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Archive for May, 2011

Mixing Cultures: A Job Interview in Rwanda

Tuesday, May 31, 2011
I sent my resume to someone before dinner. By bedtime I had an email from someone else who received it via email forward. I replied, and they shot back proposing an interview less than 24 hours later. Wow, things move fast in America. Here it takes at least two re-schedulings (my child is sick, it’s raining) before a meeting can happen. Skype interview at 6pm. In the morning, our car was an hour late so we didn’t leave Kigali until 10. We arrived at the village around 11:30 but the meeting didn’t get started until about 12 because someone was busy and then we had to go carry the benches to sit on. In the next meeting, it wasn’t until we were walking out the door that the women admitted they were way over budget because when they went to buy a megaphone they accidentally bought a microphone, which has lots of cords but no sound, so now they need to buy a speaker and an amplifier. We drive to another village, and the woman there is “coming, coming!” for 45 minutes, so that’s how at 5:40, 20 minutes before my interview, I found myself in the village of Byimana drinking milk (goat’s milk? something funky there) in someone’s living room. At 5:45 we’re walking out and she tells us that she’s cooking us eggs. No, thank you, I have an interview. Oh no, I’m so sorry! Here, just take the eggs (hard-boiled eggs are a common snack)— NO don’t crack them, they’re raw! Raw?! You’re giving us raw eggs? Why? Yes, I’m so sorry, should I cook them? NO DONT COOK THEM, I have to go, I’m sorry. Yes! Your interview, of course. Go, go. But wait! That’s my daughter running towards us with a bag of samosas for us to eat. Wow, what good timing! Let’s eat them together on the hood of your car, which is running, because you have to go. Ok, here, let’s all take two, but oh no wait, we don’t have a napkin to take the samosa from the bag (cultural thing, can’t take food with hands)… what to do what to do, dear, dear… Oh good you have a journal! Please rip some paper from your journal, here let me help… With five minutes to spare we pull out, holding our second samosas. I do the interview by cell phone in the car, and ask the driver to please turn down the radio. Wow.

Twenty minutes before my supposed-to-be-Skype interview, I found myself in someone's living room, two hours from Kigali, drinking milk and trying to deter a woman from giving me various foods. I ended up doing the interview on my cell phone in the car... I'm guessing our jobs next year will be different from this year. At the very least, we'll speak the same language as our co-workers. Also, we'll probably work at an office. Indoors.

Literacy: A Love Story

Monday, May 23, 2011

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.

April Showers Bring May Flowers

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Some flowers of Rwanda.

They’re not all from May.  They’re not all flowers, either.  Please, as Cait and I and our Rwandan co-workers love to say, “be flexible in your mind.”

Orchid in Nyungwe Forest.


Lake Kivu, Kibuye.


Kivu again. Spot the endangered flowering Caitlinicus.


Lake Muhazi, eastern Rwanda.


Nyungwe Forest.


Wild West(ern Rwanda)


these guys smelled like flowers.


Beside Gisakura Waterfall, Nyungwe Forest.


Tea plantations, southwestern Rwanda.


Seeds of Peace guesthouse, Lake Muhazi.

When communities get smart, girls don’t drop out

Sunday, May 15, 2011
Almost one year since we finished college and it’s graduation season again.  We attended a graduation party here, back in September (see Christina’s post), for the elite all-girls school Fawe.  Since then, I’ve realized all the factors that conspire against Rwandan girls who want to graduate. According to a group of primary school teachers we are working with in rural Mahembe, a suspicious number of girls disappear around puberty. In Rwanda this ‘coincidence’ isn’t suspicious at all, and it is reported in rural schools around the country. Christine, the president of the team that calls itself “Perseverance,” explained that girls drop out of school for many reasons related to puberty: they want to escape harassment from boys, menstrual periods are hard to manage away from home, and, just like in the US, teenage girls get pregnant. Christine, Marie-Claudine, and Marcelline noted the inadequate facilities at school for menstruating girls.  There are no sanitation supplies available, unlike in the US where tampons and pads wait neatly next to the sink or in a metal dispenser on the wall.  There is no water for the girls to wash out their rags, clean their stained clothes, or even wash their hands of embarrassing evidence.  There is no place to rest when cramps become unbearable. Most importantly, there is no privacy.  Boys and girls share the same latrines— a mud outhouse with a hole in the ground and a feeble wood-plank door that seems perfectly designed for enterprising boys who spy and squeal while a girl spends extra long in the latrine. The teachers are raising money to build a separate latrine for girls and a private area with a spiket for washing.  They also hope to provide pads every month.* This measure will ensure that girls continue to attend school through menstruation; their goal is to decrease the number of girls who stay home during menstruation to just 40%. But the problem isn’t solved with a few pads and a better bathroom. The teachers know that menstruation isn’t the only reason girls drop out around puberty. Teenage pregnancy is a great concern in this predominantly Christian country.  Rwandan schoolgirls end up pregnant for many of the same reasons as American girls, and for other ones, too. Sometimes they don’t know the link between sex and pregnancy. Other times, they fall prey to “sugar daddies” who offer them candy or spending money in exchange for sex.  In Kigali, sugar daddies are usually well-dressed men with cars. At Mahembe School, they are young boys with bicycle taxis who hang out around the school. These older boys tempt the schoolgirls with coveted fried donuts and rides to and from school. Girls don’t think they can attend school while pregnant, much less with a child, and so after their mistake, they drop out. There were ten such cases last year.

