I’ve always been an over-analyzer. The kind of girl who rarely takes anything at face value. Occasionally it gets me into trouble, but every once in awhile it gives me the best view of what I think is the beauty of life: its subtexts. People are complex and layered, and what you see on the surface is almost never the whole story. The same goes for cultures, relationships, history. Life is just so textured.
My sharpest memories of my time in Rwanda are like polaroids of paradox and dimension. Each scene a case study on juxtaposition and an opportunity to peel back layers and reveal the fruited subtext.
In 2008, Rwanda became the first country in the world to boast a parliament with a female majority. An impressive 56% of representatives are women – more than triple the percentage we enjoy in the United States Congress. But this statistic paints only a corner of the canvas that is women’s empowerment in Rwanda. Outside of the government, Rwandan women are still in great need of education about equal rights to basic things like voting and property ownership. I observed the women in our program being taught and encouraged simply to go to the bank – an intimidating place perceived as a man’s domain.
I interviewed Antoinette, a beautiful and entrepreneurial graduate of our program, about her successes selling her handmade jewelry (a skill she had learned through Women for Women International programs). She proudly showed me one of her favorite pieces – a woven pair of orange earrings – and explained that when she sells her products, she can afford to pay the school fees for her seven children. In a country in which less than 5% of the population enjoys electricity, Antoinette would later ask me and my colleague for our e-mail addresses to stay in touch. I’m not sure how she accessed the internet or who translated her message to English, but I do know that I got a very nice email from her just a week later.
At various memorial sites I saw the physical remains of victims of the 1994 genocide – blood-stained clothing and skulls with still-visible machete wounds – but I also felt a remarkable resilience and forgiveness from its survivors. Even in the wake of complete devastation, there is a hopeful focus on the future. On the grounds of the Kigali Genocide Memorial Centre is a “Fountain of Reconciliation” meant to physically embody this spirit and remind visitors of Rwanda’s commitment to a new day. It seemed to me as if, by enduring the deepest kind of loss, the people of Rwanda had gained the deepest sense of humanity and appreciation for life. I was grateful just to soak it in.
And then there was some lighthearted fun. One night we enjoyed dinner at our hotel while a gregarious hotel singer/guitarist named Didier played traditional African ballads, soon to be interspersed with his rousing but unexpected covers of… Whitney Houston and The Rolling Stones. We soon found ourselves at the center of an impromptu dance party with the kitchen staff and waiters, who had been uniformly soft-spoken until then. We tried to learn how to move as gracefully and elegantly as they do, while demonstrating for them how to “twist and shout.” (They picked it up in no time). They didn’t know our names, and we didn’t understand the words to their songs, but there’s nothing like music and dance to bring people together.
And togetherness, it seemed, is something Rwandans do well. We noticed a few pairs of towering men walking down the streets of Kigali, with a closer look revealing that they were holding hands like children in a sandbox. Apparently men in Rwanda can express their friendship without the fear of emasculation that often keeps American men an arm’s length apart from one another. It made me think about how drastically cultural norms differ around the world. And as for my world, I couldn’t help but rethink all of my messages in a bottle – everything that I never express because for whatever reason I don’t feel allowed.
Throughout my time in Rwanda I was continually humbled – almost a little embarrassed – by the hospitality and broad smiles of a people who have endured so much more than I can even imagine. It seemed everywhere we went we stepped into a reception fit for royalty. I felt a bit unworthy of all the welcome performances and outstretched arms and even the waves we exchanged with children along the side of the road. And for an extra helping of humility, the most exuberant smiles and waves seemed to come from the children with the least.
But perhaps the most expected (or cliché) juxtaposition – an “us” and a “them”– was noticeably absent. In spite of our differences and the vast sea between us, we felt connected with the people of Rwanda in a way that transcends distance, circumstance and cultural perspective. Sometimes all it takes is a real hug or a knowing glance or a shared giggle at a toddler’s game of peek-a-boo to remind us that we are all one and the same, and the only contrasts between us are the ones we create.
Jennifer Morabito is the Grassroots Marketing Officer for Women for Women International and accompanied a group of supporters to Rwanda through the organization’s partnership with Metta Journeys.