Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Who Run the World? GIRLS

            The last two Fridays, I hosted GLOW (Girls Leading Our World) Nights for 23 high school girls. The idea was to create a safe and fun environment for girls to discuss issues like HIV/AIDS, girls’ empowerment, and gender-based violence. The girls all go to a boarding school, and while some of these things are supposed to be taught in schools or by parents, in reality, they are not. The girls and I (with the help of my fellow PCV Kate) played various educational games throughout the evening, and they had a lot of questions. I myself learned most from this game called Agree or Disagree. Kate and I would read statements like, “A woman must always obey her husband, no matter what he tells her to do” or “If a woman is raped, it is her own fault” and the girls would hold up signs saying AGREE or DISAGREE, and then we would discuss why they felt that way. Their answers, while not completely shocking, saddened me greatly. I felt like I was in an episode of Mad Men, except with teenage girls and school uniforms instead of gorgeous 60s costuming.

Listening to the girls explain their reasons for agreeing or disagreeing was also really fascinating. When we read the statement “It is a big problem if a woman makes more money than her husband”, all of the girls raised their AGREE cards. I expected to hear that their reason was that the husband would feel jealous and threatened by his wife, but the GLOW girls said the reason was that they wouldn’t have any respect for their husband, and would basically have no reason to get married if their husband wasn’t benefitting them financially! Ah, true love.

My amazing GLOW girls...yes, I realize I look like a midget in this picture
We discussed domestic violence, which is very present in Rwanda, but highly secretive. I was brought back to one of the most difficult moments of my service, when I lived with my Rwandan host family during training. I awoke one night to the dull thud of fist on flesh, and heard the cries of my sweet host Mama being beaten by my host Papa. The next morning, my host mother had bruises on her body. When I asked her what happened, she simply shrugged and said that Papa was drunk the night before. And that was it. I was outraged, but it was simply part of her reality. All of the girls at GLOW Night agreed that domestic violence happens in Rwanda, but they didn’t know how common it was. I asked them to think about the reasons a women might be afraid to seek help in Rwanda, and we came up with several reasons: the woman is afraid that if she reports her husband to authorities, he will be put in prison and leave her and their family destitute; The woman is afraid that she will be shunned/judged by her family or members of her community; The woman is afraid that her husband or other men will seek retribution.  

Watching Mulan after the discussions! Yay girl power! 
            One of the hardest things for me to realize is that some of these problems are just as present in America as Rwanda. Sure, it may be more acceptable for women to be working mothers or to share household responsibilities with your husband, but it was sobering, to say the least, that the very week I was teaching the young women about rape and domestic violence, the Steubenville rape trial verdict was reached, and the American media collectively wrung its hands over the "ruined lives" of the rapists rather than the victim. 
            The two GLOW Nights I hosted have brought me more questions than answers. Perhaps the biggest question on my mind is: how do we change a culture? How do we go about changing the culture that condones rape, which blames the victims rather than the perpetrators, that offers little recourse for women who experience domestic violence? And I think the answer is: person-by-person. Mind by mind. Heart by heart.
            The process of changing a culture is slow. Sometimes glacially slow. Sometimes it’s frustrating and it seems like things will never change. But I am happy to have the chance to at least start the conversation with the GLOW girls, because if we all work together, the future will look a lot brighter than the present. 

Monday, March 18, 2013

Two Steps Forward, One Step Back

          Last week was a very, very good one. For starters, the women’s soymilk cooperative sold out of soymilk in less than 2 hours on Wednesday! Emboldened by our success, we decided to make more soymilk and add an additional day selling at the market on Saturday. And we sold out in just 2 hours again, and still had customers in the store wanting to buy some. I was elated. I really, really feel like the women have stepped up their game. They elected a president of the cooperative, and they now arrive early in the morning to come make soymilk, with very little supervision from me.

The cooperative in action! 
What changed between this week and the last one, when we only broke even? We decided to go big or go home. Translation: I asked the priests if we could borrow the church’s microphone on market days to advertise the soymilk and its benefits. Ask and you shall receive, indeed. And the guy who does the advertising for us is pretty hilarious as well; he says things like, “Give soymilk to your children and they will become fat like Americans!” Secondly, we started selling bread along with the soymilk. Many Rwandans love to eat bread and hot tea, and since we serve the soymilk hot in mugs, we thought they’d like bread and hot soymilk as well. And third, we put up a bunch of signs advertising the soymilk and its benefits. The approach seems to be working. The women and I are all very excited about it, and people sometimes come up to me when I’m walking around the village during the week and ask if they can buy soymilk or show them how to make it.

