Before we moved to Rwanda, my family and I were living in New York City. We lived there for about 20 years, and during that time I had started a non-profit organization, building schools and public health infrastructures in Zambia. About three years ago, we decided to move to Rwanda to be closer to the work that I was doing and for my husband, who’s originally from Zimbabwe. My husband, who works in banking and finance, wanted to find a way to use his skills in a more helpful way. He was hired to work with the Rwandan government on their investment strategies, and I joined an architecture firm called Mass Design, which does similar work to what I was doing previously with my non-profit, but on a much larger scale. Additionally, Mass Design uses architecture to bring really heavy topics, like public health within hospitals, issues of social justice, prison reform, and gun violence, to the conversation.
Living in a community where you’re an outsider is really interesting— I think everyone should do it once in their life, because it really gives you a lot of perspective about your privilege. We were in Rwanda for three years, and once the pandemic emerged, we were able to sit down and think about where we wanted to be if we were in the midst of a serious health crisis. It became clear that if Rwanda faced the same kind of difficulty with the coronavirus that countries like Italy or Spain or even South Africa were experiencing, their health care system would collapse. Rwanda is a small country, its GDP is 11 billion dollars— smaller than most U.S cities. There was no guarantee that if COVID-19 got out of control in Rwanda and you had to go to the hospital, that you would survive the virus.
Two and a half months ago, we were still trying to grapple with where all of this was going. Because our kids’ school had already closed, my husband and I decided to pack up and go. It was pretty hairy because my husband was working in the Rwandan government, and because he had been appointed by the cabinet as a senior government official, they let him know they were closing the airports and the borders. The question we were asking ourselves was, “do we want to be in or out of the country?” and we had about five days to make that decision.
We also still have a group of people we provide jobs to who have worked for us for three years, and because we just up and left them very suddenly, we’ve been continuing to pay them until we can figure out the next steps we should take. It really was a pretty hectic situation, but it also made me realize that material things don’t really matter. There are a few possessions you care about, but there’s very little you actually need. We left a vast majority of our things behind. It was difficult at first, but you just have to manage. It made me put myself in the shoes of people who have to flee from places due to economic hardships, or political oppression or famine, and they don’t even have the resources to be able to extract themselves quickly and safely. Then we arrived back in Boston just thinking, “what the heck is happening right now?”
The access to healthcare or lack thereof is affecting communities of color at much higher rates than other communities from other countries. The places that don’t really have any stable healthcare systems get hit the hardest, which includes most of the sub Saharan African countries. These kinds of disparities amongst countries seem appalling, and the focused attention towards western countries, like the United States, is extremely Eurocentric or "Americentric". Sometimes, as Americans, it seems like we’re making the pandemic about ourselves, only taking the time to focus on our country’s numbers— like the 2 million cases and the 110,000 people who have died— and failing to care about the rest of the world.
We've become the story, but we’re not really the whole story. The story is this disparity that you see amongst varying countries all over the world. The United States, for example, is not weathering the coronavirus well because of poor decisions on behalf of our governments, but other countries aren’t weathering the coronavirus well because of geopolitical issues that have always kept them from advancing— so much so that now, these countries face immense fragility in the face of a pandemic.
My husband explained this to me and it made perfect sense: millions and billions of dollars from the government aren’t put in the market to be lent to developing nations. Instead, that money is going to American businesses and a small portion of people— and not to where it’s really needed. So while our economy begins to go down, we’re also sucking the global economy dry by trying to keep ourselves afloat. These ramifications will have to be dealt with over time, but most people here in America won’t really feel it.
In general, it’s going to be really challenging for people to see that this pandemic isn’t only about them. I feel like there’s often a lack of regard towards the collective, and towards our global influence. For example, while we’re concerned about wearing masks, there are entire economies collapsing and being destroyed across the world, disproportionately affecting people who really can’t afford to lose anything. A country like Rwanda that has a good government, and has done everything right for the last 15 years in terms of investment and trying to channel money into education, but now the whole economy is sliding backwards because of the coronavirus and it’s going to take another 15 years to recover from this— and that’s just one case of this happening globally.
The people of Rwanda are amazing, smart, educated, committed and for no fault of their own this pandemic is really going to disproportionately affect them. That’s very upsetting to me.
Written by: Siobhan Kelley