Wednesday, April 28, 2010


It was two Saturdays ago. I have thought about it each day since. But I haven’t written anything down about it until right now. Because if it’s not written down, if a story isn’t told out loud, it will eventually pass, like so many memories, out onto the rapids. But there is a reality in putting it down to paper. A reality, witnessed and written, turns a story into a decision: you must then either decide to let the reality be swallowed in the fleeting rapids of memory, or lift it to shore with you, where it becomes part of your story.

I didn’t write it down because I don’t think I am strong enough to lift this. But I think we might be. And I think, just maybe, we could make this part of our story. And, just maybe, we can change these children’s reality a little as we write ours.

It was two Saturdays ago when I knocked on the double blue metal doors of the Mother Teresa orphanage in Kigali, Rwanda. A Sister came to the door and ushered us in. We were unknown, unscreened, unannounced. And yet there was just one direction: No pictures – it steals the children’s dignity. I was proud of the Sisters for refusing photography; one should not come to hold these precious, forgotten children for purposes of a moving photo spread tucked within their Gorillas and Lake Kivu album. Plus, I was relieved at the no-photo rule, because I know that part of me would be tempted to have a picture with me and the babies – the part of me that is vain and self-serving and memory-hogging. And I didn’t want to serve the part of me that believes moments matter because you have documentation you were there; I wanted to live in the place where moments matter just because they do.

It was two Saturdays ago, and we walked down the cement ramp into the mass of tiny precious babies covered in rashes and rags. The Sisters beckoned our group on a tour of the orphanage – where each room was a wall-to-wall sea of tiny blue cots, and then even tinier blue cots where the children slept, thirty or more to a room. But another girl and myself never made it past the shoreline of the children. We plunged into the wave of them, holding our breath and suspending our hearts for the next two hours, until we emerged, soaking wet with this new reality.

There are 127 children at Mother Teresa’s, from one day to 6 years old. They are here because their parents were killed, because their parents died of AIDS, because their parents or caretakers cannot afford to feed them. They are here because everyday they are left outside the gate where we entered, as unknown, unannounced, unscreened as we were. They are here because the orphanage takes every one of them.

I sat at the shoreline of this sea of children. And they literally clawed and screamed and elbowed their way onto my lap. There was rarely a moment when there were not three on my lap – one closest to my chest, one further down my knees in the middle, and one dangled at the edge of my knees. The ones who were not closest to my chest wailed and scraped and fought to get to the prized spot – where they would be held, close to someone’s heart. It was as if they instinctively knew the way a baby deserves to be held – even if they had never been held that way – and they craved this cradling above anything. They wanted to be a baby that one person holds and protects. They wanted to be touched.

They wandered around in plastic bags for diapers, some with no pants or no underwear, some in adult T-shirts to their knees. They had no toys. There were a few balls or pieces of bike in the cement yard where they ran – one 2 year-old boy was pulling around the broken handle bars that must have once been part of a bike. When it was taken from him by another child, he wept and screamed and threw himself on the ground.

One child did not ever have a ball or a bike piece for more than a few moments – they were always taken by another. And the one left without would invariably weep and scream and throw herself on the ground. As I watched, it occurred to me that these children had never had anything that was theirs. Not a ball, not a bike part – not a mother or a father – that was not violently stripped from them in a moment. They had nothing that was theirs to hold. And so, as I watched them weep, angry, uncontrollably, it made perfect sense to me. There was nothing that they could hold onto, nothing they could cherish and call their own, nothing to comfort them, which had not or would not be ripped away in an instant. Their wailing made perfect sense to me and made me want to throw myself to the ground as well.

When I started noticing that this was happening – all over the cement ground it was happening – and not knowing what to do, I started walking over to each weeping child and put my hand on his back, or ran my fingers across her head. And the child would stop. The child would catch her breath and breathe. The simple act of a human touch to their precious, scabby skin soothed them instantly. Because they want to be touched. They want to be a baby. A baby who someone holds and protects.

When it was time for the littlest ones to go into their room, they were gathered in. And then, from the inside of the locked screen doors, they stood, faces crushed against the screen, wailing to come out, to come out where there is holding and touching. But that also was ripped away, and they wept and screamed into the screen. They cried the way I think only babies who know they are not allowed to be babies, held and protected, can cry.

The child I held for about an hour had a heart that reminded me of Chase. A lot. Among the children who were feigning for themselves for balls and bike parts and anything they could call their own for even a moment, he noticed. He clung to me with a fire. And when someone had a ball stripped away, he would look me straight in the eyes and point to the child weeping on the ground. And so we’d walk, him clinging to my neck, to the child, and he would remain there clinging while I rubbed the child’s back. When another one wailed, he would point across the cement yard, and we’d walk there, to touch the baby’s face and wipe her tears. And together he pointed and we walked and we touched for an hour.

When the Sisters said it was time to leave, I had to unwind his clinched wrists from around my neck for five minutes and force him onto a bench, where he wailed, alone. With no one to point to him. With no one to reach for him. With another precarious comfort ripped from him in an instant.

