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Archive for February, 2011

Water A Key Lever for Advancing Women’s Rights

Monday, February 28, 2011

On March 8th, the 100th Anniversary of International Women’s Day, celebrations are taking place worldwide to highlight both the progress made for women’s rights and the distance we have yet to go. We must also not forget another day that will take place later this month honoring an issue of grave importance to women. March 22 is World Water Day. Unfortunately, the explicit and critical link between women’s wellbeing and their access to clean water often goes unnoticed.

Globally, women make up more than half of the 884 million people who have no access to safe water. They also represent those most often tasked with daily collection. According to UNWomen, on average women travel 10-15 kilometers or 6-9 miles every day, spending eight hours or more collecting water then hand carrying it to their home. Most women can only carry one large jerrycan, each of which holds 5 gallons or 20 liters. This water must then serve an average of 8 to 10 people in a household daily for drinking, cooking, washing clothes and dishes, bathing and cleaning their home. Compare this ½ – 1 gallon usage per person per day, to the 69. 5 gallons per capita use of water in America, including 11.6 gallons for a shower, 15 gallons for clothes washing, 18.5 gallons for flushing toilets, 9.5 gallons lost through leaks, and 14.7 gallons for all other uses per day.

According to the World Health Organization and UNICEF Joint Monitoring Program for Water Supply and Sanitation, girls under 15 years of age are twice as likely as boys the same age to be given the responsibility to collect water. Girls who are tasked with the collection of water in place of their mothers miss part of their school day. Overtime, they can fall behind and eventually drop out. Women who manage this task for their family, give up hours of productivity that might have been spent in other ways to enhance a family’s economic wellbeing. Water collection thus continues to perpetuate the vulnerability of women, undermining the economic and educational opportunities that may exist to advance their wellbeing.

Even more unfortunate is the violence inherent in the process of collection. Because it takes so many hours to reach and return with water, many women leave before dawn and travel in the dark to get to a water access point early. Some water access points serve thousands of surrounding villagers. Arriving early means women can avoid the crowds that often break into violence as individuals compete for access. It also means that they are more likely to collect clear water from shallow creeks or hand-dug wells before it gets muddied with dozens of others coming for collection. However, traveling alone through the dark also leaves women more susceptible to sexual assault. On the other hand, returning later than expected from collecting water is often a trigger for domestic violence as husbands await their morning tea or bath. Pregnant women carrying heavy water jugs are more likely to suffer a miscarriage. Women who are blind, elderly, disabled or too sick to carry water on their own are often forced to trade sex for men to deliver it for them when they cannot afford to pay for the service.

Not only is the collection process racked with violence and exploitation, but the water itself is a source of harm, spreading dangerous water-borne diseases. Globally, diarrhea is the second leading cause of death among children under five. And it is the lack of clean drinking water and proper hygiene and sanitation that are the primary causes of diarrhea. Safe water is also essential for reducing maternal mortality and infant mortality rates.

While women remain those most deeply impacted by the lack of access to clean water, unfortunately, women are least likely to control or manage water infrastructure. Yet, women represent the most critical stakeholders with a vested interest in resolving this issue. No country can deny the statistics that when economic opportunity is given to women, development soars. In a speech given by UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan on International Women’s Day, March 8, 2003, he stated, “Study after study has shown that there is no effective development strategy in which women do not play a central role. When women are fully involved, the benefits can be seen immediately: families are healthier and better fed; their income, savings and reinvestment go up. And what is true of families is also true of communities and, in the long run, of whole countries.”

How is it not recognized then how much economic development is hindered if women spend 4-8 hours each day collecting water? Further, water ventures can provide women with a viable and sustainable income, and an opportunity to serve as a change agent within her community serving the marginalized. The World Health Organization estimates that depending upon the region, for every $1 invested in water and sanitation it yields an economic return of between $3 and $34. Ensuring women’s participation and opportunity to design and manage water ventures allows them to ensure their own protection and livelihood.

