Education

Rwanda Diary: what "America" are YOU talking about?

by Hannah Frantz

Editor’s Note: The author is a junior at Gettysburg College. This semester she is studying abroad in Kigali, Rwanda and has agreed to share some of her experiences and insights (as well as her frustrations) with the Scholars & Rogues community. 

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Recently I’ve found myself very frustrated in Rwanda. And mostly when I get frustrated it’s because of discussions I’ve had with Rwandans.

Mainly, I’ve been really irritated with perceptions of America that you encounter here. Perhaps it’s my American pessimism getting the best of me, but I find myself getting irrationally angry at the idealistic assumptions Rwandans make about America. And I get angriest when Rwandan men tell me that more than anything they want a white wife.

For starters, many Rwandans seem to believe there’s no poverty in America. I’ve tried time and time again to explain that there is, but when I do I’m usually asked, “if everyone can have a job, why would anyone choose to be poor?” It’s really not that simple. And since they assume that everyone has access to jobs, many Rwandans also assume that if they were to make it to America they would have a comfortable sum of money.

But how do you explain that minimum wage is not living wage? Because as soon as I go that direction they ask why such a strong government like America’s would be so dumb as to make minimum wage too low to live on. It’s simply not possible that they would design such a thing.

That’s a really good point.

The next conclusion that some jump to is that perhaps the issue is race, and in America we do not like black people. Another difficult issue to tackle. One of my host siblings asked me what people would call him, as a black man, in the United States. I told him honestly, yes, there are racists in America. But the vast majority of racism is institutional. When asked to explain what I meant, I realized that the situation in the US is frighteningly reminiscent of the lead up to 1994 in Rwanda. Not as extreme, certainly, but still similar. There are certain ways of thinking that have been etched into the minds and memories of Americans that allow us to perceive different races in different ways, just as over time the Rwandan people were coerced into believing certain lies about Tutsis. No matter how hard individuals might try to avoid racism, it still occurs up because it has been so strongly institutionalized. Thankfully, America has thankfully never experienced an atrocity like the Rwandan genocide, but prejudice is still something we should fear and continuously fight.

But since so many Americans are in denial about its existence, it’s impossible to have a productive dialogue about it.

I’ve also been asked this question by several Rwandan men: “Would you ever be able to love a black man like me?” Even when the question is less about race than romance, it still catches me off guard. I always explain that yes, of course, if I found a black man that I truly loved and respected, of course I could love him. However, at this moment I am committed to someone else, so no, I will not marry you.

Many men I have spoken with talk about how they want to marry white women more than anything else. When I ask them why I get a variety of answers. Some say that white people are wealthy, so it is smart to marry wealthy. Others say it’s because they believe the children will be beautiful (and don’t even get me started on how they assume that all women want to bear dozens of children….) One man said that the white women he has met all seemed as though they would be kind and “disciplined,” whereas that is not what he expects of Rwandan women. (How I address the “disciplined” matter is a whole other discussion entirely.)

I wonder how much of this obsession with white women is related to the assumption that everything is perfect and beautiful in America, and that it would be so easy to live happily and successfully for the rest of your life if you could just marry an American. I honestly don’t know which answer is the correct one, but I find the whole issue frustrating. Perhaps it’s because I personally can’t understand how you’d decide on something as serious as love based on the color of one’s skin and nothing else.

I have so much trouble explaining how it works in America. How can you tell someone that this land that they’ve dreamed of is a fictional media creation? How do you explain that even if you get to America, chances are a white man will get a job before you will? How do you explain that even if you get a low-paying job, you probably won’t be making enough to afford housing and food? And how do you explain that in America, your neighbors will most likely not open their doors for you if something goes wrong? In America, many believe that it’s every individual for his or her self. It’s up to you to be successful. How many people slip through the cracks when all they wanted was a taste of the American dream?

We learned about something really valuable when we visited a Reconciliation Village a few weeks ago. They told us that every month, every individual contributes 500rwf (less than $1) to a community fund. They hold onto this money and only use it when someone in the community is in need. They could go months before tapping into the funds, but just in case someone loses a job or a spouse, this fund is there as a safety net.

Did I mention that in a Reconciliation Village survivors and perpetrators are living together? So chances are if you are a survivor, your money could potentially go to someone who had a hand in killing your family. But they are your neighbors so you help them regardless.