So given how well the soymilk has been selling, I thought everyone was happy about our success and everything was fine. Silly Peace Corps Volunteer! Why would success come that easily?! On Saturday morning, Sr. Agnes, who works on the soymilk project with me, wanted to talk. She explained that she and my other counterpart Felix think I made “a big mistake.” Earlier in the week, after we made a profit from the soymilk, I paid each of the women their share of the proceeds. My counterpart Felix said that it was “against their culture.” Come again? He repeated that I shouldn’t give money to the women and that I don’t understand Rwandan culture. He recommended that I buy sugar or something and give it to the women as payment. I thought he must be crazy (and a huge chauvinist as well). I asked him if HE was paid in sugar, and he just laughed.

Our little store
As it turns out, I apparently know nothing about Rwandan culture after living here for 10 months. Sr. Agnes explained that I shouldn’t give money to the members of the cooperative, because they won’t spend it on their starving kids but will go buy banana beer with it. She actually saw one of the women in the cooperative going to a bar after I gave them the money, despite the fact that she has a severely malnourished child. I was incredulous. How could a woman watch her own children literally starve to death instead of buying them food? Sr. Agnes explained that, sadly, many poor women in my village have the mentality that children are replaceable. If a woman has eight children and can’t feed them, if one dies, she is more or less apathetic because she still has seven mouths to feed. Sr. Agnes said that I do not understand their mentality because I am rich, educated, and American, and I don’t know what it’s like to have a life with few choices forced upon me. I don’t have to decide between buying health insurance or sending my children to secondary school. I don’t have to pick which of my children can have food today. I have not lived through genocide. I don’t have an abusive husband. I’m not an alcoholic. The entire thing shocked and saddened me. But she was right: there are so many things that I do not know.

President of the Cooperative, Julliette
Sr. Agnes continued that they had tried giving the mothers some food supplements (like Plumpynut, a sweet peanut butter type product with lots of vitamins), but some of the mothers had been caught selling it so they don’t give it to the women anymore. The injustice of the whole system made my heart ache, especially for the children. And I assume that it’s not every single woman, but the few spoil it for everyone. Sr. Agnes said, “If you continue to give money to the members of the cooperative, you will increase their income, but you will be doing nothing for their malnourished children.” I was upset that my two counterparts never—in five months of planning this project---mentioned that paying the women might be a bad idea, and that they waited until I had already paid the members to tell me that they weren’t happy about it. But I knew that being upset with my counterparts wouldn’t do anyone any good, and that our goal is still the same: to help the kids who currently are in the red zone (extremely malnourished) get to the healthy zone. 

So the solution we’ve come up with has several parts: instead of payment in money, the women will get the soy “fiber” that’s left after making soymilk (we usually have several pounds of it) to cook for their families, they’ll be able to take soymilk home with them to give to their kids, and the profits from the soymilk will be put in our savings account. Each month, the women will agree on how to spend their money together, whether it’s buying chickens so that they can get eggs, or fertilizer to increase yields. Sr. Agnes and I proposed this plan to the women, and they voted to approve it. Here’s hoping the hard part is over and our success continues.

The President of the Soymilk Cooperative after we sold out of soymilk 
On a more personal note, I have to thank all of you for being so supportive of me after my last blog post. It was not an easy week by any means, and your emails, messages, and phone calls really meant a lot to me. I’m truly blessed to have such an amazing group of family and friends. 

Monday, March 11, 2013


            I wish there was some way to sugarcoat this post, but there simply isn’t. Before joining Peace Corps I had heard that the experience often turns idealists into cynics, but I scoffed at the idea that it could ever happen to me. This past week proved me wrong.
            I’m currently in the middle of starting a women’s soymilk cooperative. There are two parts of the project. The first part is doing over 30 demonstrations in various villages showing women how to make soymilk themselves. That part has been very successful: we’ve had about 200 women show up to almost every demonstration so far, and I was able to do a huge demonstration and nutrition talk at an International Women’s Day celebration with more than 300 women. It surpassed my expectations; I was planning on 50 women attending each demonstration. I love being out with the community health workers and being able to talk to parents about nutrition.

