Arriving in Rwanda

Eleanor Hayes-Larson, GHLI Student Fellow
June 2011
I’ve been in Rwanda six days now, and I love it. I work in the Ministry of Health (MOH), where my focus is directed toward developing a national guiding document on research in the health sector.  I started my job in an “American Style” office, meaning it is a large room with clusters of cubicle-like desks. The staff has been very friendly and welcoming.
I recently had dinner at the home of one of the GHLI delegates. I met his family and a few friends. A conversation ensued during dinner centered largely on what people are paid in the U.S., and what sort of safety nets exist for the poor, as well as why on earth I would want to leave the U.S. to  spend a summer in Rwanda.   
The last part of the conversation was easy. Why do I want to be here? I am here to learn, to do what I can to help the MOH, and to get a sense of how more of the world lives.
The earlier parts of the conversation were harder to negotiate: The Rwandan men could not fathom how a country as rich as the U. S. could have homeless people. One of the men told me with pride that in Rwanda, you would “never pass a night outside” — somebody will always take you in.  Rwanda also has a very progressive, effective mandatory community-based health insurance program, so the same health benefits are available to the very poor as to the very rich.
There I was, coming from the wealthiest country in the world, having to explain to men from a country only 17 years removed from a genocide that decimated their population and infrastructure, why some people were homeless and didn’t have basic health care in my home country.  Shame is not quite the right word for what I felt, but it was certainly a bit uncomfortable. It was a reality check for me both about how the U.S. is often perceived.
After conveying the events of the evening to my dad, he commented “Your description of conversation topics reminded me that you are, in effect, an ambassador for the U.S.” While I don’t know that I would call myself an ambassador, the evening did remind me that I am doing more here than just developing research policy.
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