It was December of 2013, and I was sitting out on a lawn chair, my swimsuit on sunglasses on my face, with an iced Malibu and POG drink in my hand. As I simultaneously stared out at the beautiful Hawaiian beach, I was also fully engulfed in the book “An Ordinary Man” by Paul Resesabagina. Now there was some disparity in where I was and what I was reading about. As I sat in the glorious privilege of being outside the condo I had the pleasure of growing up with in Kihei, Maui, I read about the privilege of life that was stripped from the Tutsis in what we all know now as the Rwandan Genocide. This book was my initial introduction to Rwanda.
Let’s fast-forward to 2017. I am now a student at Middlebury Institute of International Studies and I found out about an international development and social change program that would occur in Rwanda in January of 2018. The DPMI Program, which stands for Design, Partnering, Management, and Innovation, was started here by Dr. Beryl Levinger and has been a pivotal learning opportunity for MIIS Students, working professionals in development, as well as international partners. From what I heard from other students that had done DPMI, I was sold on the program itself, but the fact it was happening in Rwanda made my heart lurch with excitement. Yes, I wanted to do the program, but I REALLY wanted to go to Rwanda. 4 years later, and I would finally be able to compare my incredibly limited view of Rwanda to what it was actually like on the ground.
I arrived in Rwanda on January 6 and was immediately amazed by how clean this country was. Not a piece of plastic touched the ground. There were police all around the streets that were meant to enforce laws, such as littering and traffic laws. There were women with their brooms on the street dividers sweeping and pulling out weeds all day every day from morning to evening. This country looked immaculate and so well-kept. This was not the country I had imagined from my book. Yes, that book took place in the 90’s so it was practically 30 years later, but this place looked even better kept than the United States. This is not how most impoverished (developing?) countries I had known looked like.
The DPMI program was occurring in Rwinkwavu, an area east of the capital of Kigali at the international health NGO, Partners in Health. Our objective of this program was to conduct field research in order to educate ourselves on some pertinent issues in Rwanda, and then design and present a well-thought out and adaptable social marketing campaign for Partners in Health. We had ten days to do all of this, and only a few days to fully brief ourselves on challenges that Rwanda faced. Easy right? Here we are coming in with our western perspectives, as well-educated students, looking in at a country the majority of us were just introduced to for our first time.
I was assigned to the Maternal Health group where I was due to work with 3 other MIIS students and one male Partners in Health employee, John. The day we were scheduled to conduct field research, we went out to a local community to meet with community health worker and a single mother. These two women welcomed us into their homes, as strange as we were, and let us ask some inquisitive questions about the health system in Rwanda and how they personally felt about it. The significant information we acquired were that many women felt like they had to make family planning decisions on their own since it’s “the woman’s problem.” They also felt pressure to have more children so that they could birth a boy and have more help in their fields. Women also feared some family planning methods due to bad experiences from their friends and neighbors, and from religious fear-mongering.
Interviewing two people was not quite adequate in being able to paint a full picture for us regarding maternal health, but this is what we had the opportunity to learn and what we had to work with. The information we received this day is what helped us decide on our social marketing campaign being focused on promoting the dissemination of information on family planning methods in order to debunk false side-effects, as well as promoting shared decision-making between partners.
When we presented to the Partners in Health directors, they applauded us for focusing on such a pertinent issue but were not shy in letting us know where we were lacking as well. Maternal health is such a huge issue in Rwanda that we didn’t quite have the time or ability to fully address all of the issues such as access to these family planning methods. This was noted as an even bigger problem than proper information on family planning methods. So yes, our target was in line, but we missed the full scope.
Visiting, learning, researching, and studying in Rwanda reminded me of the immense privilege I still remain with, while also teaching me where I lack. In my 2 weeks in Rwanda, I was allowed to look into a slightly bigger window than the book had originally allowed me to, but my perspective was still morphed by the glass. I will never be able to fully grasp a Rwandans experience. No matter how much I may verse myself about an international country and their issues such as this, I will never fully understand. But just because I will never fully understand does not mean I shouldn’t try. This window has given me the opportunity to come here before you today and give you a little bit more of a perspective on Rwanda, a country that holds a great story with so much to learn from.