Diversity and cross-cultural issues in Rwanda

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In fulfilling the Peace Corps’ mandate to share the face of America with our host countries, we are making special efforts to see that all of America’s richness is reflected in the Volunteer corps. More Americans of color are serving in today’s Peace Corps than at any time in recent years. Differences in race, ethnic background, age, religion, and sexual orientation are expected and welcomed among our Volunteers. Part of the Peace Corps’ mission is to help dispel any notion that Americans are all of one origin or race and to establish that each of us is as thoroughly American as the other despite our many differences.

Our diversity helps us accomplish that goal. In other ways, however, it poses challenges. In Rwanda, as in other Peace Corps host countries, Volunteers’ behavior, lifestyles, background, and beliefs will be judged in a cultural context very different from our own. Certain personal perspectives or characteristics commonly accepted in the United States may be quite uncommon, unacceptable, or even repressed.

Outside of Rwanda’s capital, residents of rural communities have had relatively little direct exposure to other cultures, races, religions, and lifestyles. What is viewed as “typical” cultural behavior or norms may be a narrow and selective interpretation, such as the perception in some countries that all Americans are rich and have blond hair and blue eyes. The people of Rwanda are justly known for their generous hospitality to foreigners; however, members of the community in which you will live may display a range of reactions to differences that you present. We will ask you to be supportive of one another.

To ease the transition and adapt to life in Rwanda, you may need to make some temporary, yet fundamental compromises in how you present yourself as an American and as an individual. For example, female trainees and Volunteers may not be able to exercise the independence available to them in the United States; political discussions need to be handled with great care; and some of your personal beliefs may best remain undisclosed. You will need to develop techniques and personal strategies for coping with these and other limitations. The Peace Corps staff and the Peace Corps/ Rwanda Diversity and Peer Support group will lead diversity and sensitivity discussions during your pre-service training and will be on call to provide support, but the challenge ultimately will be your own.

Overview of Diversity in Rwanda

The Peace Corps staff in Rwanda recognizes adjustment issues that come with diversity and will endeavor to provide support and guidance. During pre-service training, several sessions will be held to discuss diversity and coping mechanisms. We look forward to having male and female Volunteers from a variety of cultures, backgrounds, religions, ethnic groups, and ages and hope that you will become part of a diverse group of Americans who will take pride in supporting one other and demonstrating the richness of American culture. Our approach to diversity is to:

  • Prepare our staff for working with a diverse population of trainees and Volunteers
  • Prepare trainees and Volunteers for adjusting to issues related to diversity
  • Prepare communities for working and living with Americans from diverse populations

What Might a Volunteer Face?

Possible Issues for Female Volunteers

Traditional gender roles are very distinct in Rwanda. Generally, women are expected to show deference to men and do most of the housework. Sexual harassment (i.e., men making unwanted comments) is common. As a Volunteer, it is important to stand up for your rights and beliefs as a person while still being culturally sensitive. Female Volunteers should expect curiosity from host country friends regarding their marital status and whether they have children, and if not, why.

Possible Issues for Volunteers of Color

The average rural Rwandan assumes that all Americans are white (Caucasian). With this assumption, Volunteers of color might expect people to react to them differently. White Volunteers, as well as Volunteers of color, may receive special attention, both positive and negative, including being harassed for money, especially in public areas. Non-Africans in Rwanda are called abazungu (the plural of umuzungu). Volunteers of Asian descent may be called umushinwa, or Chinese, because the Chinese have had a presence in Rwanda for many years. Some Volunteers of African descent have found it easier to gain acceptance into their communities; however, many are considered abazungu because they are not Sub-Saharan African. Over time, however, as communities come to know the Volunteers, they are referred to by name instead.

Possible Issues for Senior Volunteers

The Rwandan culture has great respect for age. As a senior Volunteer, people may offer to do things for you as a sign of respect.

Possible Issues for Gay, Lesbian, or Bisexual Volunteers

Homosexuality is illegal in Rwanda and is punishable by imprisonment or deportation. Many Rwandans have beliefs about homosexuality similar to those of many Americans in the 1940s and 1950s. It is important for gay, lesbian, or bisexual Volunteers to know about these conservative attitudes to be able to live and work productively in Rwandan communities. Past Volunteers in Rwanda have reported that they could not publicly acknowledge their sexuality for fear of negative repercussions. We suggest that anyone wishing to discuss this subject do so in confidence with a Peace Corps staff member. The medical office can provide confidential counseling and help connect you with the gay and lesbian support group for returned Volunteers.

Possible Religious Issues for Volunteers

There are a number of religious groups, the most numerous of whom are the Roman Catholics (56 percent), Protestants (26 percent), and Adventists (11 percent). Other groups include Muslims, who account for about 5 percent of the total population, and about 2 percent who profess no religion at all. A very small number of people practice indigenous religions exclusively, but it is believed that some adherents of other faiths incorporate traditional elements into their own practice.

Possible Issues for Volunteers With Disabilities

Rwandans who are physically challenged are generally not accorded the same human dignity as other Rwandans. Regardless of the nature of the physical challenge, social services are generally lacking for these Rwandans. Peace Corps/Rwanda complies with the Americans With Disabilities Act to ensure productive Peace Corps service by physically challenged Volunteers.

See also: Rwanda