All of us have hate, but we have to be careful. Hate is scary. It’s strong. It can create evil within us. It can grow and be spread easily. My hates won’t create a war, but some can. We live in misunderstanding, frustrations, and as a PCV, I constantly have to remind myself of the differences between my culture and the culture in which I am living in order to avoid more hate within me.
This last weekend, I attended a Peer Support Network (PSN) meeting as the GAD’s PSN liaison. During the meeting, we discussed many things, including Myers-Briggs personality types, and how our types can affect our service. I am an ISFJ, meaning I’m super organized (and I could become OCD…no surprise there) and I need reassurance and attention from people in order to feel like my work is appreciated. We’re sensitive to criticism. My personality type is very good at keeping up with people, sending letters, and memorizing dates, birthdays, anniversaries, etc. At the meeting, we also discussed how helpless situations affect PCVs. The discussions we had got me thinking about my service. I thought about my personality, my situation at site, and the difficulties I’ve had living in Rwanda.
Hate develops from fear, an intense feeling, and people avoid fear by doing everything possible to make that fear disappear. People get defensive and create reasons why something shouldn’t be so. PCVs are challenged. The challenges we face bring to light many of our faults that we wish could remain hidden. We see qualities in ourselves that scare us, qualities that make us question not only who we are, but also make us wonder if we are good people.
PCVs have hate. We bitch about Peace Corps, each other, our situation, missing America, our illnesses, expats who bitch about braving a cold shower (when we have them every day), our school, and people that piss us off for whatever reason. I have hate. I’m embarrassed and ashamed of the hates I have. Before joining Peace Corps, I would have never openly said that I hate “most” of an entire group of people, for that would be prejudice, but it’s true that I hate most Rwandan Men.
WHOA. Yeah. STRONG LANGUAGE, SARAH. WHERE did THAT come from?
Well, I’ll tell you.
It is very difficult to be a young unmarried professional female American in Rwanda. Some bits of the culture are similar to that of America in the 1940s or 1950s, when it was not expected for most people, especially not females, to finish high school AND college, when it was expected to be married at a young age, and when anyone straying from that pattern was a misunderstood eccentric, not living by God’s plan, without spouse and children.
Because I am a young unmarried professional female American living in Rwanda, many Rwandans think the following about me: still a girl instead of a woman, not wise, not knowing, looking for a husband, intelligent but ignorant, rich, a prostitute, fat, incapable, foolish, and lesser than my male equivalent. Every day that I live here, I try to break these misconceptions by doing good work and by living on my own as a very capable adult.
A very important aspect of being a PCV is to assimilate (Peace Corps prefers the term “integrate”) yourself to the culture in which you’re living. By doing this, you gain two very important things from your community: trust and respect. And so, I take a lot of care in making sure my outward appearance (i.e. dress, manner of behavior) is Rwandan Appropriate. I do not show my shoulders most days. I hardly wear pants. All my skirts and dresses end below my knees. When I hug a man, which is infrequent, I do so whilst sticking my bum as far away from him as possible. I never drink alcohol in my village. No man (besides some Peace Corps staff, my headmaster and landlord) has ever entered my home. I cook all my food, I clean my own house and my clothes and dishes. Basically, I teach and try to challenge the assumptions of who I am every day by becoming Umwali (Rwandan Lady). Peace Corps taught us about the different cat calls and pick up lines men use. And so, when I drink a mug of hot milk tea, I rub my upper lip with my hand instead of licking the milk off with my tongue. I avoid shaking hands with men I do not know well because if he decides to rub my palm while shaking my hand, well, he’s asking me to bed. And it’s gotten to the point that I completely avoid talking with most Rwandan Men, because when a person asks a person of the opposite sex “to visit” (which is common), they’re asking for sex.
Before I begin the male bashing, I want you to remember that I said “most” Rwandan Men. There are several Rwandan Men whom I have respect for and consider my brothers. These men defend me, work with me, know about my family, teach me, and go out of their ways to help me: Peace Corps staff, my Kinyarwanda teacher from training, my landlord, Jen’s nephew (who helps her at the shop), many of the Muslims in my village, my 6 male co-workers at the secondary school, a handful of teachers at the primary school, and my headmaster.
