Tuesday, September 22, 2009

The People of Rwanda

The other day, while I was in Akagera Park, I met a German woman and her husband who had been travelling in several other African countries. They talked a little bit about how much begging went on in the countries they had visited. I reported that I had seen very little of that here, just a few children who annoyingly say “give me money”, practicing their few English words, and a few older women downtown who beg, sitting on the ground with a child or two by their side. Otherwise, at least as far as I have seen, everyone is very busy working.

Seriously, the streets are always filled with people. The majority of the economy here is at a micro level. There are thousands upon thousands of small shops that sell pretty much everything under the sun, though you totally have to know where to go to find what you are looking for as neither the store front nor the sign will tell you much at all about what is inside. Then there are the thousands upon thousands of people who walk the streets selling fresh eggs, phone cards, internet cards, tomatoes, jewelry, papayas, and so on. Then there are the professionals, very much the minority and pretty much only in Kigali, who work in offices, hospitals, schools and the like. Then there are the hordes of moto-taxis that are ubiquitous, not to mention taxis, which are equally present and the hundreds of bus drivers. Then there is construction that seems to be going on everywhere, both in the city and rurally. These endeavours require thousands upon thousands of people to do the work. It looks to me like this country is growing, and growing well, economically.

To date, I have not heard anyone refer to anyone else as anything but Rwandan, which suggests that President Paul Kagame’s recipe for reconciliation is working, at least on the surface. Who knows what goes on in private? But public is a good step, rather like racism in Canada. It is not evident in Canada though it rears its head in more insidious ways. And children are hopefully being taught about being Rwandan, not Hutu or Tutsi or Twa. I am starting to see the great variety in facial features, stature and so on, but I have never seen anyone flinch, for example, if, on the bus, they sit next to someone who is different from them.

Speaking of buses, I do enjoy them, plus they are pretty cheap, only 200 RWF (about 50 cents). The buses are packed, but everyone gets a seat. You do have to be able to tolerate a fair bit of body odour! The larger buses hold about forty people I think. When all the main seats are taken, there are aisle seats that fold down. The etiquette when getting on the bus is to always take the seat furthest to the back, especially when the side seating is quite full. If someone gets off from the back, several people shift to fill that spot. Otherwise, everyone in the aisle would have to stand, fold up their seat, and make room for the next person getting onto the bus. It works like a charm but you do have to know the rules.

I have had many a nice chat in French with various people on the bus. People are generally very friendly and warm towards mzungus, and always delighted to hear we are from Canada. Almost always, someone knows someone in Canada and asks if we know them too. They have no concept of how vast Canada is. Others are curious to know what it is like, and how it compares to Rwanda. Rwandans are very proud of their country and rightly proud of the direction in which it is going. They see hope after many years of despair.

Of course, here at Tubahumurize, I do hear a different side of things as pretty much all the women here have suffered or still suffer in situations of domestic violence. Simone thinks the young men of Rwanda really have a problem; they are far too confident and far too cocky, swaggering when they walk. It is clearly still a patriarchal society, even though the family is definitely matriarchal.

There is a very strong division here between male and female. To be female is to have children and take care of home and family. Dowries are still essential; you cannot marry without the dowry. The man has to give at least one cow to marry a woman, which, believe it or not, is a small fortune as cows are very precious. Girls are still the ones who are last to go to school. Homosexuality is impossible, not recognized, not believed in (sinful). It just doesn’t exist (obviously, completely closeted). Divorce is pretty close to impossible. The judge will say to a disputing couple, if one wants a divorce and the other doesn’t, to go back to the home and work it out and come back in six months. In the case of clear domestic violence, divorce is possible but the police become involved, creating a real risk of violence escalating.

I see this divide between the sexes as a huge obstacle to change within the family. The women of Tubahumurize are lucky, in that they are learning about all the things they are capable of, and are gaining confidence in their abilities, some earning an income. These are important steps, I think, in changing the role of women in the family so that women and men share more equal partnerships.

All that said, there are many men who clearly are gentle and kind, who see women as different but equal, and who probably are wonderful partners to their wives. Not everyone is dominating and cruel or punitive. But there is definitely an underlying thread of male supremacy that needs to shift before this country can really emerge as a fully-functioning society. That’s the way I see it anyway.

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