Varrène met a man and fell in love. He was a soldier and stationed outside of Rwanda, but they communicated by letter. The affair by love letter was difficult for Varrène – not because she didn’t love Paul, but because she’d never had an opportunity to learn to read or write. Illiteracy was her secret; Paul didn’t know.
Every time Paul sent a letter, Varrène took it to a friend, who read it for her and helped compose a response. But Varrène found it upsetting to have Paul’s secrets and her feelings so exposed.
Soon after Varrène and Paul got married, Paul was deployed again – to Darfur as part of a UNAMID peacekeeping unit. Some of his salary passed to his wife through a joint account, but Varrène had no idea how to use a bank. She knew how often tellers cheated illiterate women, giving them bank slips to sign for 500,000 Rwandan francs when 50,000 was requested and then pocketing the difference. Varrène was also struggling to start a small hair salon to make income for herself.
Varrène heard about the Let Us Build Ourselves literacy project, which teaches reading, writing, basic math, and basic business skills to vulnerable women in Nyarugenge. She met with project leader Innocent Baguma and signed up. She wanted to write her own love letters. She wanted to walk into a bank and know how to fill out a form, where to sign, and for what she was signing. She wanted to get around town without begging strangers to read signs or store names to her. She wanted to manage the bookkeeping of her struggling salon herself.
Varrène attended class every afternoon, learned quickly, and made use of her new abilities. She realized that her employees at the salon had, indeed, been fudging the ledger and cheating her. Under her own financial management, her salon began to do well. She felt confident enough to open her own bank account and manage her husband’s without help.
Varrène recently returned to Let Us Build Ourselves to tell Innocent how much the ability to read has changed the course of her life. She wanted to encourage other women to come, learn, and move themselves forward. At that time, Let Us Build Ourselves was struggling to pay the rent for its classroom. With profit from her salon, Varrène donated a month’s rent for the project’s classroom and office to keep Let Us Build Ourselves running.
Paul has finally returned from Darfur. Today, the couple lives near Varrène’s salon in Nyamirambo, close to the market. Paul still does not know that when he met his wife, Varrène was completely illiterate. Both are heroes of this story. Maybe they’ll live happily ever after; maybe they won’t.
I show up at Charlotte’s house on Thursday, 10 am. In my bag: an orange, bendable tripod; my flip video camera in its protective sleeve (an old glasses case of my Grandma’s); a list of the B roll shots I want to collect; and a peanut butter sandwich in case this takes us most of the day.
B roll is the supplemental footage that a filmmaker intercuts with the main shot during an interview or a documentary. In other words, if you’re interviewing Jill about her relationship with Jack, you don’t want to bore your audience with one headshot of her, just sitting and talking. The audience can keep listening to the audio of her interview while the visual adds dimension by switching to show Jill on the hill, Jill joking around with Jack, or Jill polishing her pail collection.
Charlotte knows about B roll. She’s the leader of Achieving a Better Life, a Global Grassroots project that uses theater and film to expose and fight against domestic violence. Some of you might remember when Caitlin and I helped Charlotte get her project up on Global Giving: http://www.globalgiving.org/projects/eliminate-domestic-violence-in-rwanda/.
I’ve been spending most of my time, lately, on the collection and processing of filmed interviews and B roll. I’m hoping to gather a truly cohesive portrait of at least five teams, including Achieving a Better Life (ABL). All five teams have discussed with me the importance of getting their story out in the world, and they’re completely on board with what I’m doing – they just don’t always understand why I’m asking them to pretend to talk on the phone with a friend or why I want to pause to film the goat tied outside the GBV workshop they’re hosting. B roll sessions usually involve a lot of explanation and direction from me, and a lot of giggling from all of us.
So. Thursday, 10am. I knock on Charlotte’s door.
She has her one-year-old twins dressed in matching, lime-green shorts and t-shirts printed with USA-shaped American flags. She has a page-long bullet list of the shots she wants me to get: Charlotte working on an ABL script; Charlotte tying one of the babies on her back; Charlotte lighting charcoal; Charlotte walking through her gate while chatting to a neighbor. She tells me that I’ve got to stay until 12:30 at least. That’s when her older children get home, and she wants me to film her greeting them and asking about school.
Looks like we’ve already covered ‘Charlotte being amazing.’
We film a couple of shots in her living room, and then Charlotte leads me out to the back. She has plantains and potatoes set out to be chopped. She has a pile of dishes next to a line of plastic wash bins. Her makeshift charcoal stove is ready to be lighted. Two dirty children’s school uniforms lie in another set of nested bins.
