We arrived at the little village of Masaka, Rwanda at dusk and stumbled into a small, but well-kept house on a rolling plot of land. Nathan Amooti, the Bishop of the Anglican Church of Rwanda and founder of STAR School, welcomed us into the home with a bright smile, a warm hug, and a thurmace of ‘African Tea.’ Over the next forty days, the task assigned to our undertrained and some-what apathetic American team of six was to build an aquaponic fish farm for the boarding school; however, our real purpose and mission went much deeper than a construction project.
After exchanging greetings and sharing travelling stories, Bishop Nathan took on a more serious expression and tone of voice as he reflected on the country and school’s history, which inspired him to invite us to his home. “I wanted you all to come and stay on the school property, so that you can build relationships with these children. I want them to learn that it doesn’t matter if you’re blue, black, purple, or white. But that no matter who you are or what you look like, we all have things in common and we can all learn something from each other. This is what builds up good leaders of a country. This is how you prevent a genocide from happening. You stop pointing out differences and start finding similarities.”
Reading and dwelling on the subject of Whiteness and White privilege has made me reflect on my journey to Rwanda and has forced me to critically analyze my lifestyle and mindset that I possess here in the States. A repeating theme I see that has resonated with me most is that, despite good intentions and even extensive preparation, we as White people often harm instead of help the communities we go into and are apart of and even reinforce our places of power over minority and oppressed people groups. After a full semester of studying, mulling over, and reflecting upon the disturbing subject of White privilege, Professors Danielle Endres and Mary Gould hoped to motivate and provide students a way to put what they learned into action through a week-long service learning project. However, to their dismay, Endres and Gould observed that “the service learning project gave . . . many students a context for performing and recentering White privilege instead of challenging it.” They took on the week as a volunteer project instead of a learning opportunity, missing the whole point of their coursework.
My initial experience was much like that of the students’ described in their article fittingly entitled “‘I Am Also in the Position to Use My Whiteness to Help Them Out’: The Communication of Whiteness in Service Learning.” When I arrived to Rwanda, it was hard not to perpetuate the problem of Whiteness because the people of Rwanda seemed to almost praise the ‘amazungu’ (white people) and embrace the power of the white man themselves. They welcomed us with open arms, offered us their finest foods, and went out of their ways to greet us and make us feel at home. (Talk about a contrast between how we as Americans treat foreigners!) The children would run down the dirt road after our clunky van waving their hands and shouting gleefully “muzungu muzungu muzungu!” However, I quickly realized to my dismay, that their excitement was not necessarily out of a desire to form meaningful relationships with us, but out of a wanting for what we had to offer them. For many children, the only words they knew in English were “give me money.”
Looking into these dirt-covered faces and pleading, innocent eyes broke my heart and immediately sent me into a spiral of guilt. I took on what Warren and Hytten would call the face of ‘The Missionary,’ or what I like to call, ‘ The White Jesus Mentality.’ “The Faces of Whiteness: Pitfalls and the Critical Democrat” explains that “The Missionary, often armed with visions of interracial salvation and the desire to help others, hungers for direct and immediate action.” The problem with this face is that the infuriating realization of Whiteness often leads the outsider to impatient action without considering the possible negative effects or the desires and suggestions of the other. In taking the problem of poverty and White privilege into my own hands and assuming that I knew all the right answers and how to help, I perpetuated the problem. Meeting these children’s immediate physical needs without considering the long-term implications would reinforce the idea that they were dependent upon me, a White person, to get them out of their current state of poverty.
Later on in the trip, I learned how to say the Kinyarwanda phrase, “Oya ‘muzungu.’ Nitwa Rebekah,” which means: “Not ‘white person.’ My name is Rebekah.” I wanted the people in the village of Masaka to know me for more than the color of my skin or the material goods I could offer. Everyday I was there, my unearned and even undeserved privilege smacked me in the face, and I hated it. However, it challenged me to find ways to undermine the social construction of being White. To do this, I first had to shift my own way of thinking. As I worked alongside both my American friends and the Rwandan locals to build the fish farm, my mindset changed from helping ‘these poor, underprivileged people’ in Africa to learning from these hardworking, skillful, and loving people. I constantly became humbled by my inadequacies and how little I truly had to offer, and found myself learning much more from the locals, like how to lay bricks or use a machete to clear a field, then I could ever teach them. Learning the names of each worker and attempting to communicate through their broken English and my extremely limited Kinyarwanda, my work transformed from service to an opportunity to learn and grow.
Within the first few days, I realized that the Rwandans didn’t need me, or any of us Americans, there to build the farm. However, if we didn’t come, the special bond between our two very different teams would have never been made–and this was the greatest product of the entire project.
I learned that the most impactful way to challenge the system of Whiteness and level the power imbalance is not to use my position of power to help ‘those in need,’ but instead to simply form relationships with people, listen to their stories and concerns, and learn from what they have to offer and say.
Now, the real challenge is to know how to do this and what it looks like in the States. When any issue is blown up in scale, like it was in Rwanda, it is much easier to identify injustices and how to change. However, I continue to struggle to take this lesson and apply it to my everyday life here at a university where almost 80% of my peers are also White but the surrounding area of Harrisonburg is largely populated with multi-ethnic groups. In this context, White privilege is much more hidden and it is much easier to ignore the issue or become passive. How do we go about, as privileged white people, our day to day lives that does not perpetuate the problem? What is the appropriate approach? As many have acknowledged in earlier posts, we are to act as ‘Critical Democrats,’ taking cautious action, making careful reflections, beginning dialogues, and “allowing the passion and energy that produces guilt to be put to a productive use” (Warren & Hytten).