We started this journey on an inevitable high, taking in every moment, every conversation, gazing wide-eyed at the gorgeous green hills and smiling thoughtlessly at each person who came up to greet us as Umuzungu. The first week felt like months as we took on a complete immersion schedule. But now time passes fast. We have a lot of work to do, and every task is met with challenges and frustrations. It has come to a point where I expect to be surprised so that when an unexpected task or obstacle comes up, I can continue without panic.
In a text message an hour before our flight left Washington DC, my older sister gave me the best advice I could have asked for. She said, “You are going to see things that are out of your control, and you are going to get sad and angry and frustrated. And in those moments you just need to remember you are here to grow and learn. No matter what goes through your head, just remember to grow and learn.”
Well, my opportunities for learning and growing are quite plentiful.
On Friday we had planned to go to visit one of the RVCP programs called the Pyramid Program. RVCP members meet with secondary school students in the area and discuss gender, family planning, and HIV prevention. This Friday’s session would be RVCP’s first time meeting with the students, beginning with the topic of gender.
The night before, Pascal asked me to look over his presentation and add any ideas, improvements, or changes. (Of course I had things to add… I could talk about this stuff forever). We met for lunch to talk about it (the session was in 2 hours). As we sat down, he alerted me that I would be the one teaching the session.
On top of an increasingly nagging internal debate about the worth of my participation in RVCP programs other than MHEP (GlobeMed’s partner program in which we have had long term participation), this unpredicted task sent me into a mode of anxiety. How could I limit my own extreme thoughts about gender to a simple 50 minute lecture with 92 high school students when I do not know their language, their culture, their background… I’ve only been exposed to their country for 2 weeks, and even in those 2 weeks, I have only experienced it as a white American, my perceptions skewed from the actuality of culture, life, and gender’s role here. And how could I plan for a ‘lecture’ when I had absolutely no idea what their response to the very first question I planned to ask them would be?
Grow and learn.
So I resorted to a conversation, the best kind of learning.
After Pascal handed me the center of the classroom, I stood among the students, exclaimed the 2 Kinyarwanda words I know (Muraho, amakuru? Hello, how are you?) and then began to introduce the topic of gender in English, quite enthusiastically might I add. (Students have been learning English since primary school, and RVCP comforted me an hour prior to the session that the students would understand me). My first question to them (What is gender?) was met with quizzical stares, a cloud of confusion hovering over every face. What the hell is this girl saying to us? I looked up quickly at my team to see if there was any indication of whether or not I was completely butchering this. Nothing. So I continued to explain sex and gender, biology and social construction. A few words into my explanation, Peter (vice coordinator of RVCP) hopped out of his seat, stopped me, muttered a few words in Kinyarwanda to the class, turned to me (as I stood there stupidly thinking I could effectively convey ideas of sex and gender in my own speedy American tongue to a group of students still learning the difference between good morning and good afternoon) and told me they had no idea what I was saying. Good. Great. Precisely the reason why I feel so strange standing in front of a classroom communicating a topic so big, yet so ill-prepared. Luckily, Peter is the best translator in RVCP and I had complete faith that he would help me out. And so we started over with my introduction and my first question, while Peter and I displayed a mutual enthusiasm and command of the room.
What is gender? It was as if the answer had been inscribed in their brains. Clear textbook definitions put on flashcards and memorized, not understood. Gender balance is a process by which men and women are given the same opportunities and held to the same standards. No, I told them. What is gender? Not gender balance. Blank stares.
The rest of the session was an incredible conversation with the 92 high school students. They offered compelling examples and questions about gender roles, stereotypes, places in society, progress, debate, and questions about the Bible. Yep… that was a fun one. But actually, it was. The only thing that seemed wrong was that it was the boys in the class who were so quick to participate and ask questions. The girls would half-raise their hands, needing an extra sign of encouragement to speak their minds. They had the balance of numbers in the classroom, but half of the voices were in need of amplification.
It came to my attention that the idea of gender balance was one that is engrained into minds, but the meaning and complexities of the matter are lost. Even some RVCP members will sing at the idea of gender balance but cannot tell me what gender is. This has already led to countless conversations (my extreme feminist thoughts put on the back burner most of the time as I try to focus on basic points such as stereotypes, social construction and gender roles).
It’s gradual change, for sure, but I do hope that the deeply rooted ideas of gender are taken up and transplanted in a way that does not promote gender balance between two seemingly opposing genders, but rather promotes and embraces empowerment of all genders and differences among individuals. And I hope that my last-minute participation in the Pyramid Program did something for that change.
Ok. That was Friday. A lot more growing and learning has been done since then, but I think I’ll leave that for another post. Up next: Rwanda Healthcare System 101.