Now here, below, I have some stories to share with you. Given what you now know about Rwandan culture and how I am within my village, you can maybe somehow take a glimpse into my hate and the frustrations I have with most Rwandan Men.
I’m in my village for the first time, for my site visit.
There is a school meeting because I am there. The headmaster is introducing me to all the teachers. After the meeting is finished, many of them shake my hand.
One of them rubs my palm.
I act like I don’t understand, asking my headmaster the meaning of it and I demonstrate on my own hand. He doesn’t tell me the truth – he and other teachers say it has no meaning, but they take that teacher aside and give him a verbal beating.
One of the teachers I eventually become close to assures me that it will never happen again.
I’m sitting in the café with Jen. We’re talking about the weather or about what we did the last weekend. She and I often sit in silence because we’ve reached that point in our friendship – we don’t need words to be with each other.
A teacher friend of mine enters the café. I greet him, and he sits next to me.
A young man enters. He doesn’t greet Jen. He sits down and says, “Amata. Amandazi.” (Milk. Donut).
He’s slouching, and doesn’t say thank you when Jen serves him.
I don’t know this young man. To be honest, I’ve probably seen him before, but I don’t remember him.
He knows me. He begins to talk to me. First it’s innocent – he asks me how I am. He knows a little English, so he’s trying to show off.
My teacher friend tells me this young man is a teacher at a different school.
This young man doesn’t tell me his name, but after a long pause, he says, “Let us go somewhere to talk.”
I speak in Kinyarwanda, so Jen knows what I’m saying. I say, “We are talking here.”
“Yes, yes,” he says. “But let us go somewhere else. I want to visit you.”
“Sinshake gusura wowe,” I say. (I don’t want to visit you) “We are here now, talking. If you want to talk, I think you have questions for me. What are your questions?”
He laughs. “I haven’t questions.”
My co-worker looks uncomfortable.
“I no lie! I want to visit you only.”
Maybe someone else in the café, listening, is laughing.
I become angry. “You look at me. You see I have white skin. You think I have bad culture, but I try to be Unwali. I am a teacher. You want me to visit you. NO! I do not know you. I do not know your name because you have bad culture. And you – you do not know me. I do not visit you! And now, I do not want to talk with you.”
“I sorry! I sorry!”
“No! We are finished.”
Thankfully, I have finished my food. I pay Jen, who begins to yell at him. I don’t know what she’s saying. I leave with my co-worker.
I feel exhausted emotionally. I am angry. My co-worker can see that.
“That man,” he says, “That man hasn’t respect.”
“HELLO MY SISTER!” a man says as he passes me on the street during the evening. “You want a taxi?”
“Basaza bangje bari muri Amerika.” (My brothers are in America.)
I’m at school, visiting the Primary Teachers outside their teacher’s room. My fellow teachers have a coop. Each participating teacher puts 2000 RWF (about $3.40) into the coop’s fund each month. Members of the community and teachers can receive a loan from the coop.
There is a man who greets me and my counterpart, Mwami. Mwami began the coop. This man, I am told, is a teacher from another school. He wants a loan from the coop, but he hasn’t informed them why he wants the loan. The teachers have just discussed and decided that you must be a member of the coop to receive a loan. The coop is new, so they still have these discussions, deciding how the coop will function.
This man stands beside Mwami and me, but we are sitting. The man introduces himself to me, and begins to discuss the possible loan with Mwami, even though Mwami has already informed him of the decision made by the coop. He is disappointed. He brings his attention back to me.
“Ufite umugabo?” he asks. (Do you have a husband?)
“Oya,” I say. (No.)
“Because I don’t want one. I want to work.”
“But you must find a husband! Do you want me?” His grin is disgusting. He looks at me up and down as if I am everything he wants but also nothing at all. He could do as he likes and receive no punishment.
I imagine punching him in my mind. Over and over again.
