Karongi District, Western Province
First of all, I want to begin by introducing myself. My name is Liz, and I have been working as an education volunteer in Karongi District in the West. I am one of the three newest members to the GAD committee from Education 4.
I am still learning more every day about how gender is constructed in Rwandan society and how that manifests itself in Rwandans’ lives. I was particularly struck by Saara’s description of what it means to be a woman in Rwanda – that expectations for women’s success are low which therefore leads to an inferior sense of self-worth. I have found this to be true among many of my female colleagues and friends. But it also poses the question for me of what it means to be a man in Rwanda, which so far I have associated with a sense of entitlement. My male colleagues expect to be served first, to have first choice of seating, to be given a chair when there is limited seating, etc.
Dynamics between men are comically illustrated for me every night at dinner with the fork. I live in a compound with the (male) director Frodouard, the (male) bursor and 2nd in command Jack, another (male) teacher Muhire, and our (female) librarian Jolie. I share dinner with some combination of them and other teachers who drop by on occasion. We have 5 or 6 forks of varying quality. 4 are the same super cheap forks but with varying degrees of being bent out of shape. Then there’s the fork of slightly higher quality and remains unbent but still relatively cheap and crappy. Finally, there’s the cream of all fork crops. It’s sturdy, durable, too heavy to be bent and clearly of finer quality than the other forks. The boys always want the good fork, but the power dynamics at any given dinner determine who gets it.
At a normal lunch, it’s me with Muhire and Jolie. Muhire always takes the good fork without question. When Jack is in town, it changes Muhire’s behavior. At the beginning of the year, Muhire would hold off to see if Jack took the fork first, allowing Jack, the superior in age, marital status, and job position, to take it if he wanted but leaving the option open for Muhire to still have the fork. After a couple weeks, Jack realized Muhire really wanted the fork, and Jack being confident in his masculinity (or not caring which fork he eats with because….it’s a fork) graciously cedes the fork to Muhire, taking the 2nd or 3rd quality fork for himself. When Erneste, the animateur, comes over, he not only doesn’t live in the compound, his younger age and lower position within the school means he usually shares a fork and plate with whoever finishes earliest, and that person never has the good fork. In other words, the lowest of fork lows. The first time the director came, though, he didn’t even flinch before grabbing the good fork before Muhire or Jack could even think about it, therefore securing his place as the school’s top dog. Jolie, who happens to be a woman and the youngest staff member at the school, almost always takes the worst fork, severely bent out of shape, along with the cracked plate as well.
For me, as funny as it is to witness this play out every night, it shows in a simple but clear way the power dynamics and expectations between men of varying statuses and women’s interactions with this system. Men use a variety of characteristics – be it age, occupation, marital status, etc. to size each other up and decide who comes out on top – who gets the good fork. Women don’t seem to be a part of this power grab, but nor do they see the benefits as attainable or applicable to them. Even when Jolie and I are alone and I offer her the good fork, she doesn’t take it. She still takes the sad, bent fork for herself and on one occasion even said, “The broken fork for the broken person.”
I see gender development as two-fold. We must empower women to expect more of themselves and their abilities – empower women to go for the good fork and to feel that they deserve it. But we must always engage men in the conversation. How do Rwandan conceptions of masculinity also constrain and construct men’s lives? How can we facilitate partnerships and cooperation among the genders to create a more equal and beneficial system for all involved? In other words, can we change the game so that men don’t have to constantly jockey for the only good fork, and women have the chance to actually grasp it? Can we help create a world where everyone has a good fork?
I hope so, and I look forward to working with this committee to make a dent (no pun intended).