went to college on scholarships.  At college I was not a minority, but part of the greater majority.  America you encourage girls so much, that the number of women at colleges and universities outnumbers men.  This too is a unique and exciting development in our history, that is only slowly occurring around the rest of the world.  At college, I was encouraged to explore my studies until I found what excited me most, and motivated to make friends and discover new things outside of my own background.  This appreciation for diversity and individual choice is pretty unique in American culture.    By doing so I was able to expand my critical thinking skills because I began to understand how many solutions there can be to one problem. Learning from people who have different beliefs showed me that more often our similarities are greater than our differences and we can still have mutual respect for each other.   I love you America for demonstrating this diversity of people and thought through having a multi-cultural population and promoting education for all.

As I look to our future together America, I know there will be struggles.  Gender equality is something we will always be working for in America.  You do not pretend to have achieved it, because in reality that would mean we have given up. Your honesty about your struggles allows real grassroots change to happen.  Your people feel like they have a voice, and they have the capacity to change.  Together we are continuously developing ourselves to be more equitable and supportive.  In our future I see more women holding leadership positions, more men stepping up to help in the household duties, and more honest conversations about sex, love, and healthy relationships.  I love you America and I embrace your imperfections and look forward to developing together. 

I know I left you America, but I needed space to really appreciate the depth of what you do and the structures you have in place to provide success.  I had to leave to appreciate how much despite the struggles and frustrations, you are always willing to change.  We will be reunited in the near future, and I will embrace our time together for mutual growth.  Until then, I will continue to share the parts of you I am proud of while pointing out that we have a lot of work to do too.  Thank you for all you have given me and all the opportunities I have because of you.



Sunday, March 13, 2016

Trees of Commitment for International Women’s Day by Grace H.

Grace Heater
Rutsiro District, Western Province

This year, to celebrate International Women’s Day on March 8, the GAD committee asked volunteers to create a Tree of Commitment with their community. Volunteers drew a tree, and members of the community filled in the leaves with messages about how they would personally commit to women’s empowerment.

We wanted to celebrate and commit to the women in our communities – the mamas who sell fruit and vegetables at the market, the teachers and doctors and nurses we interact with every day, the young women who are still in secondary school into their mid-20s, often because of poverty, but despite it as well, and the old women who we unfailingly seem to meet only when they are passing us as they go uphill, barefoot, and with something incredibly heavy on their heads.
About 15 volunteers participated, and we are proud to showcase some of the beautiful trees we can now add to our Commitment Forest!

G.S Kibangu
Tara Sullivan

G.S. Kinihira
Caroline Golub
Mushishiro H.C.
Grace Mullin
G.S. Mushubati
Anna Hirt
Mushaka H.C.
Karyn Miller
E.S. and G.S. Murunda
Grace and Michael Heater
G.S. Muzizi Rukara
Hannah Gann
E. S. Muhazi
Shannon De Jong
Cyabayaga H.C.
Christina Gallagher
Kibiliza H. C.
Melissa Denton
Muhondo H.C.
Aimee Carlson
E.S. Bisesero
Michelle Burris 
Bubazi Health Center
April Zachary

Muremure H.C.
Shreya Desai
G.S. Bumba
Sophie Hart

Sunday, February 14, 2016

WANTED: Tricksteresses in Development

Rusty Ott
Ed 6
Nyamesheke District
Western Province

Last Wednesday was Ash Wednesday, which means the day before was Fat Tuesday, and the season of Mardi Gras and Carnival has just ended. I love this season, and have spent too many years in places where it is not a big deal. Next year, after I have finished Peace Corps and left Rwanda, I am determined to be someplace where it is celebrated with gusto--maybe New Orleans; Cologne; Venice; Mohacs, Hungary; or Rio de Janeiro. What draws me to Carnival is not merely a desire to party and go crazy, but a fascination with a much deeper and complex phenomenon. You see, Carnival is the time of tricksters, and the tricksters are regenerative and creative cultural forces. A society without tricksters is stagnant and dying.