“No, I don’t want you.”
“Because I don’t want a husband. And because you haven’t patience. You do not listen to Mwami.”
He laughs. Mwami laughs and says that I am clever.
The man continues to laugh, and then he says, “But you are so pretty.”
And then he touches my leg. In front of Mwami, perhaps my best friend in my village. I go crazy.
“YOU TOUCH ME! NO! I DO NOT LOVE YOU, I DO NOT WANT YOU, YOU DO NOT TOUCH ME. SHUT UP AND GO AWAY.”
He laughs. He apologizes.
I say he has bad culture, and I don’t want to talk with him. He disrespected me.
He says he didn’t disrespect me.
I say that he did because he touched my leg.
He denies that he touched my leg.
I look at him like the piece of shit that he is. I say, “You touched my leg after I said that I do not want you. You disrespected me in front of Mwami.”
Finally, he walks away.
I look at Mwami and say, “That man is bad. I do not like him.”
“Yes,” he says. “He has the bad culture.”
Several months later, we are at The Day of Teachers Ceremony. The teachers of all schools in our sector are together, drinking Fanta and watching our students dance like cows. Some teachers are receiving awards. The final award is for The Best Teacher in our sector.
The recipient is the man who touched my leg.
After the ceremony, the man sees me, walks towards me, and tries to lean in for a hug. I look at him and only say, “No.”
I see Mwami and say, “Remember that man who touched my leg? He tried to hug me!”
Mwami says, “He does not understand his bad culture. Kwihangane.” (Be patient.)
I am on a bike, after having visited my student Francine. I am enjoying the slight wind in the air, through my hair. I’m enjoying the view. I look to my right and see three male students from the boarding school in my village.
One smiles upon seeing me.
He kisses the air in an exaggerated show of nastiness at me.
I scream, “YOU DO BAD THING.”
I am angry at myself for not having good enough Kinyarwanda to say something worse at him more quickly, so under my breath, I tell him to F*** off.
I return my gaze to the maize growing.
I am at the café. A teacher friend, female, who is also friends with Jen is there. She very affectionately calls me UMWALI Sarah.
A man enters. He doesn’t know me. He says, “MUZUNGU,” (White person.) as if he’s a news anchor, all-important, all-knowing, but as usual in Rwanda, just informing every one of the obvious.
I don’t wanna give my speech. I don’t have the energy for it again.
The teacher says, “She is not MUZUNGU. She is my UMWALI Sarah.”
“Does she have a husband?”
“Really?” I think. “That’s your first thought?”
“No,” I say. “And I don’t want you.”
Jen and my teacher friend crack up laughing.
I need airtime for my phone. I go to the Kiosk on the street in my village. I ask for two cards.
The shopkeeper says, “Mwiriwe, Sarah!” (Good afternoon, Sarah!)
I greet him back. “Amakuru?” I ask. (How are you?)
“Ni meza! When will we go to America together?”
He hands me the airtime, and I pay.
“Because I’m American, and I don’t want to go there with you.”
“But I love you!”
“You don’t love me.”
“I LOVE YOU.”
“You don’t know me. I talk to you because you have airtime only.”
I walk away.
This happened approximately 100 times last year, every time I bought airtime. Now, I try to buy all my airtime in Kigali.
I’m walking up the hill, through the marketplace, from my house to the main road. I’m either going to visit Jen at her shop or to school.
“Sallllllllllah, amakurrrru?” (Sarah, how are you?) a young man says. He has a big smile on his face, looking me up and down. He says something about what I’m wearing.
I say nothing, or I grunt something unintelligible, which is like to say, “Ni meza.” (I’m fine).
I’m on small bus. A man’s arm is resting on my leg. I use two fingers to pick up his arm and put it in his lap.
I say, “You do not touch my leg.”
I am in a small shop, buying fake margarine and honey. The honey doesn’t have a price sticker on it. I ask the shopkeeper how much the honey is in Kinyarwanda.
The man standing next to me says, “You know Kinyarwanda?”