              But the second part of the project, founding a soymilk cooperative to sell soymilk, has made me feel like a complete and utter failure. When I first arrived in my community, it was heart-wrenching to see women come to the health center week after week with children constantly in the red zone (extremely malnourished), despite nutritional counseling. The soymilk cooperative was a way for them to make an income so that they could afford more nutritious food for their children. I’ve been working on this project since October. I’ve put my heart and soul into it: applying for a grant, having meeting upon meeting with government officials, an agronomist, the members of the cooperative, community health workers, and my counterparts. I finally received the grant money in February, and I bought all the necessary equipment, opened a bank account, taught some basic business skills to the women, hosted a two day training for 183 community health workers, and found a store to sell the soymilk on market days. And now I feel as though it’s all unraveling before my eyes.

            Our first day selling was two Wednesdays ago. We broke even. I was disappointed, but my counterparts were still hopeful and told me not to be discouraged. They told me it takes time for things to take off, and many people don’t know what soymilk is. They assured me that it was because we started selling the soymilk at the market in the afternoon, instead of the peak mid-morning time. My co-workers said that with more education in the villages, people would understand that soymilk is much cheaper than other forms of protein available, and much better (especially for children!) than banana beer. This past Wednesday, we broke even again. I was still paying the women, despite not making a profit, and they were still enthused about the project. 

I wanted the women to take ownership over the cooperative so that it’s sustainable. So we tried to have them sell the soymilk all by themselves in the store for a few hours last Wednesday. And they sold exactly zero liters of soymilk. When I came to join them in the afternoon, people who were curious about the muzungu would come into the store, and often buy some soymilk. It was an incredibly frustrating catch-22: without me being in the store, they don’t sell soymilk, but with me being there, it becomes about me and the women aren’t able to take ownership over it.

           But the biggest disappointment came on Friday. Another Peace Corps friend made an order of 35 liters of soymilk for a 5k youth race we were hosting on Saturday. It was exciting, and the women in the cooperative all agreed to meet Friday afternoon to prepare the soymilk. I specifically told the women that the soymilk had already been paid for and that it was really important to show up on time. Friday afternoon came, and only one woman showed up. I was crushed. We worked as fast as we could, but eventually the woman had to leave to make it back to her house by dark, so Sr. Agnes and I continued making the 35 liters of soymilk long after the sun had set. I felt awful: it was Sr. Agnes’ birthday, and we were stuck in a smoky room crouched over a fire waiting for the soymilk to boil. Both of us were at the end of our fuses, and Sr. Agnes, who was usually the one calmly reassuring me that the project would succeed, said that it was a clear sign the women hadn’t bought into the cooperative and we should stop it. That night I came home covered in smoke and ash, and didn’t even care enough to change clothes before collapsing into bed.
            I imagined the project to be challenging, but I never imagined it would be this incredibly difficult. I’ve failed the women, my community, and myself. I’ve never in my entire life felt such an overwhelming sense of disappointment. It all feels so real and raw. I didn’t just do badly on a test or not make it onto the varsity tennis team or something. These are people’s lives. These are children whose future still remains uncertain and whose health will be permanently affected. I will still see the twins who are really two years old but look like infants, and the little girl whose ribs jut out of her tiny frame, but now I will be under no false pretenses about thinking I can help them. I will have to look the children and their mothers in the eyes every week and admit that I have no idea where to begin.

 Perhaps the worst part of all of this is that I don't know what I’ve done wrong. Was it because of factors outside my control, like the fact that the women live in various villages, some a two-hour walk away, and only one has a cellphone? Was I na├»ve about people even having money to buy soymilk in the village? Did we not do a good enough job of informing people about the nutritional benefits of soymilk and where they could buy it? Will people ever see the benefit of buying soymilk instead of banana beer? Will it just take a little longer, and then catch on? Should we keep trying for a few more weeks? Is this all just a (large) bump in the road, or an unsurpassable obstacle? Are people just deciding to make soymilk themselves instead of buying it from us? Did the members not clearly understand the incentive of the cooperative? Why didn’t they even bother to show up on Friday? Did they feel disempowered? What more could I have done? More questions run through my head than answers, and I’m left feeling bitter and confused. And I’m not sure where to go from here.