This is the argument of Lewis Hyde's book "Trickster Makes This World: Mischief, Myth, and Art." The Carnival season which just ended brought the book to mind, so I opened it up, and while perusing it got some ideas for tricksters related to both gender and development. Before delving into those ideas, I want to give the author a lot of credit for devoting a great deal of the book to gender questions. Interestingly enough, there are very few female tricksters out there in the world of mythology and folklore. Hyde devotes a very in-depth thirteen page appendix to the question of why, and doesn't arrive at any conclusion. He poses some logical explanations, but one by one destroys each of those arguments, which include that trickster is actually androgynous, that male tricksters simply reflect patriarchal mythologies, that female tricksters are simply ignored, or that trickster stories are about masculinity, that "the trickster stories articulate some distinction between men and women, so that even in a matriarchal setting this figure would be male." But none of these explanations add up. After reading the book, you are left scratching your head as to why mythical tricksters like Coyote, Manabozho Jack, the Monkey King, Krishna, Loki, Hermes, Prometheus, and Eshu are all men.

However, while that is very interesting, and I would be very curious to read another book that presents a hypothesis that does add up, what holds true in the mythic world does not have to be the case in the real world. While I believe that mythology holds great wisdom and tells us a lot about who we are, reality is much more complicated than any myth. Just because mythological tricksters are all men doesn't mean the real world can't have female tricksters. Well, actually it can't, but it can't have any male tricksters either. As Hyde points out, a trickster is simply an archetype. It is a very interesting archetype, but no individual can be contained within an archetype. We are all too complicated, contradictory, capricious, dynamic, and complete to fit into any neat mythological category. There are, however, certain people whose careers and actions correspond to mythological tricksters for significant periods of time. Hyde writes mostly about artists, one of whom is a woman: the Chinese-American writer Maxine Hong Kingston. Actually, when I decided to write on this topic, I intended to list several real-life tricksteresses in Hyde's book, but when I sat down and paged through the book, I realized that Kingston is the only woman Hyde talks about. This is very curious, and I wonder if Hyde himself was aware of that. It's not because he's sexist; as I said, he devoted a very thoughtful appendix to the question of why there aren't female tricksters, which was not really necessary to the main thrust of the book. Plus, throughout the book, he writes very sensitively about some women's issues (i.e. the shame of female sexuality). There may be a better explanation, but for now, since I like the book so much, I will give Hyde the benefit of the doubt and chalk it up to coincidence. He did write about one woman, and I can think of others he could have written about (artists like Frida Kahlo, comedians like Tina Fey and the comedic singers Garfunkel and Oates, the Russian band Pussy Riot). The bottom line is: Ladies, here in the real world there is no reason for you to leave the trickery to us men. Come join the fun.

Before leaving it at that, I want to briefly dwell on the questions: "What is a trickster?" "Why do we want or need tricksters?" and "What may a trickster do for gender issues?" These will all be very curt answers; if you find what I write lacking or have further questions, read Lewis Hyde's book.

I'll start by saying what a trickster is not. Not just anybody who lies or cheats is a trickster. First, one act of trickery does not make a trickster (which is why China's Fa Mu Lan and Rachel from the Bible's Book of Genesis are not tricksters). A true trickster has a lifetime career of trickery. Second, a trickster is not a mere psychopath, or someone who deceives simply for personal gain. A trickster is a cultural hero whose work is enriching their culture, solving problems, or inventing new pathways when the old ways, the traditional methods, have failed. Third, a trickster is not a dishonest politician or anyone else who operates in the center. Tricksters operate on the periphery. They are never the main heroes of mythical cycle, and trickster stories are often reserved for special times--often told only in the winter, secretly.

Tricksters are the people who steal fire and water from the gods, invent fish traps, are adaptable, have multiple identities, rule the marketplaces and roads, see through others' disguises while they put on their own. They are the spirits of chance and lucky finds, lull their enemies to sleep with music rather than fight them openly. They are the masters of speech, not merely lying but blurring the line between true and false, and charming the socks off of us all while they do it. They do not merely cross boundaries, but move them. They play with the joints of the structure the collective human consciousness has created to understand the world so that that very understanding may be flexible. They are the ones willing to play with society's "dirt" (defined as matter out of place) when nobody else will so that society does not become so sterile that it is lifeless. They speak shamelessly when the rest of us are shamed into silent paralysis, or sing the watchful eyes of control to sleep before embarking on mischief.