I continue with the shopkeeper because she’s told me the price, “Noneho, ni 3300?” (And so, it is 3300 – about $5.50?).
She says yes. I look at the man, “Yego, ngerageza.” (Yes, I try.)
“I have a younger brother,” he says, smiling big. He’s alluding to me dating or marrying his brother. I decide to be a smart aleck.
“I have brothers too,” I say, while exiting the shop, as he tries to continue the conversation.
It’s difficult seeing men, sitting outside and drinking alcohol instead of working. They excuse it by saying, “We’re discussing,” but what they’re really doing is nothing while their wives are farming in the hot fields with babies on their backs.
Because they are men, they have license to go home and beat their wives and children. They have the title of “Umugabo,” which means husband or person who can do many things, but they haven’t done much to deserve that title.
I’m sitting outside Jen’s shop, talking about the rain. A Muslim comes over to greet us. His friend is trying to sell a Bible written in English. We tell him we’re not interested.
The Muslim says, “You’re Sarah, right?”
He looks at Jen and says, “She’s stopped greeting men.”
“Nibyo,” I say. (That’s right!).
He looks at me for a moment. He says, “I understand. Many Rwandan Men have bad culture.”
A man says this about his peers.
I am satisfied that he understands. I take this as a sign of respect.
Over the last 18.5 months, since I’ve arrived in Rwanda, the sexual innuendos and habits of many Rwandan Men have taken a toll on me. At first, I thought I could do nothing to escape it. And slowly, my anger grew into hate.
In the past, in emails and blog posts, I’ve alluded to my being “hardened.” This – my communication with men in Rwanda – has done the hardening. Before I came here, if a person hurt me in any way, I would usually just take it. I didn’t know how to constructively deal with bullying, teasing, or verbal abuse. I would just take it. I would sit there and pretend it was passing through me, but some of it stuck. Later on, I’d think of smart comebacks, but of course, those weren’t good anymore. The moment had passed. Even though my Kinyarwanda is pathetic, I try my best to say what I mean when I need to say it. In some instances, when I spoke with men, I became overly dramatic and erratic, but I did it because I had to communicate what I was feeling or else no one would understand my culture and what I stood for. If I let a man touch my leg and say nothing, what would other people in my community think about me? I’m sure that story spread around my community quickly because there were students around, so everyone knows that Sarah will FREAK OUT if you are a man and you touch her leg. That’s what I wanted them to think. In some ways, I wanted men to be scared of me, scared of my verbal assaults on their character. But mostly, I wanted to feel heard. And if that meant me spewing a slew of insults at someone if I had an inkling they were after something, well, then, that’s what I did. And if I could only become hardened after experiencing sexual harassment on a daily basis, well, then, that’s what God sent in my direction.
When I returned from America (December vaca), I decided to stop talking with Rwandan men. I stopped greeting them. When they greet me, I act like I don’t hear them.
This could come off as arrogance, but I continue to greet women and all children with a big smile. I greet my friends who are Rwandan Men.
My choice to not talk to them was a difficult one to make, but at some point I realized I cannot change what these guys think of me. I could, over and over, give them a big speech about who I am and how they have bad culture. They would laugh or feign being apologetic. Their friends would laugh, like they always do. They would plead their innocence, and that I misunderstood. I would walk away angry. Again. And so, I decided to not talk with them.
I expected a conservative culture when I moved to Rwanda. I expected women to be seen as “less” than men in the social hierarchy. I did not expect, though, how blatant (yet cunning and secretive) the sexual harassment would be or how often I would experience it. And so, because of my effort in becoming Umwali, I feel disrespected, mistreated, and victimized by those Rwandan Men who chose to ignore that effort. I want to feel like I’m doing a good job as a PCV, and because of my personality type, I want so much for people in my community to think well of me. It hurts me emotionally, then, when men see me and publically hit on me, especially in front of my closest friends. It’s as if everything Umwali about me doesn’t exist and has never been noticed.
You could say that my new behavior is passive, but I like to think that every time I ignore a cat call or act like I don’t hear them, I show them that they are so beneath me that they’re not even worth words.