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Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Still Loving My Job

After I wrote that last post I got emails from a couple people reminding me of the obvious. It doesn’t take a college degree to notice the wealth disparities between “developed” and “developing” countries, especially in a place like Rwanda where the international aid presence is huge. Even if it weren’t for international aid, exposure to tourists and western media would be enough to indicate the enormous differences between life in the “developed” world and here. I guess the reason I find it puzzling because I’m subject to it, if that makes any sense. It’s still weird to me that people yell after me for “amafaranga” (money) when I pass them on the street regardless of the fact that I’m dressed like an average Rwandan.

I also found out that in poorer and more rural areas it’s not just white foreigners who get harangued, it’s anyone who obviously has a regular job. I have a friend who works at the health center here, a nurse, who told me that she can’t wait to move to Kigali because she’s tired of random people asking her for money. She said it’s particularly difficult because she can’t afford to give handouts since she’s already paying her brothers’ school fees. And I thought I was so special.

In other news, I finally launched an English club this afternoon. I almost thought it wasn’t going to happen because I had no idea what room we were supposed to meet in and the teacher I was supposed to be collaborating with was nowhere to be found, but then a group of students from S3 (ninth grade) found me an empty classroom. By the time my colleague showed up I had written all the lyrics to “Yesterday” on the chalkboard and I was teaching the students the second verse. I had initially hoped to spend most of the two-hour meeting answering questions and planning the curriculum for the club collaboratively with the students but when I asked them what they wanted to do in their club they said, “We want to learn English.” I said yes, but what specifically in English? “To speak it,” they said. Well, alright then.

Confusions aside, the club meeting significantly improved my week. I’d been in kind of a bad mood ever since I finished grading midterms because a lot of them received failing grades despite my best efforts to test only on grammar and vocabulary I’d explained several times. At first I blamed myself but then I noticed that the few students who did well were also the few students who consistently turned in homework. I think I’m going to have to give a lecture on study habits sometime in the next couple of weeks.

I also want to do a lot more activities with songs, both in my classes and in my English club. The problem is finding songs that use simple vocabulary, are easy to sing, are inoffensive and are suitable for students between ages fourteen and seventeen. I have a few but they’re all Beatles songs. If anyone has any suggestions please comment or email me!

Monday, February 21, 2011

Uri Umucuruzi Cyangwa Uri Umusabirizi?*

*Are you a seller or a beggar?

Begging is a difficult subject. In phone calls and emails people have asked me a little bit about beggars and begging here but I haven’t done a blog post on it because I’m not qualified to speak to its causes. My undergraduate degree in international/development studies provided me with a rough outline of the systemic causes of macro-level poverty but for all the Sachs and Easterly I read in college I cannot explain why every small child here knows how to say “give me money” in English. That said, I deal with begging on a daily basis so I can at least talk about my experiences, eschewing my speculations as to the “why” and “how.”

First of all, there are two types of beggars. The first type of beggar is genuinely a beggar - that is, someone who subsists on money given to them by others. These are the people who, like in the United States, appear to have fallen through the cracks in the system. They are the crippled and the deranged** and others who for whatever reason cannot work and have no one to care for them. The second kind of beggar is not really a beggar and in fact would not ask anyone for money under normal circumstances except maybe as a loan. This kind of beggar presents a real challenge because she is one hundred percent convinced that I, as a white foreigner, have wealth beyond her wildest imaginings and that I’d be incredibly selfish not to share just a little of it. As far as she’s concerned, her persistence and aggression are more than justified and my refusal to give is not.

I encounter this kind of beggar everywhere. At the market, people ask me to buy vegetables for them. In town people ask me for money for a cup of tea. One time I was walking into town with a few coins in my pocket to buy bread and a woman asked me for money for a Fanta and when I said I didn’t have money to give her she pointed to my pocket and said, “So what’s that there?”

I rarely encounter this kind of thing when I’m at my house because my immediate neighbors understand my situation. They know that as a Peace Corps volunteer I have less money than some of my colleagues at school and that beyond the netbook and camera I brought from home there are no untold riches to be found in my house. However, there have been times when people have actually come to my doorstep looking for money. One time I was sweeping my porch and a woman with a small child came right up to me, greeted me and asked for 500 francs. I told her in Kinyarwanda that I was not in a position to give 500 francs. She said (in Kinyarwanda), “You want me to believe you have nothing?” I said, “I have enough so that I can eat but not enough to give everyone.” I thought that was a fair enough explanation, but it didn’t deter her. She indicated the child and said, “Look at him. Can’t you give something for him?”

He was an adorable baby, maybe a little underfed but healthy. I told the woman, “You have a beautiful child. But do you see the field by the church there?”

“Yes, I see it.”

“Do you know the children who play there?”

“I know them.”

“I also know them and I love them very much, but many of them are sick and some do not have shoes and some do not eat because their families are poor. I do not have enough to give to all of them. How can I give money for your child and not to the children there who I love so much?”

The woman paused, thought about it and said, “I only want a little.”

This is probably the only thing I encounter at site that consistently frustrates me, the assumption that because I am a foreigner I have money to give. I probably wouldn’t be bothered by it if there weren’t some truth to it in a roundabout way. My Peace Corps “salary” might equal that of an average Rwandan teacher but when my service is over I will have the resources to return to the United States where I will have opportunities that people here do not have. But if I give money to a woman so that she can buy milk for her child one day, what am I doing other than creating a sense of dependency and/or strengthening the notion that foreigners have money, making life that much more difficult for Gihara’s next Peace Corps volunteer?