“Ready?” Charlotte asks. She straps one of the twins onto her back with a piece of fabric, and I scramble around her to film from different angles. She power-walks around the corner to pour water into a bin from a jerry can, and I race close behind her. She lights the charcoal with a flame and a piece of melted plastic and starts to heat oil. I sneak a couple shots of the bubbling oil and some pink plastic baby shoes lying in the dirt nearby. Then I realize she’s almost finished the next step – peeling and chopping potatoes for fries – so I rush over with the camera.
“Okay, I got the chopping,” I tell her. She springs up, moves over to the laundry, and doesn’t pause or giggle when I hang off her back steps on my knees for an aerial view of her soapy hands.
“Now for drying!” she cries, and I follow her to the front of the house. We hang the laundry, wash dishes, fry the potatoes, pick legumes, write fake scripts on the computer, and rifle through her awards and certificates to show off ABL’s successes. We get the twins to clap for us, and I film them eating (and throwing) pieces of orange. We stage several phone calls, during which Charlotte pretends to discuss her funding difficulties with a friend. “We have finished shooting, as you know, but I don’t yet have the financial means to take the project to the editing studio.”
At one point Charlotte asks me, “Is there anything on your list that we must do?”
“Nope,” I tell her. “No, you’ve got us covered just great.”
When the older children get home from school, they burst into the living room, where Charlotte and I are seated. I’m on the wrong side of her to film – the contrast from the bright windows I face makes the lighting impossible – which is something that both of us have been very aware of all day. But as she kisses her daughter on the head and admires the battered toy car her son has received from a family friend, Charlotte seems to have finally forgotten about me.
Anais swings off her backpack and accepts a sticky orange slice. Gilhaume nestles against Charlotte’s knees. I scoot across the room and try to capture this intimate daily reunion, but when the footage turns out dark and blurry, part of me is glad.
It’s been a long day – I want my peanut butter sandwich – and I’ve got so much of Charlotte’s life stored digitally inside my Grandma’s glasses case. It feels right that this one secret moment should remain hidden from view, powering Charlotte through her visible life: work and chores and worries. That’s how we all live, isn’t it? Even those of us who always mean business, like Charlotte, run on some invisible fuel of love.
I’m writing this post on a bus somewhere in Tanzania, making my way from Kigali to Dar es Salaam, the coastal city where three friends from college are currently vacationing to visit another Yale friend who lives there. When I booked my April 9th bus ticket to Dar and Tuesday’s plane ticket to Johannesburg to visit another friend, I was joining the exodus of ex-pats who leave Rwanda during this somber time of genocide commemoration and take advantage of closed offices to travel. It seemed rude to arrange meeting with change agents, and especially to ask our co-workers to translate, while they memorialized lost loved ones. The president of Global Grassroots warned April was a difficult time to be in Rwanda and agreed it was a good idea for us leave the country. But as I’m watching the scenery change from Rwanda’s lush green to Tanzania’s yellow-brown, I don’t feel very excited to go travel.
On Wednesday night, April 6th, as I came home from a friend’s house, the streets felt eerie. Seventeen years before on that very night, checkpoints had been erected on those very streets. Anyone who tried to pass was stopped and their identity card demanded. If the ethnicity read Tutsi, they were killed, raped, or maimed by machete. An extremist Hutu militia group called the Interhamwe organized an efficient system to exterminate all the Tutsi minority. They came frighteningly close: 800,000 Tutsi were killed, which was five out of six.
My co-worker recommended that Christina and I attend the commemorative activities at the National Amahoro (Peace) Stadium the morning of April 7th, regarded the first of 100 days of genocide. We arrived with our friend Stephen at 8, and he waited in his long security line, which had about ten men for every one woman in ours. We sat through an hour of sound checks before Rwandans filled the rows and the 9:00 documentary aired. Made by Rwandans, it showed four women giving their testimonies: one was raped repeatedly and contracted HIV; another lost all of her children and family; another lost her beloved husband and twin sister, but survived along with 17 children by hiding among corpses; I can’t remember the story of the fourth, but I think three is more than enough. All around Rwanda purple banners hang, proclaiming “Remember the Genocide” or “Uphold the Truth. Preserve our Dignity.” That was the theme of President Kagame’s speech, too.