Take Global Grassroots venture “Hard Workers” for instance. In a rural community called Gahanga on the outskirts of mountainous Kigali, a team of 19 women led by Seraphine Hacimana have been particularly troubled by the long journey they must embark upon each day to collect water. Rwanda is a spectacular, mountainous country. And in Gahanga, like many parts of Rwanda, women rarely have a water source near the home, so they must walk 3-4 miles down a hillside to collect water at a dirty valley creek. In addition to the disease and poor hygiene associated with poor water access, many of those who were left physically disabled by the war and those who are elderly, blind, pregnant or HIV positive are too weak to make this journey. In this area, a service has sprung up where local men agree to deliver water on bicycles for a fee. But if you cannot pay, as one woman told us: “Your children are coming home from school for lunch and you have no water to cook them rice and beans. And so, you do what you have to do.” Many women end up having to exchange sex water delivery, just to feed their children.

With our social entrepreneurship training and an initial $2600 grant, Seraphine and her team designed their own non-profit water solution. They installed a water tank next to a church within close walking distance of this remote community to collect and purify rainwater from the roof during the rainy season. In the dry season, they pay for clean water to be delivered by truck from the city. Hard Workers supplies 100 households (totaling between 800 – 1000 people) with fresh clean water daily. The revenue generated from those who can afford to pay, ensures the most vulnerable always have water for free. Further, the team uses any profits to pay orphan school fees and provide annual health insurance for vulnerable women and their families. Three years later, the project is operating sustainably and preparing to expand to three additional sites to serve another 3000 people, protecting even more women from sexual exploitation. The team members, some even widows in their 70s, sleep side-by-side in shifts each night to protect their tanks from people stealing their water. The venture has become so valuable to the community that even some of the village men have asked to join the project, and occasionally when a woman is sick, their husbands will take their shift guarding the tanks at night.

These women have become established leaders in their community and have begun to make a major difference in a critical issue facing vulnerable women. Women from as far as three hours away have walked to visit the team to see how they were able to initiate their project alone. Project leader Seraphine has spoken on the radio about water issues, has been invited to Kenya to share their solution and is now seen as the first to bring development to their remote community. But what is most remarkable about this team is that of its 19 members, only 7 are actually literate. And Seraphine is a 39 year old mother of 7 children with only a 1st grade education. Once living on the edge of survival, Seraphine is now a community change leader.

Though it may take longer to combat the patriarchal, cultural institution that essentially holds women in servitude to the process of collecting water, the act itself may prove an opportunity for intervention on other issues. Water access points where women gather make assembling and sensitizing large groups remarkably easy. Take “Have a Good Life” for example, another Global Grassroots water venture located within a hillside community of Kigali. Similar to the issues faced by Hard Workers, vulnerable women in Have a Good Life’s community have been exploited in exchange for water delivery adding to the prevalence of HIV. Further, contaminated water sources have contributed to high incidences of cholera, typhoid and diarrhea. A baseline issue study among a sample of the population revealed: 95 percent said they had suffered from diseases related to unclean water, 81.4 percent had traded sex for water, 100 percent knew someone infected by HIV while trading sex for water, yet only 25 percent had taken HIV tests. Have a Good Life extended a municipal pipeline from a more populated area and constructed a water access point to bring water into their hillside community. Not only do they now serve 200 families (1600 – 2000 people) with clean water, they use their water access point as a location where they can speak to women about proper hygiene as well as HIV/AIDS testing.

When wells are dug near clinics, health care providers can gain access more easily to women and children when they come to collect water, allowing for more regular check-ups. In South Africa and Malawi, Roundabout Water Solutions is constructing wells with water pumps fueled by merry-go-rounds at schools. These PlayPumps ensure girls to remain in schools and use the power of play to fill a tank for use by the school and community. Painted billboards are hung on the overhead tank containing awareness messages, allowing the water access site to become educational as well.

