Hi friends & fam, sorry it has been frightfully long. here is a quick read we thought you might find interesting. Aaron & I wrote an article for our PC Rwanda newspaper “SOMA” [which means "read"]. Enjoy! Questions & comments always welcome.
THE UMUKOZI DILEMMA
As a preface, this debate signifies a longstanding conversation we have had in our time here in Peace Corps- whether or not to have a house worker. We have both gone back and forth from side to side and have landed in a place where we both feel comfortable and happy. We choose to organize our discussion through an Oxford style debate, in order to make the read more enjoyable and also to show the sometimes extreme views of both sides. Neither I nor Aaron agree with everything in this article, but are merely presenting the arguments.
The Motion: Peace Corps Volunteers should do their own domestic work in Rwanda.
For the motion
For most Americans the thought of having house help was initially off-putting. Most of us were bred to abide by hard work, sweat, blood, tears, and take pride in their lack of superiority. An American authority can sweep their own floor, clean their own clothes, and cook their own food with out a second thought. We are taught to viciously contest inequity and to embrace differences while eradicating divisionism. As PCVs entering Rwanda, many were shocked to find the widespread use of house help and were brought to face a dilemma- to hire or not to hire. I believe the answer is not to hire, here is why.
As PCVs we are called to integrate into the culture while simultaneously sharing our own culture. Choosing to do one’s own housework is a simple way share something positive about America- that we aren’t afraid to get our hands dirty and that we are capable of doing anything. It can be empowering for a Rwandan to see a PCV working hard at domestic tasks, especially cross gender. That is why we are here, to challenge others to see a new meaning of equality, of social strata, and of their own beliefs. Hiring an umukozi also solidifies the classism that already exists and continues to separate rather than enable those who are of a lower disposition. The umukozi feels inferior to most others in their community, and hiring them solidifies their position as invariably lesser. The people who are often hired as umukozis are generally undereducated and stagnant on the social ladder. Hiring them does not give them new skills, new ideas, or upward mobility: it gives them temporary monetary growth, which will unfortunately be gone in two years when service is finished.
Finally, I fear moving this too far into an ethical realm, but it is an evitable part of this argument. Hiring a domestic worker can create pitfalls for volunteers within their homes. One of these pitfalls is viewing another person as less than human. Volunteers with domestic help become accustomed to giving orders and them being followed. They are constantly in a position of power. This can build an unhealthy sense of entitlement that can seep into other relations with HCNs.
All volunteers are faced with the paradox of adapting to a new culture while holding true to their own. We all know how to clean, cook, do laundry, and work for ourselves. From our history we know of the harm division causes. Vote for the motion: that volunteers should do their own domestic work.
Against the Motion
The question of whether or not to hire an umukozi is one that many Peace Corps Volunteers wrestle with when they first arrive at site. More than likely, they have been exposed to the labor intensive work of daily household tasks (cooking and washing clothes in particular) during their pre-service training. There is also a pretty good chance that the host family to which they were assigned had a domestic worker despite their economic standing. I would argue that these experiences gained during their first 3 months in country is more than enough to make an informed decision about whether they will be doing their own domestic work or not. I will also argue that that decision will and should be to hire a domestic worker to accomplish the strenuous tasks of daily life in the village.
The old adage that ‘time is money’ is one that holds true, even in a country that has different views of time and how it should be spent. As volunteers, we seldom see an employed Rwandan doing their own housework. And it is not because they are unable, in this country people see doing their own housework as a waste of time. In general, the rule of the culture is that if you have the means to hire someone, you should. Not only is it seen as a waste of time (even here) if you don’t, one might even be viewed as “selfish” or “miserly.” This is yet another reason to hire a worker, aside from the fact that a volunteer could be spending 3-6 hours a day cooking and cleaning otherwise. Those 3-6 hours a day – a conservative estimate in my view – could be better spent doing what we as volunteers were brought here to do, which is give instruction and work in positions where help is needed. Arguably, the American government did not send us here to sit in our house for a majority of the week struggling to cook for ourselves and ineffectively wash clothing. Some volunteers may choose to navigate this problem by eating peanut butter 10 times a week, but I for one think the choice is clear: hire an umukozi; vote against the motion that volunteers should do their own domestic work.
For the motion
If PCVs are tasked to integrate with all people in a culture, is it really possible to connect on an equal level with someone to whom you give orders, who washes your dirty clothes and sweeps your floor? Is it possible to view them as equally human while you sit on the couch as they do your work? In the states equality is a standard we all fight to keep. By hiring someone to do your work you are by definition superior, and thus not equal. You mentioned that the time could be better spent doing other tasks related to primary or secondary assignments, but an important secondary assignment is cross cultural sharing. By not hiring an umukozi you are sharing an American ideal of humility and hard work. It can be very thought provoking for a Rwandan to see an American hoeing their own garden or washing their own clothes. It provides a simple opportunity to provoke new ideas and even debate. 2-3 hours a day is worth that [which is a generous estimate in my opinion].
Against the motion
Let me first address the rebuttal, as I disagree with the premise that we are tasked with integrating with all people in the culture. Female PCVs are not “tasked” with integrating with the many chauvinist leaders here. I can leave it at that without turning this debate into a “what is integration” discussion. I would only say that in many instances, a PCV’s umukozi is often his or her most constant friend in the village. Having an umukozi is an opportunity for friendship, an opportunity to polish kinyrwanada, and a vital link to the inner workings of the community around you (and yes I’m talking about gossip, or more politely, the news).
As far as the pitfalls and superiority issues, I leave that to the individual volunteer to manage. The risks far outweigh the benefits in my opinion, as the community surely won’t see a volunteer as a shining beacon of hope for a world devoid of class. What WOULD make more of an impact would be the community seeing a volunteer treating a domestic worker as a person, with grace and respect for the help they are being adequately compensated for – which I trust that a volunteer would do. The American ideal of hard work and humility can be shown in the workplace, where it will have a far greater impact on those around them.
Against the motion
In closing, a vote against this motion is a vote for a realistic perspective of volunteers and their work here. We are not here to change a culture by dismantling it in one fell swoop, in my view if we are to bring about meaningful change, whether it be in the realm of inherent inequality or classism or another aspect, we must do so little by little. Not only “slowly by slowly” but with much thought and consideration as to the effects of our actions either way. I believe that I have made it clear that there is no real harm to hiring an umukozi and by association not doing your own household work. Vote against the motion, thank you much.
For the motion
In speaking of classism, fixing the problem little by little implies that it should be accepted in some circumstances. Hiring an umukozi is perpetuating inequality, little by little. By not hiring an umukozi you are making a small change that will ripple. How we treat all people, including our neighbor’s umukozis, the women at the market, the umudozis and shoemudozis, our colleagues, the mentally disabled, the old, and the young will all be noticed and could inspire others to look at their own behavior. How volunteers choose to spend their money will be noticed, how they dress will be noticed, if they carry an avocado on the road one day it will be noticed and spoken of for weeks. All of these behaviors are considered. We are by no means here to change a culture in one fell swoop, and perhaps not at all. We are here to learn from Rwandan culture and learn more about our own culture and engage in thoughtful respectful discussion, in which we hope change occurs in both ourselves and our neighbors. To promote equality, humility, and new ideas vote for the motion.