Ladies’ Labor of Love
As I write this, I can barely see my computer screen. There are two times I have not been able to stop crying since I arrived in Africa six months ago. The first was when I watched Lupita Nyong’o’s performance in “12 Years a Slave.” The second is right now as I recover from a bout with dehydration while watching “Hotel Rwanda” for the first time, at my hotel in Rwanda, having just met young adults my age whose parents were brutally murdered in the genocide. Two days ago on Sunday, March 2nd, I attempted to watch the film in the actual hotel where it occurred, The Hotel des Mille Collines, but I could only make it halfway though.
This trip I am on was organized spontaneously as a necessity to renew my Kenyan visa, where I work as a communications intern with Church World Service. I was able to meet up with CWS’s partner here, YWCA Rwanda. YWCA Rwanda implements the CWS Africa Giving Hope program in all five of the country’s provinces. There is not comprehensive support for full or partial orphans in many African countries, so the Giving Hope program helps economically and socially to empower those orphans who care for not only themselves, but younger siblings as well. Some of these children leading their households are as young as eight.
The first young lady I met was Venantie Dufatanye. She was wearing a beautifully colorful skirt with a matching top. I found out she was born in the same year as me, 1986. She is a member of a tailoring working group within the Giving Hope program with other young women who pool their monetary and psychological resources to support their business, their siblings, and themselves. Venantie has two younger siblings whom she has supported through primary school and now as they join the workforce. I made the mistake of asking what happened to her parents. My translator laughed uncomfortably; he was not going to ask her that question. He already knew the answer and figured I should have already known as well.
Almost a million people were killed in 1994 when members of the long oppressed Hutu ethnic group began exterminating members of the rival Tutsis—women and children were not spared. “Hotel Rwanda” follows the true story of Don Cheadle’s character, Paul Rusesabagina, the manager of the hotel during the start of this conflict. He is Hutu and his wife is Tutsi. The movie is filled with characters without compassion for “others.” The UN top command only cares about saving the Westerners at the hotel. Those involved in the slaughter only care about people of their own ethnicity. Rusesabagina is one of the very few people to care for not only his family, but all other Hutus and Tutsis, as well—somehow even the whites.
Last night I was laying on my back in a bed at a clinic severely dehydrated with a stomach bug. My hosts with YWCA Rwanda insisted they take me even though it was 11 o’clock in the evening. When we arrived at the clinic, all the lights were off, but the door to the compound was open. My host encircled the building, banging on windows hoping to find someone who could help me. I was breathing heavily, my hands were tingly, and I felt as if I was going to pass out. Luckily, an angel appeared.
She stuck me with an I.V. and put at least three bags of fluid in me—checking me throughout the night every twenty minutes or so. At one point I started thinking about the scene in Hotel Rwanda when Nick Nolte’s character received orders from his UN commander that he was not authorized to evacuate the Africans at the hotel—only the Westerners. I thought about the millions of people who will die from simple dysentery this year, because they cannot afford their own angel. I thought about the beautiful woman I met a few days earlier who was born in the same year as I halfway around the world, but lives a drastically different life. I did not deserve this care that was being given to me—my feelings toward this nurse and every other person on her continent had since prior been mostly apathy, yet there she was saving my life.
I do not know if there is a hell or not, but if there is, I can promise you I deserve to go there for my continuous prioritization of my own comforts over innocent’s lives. The red blood of Rwandans, Syrians, Sudanese, and Ukrainians is inherently ingrained on my white skin. I pray that I will continue to force myself to learn and care about the difficulties people go through around the world, because no matter how hard it seems, I can guarantee it is much harder for the people who are actually living it—especially the women.
It is fitting that I was sent to work with the YWCA this week, because International Women’s Day is this Saturday, March 8th. During my short time in East Africa I have seen women half my size carrying objects twice my size. I have learned of the horrors of female genital mutilation and early marriage. I have learned how women are oppressed in the home and at school. Another young woman I met this week was 21-year-old Marcelline Mukeshimana. She was voted by her peers to be the leader of her Giving Hope forum—the governing body overseeing over 100 male and female members of many different working groups. CWS Africa and YWCA Rwanda work hard to empower women, because they agree with the theme of this year’s International Women’s Day: Equality for Women is Progress for All. When we hold women back, we hold society back.
I judge my friends who play too many video games. I criticize them for living in a fantasy world. But, I am discovering that I live a fantasy just by being from the United States. During WWII the people of the US were asked to make sacrifices to help the war effort—rationing food, buying war bonds, and enlisting in the military themselves. Today a war just as serious rages against hunger, poverty, neglect, misogyny, and it is time I realize that just because many of the soldiers fighting the war are not American, does not mean they are not my brothers and sisters. My proximity to them does not define my responsibility to them. Giving is not enough. I must sacrifice.
Joel Cooper serves as a Global Mission Intern with Church World Service East Africa in Nairobi, Kenya. Church World Service is a Partner of One Great Hour of Sharing.