Water is simply a key lever for advancing women’s rights and opportunity. Any group eager to eliminate violence against women ought to consider advocating for women’s access to clean water. Women consistently face a risk of violence in the process of collecting water from sexual violence, sexual exploitation and domestic violence. Further, a lack of access to clean water has long been a driver of poverty as well. Not only does water collection rob women of a half day of productivity, but girls who participate on behalf of their family also fall behind in school and are at higher risk of dropping out all together. In contrast, women who manage their own clean water access not only ensure the most vulnerable women and girls are no longer subjected to such violence, but the ability of women to lead and control water ventures provides women with greater confidence, agency, leadership and engagement in community as change agents. Our experience has shown that one successful experience as a change agent is quickly followed by expansion and/or an iterative problem-solving process where women take on other challenges facing women in their communities. Women not only will have more courage, but they will also have greater access to resources to do so. Women-managed clean water access ensures girls’ access to education will be protected and the next generation will have even greater opportunities.

The link between women and water is clear. In order to achieve the Millennium Development Goal (MDG) of halving the number of people without access to water and sanitation by 2015, women must be engaged in all aspects of planning, design, implementation and management of water infrastructure. Water innovation should focus not just on large scale municipal and commercial water infrastructure, but as equally on individual and single-household usage tools that are immediately applicable, affordable and accessible to women in a developing country context. While other MDGs commit to advancing the rights and wellbeing of women, it can serve to make explicit the critical link between women’s rights, wellbeing and opportunity and their access to water. Further, UNWomen in its commitment to advancing women’s wellbeing must consider women’s access to clean water a critical human right that can serve as a potent lever for advancing women’s well-being on many other levels. Finally, global NGOs and environmental agencies committed to protecting clean water must not ignore the vested interests of women, and the knowledge base they represent in terms of the location, quality and reliability of water sources. Engaging women in the design, management and innovation around access, movement, utilization, conservation and treatment of water is essential.

Women want and deserve safe, easy, affordable access to clean water without violence, exploitation or a trade-off with other forms of economic or educational pursuits. More funding, training, and opportunity is needed to ensure locally-initiated water ventures can be advanced by grassroots women.

The Kalangala Islands in Lake Victoria

Friday, February 25, 2011

Our first stop on this Uganda scoping trip was Kalangala, the largest town on the Ssese Islands in Lake Victoria. Stephen, the president of SHED (Ssese Health Effort for Development), submitted a comment on the Global Grassroots website in 2009 and was ecstatic to finally welcome us, the first Americans to visit their project. From the instant he met us at the dock after the 3½ hour ferry, he spoke rapidly about their work and the challenges facing the fishing villages on the islands. We talked our way along dirt roads, winding slowly on his motobike, until we reached his office where he spread out pictures and began describing HIV orphans, anti-domestic violence meetings, and the solar drying racks they financed for fisherwomen.

Kalangala (Kah-LAHN-gah-lah) is home to 50,000 people that Stephen described as a hodgepodge of tribes, rebels, and migrants from all over Uganda.  Former child soldiers from the North and others journey to the island, anticipating wealth in the fishing industry, but are usually disappointed. Although most people manage to scrape by fishing and in shoreline villages at boat landing sites, life is difficult. Nearly a quarter of the population has HIV. The situation is not helped by the gender ratio (almost 3 men for every woman, according to SHED), and the consequent spouse sharing and prostitution. Of the island’s 3,000 orphans, many are HIV positive. Although wives are scarce, gender-based violence is the rule. It even trickles down to children: Stephen showed us a photo of an eleven-year old girl raped and impregnated by her father. I was afraid to ask her HIV status.

Visiting SHED felt like meeting Global Grassroots’ Ugandan cousin. Listening to them describe the importance of participatory development and working with stakeholders felt like talking into the mirror. They invite community members to meetings to discuss local issues and encourage them to develop solutions. “Sometimes, their ideas are just brilliant,” one of their leaders said. “The community members know what they need, you know?” Oh, yeah. They have helped students form clubs at schools to promote human rights, they work with police to respond appropriately to rape reports, and they provide mosquito nets to HIV positive orphans. They took us to visit a landing site where, after the women asked, they funded construction of racks to dry fish, which increases profit. Now twenty of the community’s most vulnerable women share the racks and have improved their standard of living. I forgot my camera cord in Rwanda, but there will be plenty of pictures posted when we return!

