A few weeks ago I taught an extended yoga class at Heaven- an outdoor café in my neighbourhood, Kiouvu, with a beautiful view overlooking the city. I had wanted to do a 108 Sun Salutations event, like the one I did in London that raised money for this trip. The Kigali yoga community was not ready for that so I taught a Yin-Yang yoga session instead: the first of its kind in this city.
The event came about because several people who come to my weekly class at the US Embassy had asked if I could teach on Saturdays. Also, previous We-actx yoga volunteers had been in conversation with the venue about starting up classes. Not wanting to commit to a weekly class, I approached the manager at Heaven Café, Sara, to discuss the possibility of the venue hosting an extended yoga class every few weeks to raise funds for We-actx yoga. She agreed. We set a date, fixed the price and put the word out; hoping people would sign up.
In discussions about pricing the event, Sara had said there might be resistance if the price was too high, people being used to things being a little cheaper. There were mutterings in the yoga community, which at the moment is pretty much made up of expatriate NGO employees, that the price of RF10,000 (approx $18 or £10) was too high. I stuck to my guns, kept putting the word out and waited to see what would happen.
20 odd people signed up and 15 came along, including a few We-actx volunteers. The event was a success. It was a pleasure to teach and those who attended felt unquantifiably better in body and mind and said they would most definitely attend future yoga fundraising events. We raised RF120, 000 (approx $200). Another session was scheduled for mid August and I hope future teachers will keep this modest income generating event going.
I have also been asked several times by Rwandans (outside of We-actx’s remit) where they can go to learn yoga. At RF5, 000, the weekly class I teach at the US Embassy is too expensive for lower waged folk. I’m looking into where I might be able to teach a regular class, at an affordable price for the less well off Rwandan public in Kigali. In spite of the scepticism I have encountered in relation to yoga now and again (yoga being un-Christian, aligned to sorcery etc.), there does seem to be a growing interest. Daddy, owner of Torero Cafe in Kigali is thinking about hosting a free taster sessions in the back room of the venue. There is not much time for this opportunity to come to fruition but its good to at least plant the seed. Much like yoga volunteers did at Heaven.
I have been thinking a lot about money in relation to yoga as professional work and my expectations around both. This is obviously a big and complex subject which at ground level is affecting my voluntary experience in ways that make me want to review my work values, expectations of payment and money in relation to yoga.
On the one hand, I have experienced expats shying away from paying what I would consider to be a fair price for a yoga class they would have to pay a lot more for at home. Wanting to pay a teacher RF5, 000 (approx, $9.00, £5.50 or €6.32) for a one hour private one-to-one session seems untenable. Even though Kigali is one of the most expensive African cities - food and rent are not at all cheap - expats generally earn a handsome wage and have a comfortable lifestyle to compensate for living so far away from home. A smoothie in Bourbon café (the Starbucks equivalent in Kigali), will set you back RF3, 500 (£3.50). It’s a bit pricey, but those who can happily pay for the pleasure and the convenience do.
As a yoga volunteer, I am here to give free yoga classes to We-actx service users: HIV+ genocide rape survivors and their children and the medical/administrative staff. The former have very little income and the latter are better off but on the whole earn much less than the average expat. I teach them all willingly and with a real sense of joy. When I teach yoga to the relatively wealthy expatriate western community, I find I have an expectation of payment aligned to my skills and training. So, although I also teach my expat clientele with a sense of joy, I have found myself on occassion challenged around the issue of payment and needing to renegotiate fees. Here I meet the thorny issue of yoga and money head on.
Yoga texts such as the Bhagavad Gita, advise us to think not of the fruits of our labour and to give from the heart with love, in the spirit of true Karma yoga. This seems effortless when teaching We-actx service users and staff but more challenging when teaching people who I perceive to be relatively wealthy. Why is this? My shifting sense of alignment, identification, ego, self worth, social values and self-awareness all interplay in an ongoing negotiation I have with myself and others here, each and every working day.
Money's to Tight to Mention.
Now, on the other hand, I have had numerous experiences of being asked for money by Rwandans - sick and disabled beggars on the street, children and people who are obviously not completely badly off but have much less me – who they see as a bottomless pursed ‘muzungu’ (foreigner / white person). I have many reactions and responses depending on numerous things. How much change I have, how much time I have and how present and open I am in the moment of engagement. I tend to give a few coins to children and beggars when I have change. But with opportunistic beggars, trying their hand at getting money out of a tourist/ expat, I can feel more defensive: not all people who come from the west are rich. I do not have endless resources. I am not a bank! Even though I am better off than many here. I have been asked for hard cash, clothes and books from people some of whom I know and am working with. It’s difficult to have to say no so often. But at home in London, I can find myself shutting off.
