…life on the synaptic firing range

Location: Los Angeles, United States

Bent but unbroken Southern California native seeks understanding, companionship, and resonance along and off the beaten path. Teresa plays well with others and makes every effort to perform to her potential. Usually. *processed in a facility that processes nuts and nut products

Thursday, August 16, 2007

about those goats…

I make kind of a lousy sister, which distresses me not least because I’ve always harbored fantasies about how different my life might have been had my parents produced exclusively X chromosomes. A sister wouldn’t have intimated to me, just after our 1972 move, that our house’s former occupants, a family of four just like us, had all been murdered in my new bedroom. A sister wouldn’t have confined me in a padlocked homemade coffin until she could no longer hear my panicked hollering, later blithely noting that so long as I was able to shout she knew I still had oxygen. A sister would never have seized my clip-on bear collection and demanded the king’s ransom of two weeks’ allowance for its safe return.

Those of you with sisters may disagree with any or all of the above. Still, even if a blood-relative American sister could turn out to be a sadist just as easily as my blood-relative American brother, my Rwandan sister would never be so cruel, a certainty that makes me feel so much the worse that Veneranda Nyiahabimana, my first Women for Women International sister match, received neither correspondence nor goats as a result of my sponsorship.

It’s conceivable that Veneranda, given the option, simply didn’t care for any livestock at this time. Had I bothered to write, I might have gleaned more about her attitude toward goats by offering up my own goat anecdotes. I could have told her about the time, when I was in junior high, that a goat in the petting zoo at Knott’s Berry Farm—"America’s 1st theme park!"—cost me what felt at the time like a small fortune by eating the unlimited ride pass hanging from my belt loop, forcing me to buy another or face a rideless future—the future being the succeeding six hours or so. Then maybe I would have explained the U.S. concept of theme parks and why American children would want to go somewhere and pet goats.

I kept meaning to write. WFWI urges that sponsored women benefit as much from kind words as from material support. But the best intentions stretched before me until, finally, I received notice in late July informing me that Ms. Nyiahabimana had graduated from the 12-month program. (All sponsorship matches are limited to one year, at which time program participants are encouraged to put any acquired job skills and micro-enterprise financing to work, and sponsors are encouraged to make peace with the idea that while they may feel they’ve made a forever sister, their material support will henceforth be transferred to a spanky new sister.) I was delighted to see that Veneranda had provided her address for future correspondence, indicating that it’s never too late to right a wrong—provided I can locate someone versed in Kinyarwanda, because WFWI furnishes translation services only for active sponsorship relationships.

Despite my lax correspondence, I was eager to learn how Veneranda felt she had benefited from the program. And while I was disappointed that her exit interview didn’t address her lack of enthusiasm for goats, I was pleased that she noted improvements in her general housing conditions, health, self-confidence, and awareness of civil rights. And if I was at first chagrined that she listed knitting as her sole field of skills training undertaken, I quickly gathered that Rwandan women approach the craft with far less irony than do any of my stateside knitting friends.

Unemployed when our partnership began last year, Veneranda now identifies as self-employed in a nonagricultural (i.e., goat-disinterested) activity. She still struggles in raising five children, two of whom are hers by birth. The other three, she says, are nieces and nephews whose mothers, her sisters, are dead, as are her own parents. She has no husband.

Veneranda was around 15 at the time of the Rwandan genocide, and her living situation practically maps its ongoing social repercussions: Around 10% of Rwanda’s citizens were killed during that three-month period in 1994, leaving hundreds of thousands of orphans in the care of a population that was, when the dust settled, 70% female, thousands of whom were pregnant as a result of rape by militia men. Compounding mass rape with Rwandan laws forbidding abortion under any circumstance, the country now counts as many as 5,000 enfants mauvais souvenir (“children of bad memory”).

Despite such souvenirs, Rwanda’s women have been pressed to put their bad memories behind them. Veneranda, in her brief letters to me, wrote only of the importance of family, her faith in Jesus and prayer, and her gratitude for my sponsorship. “God bless you,” she wrote, or at least that’s how her translator interpreted her handwritten Kinyarwanda. She wondered about my family and living situation; and she requested pictures, if it wouldn’t be too much trouble. And that’s where I ran aground in my commitment as Veneranda’s sister.

