Dedication: This week a dear friend of mine passed away on a trip in Vietnam unexpectedly and without just cause. This set the tone for my week. I have been confused and angry at the circumstances, and sorrowful for the dreams Ryan had to make great change in the world. Grieving in Rwanda has been an interesting setting and process, as death is common and funerals are frequent. My close friends, recent graduates of RLS, Mabel and Ornella have been so loving, empathetic and supportive during this week. In fact, I have felt a different level of empathy from my fellow teachers and host family. It’s as if everyone carries the burden and weight of death on their shoulders in Rwanda, but they do so collectively, holding each other up with resilience and strength. A humbling and poignant realization. I and so many others will remember Ryan’s heart and continue his mission and passions in our own lives. May you be at peace Ryan. This one’s for you.
In the past week I have visited Nyamirambo Women’s Center, Urugo Women’s Center and Akila Institute. Nyamirambo Women’s Center began in 2007, and today they have become a booming cooperative that sells handmade goods, and offers a basket weaving class, cooking class and walking tour around the Nyamirambo neighborhood. I took the weaving class and I actually ended up being the only person who signed up that day. I was so grateful it was just me though, because I had the opportunity to communicate one-on-one with my teacher, Alicia. I even had a translator who helped me communicate with Alicia. As we worked with our hands and got caught up in the therapeutic monotony of weaving, Alicia began to tell me her life story. She told me how she raised her three children as a single mother, and worked to give her children a good life. She told me, “I support my children with my hands. I got here by using my hands.” He determination and ambition has led her to work hard at the women’s center and give her children a healthy, educated lifestyle. After the workshop, she generously gave me two pairs of earrings as a gift and some thread to make more earrings. Once I finish my next pair, I’m going to go back and show her!
During my research, I have found that when I ask women questions about their life story they will begin to tell me their whole story and then stop in the middle and say, “I’m babbling, are you sure you want to hear this?” To this I always respond that it is an honor to hear their story and I am so grateful that they are willing to share it with me. I have found that when someone listens your story, you find validation and you feel understood. It’s freeing, troubling and healing all at once. The best friendships I have formed in Rwanda are the result of deep, meaningful conversations, where I have learned about their heart, soul and desires.
When I visited Akilah Institute, the first all-girls institute in Rwanda (which was actually started by a woman who went to Vanderbilt funnily enough!), I was welcomed with open arms. I was actually running late because the bus wasn’t on time from Rwamagana, and I only had 45 minutes to tour the campus, talk with Nadine, the External Relations Officer, and interview some students. Since Nadine had to run to a meeting, I told her I would just go get lunch and come back after her meeting. I did so, and while waiting for her I chatted with Ernestine, the librarian at Akilah, for at least an hour and a half. Ernestine is honest, real, upfront and courageous. Her family was displaced during the genocide, and she came to Kigali when she was 11 to work for a pastor as a house helper so that she could support her parents who could not find employment in Kibungo. She did this for a year without having the opportunity to gain an education. Eventually the pastor offered to allow her to attend school. All the way through 0 level education (elementary school) she studied at school during the day, and worked as the house helper when she returned home. When she entered P level education (middle and high school), she went to FAWE School for Girls which was a boarding school. Serendipitously, she studied in the same class as Laura’s sister. (Yes! Laura is my host mother.) She in fact knows Laura as well, which was such a fun connection to make. She was in the first class at Akilah, and came to work as a librarian soon after. She put her two sisters through school at Akilah, and hopes to help her brother obtain high education one day. She raises her son alone and loves the people in her life fiercely. I learned all this as we chatted and ate bananas – of which she hounded me to eat more than 2. Let me tell you, don’t mess with Rwandan mommas. They be fierce and they want you to EAT.
Afterwards, I had the opportunity to chat with Nadine more, and then attend Akilah’s Gender Club. The girls were so welcoming and we talked about what barriers girls face when trying to obtain an education, and about how they see gender inequality in their own lives. Afterwards, I spent some time talking with Esther, the VP of Gender Club and Student Body President, and we are going to hang out soon. Woot woot! I also connected with their communications director, who is an expat as well. Let me tell you, if you are willing and open-minded while traveling you will make so many valuable connections, and even-more, lifelong friends. As I type, I am preparing to leave to eat some chili with my friend Kurtis, past peace-corps, and Sela, a Kenyan researcher in Kigali that I met at the workshop Kurtis put on. To add to the willingness factor, you also have to be intentional with new relationships or else they slip away. For me, as I came here alone, only having briefly talked to the founder of RLS, I already have a huge support network of Rwandans and expats in Kigali and Rwamagana, because I try to continually put myself out there and to courageously form connections.
I know that I still have a good amount of time here in Rwanda, but time is moving so quickly. I honestly don’t know if I will be ready to leave when the time comes. I really do love this country, despite cultural barriers and challenges that come up. In Rwanda, my character has been building so dynamically and I feel more strength and courage by the day during my time here.
The students in the Gender Club asked me for advice, and I really didn’t know what to say. What I told them was to BE BOLD. To use their voices to help other girls and women find theirs. And to create ripple effects by going into their communities and creating change. I encouraged them to keep working towards their dreams, and to know that they are at one of the best higher ed schools in the city and that they must use their education wisely and thoughtfully to empower others. That being at an all-girls school gives you the power to unite with fellow women and build each other up through healthy competition and collaboration, without tearing each other down. That they are world-changers and that if they ever come to America, I’m going to show them around and we will have a blast!
I feel so lucky that one of my jobs here is to listen to women’s stories and connect with powerful bad as women who are leading their families and communities. It makes my heart oh, so, full. And my time here so much more special.
“We are the ones we have been waiting for.” -June Jordan, “Poem for South African Women”