July 30th marked the first day I visited a country in Africa. That is, Rwanda. Excluding, of course, the layovers I made in Ethiopia and Burundi, which I didn’t get to see much of except the airport. Mukama, staff member from the organization I’m interning with, Conservation Heritage-Turambe, picked me up from the airport. We rode a taxi together from Kigali (the capital) to Musanze.
The road was beautiful, with lush green mountains as far as you could see. People walked along the road, the women often seen carrying baskets on top of their heads (sometimes without even holding it)! Unlike in Indonesia, where the beauty of the land is occasionally tarnished by trash, I found not a speck of trash here. That is thanks to the government’s strict ban on plastic bags and littering. Even the trash can in my guest house right now does not have plastic. I found it a bit gross at first, but realized that as long as you wash it regularly then it is fine.
The most shocking thing to adjust to here was the way that people stare at you and stereotype you as just another tourist. Regarding the staring, I was more used to it than my friends because of my time in China. However, it is interesting how different the situation is for my white friends compared to me. When I am walking by myself, such as what I am doing now since they’ve both left, I am not hassled as much. At the market, the vendors give me cheaper prices in general. Also, I am not bothered as much by men as they were. One of my friends was approached by a man who asked if he could be their helper, then if he could be their boyfriend. Though I had people commenting that I was beautiful and whatever, I don’t think it was to the extent that my friends experienced it.
Another uncomfortable thing that we recognized was the way that people think we are rich. Especially when we were in the touristic town of Gisenyi, near Lake Kivu, people would constantly be asking us for money. One younger boy said, “I’m hungry” as he tried to look pitiful. Another man on a motorcycle feigned hitting him and said something in Kinyirwanda that I interpreted as, “Drop the act” or “Go away.” People have also approached my friends asking them for money for school supplies or to buy a soccer ball. Why is it so uncomfortable when we are approached in such a way?
As I pondered over it, I believe that the reason is multifaceted. First is that we feel like we are being stereotyped, assumed to have money because of how we look like tourists. This is not completely untrue, however, because although we aren’t really rich, or at least I personally consider myself to not be rich (after all, I am on a full scholarship for college), we are still relatively wealthier. If you or your parents make money in dollars, converted to RWF that is a lot of money, even if in dollars it is only minimum wage, say $12,000/year. Meanwhile in Rwanda, the average monthly salary is $160, totaling up to about $2000 per year. Of course, the standard of living here is different to. But if I put myself in their shoes, and I saw a muzungu (foreigner), perhaps in my mind I would also implicitly think about the much higher standards of living in the US, the higher salaries people earn overall, the years of colonization by white people from Europe, and the various tourists that have come and gone, most with retirement money to spend on whatever pleases them. Another point is, even though we don’t consider ourselves rich, the ability to come here to Rwanda, when we are still so young, is such a privilege. It is a privilege that Middlebury gave us such access to opportunities, even funding our trip here. I imagine if I went to university in Indonesia, my university definitely would not be able to fund me for such a trip.
The relative wealth of bule (foreigners) holds true for Indonesia as well, which is why I feel so strange and privileged when I have made about as much money in total in just my two years of college as my parents have in their savings. Yet my friends in the US often seem unsatisfied with the amount that they are earning, saying that $3500 stipend for a summer internship is not enough, when in my mind, it is a ridiculous amount of money. Especially if converted to IDR. Or, even if you take the example of eating out. In the US, on average eating out at a non-fast food place costs $15-20, but in Indonesia it is around IDR 20,000. Meaning that with one meal out in the US you could get 10 meals out or even more in Indonesia.
This brings me to my next point, which is coming face-to-face with our privilege. I think it is one thing to read about places far away, imagine how they are like, and another thing to actually be there, see the people you talk about in your Global Health or Environmental Justice classes. I believe these moments of discomfort–when we are unsure of whether to respond or ignore, give to an individual or to an organization–are the manifestations of our privilege. At the same time, it is important to not generalize a whole population. After all, these people are definitely far from helpless. Looking at the organization I am working with, I am already amazed. The small staff of 3 are all Rwandan, yet they manage to do so much for the community, from donating water tanks and latrines to creating conservation classes for schoolchildren. Even the other intern here who is Rwandan inspires me so much, as she has her own business where she reuses thrown hair wigs and resells them.
I think another aspect of life here in Rwanda that I’ve come to appreciate is how down-to-earth everyone is. Whereas in the US people are usually rushing from one thing to another, often not satisfied with what they have even though they can literally have anything at the click of a button, in here people seem generally content with who they are and what they do. Everything is local and community-based, which is a topic we’ve talked a lot about in the Climate Action Capacity Fellowship as something important for conservation. For example, I would walk for about 30 minutes to the market in town to buy my weekly groceries, and cook them at home. There isn’t any corn in the market right now because it’s not in season.
And I think that people here for the most part understand what’s important in life. In my own organization, the work culture is slow and relaxing. I never feel like I am on edge or pushed to meet a deadline. Everyone on the staff understands that things come up–you get sick, you get pregnant, you wake up on a cold rainy day and find it hard to get out of bed. And they accept that. “Take your time,” Mukama texted on the group chat when I said I would be late because of a stomachache.
Maybe it is because of the genocide that happened in the past that gives me this feeling that people truly care about you as a human. It is also the saddest thing that I’ve noticed here. People don’t explicitly talk about it, but you understand that’s what they are referring to when they ask, “Are your parents still alive?” The program director herself, Valerie, told me that her parents died when she was 15 and she had to take care of her siblings as the oldest child. She is scared of skeletons because it reminds her of death. I cannot imagine the trauma and grief that many people here hold in their hearts. Yet, somehow, they still smile and laugh, always so optimistic and shrugging off the little burdens. It breaks my heart.
I hope that when I return to the hectic life of college at Middlebury, I will be able to hold and remember this peace that I feel in my heart. I hope that I can take time to slow down, relax, go for a walk, and reflect on and be grateful for my life. Time is moving on and on, a clock that never stops ticking. I am scared that if I don’t have these moments of reflection, 60 years or even less will go by just like that, and before I know it I’ll be on my deathbed, wondering where the time went. I will never be this young again. Even if I manage to save up for retirement and travel when I am a wrinkly old lady, it would not be the same. I would not have today’s health and energy. So, I want to explore and learn as much as I can while I am still young and able, and always remember to be grateful that I have this opportunity to do so.