These babies want to be touched. By something that will not be ripped from them.

It was two Saturdays ago.

I can still feel Gabriel's wrists clinched around my neck.

And I am beginning to believe that there must be some way we can lift part of his reality to the shore.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

A Moving Day

So, sorry folks for the long delay since my latest update. Last Thursday was moving day – in which two other ex-pats and I moved from the guesthouse in which we were temporarily staying to the home where we will live this year. The couple of days leading up to the move were very full, and in the days since the move internet access has not exactly been forthcoming. Neither has hot water actually. Or any water sometimes. But that’s not the point.

I would like to share with you about moving day. We worked a half day on Thursday and then drove to say goodbye to the family we had been living with. We picked up our stuff in two borrowed vehicles (one of which broke down twice in the 5 mile ride to our new place). Here are Diana and Iranzi – who will never be caught without his prized umbrella – and I, saying goodbye in the front seat of the ill-fated truck:

After we unloaded our items, it was time to go pick up Sylvan and his bride Christine, the Rwandese couple who will be living with us in the guesthouse on our property. This is Sylvan and Christine, standing in our front yard, on the second day we met them – they were coming back from church in their Sunday finest. [In fact, they are so devoted to their church that the first day we met them they asked us to come see it. So we did, cramming in a mutatu (a minibus folks take all over Kigali, packed in like an African clown car – old men and kids and mothers with babies strapped to their backs seven across). The mutatu experience is so outrageous it is worthy of a separate post, and will get one.]

Sylvan and Christine:

Sylvan will be our fulltime night guard, and Christine will help us by going to the market, washing our clothes and generally keeping us from starving. [By way of background, I should mention that in Kigali, every home and business has a high, bolted (usually metal) gate through which people and vehicles must go in order to enter the property (called a “compound” here – as in “I will meet you right outside your compound to walk to the market” or “there are 14 children waiting outside your compound to see you three muzungus [white folks] walk to work” -- you know, whatever the case may be). Each compound is enclosed with a high (usually stone) fence topped with either barbed wire or shards of sharp glass. (Our house has the glass – it’s actually very pretty; the bright sun pops off and through the tiny mountain range of colored glass topping our walls and makes me smile. It’s funny to me how something intended to be so threatening and fearsome can actually be quite beautiful).]

Every home and business also has a guard on duty 24-hours a day, 7 days a week. Guard is actually kind of a misnomer because the role can be served by even a housekeeper or gardener, but the point is that someone must be at the house at all times, as a deterrent to thieves. They also open the gate when people come home. I should also note with respect to the perceived (for me critically necessary) need for house helpers here, bear in mind that there is no washing machine and no dishwasher and no hot water (or sometimes any water) in the kitchen and no vacuums and no plastic bags and no grocery store and no milk that doesn’t have to be twice boiled or water that doesn’t have to be filtered before you drink it and no lawnmower (they use machetes to cut the grass) and no anything that makes general life and house maintenance feel even a little doable on your own. Forget going to the market yourself, because as a muzungu, you will pay at least five times the going rate.

Point being, we needed a guard, and praise God my housemates concurred that we needed a Christine. [And let’s just be clear, it’s not exactly easy breezy with one; if you ever wonder how long it takes to explain in English to a speaker of Kinyarwanda that you would like about a quarter pound of green beans, I can tell you. I can also tell you that what you will get is 3 kilos of dried kidney beans. If anyone has a recipe or ten for dried kidney beans, I eagerly await your comments.]

But I digress. Once we dropped off our stuff at the house, we went to pick up Sylvan and Christine in their village to bring them to our home to live. One truck was filled with their chairs and bed, and in the other truck was the rest of what they owned - all of it - two small bags (half of what I brought here for my 9 month stay), some plastic flowers, a couple of baskets and thermoses, and their charcoal "oven" they use to cook all of their food outside (since they don't have electricity or running water).

Sylvan and Christine had been living with her two sisters and one of the sister's babies in the village in the same tiny hut of a house. They have said it is a blessing to them to move to a secure,pretty and quiet place in our neighborhood, but it kind of broke my heart taking them out of their village. I was suddenly aware of myself as a white person driving up in our truck, as the whole village came out to inspect us, and scooping them away. The two sisters also came out, one with her three-month old son. We thought it was to say goodbye, but were quickly informed that the sisters would be travelling with us to see where the couple would now be living. This made complete sense to me – thinking of how heartbroken I would be, and was, to leave my sister’s home. It just would have been convenient to learn that detail before we came to retrieve them in our tiny pick up truck. Here are Christine and her sisters before we left the village:

Ten minutes later, the plastic flowers and thermoses and all eight of us, including the baby, were packed into that tiny pickup truck. As she was climbing in, his mother handed the baby to me, and off we went. Five of us across the back, me clinging as tightly as I could to the precious little boy on some of the bumpiest mud “roads” in Kigali. [No such thing as a car seat here.] And we travelled the 35 minutes home just exactly like so:

But the day got harder. It was constantly surrounding me, this contrast between Christine and Sylvan and me. They are newlyweds; will be married one year in August. He is a Mason by trade (finished primary school, which is the highest level of schooling many people finish here), and I would be surprised if Christine was even able to finish primary. They are working for us at what is considered a pretty good job, she working five days a week, and he to stay up five nights a week all night long, living in our cement floor guest house of three tiny rooms, for $200 a month (together - meaning this is what they make together in one month; meaning $2,400 a year).