There is so much more to say about SHED, but we just checked into our hostel and need to head out to a meeting with the Program Director of the Uganda Women’s Network. Hoping this goes equally well!

Uganda Ho!

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

This Thursday, Caitlin and I will travel from Rwanda to Uganda.  I’m so excited –- both personally and for Global Grassroots’ upcoming expansion into Uganda, our northern neighbor.  We’ll spend a couple of days in Kampala and then head to Gulu, further north.  The Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) periodically ravaged northern Uganda from 1989 until 2007, when Joseph Kony, leader of the LRA, fled to the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Our trip will have several purposes.  We’ll learn as much as we can about northern Uganda’s current situation: What has happened to Kony’s former child soldiers?  What has happened to the girls once forced to serve as sex slaves to his army?  How are women involved in the rebuilding process?  What and where is the greatest need?  What organizations are working in the area, and who’s doing what?

We will also meet with a dozen potential partner organizations.  Caitlin and I will learn about their program structure and commitment to participatory development, and we’ll share the Global Grassroots philosophy, mission, and model.

In short, this is a scoping trip.  If all goes well, Global Grassroots will continue the dialogue with our most promising potential partners and launch an Academy for Conscious Change in northern Uganda this summer.

I can’t wait to see Uganda.  I really, really can’t wait to visit all the amazing organizations we’ve crammed into our trip’s schedule.  We’re going to learn so much both from their leaders and from their beneficiaries.

A Saddening Statistic

Monday, February 14, 2011

Is domestic violence legal in Rwanda? Absolutely not. Unfortunately, in this case the law is more progressive than customary practice.

The team “Build a Family” witnessed overwhelming amounts of gender-based violence in their community, both between couples and between patriarchs and female domestic help.* Global Grassroots is currently helping them implement their envisioned solution. Community members will change their traditional mindsets through workshops on laws and ethics of abuse. “Build a Family” will also form an association for domestic workers to advocate to their employers. By creating a sewing cooperative, domestic workers and wives will gain the confidence or economic power that often ends the violence. (A husband is less likely to beat his wife if she contributes to the family’s income.)

*Many Rwandans support the economy by providing employment to young men and women as housekeepers, guards and nannies. The worker is expected to live at the house and is rarely permitted time off to see friends or family. Typical salary is 8000 RFW ($13.34) per month for a nanny or housekeeper.

As part of our goal to increase the efficacy and sustainability of Global Grassroots projects, we helped “Build a Family” create a survey to evaluate the current state of gender-based violence in their community. Their planned trainings will emphasize the most relevant topics as identified by the survey.

Sixty-five percent of wives reported that their husbands had recently beaten them. 100% of wives felt that women are undervalued in their community. Ninety-five percent of domestic workers feared being raped by their employers, and 79% reported suffering from daily verbal or emotional abuse. The team surveyed local authorities, who reported that it is common for domestic workers and wives to be thrown out of the house one evening, without a place to stay, after offending their boss/husband. If life is bad in a house with one dominant male and small bit of his salary, imagine life on the street with many single males and no money.

We explained how to tally results and gave a crash course on calculating percentages. The numbers made me cringe. For me, a woman from a liberal environment who never doubted that men and I deserve the same respect, the worst result was the opinion of the Rwandan women.

  • Does a husband have the right to beat his wife: Yes- 0% No- 100%

But our now survey-savvy team followed up:

  • In what circumstances do you think your husband has a right to beat you? (You may mark more than one answer.)
    • 10% When you do not respect his orders
    • 0% When you come home late
    • 0% When you have wasted money or property
    • 90% When you cheat your husband

Eighteen out of the twenty women surveyed said that their husband had a right to beat them if they were unfaithful. How deep those patriarchal roots run.

From left: Team Leaders Rahema, Jeanine, & Vienny, fellows Caitlin & Christina, GG intern Josiane. Meeting to create a survey to assess domestic violence in a Rwandan community.
Team leaders Jeanine and Vienny take notes at a training on legislation about domestic violence, equal inheritance, and polygamy among other misunderstood laws. Five team members were trained, and they will now train 20 couples and 20 female domestic helpers in their community.

