Stressing the Gear

>> Wednesday, December 29, 2010

"I have a question for our American teacher..."

I stand up, hands clasped together in my small African classroom setting of 8 students and Rwandan translator.

"Do Americans ever sit down and think... about the people of Africa.... and what they're doing to us..."

A puzzled expression crosses my face and I say, " I'm not sure I understand. Can you explain?"

"Of course," says the boy with the best English in the whole camp. "I mean, do Americans ever sit down and think about how they're hurting us?"

"I'm sorry?"

"Because, as Rwandans, we see things on TV that Americans are doing, like oral sex, and we want to imitate it! We want to be like Americans. But this practice, it will kill us!"

[This, sprung from a discussion of the comparably MINOR risk of HIV infection through oral sex, and the fact that Rwanda, as a culture does not traditionally practice, or know of, oral sex.]

Ignoring the desire to ask him what it is he's watching on TV [and the internal desire to kick him in the face], I start to explain that: first off, Americans probably don't realize that oral sex isn't a common place sexual activity. And second-

"But you are KILLING us!"


This December I attended Camp Glow [Girls Leading Our World] and Camp BE [Boys Excelling] for 2 weeks as a facilitator teaching empowerment, life skills and health. CG is a program originally designed by Peace Corps Volunteers in Romania in 1995, and is now the gold star of PC Rwanda, who, still in it's infancy, has no other established program. This year, CG invited about 100 girls and 65 boys to come for a week each to learn about being the future leaders of their country.

While CG and CBE was a learning experience for the kids, it was also a learning experience for me. There are a lot of taboo topics that are simply not discussed in the villages, or topics that cannot be explained due to our limited knowledge of esoteric kinyarwanda terms. Teaching and working with these small groups of students, whose English is good enough to actually discuss such topics, was really enlightening, really encouraging and sometimes really discouraging at the same time; but overall, totally worth the experience.

I spent most of the afternoons going on runs through the valley, trying to work out some of the convictions and beliefs in Rwandan culture. I found that some things can be changed painlessly through simply explanation and discussion [such as: while drinking your friend's blood IS a traditional practice of bonding and brotherhood, it should be discouraged, because yes, you can get sick] while others are just so heavily and stubbornly believed, how can we even BEGIN to make sense of it? [example: Semen makes a girl fat. "No! That's absurd for about 5 reasons. (list all reasons)" "No, no, it's true! It's true! She gets fat! She'll always get fat! It's true!"... A camp-wide irrational argument that lasted a half hour before I threw in the towel]. And aside from that, some of it is just downright shocking [see above mentioned conversation with the "smartest" boy in camp]. I'm not sure yet if there's a point to this blog, other than voicing the notes I scribbled into my margins in between topics and coyly asked questions, just so I wouldn't forget a particularly interesting point one of the students made.

The curriculum

So, let's talk about critical thinking. I'll say it straight out: it doesn't exist here. It just doesn't. You're probably thinking, what? That's silly. Of course it does, you just: think. Critically.

But nope, it doesn't. An example is a game we tried to play that was similar to 20 Questions. Someone has a paper on their back with a way of transmitting HIV. The person has to ask you questions to figure out what their paper says. Doing this with Rwandans was impossible. Because they just couldn't grasp the concept. My partner kept saying, I don't understand. How can I say what it is when I can't see it? It's on my back, I don't know what it says.

It would be super frustrating if it weren't so interesting to witness. It just. doesn't exist. And it's so natural for us. We don't know any other means of thinking. Try teaching an adult or a schooled teenager how to critically think when it's not a natural process for them. They can't. They won't just guess [guessing is silly] because you don't know, how CAN you guess?
Super interesting!

Another interesting belief that I found both with my girls and my boys: We did a game to test the kids knowledge about HIV/Sexual Education. I would read a statement and if they thought it was true, they walked to the True side of the class. If false, to the False side. If undecided, in the middle. Both the boys and girls struggled with the following statements:

Traditional healers/religious leaders in our country have cured AIDS

If a man uses condoms for more than 2 years, he can become infertile.