Before the president spoke at noon, a man sang a song in Kinyarwanda. In the middle of the song, shouts rang outside the stadium. It sounded like the person was shrieking in pain. I feared there had been some sort of violence by the genocide deniers (exiled Hutu extremists called the FDLR who oppose the current government, led by Tutsi Paul Kagame). The shrieks continued for about a minute, then subsided. The song continued uninterrupted until someone shrieked again, but this time from inside the stadium. Everyone looked across the field from my section where police and volunteer staff in white shirts and purple kerchiefs were running up the stairs and parting the people (there are no aisles). They stopped at a wailing woman, the source of the sound. It reverberated around the whole stadium and the noise carried so clearly. We all watched as they picked her up, still shrieking, and carried her– on her back with her arms and legs in the air– down through the crowd and out to the stadium exterior until the sound finally subsided. But before she was out more wails began, this time to my left under the big screen. Her shrieks blended in with the other woman’s and they echoed and echoed across the whole stadium, competing with the music. She too was carried out, on her back.
It continued through the song and escalated during the following performance of slow, expressive dancing to beautiful, penetrating music. One woman would shriek, and it would grow louder and more hysteric until the volunteers or police came to assist her, carrying her out as her limbs flailed, sometimes grabbing people and clawing at the uniform of police. There would be another. Then a short reprieve, and then another and another and another until the entire stadium was just filled with wailing and its echoing. It was naked pain. Most people around us were weeping, and the boy next to me was sobbing silently, shaking. I didn’t know what to do, so I slipped him some tissues. A girl six seats over in the row behind me was crying and crying while her friend rubbed her back.
Stephen and I had tears, too, while all around volunteers rushed to carry people out as they shrieked and their limbs flailed. The girl behind us had been sobbing quietly for about twenty minutes before it escalated, becoming harder and louder and more inconsolable. Eventually they came to her and she seemed to be thrashing to resist the uniformed man who was carrying everyone out in our section— around ten people total. There were more than twenty sections. When we left, the grass ringing the stadium was lined with people recovering from their trauma. I heard shrieking and saw someone being carried in front of us and realized he was a man… so it hadn’t been all women. Men could make those high-pitched noises too, and it sounded terrible. His arm was rigid, reaching out, and he was crying, crying, crying.
My friend didn’t go to the stadium. She was orphaned in the genocide and preferred to spend the day at home with her family. With a purple shawl draped over her, she welcomed me that evening. We hung out, talked, drank tea and ate some dinner, looked at wedding pictures and told a few funny stories. She seemed to be weathering the day well, but then again, she raised her three sisters, found herself a good job and is raising a beautiful daughter while her soldier husband is away– she weathers everything well. We were relaxed in one another’s company and talked and flipped through photos. When my eyes drooped, she told me I should sleep in the extra bed while her sister and her friend, who was also orphaned, shared another bed. In the morning we played with her daughter and talked about the genocide and its legacy. It was almost noon and she told me I should stay for lunch, but I thought I should probably go pack for my trip. I wish I could’ve stayed.
I texted my other close friend who lost her mother, hoping to pay her a visit, but she didn’t respond. I respected her privacy and hurried about packing for my 5 am bus. Before I knew it, it was too late to call the other people to whom I had intended to express sympathy. As I crossed the border into Tanzania at 8:00 am Saturday, I simultaneously received a text that my message to my friend hadn’t gone through, and a text from the other woman thanking me for the night together and my support. The stamp pounded my passport and I swallowed hard. Whenever you meet an ex-pat here, you ask each other how long you’ve been in Rwanda, and sometimes it feels competitive. We all round up– “almost six months,” “just about a year”– never wanting to seem like what some Rwandans call us, “the foreigners who come and never stay.” That phrase was tossed around often after the genocide when all foreigners were evacuated. I’m incredibly fortunate to be traveling to places like Tanzania, South Africa and Mozambique, but I wonder if there wasn’t a better time. I knew I wouldn’t be able to work, but I didn’t know there would be other things to do.
On Fridays we explain independent clauses, but on Mondays and Thursdays we taught (until recently) an entirely different kind of English class. We traveled to Gisozi, the site of one GG project started by Evariste in 2008. The Community Vocational Training School teaches tailoring to vulnerable women (widows, orphans, and prostitutes), and in October we attended the graduation of this year’s class of 24 women, many of whom are using this marketable skill to leave prostitution or free themselves from dependence on an abusive husband. At the reception, we were drinking Fanta and eating bread when some of the women asked Evariste if we could teach them English.
