2012 in review

The WordPress.com stats software prepared a 2012 annual report for this blog. Although 2012 was a…slow…year for posts, lots is cooking, so please keep reading and checking in for new writing about research in Rwanda and trauma writing all over.

Here’s an excerpt:

The London Olympic Stadium is 53 meters high. This blog had about 470 visitors in 2012. If every visitor were a meter, this blog would be 9 times taller than the Olympic Stadium – not too shabby.

Click here to see the complete report.




, , , ,

There’s no way of getting around the emotional fact of missing people. When I’m in Rwanda, I miss my family and friends back in the US, and when I’m here, I miss my Rwandan family and friends. I’m so grateful for technology that facilitates communication between my two worlds.

There are other aspects of life that I miss from one place when I’m in the other. Now that I am back in Texas, I am reminded that I love to drive. I enjoy my shower and hot and cold running water. I am especially happy to sleep in my bed again. I like being more in control of what I eat.

But there is another complicated part of Rwandan life that I miss very much: house facilitation. This is the politically correct term for household help, commonly known as “house boys” or “house girls.” I’m torn on the issues surrounding house facilitation, and this post in an exploration of multiple perspectives.

First, some background: In Rwanda, house facilitators are very common. Working adults most often employ a house facilitator. If there are children in the household, sometimes there is more than one facilitator. Even single working adults have a facilitator. In general, the facilitator shops, cooks, cleans, and watches over the house. They have a room for themselves, though often this is rudimentary. They are fed and earn a low wage.

Facilitators can have a variety of backgrounds. I have had experience with some who are completely illiterate, an unfortunate long-term result of the Habyarimana regime which did not educate many Rwandans. Some of these facilitators spend their earnings on drugs or alcohol. However, I’ve also known facilitators who use the position to transition into a more productive life: some have gone on to trade school or into the formal education system and are now in careers that enable them to earn better wages.

I’ve never observed a facilitator being treated in ways that would violate their human rights, though I assume that this is a possibility. These types of human rights violations are illegal in Rwanda. I have seen some “bosses,” as they are known, who have been uncaring, which of course falls into grey moral and legal areas. Employers are supposed to care for facilitators’ health, but there are differing standards for care. For example, the facilitator of the other house in our compound had taken ill in July, and needed medical attention. I don’t know the full story, of course, but I do know that Julius’s household took responsibility for getting this young man, probably in his late 20s, to the hospital, where he stayed two nights. We had our facilitator stay overnight with him and bring him meals. We also bought him sheets and a blanket for his hospital bed and paid for his medical expenses. When he felt stronger, he took his severance pay and travelled home to another province.

So especially because facilitators are part of a vulnerable underclass, I am especially grateful for them. I couldn’t live on my own in Rwanda because I don’t know how to navigate a charcoal stove and have trouble wringing out my own jeans, much less bed sheets.

But here’s also what I know: Although I could learn these aspects of living in Rwanda, my time and energy are better spent on other activities, ones that are less common. My skill set, what I can bring to Rwanda, includes editing, strategic planning, resource management, research, and writing.

The painful paradox is that I can share these skills more when I rely on the system of household facilitation.

And here in the US, a large part of me wishes that I could afford household facilitation so that I could expend my energies on the same less common skills that I share in Rwanda. In other words, I wish I could afford to pay someone else to cook and clean my house so that I could write, study, teach, and research more.

Frankly, a large part of me is horrified at myself: Really? If your life isn’t simple enough to maintain on your own, then, girl, you need to make some big changes. You don’t even have a big house. How can you be so lazy? Put that computer down and go wash some dishes already.

But there is another voice, too, one that sounds less critical. It’s my writer self, the part of me that emerged last December out of fear that I wouldn’t complete my dissertation and therefore the PhD. This part of myself, my heart of hearts, emerged and demanded space in my life. So I pretty much stopped cooking: my boys and I eat decently healthy prepared meals and a lot of sandwiches. And my house? A friend used to describe my mother as a casual housekeeper, and I am following in mom’s footsteps.