These billboards dot the country, warning against Shuga Dadi. Some girls are lured in by rides or candy, then get pregnant and drop out of school. "Sinigurisha" means "I am not for sale."

Not all who drop out are pregnant. Boys harass girls with mature bodies, and sometimes it’s just easier to stay home. Parents know that this harassment happens, so they take preventative measures. One study of rural schools in Tanzania found that girls’ performance started lagging behind boys’ around puberty because they weren’t allowed outside the home after 6pm and couldn’t participate in group study sessions.** According to the Mahembe teachers, parents don’t see much value in educating girls.  “They think that if she goes to school, she’ll get pregnant and drop out, and then they’ll lose their money [from tuition].” And the loss of money is nothing compared to the loss of family pride. It is not uncommon for a single mother to be beaten by her brothers and kicked out of the house.*** The team’s comprehensive solution includes workshops for girls, taxi-bikers, and parents. They will emphasize to fathers that it is just as important to educate girls as boys, and that their daughter is not guaranteed to “waste” their money by finding a boy and getting pregnant. The pesky taxi-bikers will learn about safe sex, and the girls will be educated on the myriad of issues they face so that they will be better equipped to make good decisions. Christine, Marie-Claudine, and Marcelline are also introducing a reproductive health curriculum for all Mahembe students aged twelve to eighteen. They will partner with the local clinic to hold open public workshops about HIV, promoting condom use. For the girls who have already left school, community social workers are being dispatched to follow their cases and work with the family to re-enroll the daughter. “If people are educated about reproductive health,” a team member told us, “the number of unwanted pregnancies will decrease, and fewer girls will drop out of school.”  Fewer drop-outs means more graduations, more parties, more women in skilled jobs, and one more step towards gender equality. The Stats 73.2%:  US high school completion rate 75%: Rwandan ninth grade completion rate (after 9th grade, education is no longer free) Neither country reported a notable sex difference. I maintain that in Rwanda, there is an inequality in real opportunity for education; more girls would graduate if the system were different and they felt safe at school, were supported by their parents, and understood how to prevent pregnancy. (The US data was taken from the most comprehensive report I could find: High School Drop-out and Completion Rates in the United States: 2007, by the US Department of Education. The Rwandan data was taken from the results of a study by the Ministry of Education, which were published in the government newspaper The New Times on April 22, 2010.)

According to our team, some Rwandan girls don't go to school, even though they want to. They fear harassment from boys, there is no place to wash when they are menstruating, their father believes it is a waste of money, or they have gotten pregnant.

*For a creative, local solution to the exorbitant price of sanitary pads, Sustainable Health Enterprises (SHE) is engineering sanitary napkins out of banana fiber. http://www.sheinnovates.com/ourventures.html **From an interesting paper recommended by a friend: Sommer, M. (2010). “Where the education system and women’s bodies collide: The social and health impact of girls’ experiences of menstruation and schooling in Tanzania.Journal of Adolescence, 33, 521-529. ***This is according to another Global Grassroots team, A Friend Indeed, which provides support to unwed mothers and their stigmatized children.

On Love. And Shooting B roll of a Filmmaker.

Monday, May 9, 2011

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.

Lighting charcoal.

Hanging laundry in front of the house.

Working on a script about GBV on the ABL computer.

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