A few days later, Christina and I said yes. Although we receive at least two requests per day for English lessons (taxi drivers, shopkeepers, and teammates are all eager to keep pace after the country’s 2008 shift from French to English), we decided that this class fit with our project because it could improve the graduates’ employability. If a tailor can speak enough English to take measurements of and negotiate with tourists and ex-pats, she or he will be quite popular. (Everyone knows Josephine, the go-to English-speaker in our market.) So, we agreed to a month-long class, thinking that was enough time to teach some occupational English.
Teaching women who have never been to school is not as difficult as I anticipated. It took a long time for the one or two illiterate girls to copy from the board, letter by letter, and the general pace was pretty slow, but most of them grasped the concepts the first time around. They are very eager learners. They took notes on everything, and somehow, between sewing, cooking, and caring for their families, they always found time to do the homework. No one complained about writing on their laps while perched on wooden stools and chairs that collapse without warning. For good lighting, they dragged the one-legged blackboard out onto the front porch of the school. We hadn’t quite figured out yet how to prop it up and on the first day of school, it may or may not have careened forward onto me mid-explanation of ‘I am’. A blackboard falling from the sky was a first in all my school experience, but some things are apparently international: the know-it-alls sit in front, the shy ones never raise their hands, and there was a class clown, Josiane. Looking back, I’m impressed she let that blackboard incident slide… by the end all someone has to do was accidentally say “I am a boy,” and she had the female offender collapsed in giggles. The laughter would die down until someone piped up, “Are you a boy?” and we all deteriorated again. Our classroom management skills may be lacking, but it’s ok—they’d mastered interrogatives!
Global Grassroots works with several teams of change agents here in Rwanda who fight for women’s rights, security, and health with one crucial tool: providing safe, closer access to clean water.
The relationship between clean water and health is straightforward, considering the multitude of water-borne diseases found in much of the world. The impact of a safe, closer access point on women’s security is equally clear when one remembers the dark, early morning hours that women spend in the process of collection and when one listens to stories of sexual assault faced on this journey. But the link between water scarcity and women’s disempowerment is even more fundamental. Perhaps that is precisely why it is so often overlooked.
Water is humanity’s most essential need, and access to safe water is one of the greatest challenges faced by the developing world. In many societies, the consuming struggle to provide, every day, a community’s primary life need – water – falls to the female sex. The result is gender imbalance on a massive scale. When a community saddles one gender with a tremendous burden that is both laborious and domestic, those two adjectives come to define how both men and women perceive a woman’s sphere and duty. That discrimination is pervasive; it disempowers women as citizens and as individual minds.
When the task of water provision is perceived by women and men as a female responsibility, that assumption defines gender roles in a community. Water is a part of everything domestic: drinking, bathing, cooking vegetables and grains, growing gardens that prevent malnutrition disorders in children, washing clothes, keeping a home clean, and preventing disease. A woman who chooses to attend an evening local council meeting “should” be walking hours down the mountain to a stream with her female neighbors to provide for her family. Water “should” be the first thing on her mind when she wakes up and when she goes to sleep. Water is what she must worry about when she considers her children’s health or her relationship with her husband, who may strike her if he comes home to a late or uncooked meal, unwashed clothes, or empty jerry cans when he wanted a bath. In theory, therefore, a woman’s role is defined as domestic. But her domestic role is not only the result of theoretical conceptions of duty; it is also established by example. It is difficult for her and for her community to be open to women’s civil participation or partnership in decision-making when, in practice, she has always needed to spend six hours a day fetching water.
Water can never be plentiful enough, which means that a woman’s responsibilities are by definition never completed. Her time is, without exception, never truly her own. Her participation in development, in community affairs, or in building or re-building outside of her individual home, is therefore impossible. She is disempowered by her community’s greatest act of discrimination: the designation of its most essential daily struggle to the female sex.
Conscious Social Change
Personal Growth Sabbatical
Intentional Fast for Darfur
Journeys to Rwanda
The Transformational Capacity Project
Trauma Healing in Haiti
Women Making Mischief
Asking the Poor for Money: Creative Fundraising in Rural Villages
Mixing Cultures: A Job Interview in Rwanda
Literacy: A Love Story
April Showers Bring May Flowers
When communities get smart, girls don’t drop out
On Love. And Shooting B roll of a Filmmaker.
Genocide Commemoration: A guilty conscience on April 9th
Change Agent Profile: Perpétue, People of Love
Teaching Basic English to Vulnerable Women
Water and Women’s Disempowerment
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