But not only does writing and the other higher skill set give me greater pleasure, but this voice reminds me that it might be a more responsible use of my education. So I write now, and glance over to the suitcases that need to be put back into storage, the clothes that need to be washed, and the sinkful of dirty dishes that won’t wash themselves.

Is this elitism? Entitlement? Ya, maybe. Is it resource management? Ya, that too. In an economic perspective, you shouldn’t pay a Vice President of Communication to proofread reports; you pay copyeditors to do that. And of course, these less-skilled employees should be treated fairly, morally, and helped to develop their own higher level skills.

On a personal level, these issues get entangled with gender construction and what it means to be a woman and what “women’s work” is. They also grind against what kind of mother I choose to be.

And as a Rwandan friend noted, this issue is rooted US immigration policy as well: He said that there are so many foreigners who would jump at the chance to use household facilitation as a stepping stone to a better future. By extension, when the US restricts immigration so tightly, one of the results is that we put a stranglehold on the highly educated and skilled middle class who, like me, can’t afford the luxury of household help.

It’s not easy to resolve any of these issues. The best that I can do now is to do what I can with what time and energy I have. There’s just never enough, and something always gives.

Coming and going


, , ,

Rwanda pulls me inside out, upside down, sideways (several times) all the while pushing me forward, backward, high, low, never to return to the same starting place.

There are many aspects of my life here that I can’t write about publicly, and these all have to do with my Rwandan family. Some parts of life should and will be private. So if you’re related to me by blood or by choice, your presence here is limited.

This has been my third trip to Rwanda. I’ll always be able to say that I was in Rwanda when men holding hands in public was very common. This beautiful outward expression of friendship is slowly caving into the unfortunate perception that such a gesture is sexualized. I see the culture here inexorably Westernizing, and this is heart-breaking.

The capital has developed so much in the last three years, and my life has changed along with it. My relationship with this country grows more and more complex. I keep reminding myself that knowing a place means knowing all about it, its strengths and weaknesses, the ways it brings me sublime pleasure, and the ways it breaks my heart. And by “a place,” I mean people here. And by “people here,” I mean my loved ones.

This trip has been focused on two of my strengths: planning and communication. (Of course there’s loving, but that is always a focus.) These strengths—all three, really—have gotten quite a workout here. Strategic planning, project planning, stop-gap planning, life planning, research planning—take your pick; I’ve done them all in the last month.

Communicating here is sometimes a challenge with my limited Kinyarwandan. But I love African English. I love the way that here the long a is not as sharp, not as closed in the throat as it is in the US. I love that today, in an ordinary conversation with a Rwandan colleague, he used the verb avail. Making myself understood is sometimes a syntactic challenge; I follow the constructions of Rwandan English most of the time here, and then I forget how to speak my own native English. And weird sayings come to mind: is it lickety split or lickety spit? Who cares? And why does this phrase pop into my mind here in these last few weeks?

One could argue that sometimes, communication is not my strength.

But when it comes to important aspects of communication, especially some of the rhetorical aspects, I’m on top of that.

And in the past ten days or so, Rwanda does not seem exotic. Instead, it just feels like where I am, like home. I forget to notice the differences in the colors of people’s skin; I forget to notice how strange Kinyarwandan sounds to my ears. If I really know the context, I can get most of what is said anyway (surprising some people). And I slip into we and us when I talk about some aspects of Rwandan society. This last part is something I keep an eye on—over-identification is probably just as dangerous as neocolonialism.  It’s just that life here sometimes feels ordinary, even while I know this is an extraordinary experience.

Part of me feels so much at home here, as I’ve written about before. This relationship with Rwanda and Rwandans continues to puzzle, challenge, and motivate me.

Is it possible to have one foot in Texas and the other in Rwanda? Watch me.