The money’s easy enough, autodebited monthly from my account such that I hardly even miss it. But interpersonal matters are more complicated. Though I’m anything but closeted in my daily life—and could seriously give a flip how I’m perceived by folks who disapprove of “my lifestyle”—I’ve been at loose ends over just how honestly to describe my family to Veneranda.

“I have a female life partner and we’ve been together for nearly 13 years,” I might write, “which reminds me, how do you feel about President Kagame’s desire to update Rwanda’s penal code by criminalizing consensual same-sex relations?”

Or how about, “I’m pleased to hear that you take solace in your spiritual beliefs, though I don’t myself believe in God.”

Veneranda certainly isn’t in the minority in Rwanda, where 90% of citizens identify as Christian—and only 2% claim no religious affiliation. Roman Catholics account for roughly two thirds of the Christian majority, with the lion’s share of the rest falling to the Anglican Communion, the 77 million–member worldwide religious body currently engaged in a war of wills with the U.S. Episcopal Church, (presently) a province within the Communion that Anglican archbishop and primate (seriously, that’s the term for Anglican grand poobah types) Peter Akinola, who leads the African council of provinces, threatens to excommunicate en masse if the American body won’t stop treating the goddam gays as legitimate folk, a “plunge into unrighteousness” epitomized by the 2003 consecration of openly gay—and noncelibate—V. Gene Robinson as bishop of New Hampshire. Go, ’piscies!

Do not underestimate the vexation felt by Archbishop Akinola over the homo problem: “As we are rightly concerned by the depletion of the ozone layer, so should we be concerned by the practice of homosexuality.”

I’ve been called many things in my life, but this is almost certainly the first time I’ve been likened to a greenhouse gas.

As for Team Roman Catholic, Pope Benedict XVI’s views on homosexuality differ from Archbishop Akinola’s only in tone, and are more influential, articulated as they are from the throne of the head bully of the largest bully pulpit in the world: “[Homosexuality] is a more or less strong tendency ordered to an intrinsic moral evil, and thus the inclination itself must be seen as an objective disorder...”

Now, I know that our affiliations don’t define us. Nor can we each be held accountable for the views and statements of our leaders, religious or otherwise. I would hope, after all, that Veneranda doesn’t collapse my worldview with that of the current U.S. administration. But the words and attitudes of perceived authorities bear influence that doesn’t always confine itself to the philosophical sphere. For instance, according to FBI statistics, hate crime incidents against sexual minorities—gays, lesbians, transgender individuals—spiked by double-digit percentage points during President Bush the Younger’s first term, throughout which he campaigned feverishly for a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage. Lest that spike be confused with some kind of overall trend, violent crime on the whole saw steady decline during those same years.

Rhetoric kills. Rwandan propagandists’ violent exhortations to kill all Tutsis were broadcast on a popular radio station that blended music programming with hysterically pitched political talk shows. The shows' hosts sowed hatred and disgust for Tutsis while convincing rural Hutus that they would face genocide themselves if they failed to eradicate the other—along with any fellow Hutus who refused to join in the slaughter. Such motivations and actions seem far beneath the murkiest depths of human reason, especially as delivered through an entertainment medium, but I don't have to strain very hard to hear Bill O’Reilly’s or Rush Limbaugh’s voice urging listeners to wreak violence and destruction on all who are not like them.

So, what has all this to do with Verneranda? Well, I suppose I wonder if she might be predisposed to hate me. I wonder if Veneranda has been taught to love antigay Rwandan president Paul Kagame, and what he stands for, because his political party’s rise to power ended the genocide—even if it’s widely believed that his party was also responsible for the assassinations and ethnic tensions that led to the genocide in the first place.

Hey, here’s President Kagame with President Bush!

I think my reluctance to write Veneranda hinges on the fact that I know how easy it is to judge someone in the abstract. For instance, I know that there are complicated, thoughtful, open-minded Christians who view Scripture in relative terms and unreservedly accept me, until proven otherwise, as a worthy human being, and one whose sexuality is not pathology. But if all I know about a person is that he or she is a devout Christian, because of my own anecdotal and statistical knowledge, I may not anticipate such generosity of spirit.

Then again, if I fail to casually mention my female life partner and my spiritual disbelief, just as a heterosexual Christian would unreservedly speak of her husband and faith, how is anyone lacking such prior acquaintance to know that gay atheists can actually be pretty OK people?

