The New Adventures of Rwanda (V5): Race In Rwanda

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“ To live in a post-racial society we must address the issue of race. ‘We’ (Americans) never addressed race which means we cannot live in a post-racial society.”

Dr. Brittany Cooper, Academic & Cultural Theorist

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A couple of months ago the other African-American YAGM/ cohort member decided to transition back to America for various reasons and I hadn’t anticipated the ways that would affect my presence in Rwanda. It has been trying being the only one. So instead of discussing Rwanda solely for this newsletter I will discuss my experience with Race in Rwanda.

While analyzing my racial experiences I will often refer to quotes from the movie “For Colored Girls” as this movie has helped me process my racial experiences here.

Bold= For Colored Girls

“Every since I realized there was a colored girl , a b****, a nag .. I’ve tried not to be that”

My time in Rwanda has exactly been that. I’ve been trying not to be any of the negative labels placed upon black women because I know the consequences of carrying those labels. My voice will all of a sudden scare people. Those who are afraid will exclude me. I will be alone and painted as “angry”. In essence, sometimes it’s easier if colored girls don’t cause any trouble.

YAGM, Blackademically Lived and Speaking
YAGM= Young Adult In Global Mission, ELCA based

The church believes they prepared me to serve when the truth is one cannot prepare me for something they have not experienced. I’m unsure if diversity and inclusion is helpful if we aren’t prepared or educated on how to support those who are diverse and need to be included. It all seems pretty simple to me but I now understand it’s not as simple for those on the outside looking in. And it’s also not simple for those who make the mistake of grouping the black american experience and the black african experience into one category. According to Pew Study, the Lutheran Church is 3% diverse while the remainder of the church is 95-97% white. Additionally, the International Education Open Doors Report and The US Dept. of Education’s National Center For Education Statistics reported that in 2014-2015, african-americans only accounted for 5.6% of US Study abroad students and americans only accounted for 3.4% of US Study abroad students that visited the continent of Africa in comparison to 54.5 % of americans who visited Europe. Additionally, the Journal of Blacks In Higher Ed (2016), states that of the 5.6% african-americans that studied abroad in 2014-2015, only 275 american students studied in Rwanda. The reality is international focused programs that host african-americans and the countries that host african-americans lack the experience and education to support african-americans through study abroad experiences. Both the US communities and most host communities have a limited understanding of what it means to be african-american and to travel or live abroad.

This research has underscored and supported the way I’ve been feeling. At summer orientation one of the leadership members asked us to reflect on our most important identities that we carry and even today I am confronted with that same question. I am Chicago raised, Bennett made. Two communities that are majority black and have shaped how I gracefully move through the world as an african-american woman. I got to a point where I would beat myself up on this journey because I didn’t feel like being inclusive . It became an honest struggle and I now understand it was a struggle and continues to be a struggle because it doesn’t relate to the identity I carry heavily–Race. I have been raised in black safe havens all of my life so naturally I struggled with feeling emotionally safe in Rwanda and being solely supported by people who don’t look like me or walk in my shoes.

Code Red. Let’s Cope
How’d I cope? Through relationships back home and social media. My safe haven, my black community became my loved ones on FB. Black women who looked like me. I became increasingly glued to my phone again because I needed my support system. One thing the leadership team has never been able to understand after they would remind me to be present, (which meant to leave my phone alone) was that they had their community, whether white or rwandese, and I was just trying to stay connected to mine. Daily, I needed a laying on of hands that leadership members nor my cohort members could provide because their aesthetics didn’t look like mine.

I realize after reading all of this I’m a little self-conscience about sharing my experiences because it sounds like I am constantly complaining or crying but I’m processing.

I’m not saying there is a me vs. them because there isn’t. We’ve shared and continue to share things only we would understand. What I am saying though is the world creates a me vs. them because of just how things were created and the institutions that exist. We didn’t create race. We just deal with privileges and consequences of it.

Code Blue. Let’s Cope.
Another way I coped was by watching the movies Precious and For Colored Girls. The stories of these women helped me analyze time and time again what it means to be a black american woman and I needed to reaffirm myself of that foundation to make it through. “No, Miah. You aren’t crazy. These women experienced the same thing”. In ways, their stories became my stories and they laid hands on me. The hands I needed from black professors, sisters and mamas, aunties, cousins, and bigmas.

The Encounter: A Loss of Respect.
A couple of months ago my parents arrived in Rwanda to greet me with 8 suitcases, all ranging in sizes. 4, which were for community here in Rwanda.

We took 2 of the suitcases to one of my two schools where the VP turned my day upside down. Little did I know, it would be this encounter that shaped me into a strong black woman.

That morning when I asked the VP to acknowledge my parents, he walked passed them, shook our Rwandese driver’s hand and went inside the school building. I was livid for so many reasons. I had dealt with his God complex and rude behavior for months. I had pushed myself time and time again to adapt to his culture and the one thing I asked him to do for my parents he wouldn’t. It was blatant disrespect. This event happened towards the end of March and I didn’t return to work until the beginning of May once he apologized.