The real-life tricksters Lewis Hyde writes about are mostly artists, although he also includes Frederick Douglass. These real-life tricksters are valuable because they can be the most powerful agents of change. I believe their most important role is being agents of change and invention when the conventional methods are powerless. When you cannot capture Troy with brute force, Odysseus saves the day with a trick. John Cage made everyone reconsider what the difference is between music and noise, thereby bettering our understanding of music. Frederick Douglass jarred an old social system based on race by taking people's ideas of what black and white should be and turned them upside down, contributing to a more just social order. In his image Piss Christ, the artist Andres Serrano challenged a sterile view of Christ, a view in which Christ's humanity is forgotten and he therefore becomes lifeless; by playing with "dirt," Serrano revived a dying god. If you really want to know the value of tricksters, try to imagine a society without any. Hyde imagines ancient Sparta, the Warsaw Pact countries and the Soviet Union in the latter half of the 20th century, and George Orwell's 1984. Not only are these examples cruel and terrifying places to live in, but they all have (or had) a lot of trouble creating anything new.

This is why I believe Rwanda particularly needs real life tricksters. The country's future is uncertain, but it is changing rapidly. There are many exciting and inspiring things that have happened and are happening. However, this is a place where there is a strong pressure on conventionalism. The mindset of many people is that there is one and only one correct way to do any given task (this is not entirely unique to Rwanda. According to Hyde, the Yoruba culture of Nigeria may have been even more extreme--and yet their pantheon of gods included the great trickster Eshu). I am genuinely impressed by the strength and unity of Rwanda's will, but someday there may be a lack of creativity and open-mindedness pushing that will. I stand in awe of my students' savvy in mathematics and the sciences, but wonder why they aren't being taught art, music, philosophy, drama. Do they understand why they are studying things and what the underlying assumptions and values of math and science are? (If you don't think math and science--and economics--have assumptions or values, read The Economics of Good and Evil by Tomáš Sedláček). Development isn't just about building infrastructure, bringing in technology, and getting people better jobs and more money. Development is nothing more or less than trying to build a bright future. Material wealth is only one aspect of what makes a life high-quality (some schools of thought that go back centuries argue that wealth detracts from a high quality life--although I would never argue Rwanda should aspire to be poor). For Rwanda's future to be truly bright, it needs tricksters who don't play by the rules. And perhaps, that is a great role for women in development. If men have monopolized physical strength and the traditional avenues of power, then perhaps women can jump into the niche of the trickster, those who use cleverness instead of brute strength, travel on new roads, and operate on the periphery of power.

Furthermore, in my opinion, if gender equality is to be achieved, it will not happen through official channels (at least not solely). It is the trickster's job (in the real world, often through art) to move boundaries, to challenge our assumptions, to make us reconsider truth, to outwit practitioners of the old ways but also charm us into loving the new ways. And so, I hope in fifty years, when I am an old man, I can write a sequel to Lewis Hyde's book with a chapter about how tricksters made Rwanda a wonderful place with empowered women.

Full bibliographic information:
Hyde, Lewis. Trickster Makes This World: Mischief, Myth, and Art. North Point Press, a division of Farrar, Straus, and Giroux: New York, 1998.

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

When Role Models and Culture Give Permission, by April Z.

April Zachary
Rubengera District
Western Province
One of the most exciting things that I learned while in my pre-service and in-service-training with Peace Corps is how to build a permagarden.  This was a training that was created and taught by Peter Jensen our Peace Corps Permagarden Specialist. A permagarden is an engineered garden which is designed to hold water, air, minerals and nutrients deep in the soil.  The structure of it slows the water (from heavy rains) and helps retain water within the garden structure itself.  The water then seeps deep into soil that has been prepared to receive it and hold it.  One of the many benefits of a permagarden is that it requires a fraction of the watering that a regular garden does.  And it only has to be built once.  Once a permagarden is built it is ready to receive the plantings of seeds and seedlings year-round and for years to come.
I love permagardens.  And I love the idea that permagardening can help families in the villages of Rwanda (and throughout the world) create a means for feeding their families nutritional foods year round, while decreasing the amount of water that is required to be fetched in order for a kitchen garden (small family gardens) to flourish. However, I was not in love with the idea that we were adding yet one more burden of work upon the shoulders of the mothers and women of the village families.

