The Rwandan Way of Saying I do

Solène, 25, is one those Rwandan girls who have drunk  so many cups of fresh cattle milk- inshushyu that her skin has the natural glow of the water that trickles from a rock. A nurse at Plateau Clinic has confirmed her worst nightmare – that she is pregnant.

  This sudden announcement has taken the shine off her beautiful face; her lovely fair complexion has darkened. She can’t call her family just yet and instead dials her best friend’s number.

Solène atendeka (double dates) two men. The one she is really in love with is not her official boyfriend. The one she truly loves is a friend from high school. She couldn’t date him simply because his faded jeans and humble background wouldn’t sit well with her family. He would also be a source of ridicule from her friends. ‘Have you seen the loser Solène is dating?’ They would whisper behind her back.

These reasons pushed her to say yes to Joe, her “cover” for seven months now. Solène despises his rich people’s arrogance, his disdain for the poor, his pretentious manners, and the superior expressions that his face displays like the way he never say thanks after receiving a service or the way he always want to give a tip instead of queuing like others. But despite this, she goes steady with Joe because he inspires the pride and offers the luxury that her heart desperately desires.

Solène is what many Rwandans call umukuzi, a profiteer; as she double dates and stays with Joe for financial reasons. His money is the only quality she likes in her businessman boyfriend, the father of the baby she is carrying.

Nationwide, 47% of all pregnancies are unintended and sex before marriage is taboo in Solène’s homeland, Rwanda. And as she goes to the church every Sunday, she is supposedly a “good virgin girl”. This is why it’s difficult to announce her pregnancy to her family. She will blot out the nearly perfect image, the virtual label she has proudly worn for 25 years.

“Why haven’t you taken contraceptive pills or used a good condom while they are available in all pharmacies of Kigali?” Asked a cousin with an accusatory tone.

‘You must abort!’ Her best friend told her, as did several other close friends.

But her moral sense refused to take this path. In addition, the church mentor who guides her said:

“If you follow this ghastly choice, God will never forgive you to kill His child, He will course you”.

If Solène accepts to miscarry her foetus, she will be among 25 abortions per 1000 women in Rwanda. A third of abortions are done by various faiseuses d’anges, French for angel makers, as traditional healers are known. 14% and 19% of abortions are performed by midwives and doctors, respectively. The majority of women who abort are among the most vulnerable: unmarried, first time mothers who are below 25 years.

Solène’s second choice is to keep the baby and be ashamedly a single mother or… to get probably married to Joe. Even if she is a great beauty, she is not confident enough that if she misses the opportunity of marrying Joe, he will wait for her. She is conscious that he is an eligible bachelor and her mother has told her that if she dares to wait, he will be an easy prey for other ambitious female scroungers starting from her church choir mates.

Ninety four percent of Rwandans are Christians. Whenever they get married, they engage in a civil ceremony, traditional wedding and a church service. These three parts of a Rwandan marriage have to be accomplished for one to feel “fully married”.  Unfortunately, this ‘full marriage’ sometimes lacks the good old love and focuses more on social as opposed to romantic functions. The common reasons behind this union being unintended pregnancies, age, social pressure, financial interests, better employment opportunities and then…. deep affection.

As the foundation of the actual marriage is not solely love, several conflicts arise. In 2013, Rwanda faced 508 murders, assaults and suicide cases related to family conflicts. Extra marital affairs have increased considerably and sugar daddies have run riot. Due to unhappy marriages, there are also young men called abapfubuzi who offer their services to satisfy old sugar mammies.

The huge challenge behind this syndrome is that the same people who teach responsible sexual behavior, the same pastors who preach the Christ on Sundays and the same parents who are supposed to plays a role model for the youth are the same individuals who hide in bar saloons to offer gifts and money to younger and more assailable for sexual favors.

To save her honor, Solène has decided to marry Joe. She chose comfort to love as it is becoming a sad habit in Rwandan unions.

In the past, a woman was considered as “umutima w’urugo” (the soul of the family). She was not allowed to voice her thoughts too often or to share her complains too loudly. She was meant to keep her feelings at the bottom of her heart and humbly accept her blissful or painful destiny. A respectful Rwandan woman was meant to raise a family and take care of the husband. This cultural aspect of obedience and humility has slightly changed thanks to flourishing women emancipation.

The Rwandan woman who had silently faced gender based violence in the past is now aware of her RIGHTS. She now knows that her dignity is non-negotiable.

As women are more empowered, they are allowed to defend their rights including the right to divorce. Rwanda counts 3.4 % divorced women against 1% men, a seven-fold growth since 2002. Still, it’s harder for a divorced woman to find another stable partner. Consequently, she often remains single after divorce, which can expose her to sexual depravity. The same is true for a single woman who becomes accidentally pregnant, especially in rural areas. Most men will not consider her to be ‘wife material.’  

