On this blog, there have been excellent posts about everything from refugee
camps to genocide history. But Cassie Giraldo and I have been
wondering about the lives of real city girls, young women like ourselves
who in Rwanda break from the typical narrative of poverty and loss.
Cassie has been tracking young social tech entrepreneurs, and tonight she
got us an invite to join some of these young tech women at the mall. (Yes!
The mall! Cue Forever 21 and Orange Julius.) But unlike my own geeky 20s,
the four women who joined us were confident, sassy, and weren’t shy about
mocking guys, or griping about how hard it was to get a work visa to
The tech hub girls wore Twitter and SalesForce shirts and beanies, paired
with stylish leather jackets, curled eyelashes and colorful nails. The one
non-tech girl, Joanna, was already married, but was probably the sassiest
and most outspoken, oohing over the sexiness of Will Smith and arching
well-defined eyebrows when she wanted to make a sarcastic comment.
They milled through the mall, chatting and laughing inside a store that
looked like a replica of Forever 21, admiring heart-shaped earrings and
talking about how most Rwandans went to the movies for dates (whether you
were officially dating or not).
The mall, the girls, the theatre…I felt like I had never left America.
That I was walking through a replica of youth and U.S. malls. That perhaps
we weren’t that different at all, despite all the news stories that paint
us in starkly different lights.
There they were, these four women in their stylish clothes and confident
strides. The new Kigali. So like American youth, I couldn’t help but wonder
if that’s what Rwanda was ultimately aiming for.
“Everyone wants to get to America,” the 21-year-old with braids told me.
“They see it as the land of opportunity. Even if you go to the worst school
in America, you can come back to Rwanda and get the best job.”
That was why everyone tried to get a visa, she said. But there was loads of
paperwork. And it was expensive. And if they thought you wouldn’t come back
to Rwanda, they wouldn’t give you the visa.
“Most go and don’t come back,” she said.
You got the sense that as much as their appearance mirrored American youth
on the outside, they were still striving against some invisible barrier for
But we also noticed the topic kept returning to marriage. When Joanna
flashed her marriage ring, the other girls leaned in admiringly. “You are
married?” they asked, as if she’d announced she had won an Oscar. She was
the envied one.
The other women talked about how busy they were with school and computer
But I got the sense that the unspoken narrative was that while everyone was
for female empowerment and sending women to school, after she graduated,
she was expected to marry and settle down. That her education would be used
to raise smart children. And that despite schooling and talk of female
empowerment, that was still the expected role. Even among the handful of
grown men I spoke with, that seemed to be the expectation. Like female
independence lasted through graduation, and marriage marked a different
chapter of living within a preset role. (Mind you, this is just an
observation. But it was interesting to see the different ways female
empowerment was interpreted. And I suspect, on the flip side, perhaps they
even slightly pitied us for still being unmarried by our mid 20s.
Perception is all through the tint of the wearer’s lens.)
Either way, we left the evening with new friends and new insights. And
either way, Kigali’s youth were reshaping and moving toward a new future.