Aug 20


adam_blog Adam Chen

As I walk down the driveway of the Kigali Memorial Centre (where I am currently doing my internship) alongside my friend and fellow coworker Serge, I immediately begin to think to myself — why are we holding hands?

A second thought runs through my mind — why shouldn’t we?

We linger at the entrance to my office for a few seconds, still clasping one another’s fingers. He wishes me a good morning at work as he heads down to the centre to start his day (He works as a tour guide for the centre). I pause to think a bit about what just happened, then snap back to reality and continue on with my workday.

Before any whistleblowers begin to cry out “I knew it!”, I assure you all that no inner closet of mine has been breached. Rather, it seems my relaxed and easy-going demeanor has encouraged Rwandan male friends and coworkers to exhibit physical acts of affection towards me.

In Rwanda, as in many other non-American countries, affection between males is not limited to back-patting and high fives. Indeed, as I have experienced so far in my month and a half in Africa, gentle touching, hand holding, and whole-hearted embrace are also conventional gestures of friendship.

I’m sure many would agree that in a North American context, men holding hands in public might indicate the presence of a homosexual relationship or just plain mockery. One begins to wonder why this mentality has not yet been adopted by Rwandans, a people who often consume American pop culture and music.

In a conversation between myself, fellow RI Intern Amy Dempsey and another good friend of mine from Rwanda (who asked not to be named), I began to find some insight into the situation. According to my friend, homosexuality is a very taboo subject in this highly Christian society. In fact, its existence is often flat-out denied. For many, including homosexuals themselves, homosexuality is beyond comprehension. Homosexual men here usually marry and have families, forcing them to develop their same-sex relationships in highly secret liaisons. It is therefore not surprising that the concept of homosexuality does not figure in the minds of men here when they engage in physical acts of affection and comraderie.

When Amy began to discuss the issue of bringing up homosexuality in Rwanda, our Rwandan friend told us to exercise extreme caution. He predicted that public responses are often highly negative, possibly even violent. He explained that now was not the time in Rwanda, or even in Africa, to worry about these types of social movements. The challenges faced by Rwanda today include corruption, poverty, economic development, and disease-prevention, just to name a few. The last thing needed is a potentially polarizing emergence of gay-rights issues in public discourse.

However, the women’s movement in Rwanda stands in high contrast with this mentality. Rwanda recently held a conference for group of female politicians from Sierra Leone, who came to learn why the majority of elected officials in the Rwandan parliament are women. I predict it has something to do with the constitutional requirement for at least 30% of decision making positions be held by females. Thus, this particular movement gained momentum despite the economic, political, and cultural barriers it faced.

I understand the sensitivity and contrasting views on the topic of homosexuality, and it’s place in society, even in Canada. It is not a question of when Rwanda will join Canada in the legalization of same-sex marriage. It’s a question of when is the appropriate time to begin acknowledging it’s existence, and for civil society to take it up as an issue to be debated.

Simply, when and how does homosexuality enter into reality?

Jul 15


adam_blog Adam Chen

The true capitalist would feel right at home in the practice of bartering.

In the end, for the capitalist at least, it allows him/her to participate in a down to earth exercise in trade: The buyer pays as little as possible, whilst the supplier charges as much as it can, until they both reach a compromised medium. It seems fair enough to me. So why do I often feel displeased with myself for the prudish acquisitions I make here in Rwanda?

In Rwanda, the first time Canadian traveller will experience a phenomenon known only by those born into an economically privileged society: bartering down an already lower than reasonable price. I’ve been told time and time again, first in my year-long venture into Ecuador, and again here in Rwanda: “Bargaining is expected in this society, so don’t be afraid to try and get the price lowered. They will charge foreigners more.”

In other words, let the game begin. 

Now don’t get me wrong, thrift is a necessary art for the (often) penniless student traveller. I am not criticizing what is often embedded in the culture of a foreign marketplace. Rather, I am simply trying to account for my feelings of guilt. It arises when I bargain a Moto-taxi ride down to 60 cents. It pops up when I buy a hand-knit sweater for 5 dollars. 

Am I being hypocritical? It is this exact willingness to ‘work more for less’ that attracts foreign company investment and lowers the prices of our products back home. Are my daily Canadian comforts not somehow provided by technologies and business-operations that in some way or another have production plants in developing countries? Is my grocery bag not stuffed with imported products with ingredients hand picked by foreign farmers? 

But the attitude is changing back home. Fair trade products, anti-sweatshop campaigns, and the rise of ‘going local’ shows there is a growing population in the west willing to pay more based solely on their recognition that things should be different.

And this is where I discover the root of my discomfort. The people I support and advocate for when buying fair trade products at home need the increased income to cover for basic health, food and educational needs. Yet here in Rwanda, when dealing face to face with people who struggle to cover these same issues, I play the bartering game.

Let me give an example. Outside of my workplace at the Kigali Genocide Memorial Centre, a moto-taxi pulls up. I offer 500 rwf (1$) for my ride home. The driver denies, asking for 800 rwf (1.60$). I say no thank you and move onto the next driver, who has already arrived at the scene. The new driver exchanges looks with the previous one, then refuses my offer for 500 rwf. He requests 800 rwf. The story repeats with the arrival of new drivers, until one finally breaks and takes the 500 rwf. The rest stare at him in disapproval. 

It seems my persistence has paid off. 

Now allow me to give another example. A group of impoverished coffee farmers decide to begin a coffee farmer cooperative. They act in solidarity with one another, refusing to sell their product to an international reseller for less than a price needed to cover their survival costs. However, the reseller offers a lower price, and does not budge. The cooperative breaks itself up, and one farmer takes the lower-than-subsistence-level price. 

Have I essentially become this reseller? Have I broken up a group act of solidarity and cooperation? 

I don’t know. Perhaps the comparison is too abstract to make, but yet it is where my mind wanders. And in this confusion, my daily dilemma arises: Do I pay what they ask for, or push the price down?