Snapshots of Life in Kigali: On Display

Monday, February 14, 2011

I went to a boxing match.

Our friend Eric convinced me; he’s friends with an American woman here who runs a boxing club for local kids, which is funded by the boxing-fitness classes for expats that she organizes.

Awesome, right?

A dozen fights were scheduled; $4 admission included a free soda or beer.  I sat down with my Coke and watched Rwandan kids punch each other in the face.  I was sitting in the middle of a huge group of expats in white lawn chairs.

(I am trying to say here: it was weird.)

I stayed for a few fights and walked to the bus stop to head home.  I got a jump seat next to the driver, which I like because of the wide-windshield, aquarium view of the world at dusk.  I read a chapter of Eat, Pray, Love – Liz Gilbert is in India and has this cutting realization about her own character flaws – and I felt that emotional high you get from hearing a moment of your own story from someone else’s articulate mouth.  The bus raced the settling darkness, brown streetlight after brown streetlight.

Sometimes Kigali reminds me so suddenly of its beauty (look, it says. look at me) and I just fly on the strength of that loveliness.

But then.  At every stop, every Rwandan on the street stared in at the almost-white girl, sitting on display with her knees tucked up in the front of the bus.  I was no longer quite so airborne.  One stare, two stares, ten stares, twenty-second-stares… reminded me of the trade-off for my front row seat.  I felt much, much better about the boxing, though.

-Christina

The Stigma of Mental Illness

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

One afternoon I was walking to the bus with Christina and our co-worker Marlene.  A man with what was probably schizophrenia approached Marlene and started talking in a garbled way, asking for money. Marlene, who in her words “loves to talk to the people,” chatted with him for a while, probing his story, before we gave him a coin. He ran away with a giddy hitch in his step. The villagers around us laughed at his departing image and bombarded Marlene with questions that basically all asked, “Why did you talk to that fool?”

One of our newest Global Grassroots teams is a group of mothers who started a boarding school for children with disabilities– to our knowledge, the only institution of its kind in the country. As a budding psychologist I was excited to see the Rwandan equivalent of special education.

Packed-mud rooms contain bunks for the children, who have ample space to play outside on the cement and grass.  Uphill, a cooking hut leaks charcoal smoke, and adjacent sits a wooden structure where children and teachers eat beans and rice. As I approached the school, an adorable deaf girl in her blue uniform dress spotted me.  Grabbing my hand, she pulled me on a tour of her own bunk room, small and bare classroom, and squat toilet, where she crinkled and held her nose, yanking me quickly past.  She dropped me at the well-decorated and electrified office of the director.  During our meeting, an older girl with mental retardation opened the door, plopped down on the couch and struck up conversation with our translator for a few minutes before she was gone, as abruptly as she’d come.

On our way out, the director scooped up a crying infant with a deformed face and a mass the size of a baseball over one temple.  A child with withered legs was propped in a wheelchair, his head leaning listlessly to one side, his eyes not recognizing our smiles.  My original tour guide introduced me to her friend, a girl who motioned towards her lips that she couldn’t speak, while a boy with an adult-looking face and a giant smile streaked by me in energetic laps around the lawn.  They are all classmates.  Diagnoses would be difficult to translate into English, but our co-worker Marlene was spared: we’ve been told there are only seven psychologists in the country, so most of these rural children have never been labeled.

Even if clinical services were available, I am doubtful that parents would willingly take their children. A mother who bears a child with a disability is usually ostracized or even rejected by her family. They might say that she is possessed by evil spirits and blame her for giving birth to a child who will consume the family’s resources and never contribute. She may be forced to work a full-time job and simultaneously care for her child, without help.  The directors of the school– all mothers of at least one child with special needs– applied to be Global Grassroots social change agents because they want to help other women in their position. They hope to do educational outreach to families to teach them how to care for their child with special needs, and maybe even love him/her as their other children.  They plan to teach sign language to mothers of deaf children, and their community awareness campaign will work to dispel the myths.

