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Navigating Identities in Rwanda

Peace Corps’ Intercultural Competence, Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Accessibility (ICDEIA) approach seeks to reflect and support the diversity of the United States through its staff and Volunteers, who represent a broad collection of social identities, including race, ethnicity, color, national origin, disability, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, age, religion, marital status, and socioeconomic status, among others.

How might a Volunteer’s social identities impact their service?

The information below provides additional context about how different social identity groups may experience service and what types of ICDEIA-related support you can expect from the Peace Corps.

Accessibility and disability considerations

Peace Corps staff will work with Volunteers with disabilities to support them in training, housing, job sites, or other areas to enable them to serve safely and effectively. 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. Given the steep terrain, muddy soils, and lack of accessibility infrastructure, Rwanda can be extremely difficult for people with physical disabilities or blindness. While PC Rwanda, has no programming tailored to deaf and hard of hearing Volunteers, PC Rwanda is positioned to consider placement at deaf/hard of hearing schools through our Teaching English as a Second Language Project.

Gender role considerations

It will be important to absorb and understand the cultural nuances of gender roles in Rwanda. During pre-service training, you will receive an introduction to gender awareness in Rwanda and will take time to examine your own thinking about gender roles and how they have impacted you.

Traditional gender roles are very distinct in Rwanda. Generally, women are expected to show deference to men and do most of the housework. Unfortunately, sexual harassment (i.e., unwanted sexual comments) is common and Volunteers develop a variety of means to cope with this issue. 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.

LGBTQI+ considerations

The Peace Corps actively supports Volunteers and staff of all genders and sexual orientations and encourages Volunteers to serve as allies to their fellow Volunteers in all aspects. Rwanda has a much more conservative culture with regard to sexual orientation and non-conforming gender identities. While same-sex relationships are not criminalized in Rwanda, there are no laws protecting individuals from harassment or discrimination. It is not uncommon for LGBTQI+ Rwandans to be arrested and imprisoned under various laws regarding public order and morality. Many Rwandans have unaccepting views about same-sex relationships. It is important for LGBTQI+ Trainees and Volunteers to know about these conservative attitudes to be able to live and work productively in Rwandan communities. Former Volunteers in Rwanda report that they could not be open about their sexual orientation for fear of negative repercussions and safety risks.

Peace Corps Rwanda staff support our LGBTQI+ Volunteers through a staff Safe Zone composed of Leadership, Safety and Security, Medical, and Training staff who provide safe, confidential support to LGBTQI+ Volunteers. During Pre-Service Training, all Volunteers receive Safe Zone and LGBTQI+ in Rwanda and Region sessions that provide context on the legal, professional, and social environment. LGBTQI+ affinity and ally peer support groups are available in-country, providing a peer network to support the needs of the Peace Corps Rwanda LGBTQI+ community.

Racial and ethnic diversity considerations

Because of limited exposure, most Rwandans will expect all U.S. citizens to be White, and are unaware of racial diversity in the U.S. For Volunteers, the range of responses to their skin color may vary greatly: from being mistaken for a community member or being questioned about their U.S. citizenship, to facing behavior and language skill expectations or ridicule, to being able to negotiate better prices for goods and services. All Volunteers should be mindful of the issues of race/ethnicity that are embedded in U.S. culture and may continue into service in Rwanda.

All Volunteers 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, or “foreigner”). 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 while others find integration more challenging because they are held to Rwandan cultural standards (especially for female PCVs) instead of the standards of foreigners. Over time, however, as communities come to know the Volunteers, they are referred to by their name instead.

PC Rwanda ICDEIA training provides a variety of sessions and resources on serving as a Black, Indigenous, or person of color (BIPOC) Volunteer, and/or those serving as first- or second-generation African Americans. PC Rwanda supports peer-led affinity and allyship groups for Volunteers of color.

Age considerations

Older Volunteers may find their age an asset in-country and will often have access to individuals and insights that are not available to younger Volunteers. A 50+ individual may be the only older person in a group of Volunteers and initially may need to put in extra effort to feel part of the group. Because of this, they may find that their best social networks are those back in the United States and not with other Volunteers. Some 50+ Volunteers may find it difficult to adapt to a lack of structure and clarity in their role after having worked for many years in very structured and demanding jobs. The use of different technologies might also serve as a challenge to those who have not been introduced to them before.

Religious considerations

There are a number of religious groups in Rwanda. The most numerous are Roman Catholics (56 percent), Protestants (26 percent), Adventists (11 percent), and Muslims (5 percent). Around 2 percent profess no religion. A very small number of people practice indigenous religions exclusively. It is believed that some adherents of other faiths incorporate traditional elements into their own practice.

Former Volunteers report that they received pressure to attend religious services. The Peace Corps suggests that Volunteers exercise individual choice should the situation arise. Practicing religion that is of a different faith than the most commonly practiced in Rwanda can be challenging for Volunteers. Volunteers may find it helpful to plan the ways in which they intend to adhere to personal religious practices prior to coming to country.

PC Rwanda supports Volunteers of minority faiths (within the Rwandan context) by providing Pre-Service training on the Religious Context in Rwanda and supporting peer affinity and allyship groups for practicing members of minority faiths.

Considerations for Volunteer couples

Couples often face pressure from community members to change their roles to conform better with traditional relationships in-country. Community members will often not understand American relationship dynamics and may be outwardly critical of relationships that do not adhere to traditional gender roles. It is also helpful to think about how pressures to conform to local culture can be challenging to men and women in very different ways. Considering how your partner is being affected and discussing what, if any, aspects of your relationship should be changed can help reduce stress for both.

Types of ICDEIA support available in country

During pre-service training, Volunteers receive a number of intercultural competence, diversity, equity, and inclusion sessions on a range of topics including:

  • Identity mapping
  • Community integration
  • History and modern culture of Rwanda
  • Coping with unwanted attention with gendered breakouts
  • LGBTQI+ Volunteers in Rwanda and the region
  • BIPOC Volunteers in Rwanda
  • Religious context in Rwanda
  • Optional affinity and allyship sessions for LGBTQI+ Volunteers, BIPOC Volunteers, and Volunteers of minority religious groups

In addition to pre-service training, Peace Corps Rwanda has several ICDEIA support mechanisms, including:

  • Peer Support Network comprised of Volunteers who receive coaching and confidentiality training from the Peace Corps Rwanda medical officers. The PSN’s purpose is to help Volunteers support each other with ideas and skills to cope with the stress of service.
  • ICDEIA Committee comprised of Volunteers and staff to support Volunteer training, collaborate on program and policy growth within the ICDEIA space, and serve as an additional support resource to Volunteers during service.
  • Safe Zone comprised of Peace Corps Rwanda staff to provide safe, confidential support to LGBTQI+ Volunteers.
  • Peer-led affinity and allyship groups for LGBTQI+ Volunteers, BIPOC Volunteers, and Volunteers of minority religious groups.