Like Me

Basa nanjye.

They look like me.

This is something I feel without even considering it when reading most books or watching most movies. Finding characters with whom I identify—who in some way represent some significant portion of my experiences or beliefs—is so easy that I never even think it might be a privilege. Specifically, I have never struggled to find characters who look like me.

So for an entire month, I chose to only read books or watch movies written by or about people who do not look like me.

It happened this way: I wanted to show video clips to my Senior 4 general studies class. We were wrapping up a unit on communication, and I thought they deserved to have a little fun with their end-of-unit review. Making them apply all the concepts they’d learned by analysing and critiquing some interactions in movies seemed like a good idea.

Choosing clips to show them, though, turned out to be a time-consuming and frustrating task. It’s difficult to find brief interactions that are understandable without knowing the slang used, details of the culture, or the broader context of the film.

But the biggest challenge I faced was finding clips that portrayed diversity.

Because none of my films are Rwandan, I was inherently presenting a series of tiny glimpses into American culture. And yet it seemed every example I could find (that wasn’t peppered with slang or dependent on culture and context) showed the same thing: white upper- or middle-class Americans living white upper- or middle-class lives.

Now, in interest of full disclosure, I do not have the entire internet at my disposal. I could not simply open my browser and search specifically for films portraying more diverse realities. And I’ll be quick to admit that my collection of films is likely not representative of the entire body of Western entertainment.

But… I have nearly 550 films and TV shows on my hard drive. I ran some numbers, and here’s what I came up with. Of those ~550 films:

  • 349 feature an entirely white main cast
  • 61 have a mostly-white main cast featuring one or two token characters of colour
  • 26 feature a character of colour in the lead (sometimes sharing that space with a white character)
  • 97 feature what I deemed a diverse cast
  • 63 of those diverse casts feature white lead characters
  • 22 include no white characters
  • 15 feature a majority of characters of colour

film data

Factors that should affect the conclusions drawn from those numbers:

  • I did not include sequels (so, for example, seven diverse Fast and Furious films only total one point for diversity)
  • many of thse include characters of colour fulfilling (usually negative) stereotypes
  • the numbers do not account for minor background characters of any colour
  • some are international films and by default include entirely non-white casts (such as my small Bollywood collection)
  • some are set in a time/place in which racial diversity would be incorrect (i.e. Jane Austen films)
  • some, especially animated films, include characters of colour played by white actors
  • at least six of the “majority-non-white-characters” films arguably portray white saviour complexes

Twist my numbers however you want, but I don’t think you can work out a way to make them match up to US demographics, especially if you remove the Japanese and Indian movies, which make up the bulk of the “POC Lead,” “Majority POC,” and “All POC” columns in my spreadsheet.

There’s a difference between knowing that entertainment features and often propagates a lack of diversity and experiencing firsthand the frustration of actively looking for diversity and not finding it.

At this point, a friend and I decided that for the month of June, we would only read books or watch movies that were created by people of colour, featured a person of colour as the main character, or included a majority non-white cast.

I quickly became frustrated with my movie options. Not only were they severely limited in number, but they were also seriously limited in genre. If I wanted an action film, Denzel Washington or Jackie Chan had my back. But try finding a chick flick that isn’t about white people. (J-Lo saved me there, but my point stands. You can only watch Maid in Manhattan so many times in a month.)

I’ll be the first to concede that not every film should include racial diversity (as I’ve mentioned above, I own an insane number of period dramas, which in general do not and, for historical accuracy, should not include racial diversity)—but there should be more.

We need more.

I should see people who don’t look like me across the spectrum of genres and across the spectrum of character types—not just the bad guy, not just the soldier, not just the inner-city kid. I want more than the token Asian guy, the sassy black woman, or the expendable first-to-die-in-any-horror-film.

And people who don’t look like me should be able to see themselves in media. They should see themselves portrayed honestly, not boxed into stereotypes. They should see themselves in every genre and every form and every personality. They should see themselves breaking boundaries without overtones of white saviour mentality. They should see themselves as complex villains and complex heroes.

Creators of fiction, whether in print or on film, have a responsibility not only to portray the world as it is, but to portray the world as it could be.

We aren’t limited by the demographic statistics. We aren’t limited by reality. We have the freedom to dream up and share the world that we want to see.

And the world that’s limited to white characters with the occasional extra tossed in to fulfill the diversity quota…that’s not the world I’m dreaming of. That’s not a world I want to live in.

My students here hold the beliefs that all Americans are white, that being white by default makes you smarter, that having lighter skin makes you more attractive, that all white people are richer than all black people.

I want to change these beliefs.

But right now, the media is not helping me.

Q&A

​Thanks to everyone who sent in questions! I’m excited to tell you more about my life here. 

