How many children do you have?”
I don’t have children.”
Oh, I’m sorry.”

The above is a more or less standard part of the conversation when I’m meeting someone new in Rwanda. After the usual inquiries into your name and where you come from, the next question will be how many children you have (that you’re married is obvious and not questioned, unless you’re very young). Most of the times I can’t help but laugh about it. The possibility of a voluntary choice not to have children, is unimaginable for Rwandans. Children are the reason for being, for men as much as for women, without children your life is not complete. This means that people who are not able to get children of their own, don’t remain childless. They “get” one or more child(ren) from their family members, to take care of and raise as their own (which doesn’t mean they loose contact with their biological parents, they just get some more parents). Moreover, having one child is piteous as well, then the straightforward reaction is “that is not enough!” At least two, when they’re girl and boy, but preferably three or four is ideal. There’s no need for more.

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Rwanda is a country with a high population density, the highest in Africa, and they have been striving to get and keep women into education and the labour market for decades. Birth control is standard government policy, contraceptives are available in health centres (unless run by the Catholic church, but until the church forbade it recently, the same nurses made them available next door). Not everyone knows when and how to use them, but at least it is not a taboo any more. Still, contraceptives are about limiting the number and spacing the births of children (that it is unhealthy for women and children when a woman is pregnant all the time, is no question anymore), not about preventing them. It is obvious that there will be children at some point. In South Sudan I sometimes, very carefully, got the question “Is it true that European women can choose themselves whether or not they want to have children?”, here it is simply unimaginable not to have them. Because I work with students, I regularly have a discussion with young (usually) men about the reasons to get children.
Your country needs children.”
There are people and children enough on this world, I don’t need to make some more.”
Who will remember you when you have died?”
I hope that does not only depend on kinship, and why would I care? I will not be there to notice.” “Who will you care for?” or the opposite “Who will care for you when you will be old?”
Enough people on this world to care for, and let’s see if a will become old enough to need care before I start to worry about that.”
What I haven’t heard so far is the question that comes up in this kind of discussions in Europe “Don’t you think children are lovely/nice/cute?”
Sure, there are many lovely/nice/cute children, although I’m sure all of them sometimes are unpleasant/annoying/unbearable as well, but again, there are enough of them around not to have to add my own.”

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These are good discussions, with an open mind and honest curiosity, but does it lead to real mutual understanding?  No, not really. Behind these discussions is another layer, a completely different world view, a different culture. The Dutch culture is individualistic. It’s normal to live an independent life and develop your own relationships, outside the family. Care is institutionalised and professionalised, not depending on relatives. The Rwandan culture is, like most African cultures, more group focused, communities are more important. Relations grow from kinship and care comes from the (extended) family. On the other hand, that kinship is not static, like in European cultures, outsiders can become part of the family (sisters might not be biological sisters but friends, a respect colleague at work becomes an uncle, with all strings attached). By now, one young woman adopted me as her mother… completely normal.

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Once in a while I don’t feel like having this kind of discussions, so I suddenly have some children. In the Netherlands, so nobody will know. If I just remember who I told what….


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