On Love, Death, and Life – Part I: LOVE

It has been very difficult to process the events of the last few days.

Traditional Rwandan wedding - bridesmaids!

I’ve kept friends, family, and you – my dear blog readers – posted on the various details and reflections I’ve had on my experiences here. However, I find that it’s been really hard to quantify many of these experiences in words – which is why I’ve spent so many hours uploading and re-uploading pictures over the spotty internet connection . Looking over my blog, I realize I’ve dedicated more time to examining cultural phenomena and politics than detailing the progress of my projects. Forgive me. I promise you I’ve been working hard, conducting interviews, amassing literature – but while these have occupied the bulk of my time here, the stories, the experiences, and the people I have encountered have occupied the bulk of my thoughts. I’m afraid that if I don’t write these down, I will one day scramble to recall or lose forever my reflections and feelings about the various situations that I’ve come across.

That said, I wanted to dedicate the following posts to the lessons I’ve learned about Love, Death, and Life.

Since coming here, I’ve been to two weddings and a funeral. I’ve experienced the excitement of political campaigning, the frenzy of voting, the tense aftermath of election results. I’ve been to extravagant ex-pat events with champagne, imported cookies, expensive evening gowns. I’ve been to run-down neighborhoods of shacks filled with flies and naked, hungry children. I’ve seen the hundreds of graves and skulls at the Genocide Memorial. I’ve experienced the fear that follows a bombing. I’ve watched a newlywed widow bury her head in yards of lace that barely muffle her sobs or conceal the growing bump beneath the fabric.

Traditional Rwandese dancers at an otherwise Western-styled wedding

Sometimes it feels like too much.

And certainly, there are ideas and experiences that I cannot comprehend or even begin to grasp. But then there are also the universal themes that are common to human experience.

On Love

One day, on my taxi-moto ride to work, my driver started telling me about his dreams. “I want to go to America,” he said, “I want to go to America and marry a white girl.”

Slightly amused (and maybe a tad insulted), I asked him why.

Because in Rwanda, all the girls care about is money, money, money. You have to have a good job, build a big house, give her lots of money to spend on clothing, parties, friends. But if a bigger man has more money. Pfffft – she’s gone!” he said, “In America, white girls they marry for love.”

I laughed. “Really? You think so?”

Yes,” he insisted, “In America, the girls marry for love.”

As I mentioned above, I’ve been to two Rwandese weddings since coming here, and boy are they big affairs! For one thing, the “wedding” is really THREE weddings. The first weekend is the traditional wedding where the bride’s family invites the groom’s family to the house and respected elders from both families enact a traditional “negotiation” of marriage that involves the dowry and “cows” (which now just symbolize money). The second week is the more western wedding where the groom’s family hosts hundreds of people (most are not on the guest-list) who show up and drink fantas and eat cake while listening to musical performances and testimonies from relatives and friends who also presents “cows,” or gifts, to the newly-wed couple. The third week is a joint event just between the families of the bride and groom where there is a huge feast. Marriages are large, extravagant, and festive affairs.

Festive Rwandan wedding - look at all those cakes!!

But I’m more concerned with the aftermath. Adultery is rampant here among the men – and now, increasingly among the women. When you drive down the street, you see large billboards warning young women of “Sugar Daddys.” Even though the government has taken steps to empower women, the society and culture is still very much patriarchal. Men go out at night with their friends, leaving their wives at home and do not return until early morning, if at all. The night life is a story in itself. For one thing, people stay out until six or seven in the morning – and not just on weekends – EVERY DAY, and they still get up early to go to work. At clubs, I’d say nearly a third of the men are married or over thirty-five. Many married men have no qualms about flirting with young women. One of my Rwandese friends is constantly accosted by married men – whether it’s her boss, her pharmacist, the husband of a friend, etc. Even when she confronts them directly, as in the case when she told one man, “Look, I’m sorry, I have a boyfriend.” The man responded, “Oh, okay, what’s the problem? I have five girlfriends.”

Many of the women I have spoken to tell me that they marry at a young age in order to guarantee security (i.e. why money is so important). When you go out, you see a disturbingly large number of very old ex-pats who go to the clubs every night to buy girls drinks and take them home. It is disheartening to acknowledge how desperate many young Rwandese girls must be when you see them with seventy-year-old white men. Back to adultery – many women are well-aware of their husbands’ extramarital activities, but such behavior is so prevalent here that they are forced to accept the situation, especially because divorce is very frowned upon in Christian Rwanda and if they separate from their husbands they will be left with nothing except social disgrace. However, it has become increasingly common for wealthy married women to also play the field and you hear more stories of women paying young boys to come over and live at the house as workers, which was completely unheard of in the past.

Where is the love?