Who are your best friends? 

It actually took me quite a while, and sometimes I thought I would spend two years feeling very alone—but partway through training I found my place with three friends: 

  • Colin, who constantly makes us laugh and is surprisingly quick to listen to other people’s opinions
  • Claire, who knows more philosophy and literature than the rest of us and constantly forces us to think hard and re-evaluate our ideas
  • Emily, who has all the practical knowledge under the sun and encourages all of us. 

We laughingly call our group Safety Dance and are planning a family reunion sometime in the next month or two.

The four of us take family photos whenever big things happen, such as this one at host family farewell.

What are you reading? 
I’ve been trying to keep it varied:

I’m slowly working my way through St Augustine’s Confessions and Oswald Chambers’ My Utmost for His Highest. I just finished Beloved by Toni Morrison and Good Omens by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett, and I’m halfway through Hugh Laurie’s The Gun Seller. 

(I also didn’t sleep for two straight days because I was reading Luminosity and Radiance, a Twilight reimagining along the lines of Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality. Don’t judge; just go read it.) 

What do you wish you had known before travelling overseas? 

I’ve done quite a bit of travelling before, but I’ve mostly been to European countries where there’s never a question of whether or not my bank cards will work or what conveniences I can find. Here I’ve been told that my bank cards will probably not work—meaning I have to work out alternative ways to access my bank account if I want to, say, hike Kilimanjaro (I want to) or see the gorillas (I want to)—and while I was told my internet would be sketchy at best, I really didn’t have a good grasp on what that would mean or how many aspects of my life would be affected by that lack.

What’s been the hardest adjustment you’ve had to make? How are you overcoming it? 

Socialising! Relationships are a cornerstone of Rwandan culture. Greeting people is significant—to refuse to greet someone implies that they don’t exist for you—and Rwandans love to visit and be visited. 

And I am an introvert with social anxiety. If I’m not careful, trying to meet the standard of being friendly to everyone leaves me exhausted, both physically and emotionally. 

Overcoming this is mostly about pacing myself. Instead of trying to greet every person on the street, I limit myself to people I know, people who greet me first, and old women and children, unless I’m feeling particularly energetic and friendly. I only force myself to leave the house once a day. It’s also growing easier as I get to know more people in my village; I now have several friends with whom I feel comfortable almost all the time, so I can socialize with them and not feel like I need to sleep for a week when I get home.

(A close second is constantly having to defend being single and the principle that it’s okay to be single/to want to be single. In this culture, there’s no word for “woman” separate from “wife.” You’re either a girl or a wife. It’s emotionally and mentally more tiring than I expected to constantly tell people that I’m not married, that I don’t particularly want to be married at the moment, that I don’t plan to marry the first Rwandan man who asks me, that I might never get married.)

How can I send you mail? 

I’m glad you asked! Check out this page, which has my mailing address and some advice about the best ways to send things. Some volunteers have had problems with missing mail, but so far all of my things have arrived in good shape in a more or less timely manner.

Are there restrictions on what I can send? 
I’m sure there are. You should check with USPS if you’re not sure about something, since I don’t have the rules memorised, but here are a few things I do know: 

  • You’re not supposed to send liquids
  • You’re not supposed to send money
  • Packages take a long time so anything perishable will stink by the time I get it 🙂 


Do you feel your training prepared you for site? 

Yes and no. I don’t think anything could have fully prepared me for the experience of standing alone in my own house with no furniture, matches, or charcoal, knowing nobody, in a place I had never so much as visited. At the same time, here I am, two months later, beginning to feel really at home in my village. I haven’t starved and I have made friends. I could not have survived here without the training I was given on both a cultural and a practical level. And while I think my language was (and still is) hugely lacking, there’s also only so much you can learn of a complex new language in just three months. There are some practical concerns that I wish had been addressed during training, but it where explicit information was missing from training, I gained cultural and language skills and a flexible attitude that make it possible for me to now solve problems as they come up. 

I should also add that other PCVs and PC staff have been available to answer all my questions and my neighbours and coworkers have gone above and beyond to help me out of any jams I’ve gotten into. 

Do you have time to draw? 

Sometimes. I haven’t drawn much since coming here in part because I’ve had a lot of other things taking up my creative energy (such as lesson planning with no resources!) and in part because I couldn’t bring my favourite medium—my collection of coloured inkwells—with me. 

Here’s a quick doodle I did during a training session—I walked home behind these three women one night. Also I can’t get my phone to rotate the picture, so you’ll have to rotate your heads. Sorry.  