I have so many unanswered questions about this kind of thing, though. How is it that even small children in remote places know to equate foreigners with money? Is it because the foreigners they encounter are all aid workers and missionaries and tourists? What about those who have never seen an American before? Thanks to Sachs and Easterly, Jared Diamond and Paul Farmer, I know that the United States is a “wealthy” and “developed” country and that Rwanda is relatively “poor” and “developing,” but my neighbors haven’t read these books. Where did they learn this rhetoric of rich and poor, developed and developing?

These are not rhetorical questions. If anyone has any thoughts to offer or if you know of a book or two that might help, please share. Thank you all!

**I apologize if my use of terms like “crippled” and “deranged” is politically incorrect, but for me these terms best capture the condition of the beggars I’ve encountered in Kigali and Gitarama. If I’ve offended anyone, please feel free to comment or email me and I’ll make edits where necessary.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Turi Kumwe, We Are The Same

Yesterday I bought a pineapple.

In another context this would not be worthy of a blog post but here the simplest interactions hold equal potential for incredible successes and terrible calamities and more often than not both occur in equal measure. Also, buying a pineapple in Gihara is not a simple transaction for the following reasons:

First, market day is Saturday in Gihara. That is, every Saturday people come from all over to sell fruits and vegetables on blankets and rice sacks laid out in the town square. Yesterday was not Saturday. Yesterday was a Wednesday, and during the week fresh fruits and vegetables are difficult to come by.

Second, whether on market day or not, produce must be purchased directly from the farmers. This means prices are not set, so everything must be bargained for.

Third, muzungus (white people and other obvious foreigners) are often given prices that are two or three times what is standard because it is assumed that foreigners are tourists and tourists have money. That and we’re easy to cheat because we don’t speak the language very well or at all.

Lastly, I really, really, really hate bargaining.

In this context, I went into town on a Wednesday evening to try and find a pineapple. I knew I might not succeed, but I was hopeful. Fortuitously I found a vendor selling an assortment of fresh fruit on a table outside her shop. She only had one pineapple. It was small and oddly shaped but it looked edible so I asked her how much she wanted for it. She said 200 francs. This is the standard price for a really good pineapple. The one she had wasn’t worth more than 100 francs and I knew it but I really, really, really hate bargaining and I was in a hurry to get home before dark so I accepted her price.

While I was fishing around in my bag for the money a woman came over and asked me how much I was paying for the pineapple. I said 200 francs. She looked affronted. She asked why I would pay 200 francs for such a small pineapple. I don’t know how to say “I’m in a hurry” in Kinyarwanda so I just shrugged and gave the vendor the money. The woman told the vendor to give me back half. The vendor started shouting something about amafaranga (money) and umuzungu (foreigner) and the woman started shouting back and I started yelling “It’s no problem, it’s no problem” over the din as loud as I could and pretty soon there was a huge crowd of people standing around us staring. At some point I ducked out of the crowd and ran home, vowing silently never to buy a pineapple in Gihara ever again.

This evening I was out for a walk and I saw that same woman sweeping in front of her house. When she saw me she waved me over. She said in Kinyarwanda, “Do you remember me? The market? The pineapple?” I said I cannot forget a friend. I thanked her for helping me and explained that it’s difficult for me to bargain because I don’t speak much Kinyarwanda and she nodded gravely. She said she hates it when people try to cheat muzungus. I said, “Well, I understand, it’s because they think I have money.” She said yes, but it should not matter - your skin might be one color and mine might be another color but we are the same. For most Americans this kind of rhetoric of racial equality is familiar to the point of being cliché and disingenuous. But when I heard this woman in rural Rwanda say that she and I are the same I knew that she meant it with all her heart, at that moment at least, and I was almost moved to tears.

The woman’s name is Goreti. I think next week I will visit her. Maybe I will bring her a pineapple.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

The Moon Hangs Low

It hasn’t been long since my last post but I don’t feel like finishing my lesson plans for next week so I’m blogging instead. Or, to put it another way, I feel inspired to blog because I’ve had a really good week. The lesson plans will get written.

Yesterday I took a walk past the school up a hill I’d never explored before and met a young woman on her way home from the market. She had her month-old baby girl tied to her back with a cotton cloth, which is how mamas carry their babies here. She immediately invited me to visit her at her house and due in equal parts to curiosity and confusion over what she was saying, I followed her. When we arrived she brought a stool out for me to sit on and unslung her baby girl and burped her and then handed her to me. My first thought was, this is going to be messy. As if on cue, the baby urinated all over my legs. The mother ignored this. When the baby started to cry she took her from me and began to breastfeed her without batting an eye. I tried my best to be calm and cheerful despite being soaked in pee. I sat for as long as I could stand to and then I got up, promised a future visit, and went home to change.

As soon as I got inside it began to pour rain. I left the door open and sat on my bed and played guitar with a pen cap because I can’t find my pick and sang as loudly as I could into the downpour. I have no idea what there was to be so happy about, but I was ecstatic. Simple pleasures are profound here - like, for example, not being caught in the rain, and not being soaked in pee.

I should be starting an English club sometime in the next couple of weeks. I’ve located the teacher who is supposed to help me and now that I’ve met him and I can see why he was chosen to do so. He’s been teaching English in Rwanda for the last eight years and he speaks English impeccably, if haltingly and pedantically. He is in the process of writing a comprehensive English textbook with explanations in Kinyarwanda and as a result he’s been too busy to start an English club by himself, but he told me that if the club meets once a week only he can be there with me. I told him we could talk about it again after I give a midterm exam. I have no idea what the process is for giving a midterm and I want to tackle one unknown at a time.

In spite of (or maybe because of?) all the minute frustrations and confusions, I feel more and more every day like I belong here. Earlier this evening I was out watching the sunset and struck me how badly I will miss things like the smell of charcoal fires and I was incredibly sad for a moment, but then I realized I have almost a whole two years ahead of me.