Last, to combat the notion that these children and their mothers only drain family resources, the team will set up a small grocery store. Mothers who face severe maltreatment from their families will collectively manage the store and market their home-grown produce there. Through the store they will generate income, which the team hopes will raise their familial status and put an end to the ostracizing. It even solves the problem of childcare while at work: Their children will socialize at the store, and those who are able will restock shelves, thereby dispelling the myth that they are unproductive members of an unsympathetic society.

Leonice, president of the school for children with special needs, and a young child with a tumor over his temple.
The girl on the left gave me a tour of the dorms, classrooms, and bathrooms, and then introduced me to her friend on the right, who is also deaf.

Water is NOT all around

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Love is “urukundo” in Kinyarwanda.  Kamonyi district’s “Team of Love” consists of a beautiful young woman named Christine, two elderly, wrinkled ladies, one of the ladies’ son, and a local government official.  The inspiration for their name comes from the group’s love for their village community, despite its myriad problems.  They seek to alleviate malnutrition, domestic violence, miscarriages, lack of female personal development, school truancy among children, inequality in education levels between boys and girls, and a gender disparity in local government…  If these goals seem overly ambitious, the solution seems frighteningly simple.

You’ve heard about ‘water in Africa’ a thousand times, and maybe you’ve even donated to dig a well or two. But did you ever imagine in what deep and varied ways that dollar improved individual lives? Here is a snapshot of the ripple effect of water scarcity in one community: the mountaintop village of Kamonyi, Rwanda.

Team of Love told us that women must walk an hour or more down the mountainside to fetch water for cooking, drinking, and bathing.  Walking two to three strenuous hours for water leaves less time to complete other household chores, and if a husband comes home to a dirty house or dinner just getting started, he often beats his wife.  (A team from Nyamirambo, a community closer to Kigali, told different stories of husbands leaving their wives for other, more hygienic women because their own wives couldn’t usually sacrifice the family’s water for their personal baths.)

In addition to serving as a trigger for domestic abuse, the arduous trek down the mountain and back up is a health risk for many women.  Carrying jerry cans stacked on their heads for hours causes severe migraines for some. Elderly, sick, and even pregnant women all make the journey, and a few expectant mothers have suffered miscarriages.

The scarcity of water also causes malnutrition. Crops die without sufficient irrigation, leaving less food, less variety in food, and less income to buy diverse food.  The kitchen gardens where women grow fresh vegetables wither in the dry season.  Others foods are cut out of families’ diets because their preparation requires water.  Children lack those vitamins and eat many French fries (called ‘chips’).  Potatoes require little water to grow and can easily be fried instead of boiled.  Cooking with oil instead conserves water but is less healthy. (Another team is educating their community about nutrition and encouraging members to grow vitamin-rich foods like spinach. Rwandan children used to munching crispy French fries are in for a rough change!)

The Team of Love explained why their children often miss school. Kids must bring water to school on “cleaning days” (since there is no running water at the school to clean the building). If a child arrives empty-handed because her family could not spare water that week, she is sent home. She is also sent home if she fails the bi-weekly checks of bodily cleanliness and a thoroughly washed uniform. (The hygiene checks help to prevent the spread of disease.)

Some children frequently miss the morning part of school because their mothers ask them to come help fetch water.  It’s usually the girls who are absent from morning lessons, “because,” the team told us, “girls are more obedient than boys.” (They said it, not us!) The girls fall behind in their lessons, are eventually held back a grade, and ultimately become the oldest or biggest in the class.  Embarrassed, they finally stop attending altogether.  The water problem leads to a profound gender disparity in education level.  After leaving school, girls grow up to inherit the same claims on, and expectations for, their time and efforts.  Women struggle up a mountainside with jerry cans of water strapped to their back and balanced on their heads while a community meeting or business association gathering takes place back in town, attended only by men.  Now, in addition to being less educated, a wife is more ignorant than her husband about life beyond the hill and kitchen. She depends on him for information, and her ignorance triggers verbal berating that accompanies the physical abuse, leaving her battered and belittled— his superiority reaffirmed yet again.  Women will reclaim their time, their dignity, and their leadership potential when the Team of Love builds a water access point in the center of town.