Women Fetching Water
I came to Rwanda in June 2015.  After 10 weeks of intensive training from Peace Corps I came to my community to live. My first 7 weeks living here was spent gathering information through a Community Needs Assessment (CNA). During this time I interviewed staff at the community health center, visited Community Health Workers in their homes and visited families in their homes. From my very first visit with the village families I began to see that the mothers were exhausted.  They would never admit to being tired.  But there is a weariness as well as an acceptance in their eyes. To be tired is not an option. They rise early in the morning, take care of their children and their husbands and enter the fields to cultivate by 7 am.  The youngest of their children they take with them to the fields, carrying them on their backs, even while they take the hoe to soil and dig deep into rich but rocky soil.  They leave the fields somewhere between noon and 2 pm. But their work is not done.  There is still water to fetch, food to find and meals to cook, as well as children to bath and a home to clean. Here in the village, there are no faucets conveniently bringing water to their homes.  Here water is fetched in 5 gallon jericans.  Water weights 8.33 lbs per gallon.  That means a full jerican of water weighs 41.65 lbs.  Viable water sources are anywhere from a 10 minute to 2 hour walk from the village home.  Mostly it is the mothers and the young women who fetch the water.  They are the quiet pillars of the family.

Once I learned about permagardens I began to wonder how this beautifully efficient and engineered eco-system could be brought to the village family without putting more work upon the shoulders of the village mothers.  And naturally my mind came around to the village fathers…the second and more visible pillar of the village family.    I thought that, just maybe, the permagarden would be a family project that a father would take pride in.

A continual question that I hold in my mind, as I live in my community, is how can
we inspire fathers, within the villages, to want to be more of a part of the inter-workings of their families’ daily care.  I am watching and observing. I believe that when father and mother join hands in the daily care of their families, when they become equal pillars in the structure of their home, a force is created that is unstoppable. It builds strength, unity of purpose, pride and creativity.  It builds a working, efficient team that can go on to create a means of escape from the cycle of poverty. 

 I was a firefighter for nearly 25 years. I lived and worked with men in a communal atmosphere (the firehouse), day in and day out, for years.  One thing I learned is that men are not opposed to domestic work.  Some of them love to cook, garden and yes even clean!  Most of the men I worked with took pride in cooking (We had to rotate cooking. It was required).  Many times we planted a garden. The men who planted gardens nurtured them like they were their babies.  Whether we like to cook, clean, build or garden is not determined by our gender.  If we enjoy these things but are ashamed to participate in them…then this is a culturally imposed belief!

Modeste and an enthusiastic group
of men building a permagarden
Just recently we had a 3 day Permagarden Training in my community taught by Modeste Nsabimana.  Modeste works with Peace Corps Rwanda.  He has a degree in Agribusiness and Rural Development as well as in Administration and Project Management. He is Rwandan and he is passionate about teaching permagardening at the village level. He is also an incredible role model for the men and boys of Rwanda.  During this 3 day training I learned that many of the men of my community love to garden!  It made my heart glad to see these men’s enthusiasm and willingness to create, to put hands to soil, to prepare and to plant. Perhaps it is the engineered structure of the permagarden that they loved or the thoughtfulness of how the soil is prepared, or perhaps it is the idea that they can actually control and contain the rain water so that these waters are held and saved deep within the soil so that they can continue to provide moisture to the plants, even during the dry season, that made them so enthusiastic about learning this skill. Or perhaps they were given permission to jump in and be enthusiastic about digging in the dirt for a higher cause by Modeste being there as a role model. Because Modeste was up to his elbows in dirt!

The belief that domestic work is beneath men or is women’s work is a learned behavior.  A belief that is inculcated by cultural norms. How do we dissolve old ways in order to clear the path for healthier norms?  Norms where culture supports strong, unified, healthy, creative families that work together for a better future for their families? A family whose mother and father are pillars of strength that bear the weight of caring for their families equally?  

Saturday, January 23, 2016

If I were a boy… by Aimee Carlson

Aimee Carlson
Gakenke District
Northern Province
Everywhere in the world, no matter the culture, no matter the country, there are different expectations placed on people based on their gender. In the United States, boys are expected to be strong and emotionless; they should like manly colors like blue or green and they should dream of becoming doctors, engineers, or lawyers. Boys should want to play sports, or at least to watch them on TV with their dad; they should like to catch bugs, frogs, and snakes; they should have toy cars, trucks, and tractors.