I think one of the most frustrating moments of this encounter was that no one could truly understand how I felt expect the other african-american cohort member who was now back in the states. I loved my students and wanted to go back, but I could not let this person get away with disrespecting my family after they had sacrificed and brought generous gifts to his teachers and students. I called the other african-american cohort member for a sister chat and vented. I concluded my long monologue with, “Am I crazy?” and she like every other black woman I spoke with said, “no, you aren’t crazy” in an assuring voice.

I had to ask that question because leadership figures kept encouraging me to return to work without an apology from the VP and to think about the students. So many times I had to say to myself, “FORGET the students!”. That’s a black woman’s song. We can never defend ourselves because someone or something is always trying to remind us to reflect on those who need us. Well I felt like I needed me and my parents needed me. I couldn’t choose the students because I had chosen them over myself several times and it always resulted in me being under-appreciated and bullied in the workplace.

I couldn’t understand why my “no” as a woman wasn’t being accepted but then things clicked and I reminded myself that I carry three visible identities (Christian, Black, Woman) in Rwanda. Bennett College taught me that’s its called intersectionality. So I had the epiphany: “No Miah. Your no as black woman doesn’t mean the same as someone else”. In fact, your no is so light that people will actually try to pressure you into saying yes.” See my no is perceived as being angry, stubborn, ungrateful, resisting, and a b**** when in fact my no means , “lay hands on yourself”.

The VP called me on Sunday, April 31st and told me I “should come back for the students sake and that I was hurting them”. Before I could brace myself, my mouth started moving and I addressed his poor behavior with every fiber in my bone. I raised my voice!

“I’m going to raise my voice and I don’t care who hears me . I’m going to yell, shout. I don’t care. I’m sick of sorry”

He heard my anger through the phone. Soon he apologized and asked for prayer. That day I felt my power and I became a strong black woman. I was thankful through the feelings of loss; I gained my voice and respect.

But I guess there are other parts that confuse me about the the encounter…

Okay White Americans:
Those in leadership are always talking about being mobile allies and this was the perfect situation to be an ally in action.

Instead of reflecting or asking the VP, “Hey if my family came to greet your school would you walk pass them and not greet them?”, to my knowledge it wasn’t raised. The question should have been asked, although, as a black woman I already know the answer and hopefully the leadership team knows the answer too.

The leadership team also made comments to me like ,“ well the VP is sexist and he discriminates against me too.” Appreciated but not needed at the moment. Why? Because my struggle for respect as an african-american woman is not parallel to your struggle as a white american. Why again? Because there is a food chain and unfortunately black women are always at the bottom.

“The most disrespected person is the black woman” -Malcolm X.

Okay Conservative Rwandese Men:
Notice I said conservative. They are some pretty liberal men here who do not fall into this category, but the conservative ones do. Naturally they projected the perspective to their colleagues in leadership that the VP is proud and won’t give an apology because many of them are also proud and wouldn’t give apology. I’ve learned that supporting the man’s ego is more important than admitting that he is wrong because when in the presence of an american he feels his ego is all he has.

The Many Facades of The Strong Black Woman

“Being colored is a metaphysical dilemma I haven’t conquered yet.”
In fact, sometimes it conquers me…..

When hearing this quote I am reminded of the movie “Get Out.” There is the African-American woman who often smiles when talked to and has this peculiar look as if she is on the verge of a mental breakdown.

Weeks later after watching that movie and dealing with the encounter I understand her character more and more. The leadership team inquired about the delay with my newsletter and in the process of writing this I’ve discovered that I am tired. I’m unsure if I can actually describe the physical, spiritual and emotional exhaustion that comes from being the only one. Like that character, I’ve been wrestling with many internal things to get through this process and I’ve had to maintain face. I’m laughing actually because when my mother and I discussed the encounter she said, “Never let them see you sweat” ,which is what I’m sure most black girls have been told. It’s routine for us. If we let those in power see us sweating, it unveils weakness and we just don’t have time for that. It was the best advice though. Thanks Mama !

Now the debate could be, “Shemiah, this is a safe space. Why didn’t you say something?” The reality is, those who don’t look like me and haven’t lived like me will never understand the layers of this struggle. You will never truly understand what it feels like to always have your mind racing and developing ways to either protect yourself or uplift yourself as a black woman when in the face of adversity.

The Rebuttal:
Well Shemiah, as a white american my mind is always racing and trying to figure out ways to protect myself while in Rwanda because I am the minority here. No offense, but it is for 11 months out your entire life that you may be the minority in the room . It’s not the same.

“Or Shemiah I’m here. You can trust me.” Here’s the thing: How can you trust someone who doesn’t like to acknowledge the elephant of race?

So I understand the character’s smile. Her smile protected her from publicly crumbling, allowing her to shift in her own mental façade to avoid the awkward moments of race and class. I think my anger, my nagging, and resistance in the encounter knew that my smile had cracked and I was just over it.

I think the other layer of this encounter is the history for me. Belgian oppressors planted the seed of racial divide in Rwanda. Someone who doesn’t like look them at all. However, Rwandans have still found it in their hearts from what I’ve observed, to love, magnetize and drool over whiteness.

