Okay, I’ll preface this post by saying first of all that I have no intention for this blog to be political. Left, right or somewhere in between we are all subject to a relentless downpour of political news, opinions and memes on every medium virtually 24/7. I have no intention to add to that, however, I would like to talk about the now infamous shithole comment that stirred up quite a controversy last week.
Yes, in the Trump era something that happened a week ago may as well have happened a year ago, as far modern political news cycles are concerned, but it’s something I’d like to bring up now anyway. To be honest my inspiration for this post had nothing to do with any personal outrage on my part. It stems from what happened the day after the story broke when a group of our boys approached me with a question – “Can you explain the word ‘shithole’ to us?”
I never considered that our boys would have heard the story, so I was completely caught off guard by the question. But that feeling was very quickly replaced by a sick feeling in my stomach. Obviously I was going to have to tell them the meaning, and inevitably that would make them understand what the President of the United States – my president – thinks about their continent, their country and, by extension, them.
I explained the meaning as best as I could to kids who speak English as their second or third language, and the reaction was, well, it was what you might expect. Some tutted, a few looked at each other with a bit of confusion and others just stared at me as if waiting for me to give some explanation that would lessen the insult somehow. Then the inevitable follow up question was asked; “Does America think that about us?”
Now it might be easy for you to think, “Why would they think that?” due to the fact the program that looks after them was started by Americans, is managed by an American (me), and is still primarily funded by Americans. Most of the people who visit the Imizi Children’s Center bringing clothing, shoes, etc. are also Americans. If that crossed your mind then you’re missing the bigger picture.
America has always projected the image, right or wrong, to the world that we are the first modern democracy and the standard bearer for representative leadership. How then, can we as a people say we don’t agree with Trump’s comment when a majority of us (at least as far as they understand it, electoral college arguments aside) chose him to represent our country and, by extension, our views.
Yes, the situation and circumstances are far more complicated than that, to us anyway, but not to them. Our children, staff and many Rwandans and Africans look to America as something to aspire to, despite our flaws, so when our president calls their countries shitholes the implication is that they are such because of the people who live there – people who in most cases are just trying to survive day by day while aspiring to something greater. Something like America.
In this case I can tell you first hand that it was not only a blow to our kids’ view of America – which, in the grand scheme of things is probably a hard lesson that they needed to learn eventually – but it was also an emotional blow to them personally.
Remember that our kids, being former street kids, have experienced the ugly side of life during their most formative years. Their early lives saw them enduring abuse, abandonment, neglect and constantly being told that nobody wants them around and that they will never amount to anything in this world. We spend years working to rebuild their self confidence and self esteem, and to make them truly believe that someday they can be successful, have a family of their own, and be a part of a better Rwanda and Africa. As unbelievable as it may sound to you, that shithole comment struck a nerve with our kids, which I am sure is the reason they approached me to explain it to them at the earliest opportunity. It hurt them, and I believe that they turned to me for some kind of reassurance that collectively as a people we do not look down on them in the same way that our president – our leader – looks at them.
I guess what I’m trying to get across is that America’s influence remains very powerful, and our president’s words, whether they be from the mouth of a Bush, Obama, or a Trump, have an impact far beyond political rallies, world diplomacy and global economics. We remain, for now anyway, the big brother on the world stage for many countries. At Imizi we tell our older boys that they have a responsibility to be kind, set a good example and always be helpful to their younger brothers and sisters in the program. This is because, whether they like it or not, they are looked up to as leaders.
America is like a big brother in the eyes of so many, which is why the words of the leaders that “We, the People” chose to represent us have real consequences, not only internationally, but to individuals great and small alike. I wish more Americans understood and appreciated this responsibility, and that Trump himself could understand the real impact that his words have on people all around the world, because it matters.
Thank you for reading.