How have you adjusted to using different currency? 
Having no frame of reference for what was expensive of cheap was really difficult at first. The conversion rate hovers around 1USD to 850RWF (Rwandan francs), so the prices don’t look even slightly similar to American prices. During PST I started viewing all prices in relation to an average meal at my favourite cheap restaurant, which helped. Now I have a much clearer sense of what prices are expensive in relation to each other and to my income—and to the average Rwandan’s income—and I usually don’t even think about it.

What has been the hardest thing you’ve had to experience so far?

The level of poverty. Abject poverty is the norm here, not the exception. It’s hard having children dressed in literal rags visit me and tell me they don’t go to school because their parents can’t afford to buy them a uniform, or having a child walk several hours to go door to door through my village asking for work because he’s hungry. “Eliminate poverty” is the first answer my students give to almost any critical thinking question I pose. It’s incredibly difficult to live among these people knowing that even my meager income is higher than theirs and that I can’t do much for that aspect of their lives. 

What new food have you liked?  
I like a lot of food here, but my biggest surprises have been igikoma—porridge—and ubugari—a gelatinous “bread” made of cassava flour. In both cases, seeing the texture made me expect to be stifling a gag reflex, but igikoma became my favourite snack during PST and ubugari has a mild, woody flavour that makes it a great base for sopping up sauces.

What have you learned about yourself, and the individuals you’ve met, during your time there so far? 

About myself: 

I am a lot less patient and flexible than I thought! Being here has pushed me to limits I didn’t know I had. I’ve gotten angry about miscommunications and I’ve given way to frustration with coworkers, friends, and supervisors. I constantly have to check myself and my reactions.

About the individuals I’ve met: 

The thing that has been constantly impressed on me is that they’re just that: individuals. Culture can predict a lot about how someone will react, what they’ll say, etc.—especially in a place like Rwanda that’s small and mostly homogenous in a way the US isn’t—but people here are just as unique and individual as anyone else. Control-freak me wants to be able to predict and navigate all social situations by understanding culture, but that’s not how it works. It’s simple and profound, but the truth is that these people, just like all other people, are not their culture; they’re themselves. 


Feel free to keep sending me questions via Facebook, comments, or direct messages! I’ll collect them and keep answering until they run out.

One Who Works Willingly

​Ndi umukorerabushake. 

I am a volunteer. 

Umukorerabushake” is perhaps the longest Kinyarwanda word I know, and I learned it early on by memorising its parts:

Umu: the singular prefix for a person

Korera, derived from gukora: to work

Ubushake: a will or desire

Put all together, it literally means “one who works willingly.”

This is something I understood when I applied to come to Rwanda, that I would be working willingly. 

I remember saying once, “In the worst case scenario, I find out it’s hard and I hate it, and I work really hard for two years to do something that helps someone else.” It sounded noble at the time, but more than that, it sounded feasible. 

Today I’m lying on my bed, alone in my house, the only American in my village (although I keep hearing about a French guy in town?), and the term umukorerabushake seems very far away. Work seems like an abstract concept. Until school starts in about three weeks, my only work is integrating—a small word that carries a big punch in the Peace Corps. 

On paper and in PST lectures, “integration” means walking every road in my village, meeting everyone I can, visiting houses, attending religious and social functions, asking questions, memorising names, learning everything I can about the village, it’s people, and my place in it. 

But in real life, integration is much less standardised and much more personal. 
For some of my friends, it has meant joining church choirs, playing sports, or hiring local kids to haul water. For me, it has often meant simply opening my front door every day. 

Some days, of course, it means more than others. Sometimes it means walking down the street to another teacher’s house and having a conversation on her couch. But sometimes I consider it successful integration if I manage to return my neighbour’s milk jug in the morning. 

On Tuesday it meant greeting everyone I passed on the way to the market and learning the name of the girl who helped me find garlic and potatoes. But then it meant not crying on the way home before I locked myself in the house for the evening. 

A sense of guilt hangs over me, a pressure to do more—to know more names, go more places, to ask more questions. Somehow the freeing idea of working willingly gets lost in this heavier idea of doing all the right things. 

But this isn’t about “all the right things.” Someone pointed out a while back that, “we are the resource Peace Corps sends,” and if they wanted to check off a box, they could ship in some materials, hold a week-long training, and walk away. But they don’t. They ship in us—individuals. Scared, excited, uncertain, hopeful people with a mediocre grasp on the language and a passion for some aspect of this job and a lot of quirks.

Some of us have convenient quirks, like enjoying visiting strangers. Some of us have inconvenient quirks, like anxiety. But we are all here to work willingly. 

In a few weeks, when school starts, that working will involve lesson plans, counterpart teachers, and classrooms full of students, and we will do that willingly. 

Right now, though, sometimes that work involves walking out the door and breathing at the same time. And that, too, we find a way to do willingly.