Girls on the other hand are expected to be weak, gentle, and quiet. They are allowed to express their emotions, but that can also be held against them. Girls should want to be princesses, who like colors such as pink or purple; they should want to be mothers when they grow up, though being a teacher, hair stylist, or event planner is also acceptable. Girls should have all kinds of dolls, enjoy playing dress up, and want to play games like Pretty Pretty Princess.

Of course, these expectations are fluid and ever changing. The defined lines within which genders are supposed to fit in are a little more blurry these days. More and more women are joining the science field; sometimes, it’s the father that stays at home to care for the kids. It’s becoming more common for boys to also want a doll or to wear something that is a ‘girly’ color; girls also play in the dirt, digging for worms, or dress up like superheroes. However, there are obviously still expectations, and those who challenge gender norms, more often than not, receive some backlash.

Unsurprisingly, such expectations have followed us to our sites here in Rwanda. We have new expectations to follow though, new customs to adhere to, or if we feel comfortable doing so, to challenge. Female and male PCVs adopt different behaviors in the village because of what is acceptable according to Rwandan culture and what roles genders here are expected to fill.

We females don’t leave our houses after dark, and if we happen to be returning home after the sun has gone down, we frequently are given or request an escort. We side-eye any message we get from a Rwandan man after work hours, or hesitate to give out our digits at all. Our knees are always covered, that is if we even feel comfortable showing any part of our legs. At home, we may wear shorts while alone and doing chores, but we always have igitenge (a panel of fabric) on hand to wrap around ourselves for when a visitor inevitably stops by. Some of us put more effort into our appearance than we would in the States; we want to fit into our community and might go the extra mile to always have perfectly styled hair or have a fancier outfit than just jeans and a t-shirt.

If we are invited to go out with co-workers at the end of the work day, we check to make sure there is another female in the group, preferably also unmarried. Since it’s not culturally acceptable for a single woman to be drinking at bars, we are hesitant to drink in public at site, regardless of the fact that we are foreigners. Some of us may feel comfortable enjoying a glass of wine or a bottle of beer in the safety of our own home. However, most of us are careful when disposing the boxes or bottles, taking them to the nearest regional town, including even the bottle caps.

Male PCVs often don’t have to change their behavior quite as drastically. It is acceptable for them to walk around after dark. Many even feel comfortable going out for a beer at a bar or buying a small bottle of gin at a village boutique. They don’t have to be so cautious when a community member asks for their phone number. If they wear a pair of shorts that show off their knees, it’s not as shocking to Rwandans.

However, that’s not to say that they don’t also deal with a change in expectations. Some Rwandans are surprised to learn that male PCVs know how to cook or do their own laundry. They may even get several offers to have an umukozi (somone who cleans, cooks, and does laundry) at their house. Their clothes must be wrinkle-free and look clean. Unless they are of the Protestant Church, it is expected that men drink beer or gin, which is challenging for PCVs who choose not to drink.

As PCVs, we are guests here in Rwanda. Thus, we make changes to our behavior to fit these expectations rather than assuming our communities will alter their customs to accommodate our culture. It is something that we agreed to when we accepted our invitations to serve. Gender roles and expectations are ingrained in society to the point where we may not even notice them and having them challenged can sometimes be upsetting or offensive. Therefore, this is an area where we need to practice extra caution in order to be sensitive to our communities.

However, the second goal of Peace Corps is to share American culture with host countries as a part of cultural exchange. Because of this, and because our own gender roles are ingrained in us, we may choose certain expectations or behaviors to challenge. Some females may where pants rather than a skirt or they may feel comfortable occasionally going to a bar. Men may decline all offers for an umukozi and do their own household chores. It all depends on what is important to us as an individual and what we feel our communities would be responsive to. After all, they have welcomed us into their homes, it’s not our place to disrespect them or expect them to completely change our ways. We have to find the balance between being culturally appropriate and being true to ourselves.

Thursday, January 7, 2016

When Power Dynamics Destroy the Potential of our Boys by April Z

April Zachary
Rubengera Districit
Western Province
“Many more men and boys understand the importance of women’s equality,
and they need to be given permission to let this happen.
Additionally, information given to boys and men on how to promote
gender equality needs to be done in a positive way.
As 0pposed to giving lists of things they “should not do” or 
ways they are “bad,”
information needs to be shared in a way so as
to build up our boys and men, not tear them down.”