I don’t believe this could happen in America. Here, we’d pat them on the back, say “I’m sorry” and then offer them advice as to how they could help themselves. Because if you don’t do it yourself, then it’s not real success.

I apologize for my pessimism. Living in a new culture makes me question my own, which is healthy, I suppose. But it’s also definitely a downer.

I just wish that America lived up to what non-Americans believe it to be. I really wish it were a true land of opportunity. But right now, I just don’t think it is.

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10 replies »

  1. “Perhaps it’s because I personally can’t understand how you’d decide on something as serious as love based on the color of one’s skin and nothing else.”

    Before talking about Rwandans talk to fellow white American women. That is all most of them think. Color reigns supreme. Most will not even sit next to a non-white man in America in a public transit, unless they are forced to sit near a non-white person during a meeting….ie., seating arrangements.

  2. I spent a couple of years in Africa in my youth, and I certainly dont remember being this thoughtful or nuanced. Nice post, Hannah.

    • George: I sympathize with you and am sure you’re right about a lot of cases. Still, not sure it’s fair to hang this on Hannah. She doesn’t have an obligation to write all possible posts and the issue you point to is unrelated to the phenomenon she’s describing. Unless you’re suggesting that there’s a link between Rwandan men wanting white wives and American women avoiding non-whites on buses, which obviously you aren’t…

  3. On a scale, what took place in Rwanda is so horrible, trying to find similarities with the current status of relations among Americans is exactly like assuming that if Africa is linked to the optic fiber so everybody will become computer literate.

    Going back in History, Indians?

    African Americans used as guinea pigs for STD s trials?

    All those R&B singers who have the Law enforced on them

    Michael Jackson’s saga?

    O. J. Simpson?

    Even not respecting somebody like James Brown ?

    That is going away from your post and talking of segregation instead of pure racism is what is taking place in most places.

    Remember that movie? “Guess who’s coming to diner?”

    Rwanda of 2011 is a melting pot and we welcome anyone.

    We had Adam & Eve at the beginning

    Where’s Lucie?

    Lol. Gbu. Lukiza

  4. From http://www.heritage.org/Research/Reports/2011/09/Understanding-Poverty-in-the-United-States-Surprising-Facts-About-Americas-Poor

    The following are facts about persons defined as “poor” by the Census Bureau as taken from various government reports:

    80 percent of poor households have air conditioning. In 1970, only 36 percent of the entire U.S. population enjoyed air conditioning.
    92 percent of poor households have a microwave.
    Nearly three-fourths have a car or truck, and 31 percent have two or more cars or trucks.
    Nearly two-thirds have cable or satellite TV.
    Two-thirds have at least one DVD player, and 70 percent have a VCR.
    Half have a personal computer, and one in seven have two or more computers.
    More than half of poor families with children have a video game system, such as an Xbox or PlayStation.
    43 percent have Internet access.
    One-third have a wide-screen plasma or LCD TV.
    One-fourth have a digital video recorder system, such as a TiVo.

    I know it isn’t easy to be poor in America, but to someone from a truly poor country, this looks pretty good.

  5. I thought my last sentence covered that. Perhaps their idea of America is a bit idealistic, but perhaps compared to what they live like, even being poor in America would be pretty nice. I could be wrong, I haven’t been there and don’t know a lot about day-to-day living in Rwanda.

  6. Mr. Smith:

    Not hanging it on Hannah. She has the right to date or commit or marry anyone she wants. However, the statement about not understanding how people consider color as the main cretirion for love, I am sure there are plenty in Rwanda, and I am also very sure, that even if Hannah may not think that way, there are many in her extended American family who think that skin color should be the main criteria for even going out on a social occassion let alone dating or marriage. Yes, I work with a Professor who is very progressive when it comes to dating and marriage, but for his extended family color is not only a criterion but the only criterion. Anything not very pale with Caucasian features is unacceptable. No need to sympathize. Just stating the facts.

  7. As you grow, hopefully you will see that America is a great country.

    As for racism; yes, it exists. Blacks hating whites, Mexicans hating blacks, whites hating blacks….

    As you learn more about both America and Africa, maybe you will understand more about reality and less about your ideology. For instance; did you discuss politics? Most Africans I speak with know Obama is not good for America or that some Africans have a preconceived notion that we all have plenty of food and opportunity. Well, compared to many other countries we do.

    As you get older hopefully the real world will present itself to you. AT a young age, most people are liberal. That is until they figure out the real world.