My Non-Negotiable: A Reflection from Rwanda

21 Oct

by Laura Shrum

Preface: I am a senior International Health major studying abroad in Rwanda.

Being in different cultures you often deal situations that make you uncomfortable to the core. Dealing with these feelings is important – recognizing what bothers you, not acting out of turn for the situation, and later coming to terms with what issue arose. This week I have been struggling to come to terms with a conversation I had with Edward, our day guard. The experience highlights an underlying theme of my stay and my silent battle with culture shock and living in another country.

To be honest my motto is always “go with the flow,” and if you know me you would probably agree that is how I act in almost all situations. If I really don’t want to do something then I just don’t do it – I am excellent at not caving to peer pressure (in my opinion).

This week I had one of my most uncomfortable experiences to date, nothing overt, just a conversation. Edward, our day guard and handy man, asked me some probing questions as I ate breakfast and he ironed some of the boys shirts.

“Why do you always wear a ring Laura?”

“Did you drink beer too yesterday?” (we had had a BBQ at the house) he asked with a very questioning tone

“You are not married?”

“You have a boyfriend, no?”

“Why don’t you have a boyfriend?”

I put together a few short responses and tried to go back to reading the morning news on my phone. I have been subconsciously avoiding him since.

I know Rwandan culture makes conversations much more up front about topics: anything is on the table (similar to what I found in Denmark), but I am a very private person about certain parts of my life and no matter the context or place, these questions will make me very very very uncomfortable. I am fiercely independent, introverted, and love doing things on my own. The tone of voice used to ask the questions made me think that Edward was questioning my age and status without the attachment of a man. I know he is a very nice Rwandan man and has only shown kindness and a desire to be friends. He has shared stories about his life and family struggles with me.

I know I have to step back and accept that it was not malicious, but when something hits your core it is hard to pull away. I didn’t realize how much this conversation had bothered me until I read Kat’s blog post this week.  The patriarchal society and experience of being a foreigner have been underlying in my stay but with my general attitude on life (ridiculously positive), haven’t bubbled to the surface past subconscious observances.

I find being very white in a very dark country honestly amusing as people shout “Muzungu” (foreigner) when I walk by. I see women walking on the streets but it is very much a 25% women 75% men split – although government policy may not dictate inequality, society is still very patriarchal and women are the primary care givers, or under a double burden. Everyone stares as I walk by. Sometimes I stare right back, which seems polite enough, but I always wonder what is behind each stare. What is she doing here? Why is she so young? Complete indifference? A marvel at how easy I could get sunburned?

I completely ignore the “hello, givememoney” response I have received from almost every single child I have passed. I find children trying to touch me annoying; that is something of my Western mindset I will not shake because I know that to them I am not a person, but a novelty. I have gotten used to differences in body space over the last couple years and am fine wherever I am – the personal bubble is very American, but perhaps being viewed as other than a person is the line.

Maybe it is result of living with an awesome bunch of feminism-conscious females last spring or growing up close to the Latino community where I saw gender roles reinforced time and time again. I do not take well to culturally enforced gender roles. It is something that I view must be changed in societies all over the world – gender equality is no joke and is a quintessential tool of development. There is no contestation.

I have never felt so looked at as an object or something other than an independent functioning woman than here. Not even as a checker in the orchard among the migrant laborers. And to be honest it bothers me more than I would like to admit.

I love having four male roommates here; I really don’t mind being the only female in the group.

“The girl with all the boys.” “Are they your boyfriends?” The unspoken question of who I am with or if I am with them all.

It may be funny on the surface when someone comments on my “romantic status” or asks questions that emulate what this said “status” should be. But it is not deep down.

It is something I will not get over.

This may sound terrible but oftentimes people do marry within their own culture. And I can see why – having a commonality on the way you want to feel and be treated in a relationship, the way a culture fundamentally values and views you – is not something easy to overcome. I admire inter-cultural relationships, but I don’t know if yet I can bring myself to one.

It is all about your non-negotiables (albeit in a slightly different context), stated by my dear friend Kat. And I think she is right: you may see differences out there and adapt to many of them, but its human nature to have non-negotiables. And I think I’ve found mine.

My independence. My feelings of self-respect. My privacy. How I expect to be viewed by the opposite gender.

I feel privileged that I am from a society where I can have these non-negotiables because I know many women and men in the world don’t have the same affordance. But this does not change the fact they are non-negotiable for me, even if I am in a culture where they certainly are negotiable.

Culture can be relative. I do not dispute this fact. But I also personally hold a certain set of standards, morals, ethics, be what you name it, which are not relative. The only way I’ve really come to know them is from traveling out of my West Coast bubble, even my American bubble. The cliché is that traveling changes you, but I would say it doesn’t change you; it just lets you realize what makes you grounded and what makes you, you.

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