Peace Corps Rwanda
A Guide to Gender and Development Activities for All Volunteers

Recently I had the privilege of attending a two day GAD training which was facilitated by Ashley Mills, our Peace Corps Gender Technical Specialist.  I say “facilitated” as opposed to “taught” for a reason.  Ashley did not teach us theory, protocol or even suggested modes of approach to Gender issues within communities. Instead she  lead us, through a series of exercises, into an experiential process where we were able to see how our life experiences, preconceived ideas and cultural biases effect how we approach gender equality.  During one of these exercises I came face to face with childhood experiences that have colored my view of gender based power dynamics through most of my life. And even though I am now clearer about where my perspective comes from, I am still influenced by my experience.

I once had an older brother.  He was five years my senior. His name was Randy, not Randolph…just straight, plain Randy.  I adored him.  When I was about 3 years old, I stood in awe as I watched him climb the big tree that stood in the yard of the cluster of small cottages where we lived. I wanted to do that too and, not too many years later, I would - with his help.  When I was about 5 or 6 years old Randy taught me how to ride a bike. As I clung to the handle bars of that little two wheeler, feet pumping on pedals, he ran along side of me, supporting me, keeping me balanced until I was soaring forward, proud and exhilarated.  He was a good brother.

In the beginning it was mostly just me, my mom and my brother. Looking back now I can see how difficult it must have been for Mom to support 2 children by herself. This was in the 1950’s and early 1960’s.  She was married by age 16, had my brother by age 17, had me by age 21 and was divorced by age 25.  But even before divorce she was pretty much raising us on her own. Our father was an absentee father. Our mother carried the load, taking care of us and working long hours at the A&W drive-thru restaurant for 75 cents per hour.

When I was 8 years old and Randy was 13 our mother remarried. Our step father had a “good job” at UC Davis as a Lab Technician.  I didn’t know it at the time but we were about to receive hands-on-experiential-training in power dynamics. Unfortunately, it would take me about 50 years or more to figure out what I had learned.

Before Dad (they are still married over 50 years later so he truly is my Dad) our lives seemed pretty light-hearted.  It was a tradition to sing loudly while taking drives in the car…mostly Doris Day songs and ballads that Mom taught us.  There was lots of chatter about anything and everything.  Same at home.  When Dad came into our lives a shadow passed over us.  I realize now it was because he was young (28 years old, 4 years younger than Mom), grieving and unhappy. A few years prior his previous wife had died of cancer and his 10 month old son had died in his sleep. He could not bear our chatter or our songs.  If he was not happy, how could he allow the chatter of lively children? My mother was relieved to have the daily necessities of life taken care of.  Because the positive change he brought into our lives was financial security, food always available and a roof always over our heads.  Mom could breath.  I know she felt that we were all safe now. She elevated Dad to king of the house. His word was law.

Randy did not take this change so well.  He was 13 years old, just stretching into his independent phase and bam! Suddenly there were a whole set of new rules. No discussion, no easing into things. It seemed that overnight our lives changed.  And at that time Dad was a weekend drinker. When he drank, my mother and my brother took the brunt of his wrath. I saw my brother change from a generous, kind, spontaneous brother into a distant, angry resentful brother. He must have felt powerless.  Anger was vented upon him, his actions and words were repressed, and in turn he became angry toward me.

Randy ran away at age 16.  Eventually he joined a carnival. When he was 18 years old he died in a head-on vehicle accident. I lost him then, but really I lost him the day our mom married our dad.  Randy’s potential to be a strong, vibrant, caring, kind young man was squashed through repression of his innate beautiful self and through anger.  The power dynamics between him, our stepfather and our mother crushed him. And because he died he never had the chance to find his way back to his true self…that bright, beautiful, kind, protective, supportive boy who had the potential to have grown into a man of true strength.

How do we take away the potential from our boys to become men of true strength?  This is a mystery I am still trying to unravel. Where do we take the misstep of teaching boys, through our own behaviors, attitudes and wounds, that power is an external force that is demonstrated through brute strength, repression of voice, “being the king of the house”, being above menial work, or  through being hands-off with our children? 

How do we inspire our boys to find their true strength? The internal strength that comes from profound self-worth, self-knowledge and the desire to make the world a better place for themselves and their families?