So, Veneranda, how awesome is it that WFWI brought together two such disparate souls? You, with your unshakable faith in God, despite about a thousand reasons to doubt his presence in your life. Me, with my wary skepticism of the world’s dominant mythologies, despite any number of advantages for which I might offer thanks to some entity larger than myself. You, with your five children, those you’ve borne and those for whom you care because someone must. Me, with my constant nagging, however psychic, about goats—like you need any more “kids.” But even as you reject the goat husbandry lifestyle, I trust that you accept it as a valid way of life, maybe even one that’s “in the blood” for certain folks. Despite our own differences, I hope that we can still be forever sisters, because we actually do have quite a lot in common. We both live in a world where the human appetite for violence is unfathomable, where sexuality is too often weaponized, and where women are often charged with rebuilding what men have destroyed.

I’ll keep your address on hand in hopes of one day finding a translator, but it may be a while; while Kinyarwanda is the dominant language in your country, fluency in same is rare here. I do know someone who can translate my letter into flawless French, and it may be far easier for you to locate a French-Kinyarwanda translator than for either of us to find someone fluent in each of our own languages. That idea, I know, veers perilously close to an actual I Love Lucy plot. Has Lucy ever been translated into Kinyarwanda?

While we sort out our language barrier, I hope it won’t make you feel too much like a test-sister if I go ahead and write to my new sister, Halima Uwimana. I think you would like her. She, too, is a single mother of five, one of whom she bore herself, and she writes that she enjoys praying with her family. She asks after my husband and children and requests a picture—if it wouldn’t be too much trouble. I’m sensing a trend here. At any rate, I think I’m ready to address Halima’s questions, and I’ve received a mysterious sign that she’s ready to hear the answers: It may simply be a mistake in translation, but I prefer to think my sister Halima is speaking directly to me when she begins her letter “Dear brother…”


Blogger sporksforall said...

I am beyond amazed at your ability to make me laugh one minute, make me think the next and touch me the next. If Halima or Verneranda could read English, I know that they would understand what I know. Rhetoric, of the right type, can also redeem.

As to the goats...we could get one. The dogs would HEART a goat and it might make them stop chasing the cats. Besides, after the dogs started eating money the other day, what do we have to lose (besides more money) buy buying a goat?

10:25 PM  
Blogger Slangred said...

What a beautifully written piece.

I agree with sporks's comment about your ability wholeheartedly.

(For that matter, I agree as well that you should consider getting a goat.)

9:45 AM  
Anonymous funchilde said...

oh wow this is DEEP, but engaging too. i feel like i need to let this "marinate" for a while. Loved your thought about "Cheetahs" and wondering if they ever wish they could swim faster...hilarious. I was the tortous older sister, so though I think sisters are less prone to terrorizing siblings than brotherss...they are still beings who like to exercise our absolute power too!

7:01 PM  
Blogger Sarah said...

What a beautiful little goat! OMG the part about your sister and the ransom and locking you in a coffin, etc...too funny. The genocide, not so much, but educational. Great post chica. Stop by my site and say hi sometime, will ya?

3:53 PM  
Blogger WordsRock said...

scout, remember when you jokingly solicited us for funds so you could quit your day job and do what obviously is your life destiny?

Damn I wish I could afford to do it! :)

3:09 PM  
Blogger the only daughter said...

Now I want a sister again (this sentiment comes & goes)and oddly, a goat.

8:45 AM  
Blogger treecup said...

It is, sadly, testament to:
- my narcissism
- the extent that my relationship with my sister is horrid

and certainly NOT testament to:
- any lack of eloquence and depth of humanity on your part, both of which are stirring and deep

that my only comment is that yes, a"blood-relative American sister could turn out to be a sadist."


12:26 PM  
Blogger treecup said...

wait -- your eloquence and depth of humanity are stirring and deep, not the lack thereof. Or something. I can't seem to get the syntax right. You know what I mean: you deep, me not.

12:32 PM  
Blogger Little Blue Petal said...

You have a remarkable social conscience combined with such wonderful wit!

Your natural brother and sister sound +++whappy indeed. I would trade them in for goats. (Or in fact, for any type of mammal lacking opposable thumbs)

8:30 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Go find her. Have coffee together. And tell her everything. - MAW

9:12 AM  
Blogger Gunfighter said...

When I grow up, I want to be an effective writer like you.

7:56 AM  

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