Note: Pictures to come!
Last week in Kinyarwanda class, we learned to talk about our families. This was an extensive and sometimes confusing lesson; the words used to describe an older sibling of the same gender are different from that of a younger, both of which are not the same word used for a sibling of the opposite gender. Does that make sense? Because I’m still trying to figure it out and get the words straight.
But what I was most intrigued by in this lesson was the way in which children are handled in the Rwandan family. As most of my siblings have children that I am closer in age with than my actual siblings, it seemed only natural to me to ask about the term for nieces and nephews, but the response I got astounded me.
My brother’s children are my nieces and nephews. My sister’s children, however, are thought of as my own children as well. Conversely, any man’s brother’s children are referred to as his own. In this way, the raising of children is thought of as a communal task, with very few children being raised with only a single mother or father.
My jokes that I would have children that are older than me if America followed the same system went unappreciated.
I have already seen the effects of this system within my own host family. Until just this week, I hadn’t realized that one of my host sisters is the biological daughter of my host mother’s sister. I’m still not clear on exactly why she is living with my family instead of her own mother; however, in the construct of Rwandan culture, those reasons don’t matter at all. She could have simply showed up one day and said “I’m living here with this family now”, and she would have immediately been taken in as a daughter with no questions asked.
On the other side of this, many Rwandans seem to have a very difficult time understanding how the American family works – though, let’s face it, most Americans do too. One trainee told me that her family simply could not comprehend the fact that her parents might ask her to pay any sort of rent if she had to move back home for whatever reason. From what she told me, their answer amounted simply to “but you’re their child”. Another trainee has had to explain multiple times that, although his brother has started a business and made lots of money, he does not directly profit from his brother’s success. Most Rwandans seem to think that his brother owes him a car.
There is no way to make a better or worse comparison when looking at the familial structures of Rwanda and America, but I have found something beautiful in the way the Rwandan system functions. Maybe it’s more obligation than love that binds some families together, but at the end of the day it does seem to come back to one all-important word: umuryango (family).
Listening to Now: Lost In My Mind, The Head and the Heart
Word of the Day: Abasingeneza (Niece/Nephew – so only my brothers’ children for me)