And because Black folks always feel the pressure to be better and do better I made sure my parents went the extra mile to bring gifts for my community here. That’s apart of the black experience . We always have to participate, to be our best, so no can say negative things about us. So I guess I was more frustrated with the idea that my parents brought 4 pieces of luggage as gifts to our community members here and they were disrespected when other visitors who look differently have brought only their bodies and received more respect. Crazy huh? ..

But let’s get deeper with this. When Rwandese people see white americans they see money. When they see black americans or black people they think poverty. This could also be why the VP felt like he didn’t have to acknowledge my parents. He didn’t see money. Their was no gain for him or his school in his mind. In the presence of the black americans, he protected what he felt like he only had– his ego.

I don’t want you walking away from this piece and thinking I’ve hated my time here. No. But it has been filled with the racial complexities that I thought I left in America. Pretty naive of me huh? Nevertheless, it’s been a great introduction to Black Womanhood so I’m grateful.

Race Isn’t That Big Of A Deal
I was talking to an East African man one day and he implied that he knows “America has race issues but we have resources!” He framed his position as if race was something subtle that doesn’t affect my day-to-day life. Now once again, I don’t blame his ignorance. He isn’t American. But that is the kind of thinking that makes it difficult to be in Rwanda sometimes. “Oh yeah, I hear your concern but it really isn’t that deep. “ “Race really isn’t that big of an issue.” This is the problem. People really don’t believe the misfortunes of race are a big issue. Like Dr.Brittany Cooper said, we never addressed the concept of race, therefore we cannot live in a post- racial society . Consequentially, this means the consequences and burdens of race are still alive and real. One of the most damaging things you can do to a person of color is dismiss their concerns about racial discrimination as if it’s imaginary. It’s real, traumatic, and shapes how we move in the world.

Stopped In The Grocery Store
Over the weekend I was shopping at a popular grocery store in Rwanda when an employee stopped me because I walked in and then back out ( I didn’t see what I was looking for). He motioned for me to open my purse and then I said, ” I didn’t buy anything.” He then realized I was American and decided to let me go as he smiled . I’ll let you process that one for yourself.

I Tried To Side-Step Race
During my time here, I’ve tried to side-step race. I tried to pretend as if it didn’t exist in my cohort and it wasn’t a factor in my existence to make things “easier”. I sipped the post-racial fantasy. Reflecting on this decision, I think it was the worst one I made. Mellody Hobson, the CEO of Ariel Investments suggest in her Ted Talk that we should be color brave and not color blind. When we are color brave we get ahead. Reflecting on the statistics I shared earlier, I’m unsure if anyone in this church knows how to be color brave and not color blind. For some it may be easier to be color blind than color brave. My last truth is this . I’m black and I’ve lived around black people all my life. I know and connect with very little things that are apart of white culture. This is why being color blind didn’t work for me. Instead of making me feel included, it makes me feel excluded. Let’s just acknowledge the elephant in the room and celebrate the differences.

A couple of weeks ago, I went out to lunch with a group of white american volunteers from a different program. “New adventure. Let me take this on!”, were my thoughts. It ended up being one of the most painful meals. As they bonded over the typed of beer they drank in undergrad and their childhood experiences, I couldn’t help but think what am I doing here Jesus? Our childhoods were different and the majority of my undergrad community didn’t drink beer per say for a good turn up.

Although the meal was painful, I took the advice of Mellody Hobson and sat still in the uncomfortable moment versus running away. It was another opportunity to learn and I learned a lot about white american culture that day.

I often ask myself if my cohort was instead 4 black americans and 1 white american how would this experience change? How would the 1 white american cope? How would the 4 black americans support the 1 white american?

I was skeptical about sharing because my community of supporters range in race but I think it’s important. Once again , thank you all for your support. I would not have been able to have these reflections without your financial and spiritual support.

There have been moments when my body has felt less valued than that of my peers. People have walked passed me, or not acknowledged my presence when with my white peers. Like I said before, even if someone assumes I’m Rwandese it is still a poor example of how they treat their own people in the presence whiteness.

Rwanda only touched the surface of addressing race. Americans swept it under the rug which has resulted in paradoxical framework for me. I’m celebrated and invisible at the same time. Hasn’t this been happening to black american women for years?

Celebrate our bodies, ignore our work.

I will say there have been times when my cohort members have recognized that someone ignored me and they spoke up or included me in the conversation. Whether spoken or unspoken I’ve never forgotten those moments and I really appreciate it.

I want to conclude by saying these are my reflections and my experiences. I am not the voice for every black american that chooses to study abroad or chooses to participate in a program like this one. The black experience is not monolithic but I do hope this provided some valuable insight.

Thanks for reading. Until next time.


Ted Talk Links

Brittany Cooper, ” The Racial Politics of Time”

Mellody Hobson, “Color Blind or Color Brave?”


My last day in Rwanda is July 13th, 2017. Letters from the US usually take 30 days to arrive. The countdown has begun 🙂


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