It is against this backdrop that Solène cannot risk becoming an unwed single mother. Her parents are so eager for their daughter to give birth within marriage that they take a bank loan to fund her wedding.

On a Saturday evening, Solène’s aunts organized a kitchen party where all males and children were excluded. These elder and wiser women gathered young girls with Solène and shared with them the secrets of a successful marriage. But this practice is no longer commonly current as Rwandans reach a higher level of modernization.

A week later, the traditional weeding was celebrated in the morning hours. The dowry was paid to Solène’s parents. Women were in shining traditional “imishanana” and men wore dark western suits. The DJ has played the very popular:

Araje araje araje, araberewe ni umugeni mwiza mumurangamire…..

This is song by a local artist that accompanies the bride when she comes to greet her husband-to-be. The assembly was cheering as Solène comes out and women’s eyes were verifying if she is really pregnant and turned to each other to agree or refute this fact. The bride was gracefully walking in procession with friends or cousins of the same age. Just in front of her, there was an older woman who guided her steps to Joe. After the dowry ceremony, they went to church. 

To cover the shame of pre-marital pregnancy, Solène wore a wedding dress that covered her pregnancy bulge.  As they escorted her to the holy altar, her father and mother were grateful that the white bridal veil was covering the bride’s sorrowful eyes. 

They smiled, celebrated, drank, ate, prayed and danced.  They rejoiced that the wedding had saved their family from a scandal.

They had gambled on Joe’ wealth to help paying back their credit.  Although the bank loan now weighs heavily on them, they believe that they have done the “right” thing.

Since Solène was born, her parents have never mentioned the “sex topic” in front of her. The only time that they have talked about her body with her, was at the age of 12 when she had her first menses. She has learnt the rest of the sex knowledge in a biology course back in high school, different public plays she watched and through animated debates with female friends. In these discussions, no one was very sure of what was true or not and everyone used to choose what makes more sense to her as they all pretended to be innocent.

Solène remembers that her cousin has accused her to not using contraceptive measures. What that cousin ignored was that she has never needed them before Joe. {This was to be a simple comment: As he was the first ma she has known}. She has blindly counted on his expertise which unfortunately led them to premature marriage.

  Solène’s family could have prevented this unplanned pregnancy by having an open and honest discussion about sex education at an earlier stage of her life. Instead of learning from Solène’s situation and protect her younger sisters, they have covered the smoke while their home was on fire by encouraging her to get married.

In Solène’s life; the main role to raise awareness about the dangers she encounters as a beautiful young lady was played by public services instead of being a joint effort between her family and the government.

Rwanda has accomplished what no other country has done: to increase the contraceptive prevalence rate by more than 10-fold in a decade from 4% in 2000 to 45% in 2010.

Last year, 0.24% of the National budget was allocated to gender institutions and now Rwandan women have access to modern contraceptive including  injectables, male condoms and the pill if they are 21 years and above. However, these efforts are not always supported by local churches that preach abstinence and encourage the youth and elders to avoid sexual relationships out of marriage. These contradictions are likely to confuse young people and create a feeling of guilty shyness if they had to talk about sex.

With sex being unmentionable and limited access to information about productive health; women like Solène are still exposed to consequences of unprotected sex and early pregnancies. It’s still challenging for them to know who to talk to and where to seek assistance in spite of existing.

In the middle of different social and public laws that protect Solène, which one reminds her aunts during the kitchen party to tell her that being a single mother is also her choice? Which law would protect her from judgmental and sadistic stares from her family, colleagues and the entire society? Who would compassionately tolerate her illegitimate pregnancy? What if it’s the society itself that pushed her to marry Joe while she tenderly loves someone else? Why do the church and her community tolerate her more once they know that she is pregnant but will get married soon?

Solène believes also that she has protected her baby by offering him a chance to live in a family. Yet if her marriage fails, her child will have the misfortune of growing in a broken home. Even if she would have the financial security that most women aspire for, she would be tempted to secretly meet the other boyfriend and fall in the vicious circle of adultery.

As Solène is a highly educated person with a modest and stable job; if she had chosen to raise her child alone, she would have broken the impenetrable ice of societal judgments.

She would have completely agreed with those who preach women empowerment. She would have inspired other girls to say no to early marriage.

She would have been the hero of women who get married just because they are too afraid to be criticized.

She would have defied cultural laws that oblige her to obey her parents no matter what happens.

She would have understood that obeying one’s parents doesn’t necessarily mean sacrificing one’s dreams.

She would have lived the experience of a woman who can stand on her own two feet.

She would have known the experience of choosing.  Then she would have invited love to her heart. And finally, she would have been a fully emancipated Rwandan woman, who chooses what is the best for herself.

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Published in Life