I’ve been at such a high in the past few weeks that I suppose it is inevitable that I would finally hit a low. One of my students had been asking me to visit his family for sometime now, and I finally agreed. After class today, I packed up my netbook, erased the whiteboard, and then walked to Novotel with him. I was so excited to not only have the opportunity to meet his family and see his house, but also to gain a new perspective of Rwanda in an area of Kigali I had never been.
Well, I certainly got that new perspective.
Turns out that the main reason behind my student’s invitation was not simple hospitality, as I had originally presumed. As soon as we boarded the minibus for Ramera, he began to tell me about his “problem” and ask me to pay for a year’s worth of tuition at the university (about $300 USD).
Just for context, most of my students are orphans who are unemployed and live with foster families. Many of them walk over two hours to get to class every day because they cannot afford a 150 RWF (the equivalent of 20 cents USD) bus-ride to town.
Of course, I was upset. I tried to explain to him that I wanted to help him but I could not simply hand him money. I told him repeatedly that I believed that the best way to help people was to help them learn to help themselves. Money was only a band-aid – a temporary fix to a much deeper problem. I told him that that was why I came to Rwanda to teach English, because I knew that with an English education, all of my students would be more qualified to find jobs.
But either he couldn’t, or wouldn’t, listen to my reasoning. Instead, he continued to emphasize that his situation was different from my situation, and told me that, in Rwanda, friends who care for one another will share their resources. “If I need medicament and I have no money,” he said, “And I have friend. And I tell them I need this medicament. Then they give me 1000, 500, 200. They give me what they have. We all help each other.”
We got off of the bus, I paid 300 for the both of us, and he told me we would visit his sister first. While my house and many others are located off of the main road and require powerful motorcycle or car engines to navigate the dusty, pot-hole infested dirt roads – many of the shacks in the city are located on the sides of hills and can only be reached by climbing up steep, rocky inclines. It was quite the work-out. You can only imagine what happens during Rwanda’s rainy season when all the dusty dirt becomes mud and entire homes slide off of the hills.
First stop: a small shack partitioned from the others by a hanging sheet. One is hit first not by the infestation of flies, or the condition of the dark dingy room, or the naked children running about with dirt-crusted faces – but by the nauseatingly pungent odor emanating from the structure on the right. It is leaning precariously and the stench is overpowering. Good thing I don’t need to use the bathroom, is my first thought.
I enter the shack – which is the size of a handicapped bathroom stall in Annenberg – and I am immediately greeted by my student’s sister, who had been sitting on a chair nursing her newborn baby, born barely a week ago. Then I meet her husband, a couple of her husband’s brothers and sisters, a several neighbors and friends, and other people who stop by to gawk at the umunzugu.
As soon as we sit down, my student begins where he left off and explains to me his sister’s “situation.” From his nuanced and carefully-worded statements, I assume that his sister was raped at a young age and forced to marry her husband to avoid the scandal of a pregnancy out of wedlock. The newborn infant is her fourth child, and my student made sure to emphasize his displeasure about the number of children his sister has had. He says his goal is to “restore his family,” which was displaced and scattered during the genocide, and the addition of children to the family only makes this goal more difficult to achieve. He asks me repeatedly “How can I fix this problem?” and tells me that he wants me to tell all my friends about him so that they can help him. He hands me the infant, whose eyes widen at the sight of my face and it begins to cry. I hand the baby back to him and explain again that I simply cannot hand out money, but that I would be willing to help him with a project or support a business endeavor. Both concepts he brushes away immediately – he only wants immediate cash, which I refuse to give.
Finally, we leave his sister’s home and trudge up another rocky incline to catch a minibus to visit his “Mom’s” house. In Rwanda, so many people lost parents, siblings, and children to the genocide that they refer to their relatives and friends as “Mom,” “sister,” and “brother.” My friends tell me that it is too complicated to refer to everybody by their proper familial relation, and that it calls for unnecessary explanations that bring back memories of the genocide. Many aunts, uncles, and close family friends took in orphans of the genocide as their own because they realized they would have wanted the same for their own children if they had perished in the massacre. So, for them, the experience has made entire extended families immediate families, and you meet many widows who provide for the five or even ten children of their lost brothers and sisters.
My student’s “Mom,” who was a close friend of his parents before the genocide, actually lives in a nice house that is clean, spacious, and well-furnished. She is a tall and stately woman, polished and hospitable. After eating a delicious authentic Rwandan lunch there, I went with my student to visit his other sister at the hospital where she works as a nurse. She too is well-dressed and polished. Obviously, the thought came across my mind whether my student had deliberately taken me to the sister in needier circumstances in order to help his plea for money. I really don’t know.
Finally, I was able to go home. I called a taxi-moto, took it back to Kimihurura, trudged my way up the driveway and into the house. It was only when I had closed the door and threw myself on my bed that the tears started to flow. It wasn’t just everything I had seen and the poverty I had witnessed. It was frustration. Frustration with my student for relying on begging instead of actively trying to forge a path of his own. Frustration with myself for not being able to do more.
I am grateful for the experience and for the new perspective, but it has made me reevaluate my presence here and my goals post-graduation. Am I really doing as much as I can? Is there something more I can do that will have a more significant impact on the lives of my students and others facing similar hardships?