What's interesting is that the first statement was prefaced with the following statement:

There is no cure for AIDS

and all kids agreed that this was true. When presented with the above mentioned statement about traditional/religious healers curing AIDS, some thought it was definitely true, and others were undecided. Simple deduction would have told us that no cure means no one has cured AIDS, but like I said, critical thinking is nonexistent. The point being that some kids tried to say that Jesus cures AIDS and that they have a friend who has a friend who had AIDS and he prayed a lot and got better. Others believe traditional healers/witchdoctors are rumored to cure AIDS and if you go to them, they'll perform some magick to make it go away.

And let me tell you, it's difficult to sensitively tell an almost completely christian culture that jesus does not heal your HIV/AIDS, but we all did agree that this was a poor form of prevention.

I'm not sure what the logic behind condoms causing infertility was, but perhaps it's just a scary thought of something you don't know enough to trust. Like people who used to think seat belts were deathtraps.

The boys were by far, more curious in their questions. I've heard more about female circumcision [does NOT reduce the risk of HIV transmission, FYI. It actually increases it, while male circumcision reduces the risk by 60%] and "dry sex" than I ever needed [dry sex= drying the woman's vaginal area out with drying agents such as bleach in order to cause more friction for the man. This is a big problem for prostitutes in some parts of Africa. It hugely increases the risk of transmission for a woman.

Some of the interesting standards that I think will take a long time to change are in the gender roles.

When role playing, I asked the boys, what if you are married, and you find your wife is HIV+?

"I will leave her"

What if you are married, and you find out that you are HIV+? What will your wife do?
"We will support each other"

I tried to encourage some debate with this, about why the wife should have to stay with him if he would leave her in the same situation but their answers didn't waver much. Too soon maybe.

I also heard some scary stories, such as: A man and woman are about to be married, and as is suggested in Rwanda, they go to get tested for HIV together. The man is HIV+ but does not tell his wife. He begs the doctor to give him a negative result. The doctor then tests them and comes back, and says that the man is not positive, but his WIFE is.

They also say [they... those village gossips who herald myths and nonsense through the generations] that if you drink fanta [specifically, coke] or milk, it will help you have a negative test result.

My Rwandan facilitator/translator brought up an interesting point about STDs. HIV testing is at least fairly common knowledge for people who will be married, but STDs are still creeping along in the shadows, I think. We were looking at Syphilis, I think, and one of the symptoms if untreated is death. Especially since a lot of people don't exhibit any symptoms at all until it's too late, we discussed how this might correlate to so-called "poisoning" in the villages. To this day, when you order a fanta or a drink at a shop or restaurant, they won't open it until it's placed in front of you, so that they cannot be accused of poisoning it. It is a rampant belief that people are regularly poisoned. Even well-educated missionaries I know believe that this exists everywhere. I'm a little more skeptical. I don't think you're going to get poisoned for shaming the village old lady. But it's so common for people to drop dead that they all claim poisoning! Maybe all this poisoning business is actually a late-stage case of untreated Syphilis. Think about that, Rwanda.

Moving out of health,
Gender roles fell into our Decision Making session as well. The boys were giving situations on slips of paper and they had to go through the decision making process step by step and then make a decision. This is to encourage ACTUAL thought processes while making important decisions. Sometimes, the most basic decisions are based on someone just telling you to do it. If you're waiting at a bus stop and a bus pulls up, a man will continually yell it's destination to the SAME GROUP OF PEOPLE. and you'd think these people are standing at a bus stop with their OWN destination in mind, but I swear, if he stands there for only 30 seconds yelling REMERA REMERA REMERA! someone will up and decide, sure, I'll go to Remera instead. Like your travels and schedules are based on the whims of a lively or convincing bus man. It drives me nuts [although I'd be lying if I haven't done the same thing one or twice myself].

