What I’ve learned about myself in Rwanda.
Part I: My Thoughts
I’m currently sitting on a rooftop cafe overseeing the beautiful hills of Kigali, with large, shiny, new buildings interspersed through the lush landscape. With my four dollar cappuccino in hand, typing away on my laptop, I may as well be at a coffee shop in DC.
Kigali is often dubbed the “cleanest city in Africa.” And, indeed, it has been scrubbed spotless — of dirt and dust, sure, but also, perhaps, of culture and character. The city to me feels like a bubble, a meticulously crafted painting to display to the outside world.
Perhaps it’s the Kigali Convention Centre, the magnificent dome in the center of the city that lights up in all its multi-colored glory every night. Or maybe it’s Kigali Heights with its pizza places, Italian ice cream, and fancy clothing stores. It’s difficult to pinpoint what it is exactly, but there seems to be a strong projection of westernization, presumably as an attempt to showcase the progression and modernity of Rwandese society, pervading throughout the city. It’s not unfamiliar to me — I’ve felt that many at the top of the socioeconomic pole in Pakistan have a similar reverence of what they perceive to be western culture. I struggle with this — Rwanda gained independence from the Belgians in 1962, Pakistan from the British in 1947…. but they’ve all but decolonized.
I know it is complicated; there are politics and economics (and all my own biases and preconceptions) involved. I know that there is so much good that comes out of this. It’s an important effort at reclaiming the identity that the West has stolen from much of Africa with its constant portrayal of black starving children as the prototypes of African (because Africans are, of course, a monolith after all…) society. It’s a beautiful bonding activity amongst a once painfully broken and divided nation. It increases tourism and stimulates the economy — at least that is what I tell myself to justify buying meals that cost three times the average Rwandese daily wages. I know all these things. But I struggle with it all nevertheless. I think intentionality is a large component of my struggle. If the intention of the government of a developing nation is to increase the image, prosperity, and safety of all its citizens, I am more forgiving than if the same is being done at the expense of poorer and more marginalized groups within these nations. There are rarely, if ever, beggars that I’ve encountered in the streets of Kigali, but I think it would be naive to believe that is because they don’t exist in this country. I can beautify my outside all I want, but as long as my insides are broken and insecure, I will never be happy. Such is the case, I believe, with many growing nations.
It has also been interesting navigating the social scene in Kigali as someone that doesn’t really look like the stereotypical American or exude “western-ness” (yes, I did just make up a word). I often feel like people don’t really know what to make of me. My Pakistani background generally seems to trump my American citizenship — no pun intended. Sometimes I feel like I’m being perceived as a second-class American… American, but not really. I don’t mind; it’s nothing new. But it has been a great way to gain insight, albeit limited given my sample size and duration of stay, into what the standard definitions of these labels are in Kigali. American media, which prevails in Rwandese society, may be involved in setting the standard for what an American should look like — just another one of the many reasons why the lack of diversity in Hollywood is a problem.
Part II: Rwanda Responds
I spoke with my uber patriotic (and amazing!) Rwandese friend and housemate, Yvette, about some of my thoughts and sent her this to read over and make sure I hadn’t completely missed the mark. We had a really enlightening conversation that forced me to realize that, despite just having written against the colonial mentality, my mind was as riddled with the remnants as anyone else’s. She asked for my definition of westernization and its distinction from development. Mentioning countries like Japan and China that have a strong presence of and attachment to their respective traditions and beliefs while also exhibiting many of the indicators of westernization I discussed — coffee shops, sky scrapers, etc. — she asked why this was “westernization” and not just development? It’s true. Why do I see such infrastructure as ™ of the West? She also pointed out that my understanding of Rwanda’s (and many other growing nation’s) development as a desire to emulate and showcase to the West could really just be a superiority complex in hiding. “Why can’t Rwandans do this for themselves? Why do you assume that all this development is for the outside world?” Definitely noted. Overall, Yvette has a lot of faith in the goodwill of the Rwandese government and is sure that regardless of the strategy, the intentionality behind the government’s actions is pure.
Lots to think about, lots to process — I’m not sure I can fully get on board with all her thoughts but I know my opinions are limited. The reality, I’m sure, lies somewhere in between us.