I have passed beggars by with hardly a glance. Heartlessly rejecting their encounter, preoccupied by an internal dialogue I cannot bring into the brief moment of engagement. Sometimes I connect, chat, laugh and am persuaded or feel inclined to give. At other times I simply want to enjoy meeting someone on the street without money being involved. I don’t want to feel I am buying a moment of human interaction. I don’t want to feel that the main reason people talk to me when I’m out on the street or want to befriend me is that they need or want money. But maybe it sometimes is.
Of course I have been stung a few times, paying over the odds for this and that. It happens. Soon after I got here, I asked a small favour of someone and, not yet knowing the relative value of money, over tipped wildly. I saw the look of surprise on her face and noted the split second of hesitation before she quickly took the money out of my hand before I caught on. I had not intended to give so much and felt I had been inadvertently stung (or stung myself!). On reflection, if the tables were turned, I’m sure I would probably have done the same myself and in the scheme of things it was not a huge amount of money. But there is so much more to it than money. There is the much larger personal and social context at play.
Yet another angle is the positions of NGO organisations that engage many volunteers to carry out their vital work. The days of volunteers receiving expenses (minimal) for their services are, on the whole, long gone. These days it seems to be the norm to pay to be a volunteer. Not only for travel, board and lodging costs but also a fee for the opportunity to gain experience through voluntary service. The problem with this situation is that it tends to favour those who have the financial resources (or access to people with financial resources) to pay for voluntary experience. Though of course one can always fundraise - where there is a will there is a way. Many thanks to all those who contributed to my Rwanda fund that paid for me to be here having this very life changing voluntary work experience. Discussing this over dinner this evening, all sorts of things came up: for some, the idea that volunteer work is essential for their feeling of humanity; that organisations with a high volunteer turnover are loosing people because they take them for granted, while those organisations that invest in valuing their volunteers (not necessarily through financial remuneration but sheer appreciation) enjoy joyful and dedicated service; that long term involvement in voluntary work can lead to the unhealthy belief that, in general (i.e. outside of voluntary work), it is ok to remain unpaid for services rendered over and above ones job or one is unwilling or reluctant to have to enter into negotiation to get a reasonable wage, etc.
It’s all very interesting and challenging. I mull over the knowledge that the privileges many of us enjoy in the West are often built on, cause and perpetuate poverty in other parts of the world, both currently and historically. Yet I can’t say I am not happy that my mother moved to England from Nigeria to join my father when I was almost five years old. I would have had a very different life had we stayed in Lagos. Not that I would have been more or less happy, but I would most probably have had far fewer opportunities and been raised in a much, much less materially comfortable environment.
What is it that makes expats (myself included) want to pay less? Is it just because we are in Africa and Westerners have come to expect things in Africa to be cheap (er)? Perhaps it’s something to do with our perception of Africa and Africans that are filtered though distorting lenses of colonial and postcolonial histories? Or maybe it’s that some of us know what things should cost and pride ourselves in paying the ‘right’ price – not the ‘muzungu’ price. Yet muzungu prices are an inherent part of the tourist economy, which is desirable and nationally promoted. Conversely, do people who are poor really think that everyone from the west is rich? I imagine some do and some don’t. I have an inkling that, for a good number of years, I believed all white people were rich because my father was wealthy enough to take us away from the poverty we lived in in Lagos and bring us to a relatively luxurious life in London. (Our home was in fact a modest lower middle class household). It’s a matter of perspective, experience and education among other things. And, dealing with this at ground level is not easy but a necessary part of daily life not just here in Kigali.
It is possible to be on either sides of the equation at different times. Is it possible to move beyond a binary equation and look at things more in terms of relationship? It is all so complex. We are all so fluid. Some of us are oppressors; some of us are the oppressed. Roles are reversed in different contexts. Sometimes we are so open and trusting and want to give the shirt of our back while at other times we are so mean - caught up in our own selfish desires and needs, with not a thought for the suffering of others. Then there are times when we are grounded, present and able to move from the heart and embrace others with loving kindness - here in lies the purpose for my pursuit of yoga.
There was something poetic about my fundraising experience of teaching westerners yoga and donating the proceeds to women genocide survivors and their children. We are all linked by the practice of yoga. Different kinds of resources are enlivened, redistributed, exchanged and pooled. Numerous connections and relationships are made. Women who would never practice yoga learn and become adept - availing themselves of the immeasurable healing tools that yoga has to offer. I hope some in time will become teachers themselves. Genocide rape survivors who the west forgot can perhaps feel support and care from those who rejected them. Their lives in turn give testimony to the resilience of the human spirit and our collective ability to reunite: to return to love, regain hope and delight in laughter while moving and maneuvering with patience, acceptance and dignified humility beyond hatred towards some kind of peace and forgiveness.