A person who suffers abuse is more likely to solve problems with violence, herself.  The team ended the meeting by telling us that one woman was imprisoned because her child misbehaved and she responded with corporal punishment (all too prevalent in Rwanda).  This time, the beating was too severe, and sadly, the child died.  Along with the rest of the community, the team would mourn his death at the funeral the following week.  With all the tragedy in Kamonyi, their dedication to a new water access point is bringing much needed hope. But, as they pointed out, a water supply will solve problems, not change minds.  Violence in families is still widely accepted, and the moment a pipe breaks the beatings will resume. So, they’ve developed a plan to host community workshops on the ethics and legality of domestic violence.  Their goals are numerous and ambitious because they recognize the complexity of their community’s problem, as only they can. These women may not be experts in water chemistry, but they are experts in their own experiences, and making use of that knowledge to develop a comprehensive solution may be the solution in itself.

Children from Kamonyi. Blue and khaki are the school uniforms. (The requirement of a school uniform keeps kids in school for 6 months longer, on average.)
This is a water access point like the one Team of Love hopes to build. This spiket was constructed by Have a Good Life, a Global Grassroots team in Nyamirambo.
One of the leaders of Team of Love with her three grandaughters. She is working so that they will stay in school and not bear her burden of carrying water for miles up the mountain.

Personal Inspiration

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

I’m never sure of Jeanine’s age. Some days I think she’s twenty-eight, but ask me next week and I’ll guess thirty-seven. When Jeanine listens closely to someone, her expression is severe; she looks close to tears. But then she’ll suddenly grin this huge, huge smile. Or she’ll open her mouth to explain something to you, and her whole face will animate. You’ll look into her eyes and think: Wow, all I want is to be best friends with this woman.

Jeanine is one of the team leaders of “Build a Family,” a Global Grassroots project fighting domestic violence (and people’s mindset about it) within their community in Rwanda’s Nyarugenge District.

But this blog is not about Jeanine. Well, it is, but not in the way you and I might think. It doesn’t fit inside that invisible little bubble of “the personal” that I grew up drawing around each person I met. These are the things that must have really touched you; those are the stories you tell but don’t feel. You were in a bad car accident as a kid? That can fit in the bubble. You witness accidents on your commute to work? Not in the bubble. That guy down the block, the one with the howling dog, was nearly killed by a drunk driver? Probably still not in the bubble.

I interviewed Jeanine recently; Marlene translated and Caitlin took on the role (and all-black outfit) of camerawoman.

Jeanine told me lots about her childhood, her children, and why she believes that Build a Family’s work is important for her community, where abuse (especially of domestic workers) is both widespread and often accepted.  But why is this project important to her? Why did she choose to get involved with this particular issue?  Were she and the other team leaders inspired by particular moments or personal experiences?

No matter how many different ways I asked, Jeanine was confused by this question. What did I mean? she said. I was just willing to help people. We know this is a big problem for our community. All my neighbors know it’s a problem, with many consequences. I just wanted to help people.

In the States, when we ask, “Why did you get involved in this work?” we expect one of the following answers: “I suffered from X myself. My sister was diagnosed with Y. My daughter was a victim of Z.”

In Rwanda, I’m finding that this idea of personal motivation is often wholly irrelevant.

The correct term in Kinyarwanda for your mother’s sister’s daughter is: your sister. Not your cousin. Rwandans are family people. Big, inclusive, extended family people. Maybe this is part of why Jeanine’s concept of “we” is larger than mine. Most of our team members seem to care more broadly – more generously – than I do.   “I got involved in this work because I saw that X was a problem for my community.  My neighbors suffer from Y.  My society is a victim of Z.”

Should I feel ashamed of my contained heart?  Or should I place less trust in our teams’ dedication, because their motivation comes from the plight of sisters eight-times removed?

Neither, is my conclusion. Look wherever you like for drive, for passion. How you come upon an inspiration makes it no more or less real. But do find something to care about, and then act, and base your actions in that place.

-Christina


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