People tend to do what they're told, especially women, which is a hard habit to break. In a hypothetical situation, the girls were told "A man who has given you gifts to help feed your family is now asking you to meet him at a hotel" and their first reaction wasn't 'hotel=he wants to get some.' It was, "Well, I should go to the hotel to see what he wants." And in that situation, they've put themselves into a position to be compromised. It's how a lot of prostitutes get started in this country. They need to feed their family// get money for secondary school. They turn to a "sugar daddy" and find help and a lot more.

In an even more alarming realization, the boys addressed the following situation:
"You are a girl in a relationship with a boy you plan to marry. He's been suggesting lately that you have sex now instead of waiting to be married."

The boy response: First, you refuse. Then, if he insists, you use a condom.

Me and the other PCV in the room at the time just looked at each other. Is this what boys think of a girl's values? Push a little and they cave? And it is. Maybe it's not how they deduce it, but boys in this culture believe a girl always says no at first, but she means yes. She has to play coy, but wants it as much as he does. I had hoped that after our life skills and leadership and lessons on being assertive, that I wouldn't have to address that, but even these boys, these enlightened, equal-rights, boys of the future still think a woman is subject to mold.

There's a saying in kinyarwanda that you hear if you trip, or drop something, or do anything of the spaz nature.

Urashyaka umugabo! You need a husband!

Because a husband makes you complete. You can't be a fully functioning adult without him.

It wasn't all like this, though. Aside from the strange cultural beliefs or practices, the boys were really sweet. Boys who speak good English and have gone through most of their schooling know how to sweet talk the ladies [which is why we do a condom demonstration]. In one class, while discussing what love is, one boy stood up and declared it was money and giving iPhones to the girl, and one of my boys stood up and said it must involve kissing "because love without kissing is like tea without sugar."

So anyway, I would go running, sometimes on my own, sometimes with other like minded PCVs, and sometimes with PCVs and the male campers. We set out into the valley at a smooth pace but as soon as the boys got comfortably warmed up, they sprinted ahead at a pace suitable for a well-fed African boy that I am seriously not accustomed to. When the kids run with me in the village, I know it's only a matter of time until their styrofoam shoes and weary physique demand them to stop, and I continue on, in my Nike shoes, Target running spandex, meticulously thought-out sports bra and two running-only tank tops, running off years of Western diet stored in the depths of my body. But here, in the open space of Gitarama and the winding dirt road of the valley, these boys are flooring it, nothin' but bones.

Runners everywhere in the western world always talk about the gear. I used to be so particular about what I ate before I ran, cant be less than a half hour before, can't be wearing low-rising socks. Can't have shorts with lining on the inside, can't have a really baggy Tshirt. Need a headband. But you know what, I was like that because at that point I still sucked at it and needed an excuse. Now, I can run 8 miles on the drop of a dime. I remember the first week of pre-season training of field hockey in high school, and Coach Hack had just gotten out of her car eating a bagel and drinking a large coffee. And she put it down and got on the track and just went. 8 minute mile. And I thought, I would SO throw up if I had to do that. But now, especially after seeing these kids who have NOTHING. Literally nothing. Styrofoam shoes. No shoes. Dress pants. No shirt. They just get up and go. Or they hear from a half a mile away that the Abazungu [white people] are coming, and they get up and get ready for it. But for us, we're too privileged. I can't run because my good sports bra is in the dryer [DRYERS! remember those?] or my socks aren't clean. Or the weather is too hot.

Move to Mali, lose the shoes, and go. Little malnourished African children run a mile with me just for the fun of it, and these boys, these well-fed, 3-meals a day, 2 tea breaks with a snack every day, they can finally move to the level they're capable of, without worrying whether they'll have a next meal to recover with.

And that's the point, I guess. They don't stress the gear. They don't stress anything. They'll walk 5 miles to school every day as long as they can sit in a classroom and take notes and learn. There are so many people in the states who would rather fail a class than get up in the early morning and walk 5 minutes [let alone 5 miles] to "learn" something.
Just having the opportunity to be at this Camp, to know where your meals are coming from for at least one whole week, to be allowed to express yourself, artistically or athletically. To be allowed to study. To develop oneself, as they say here. Just to be allowed to know, what Americans know, and take for granted. What a privilege. To be allowed to do anything.


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