That first night, Sylvan came into our house and said he was very tired from the move. And he asked if he could go to sleep. My heart ached and I was ashamed. Staring at a man who is working five nights all night for a month for $100 asking to be able to sleep for the night after moving his wife and belongings, I couldn't look him in the eyes really. We felt like we had to -- for our safety -- ask him to please stay up, knowing we wouldn't be willing to do it ourselves and would never expect anyone to ask us. Or maybe it was because he didn’t have a real choice, and we did. I don’t know, and it is a confusion and ache that is still with me.

So Sylvan took a two hour nap and woke up to guard our house all night – walking around outside with the mosquitoes and the night – while the three of us slept inside. It was difficult, and made me for the first time so very aware of the power dynamics here; working here for free and yet still so extraordinarily rich by comparison. I felt ashamed asking someone to do something I would never do for money I would never accept for it, and knowing he had no other choice, as both he and his wife have been out of work for a very long time.

I tried to sleep for a long time that night and not very well, hearing Sylvan walking around the house outside at least as tired as I was, thinking of his guest house with his new bride -- wondering if the new electricity is a blessing to them, but knowing that he knew that his house had no running water and no running toilet, no refrigerator and no stove, while the three muzungus sleeping inside each had all of it. And then I thought about what a sweet homr they had made of it, scrubbing the cement floors and placing each of their few items with such care, Christine displaying her five plastic flowers on the table in their tiny sitting room before preparing a potato meal for the sisters and Sylvan on their outside charcoal oven.

This image of their sweet, tidy house was very different than when we first saw the guest house. The week before, the empty guest house was being guarded by John Peter, a young Rwandese man who slept on the fifthly cement floor on a three 2 inch chair cushions -- the only 3 items in the house. Nothing else. While the main, beautiful house we now occupy sat empty. I thought about how John Peter had come back on moving day, to help us bring our stuff in, and to ask whether we might have a job for him. If while he was employed he was sleeping on a filthy cement floor on flimsy, dirty chair cushions, where was he sleeping tonight?

This is a confusing thing, being a rich person in a place like this. It is, everyday, a heartbreak. It makes me feel ridiculous to accept praise for working for no money, knowing I will not be without anything except for my loved ones and my ridiculous salary and occasionally some hot water and the comforts of home.

My heart was little bit heavy on that moving day, after the village, and the sisters, and the wish for sleep, and the no choices but to work for what is offered. But I am grateful for our beautiful house, and this couple. I pray that I will allow them to teach me a lot.

I am also tremendously grateful that God provided a safe place for us to live. When one of one of our Rwandese colleagues came to visit the house with us, he concluded: "This is good house. Your neighbors are not ferocious." I figured that was good news. He also requested that we promptly host a proper rat-chasing party. Here, that is what they call a house-warming party, the name derived from the need to chase the rats out before you can make your house a home.

A lovely couple, a lot to learn, un-ferocious neighbors and rat-chasing friends. What more could a muzungu ask for?

Friday, April 9, 2010

Magic in the Mist

"When you realize the value of all life, you dwell less on what is past and concentrate on the preservation of the future."

That sentence was the last entry of Dian Fossey's journal - found in the cabin where she was murdered in the Virunga Volcanoes of Rwanda - where she lived with, studied and protected the mountain gorillas for twenty years.

I think the quote is appropriate for this country, on this week of mourning the Genocide, and for Fossey, who provided in life and legacy for the preservation of the gorillas she loved so dearly.

It was a great privilege to hike up into the Virunga Volcanoes this week to witness the grace and grandeur of those massive, magical creatures. For one hour, I stood face to face - often just two feet away - from the gorillas: mothers nursing their babies, adolescents play fighting, twin babies picking the bugs off one another, Silverback leaders feeding and surveying their families. As I was granted a tiny glimpse into their lives, I started to see what it means when scientists say that 98% of their DNA is identical to ours.

We were with the Susa Group - the same family of about thirty gorillas with whom Fossey lived, and descendants of the same. The same group you may have seen in the movie Gorillas In The Mist. They looked straight into your eyes. And they were as gentle as they were giant.

There are just 700 of these majestic creatures left on our planet.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Amanda Nicole

Yesterday the sweetest, newest most precious joy of my life was born, two years ago.

Amma. I can’t even remember what the world was like before you were in it.

I tried to attach a video for you of a dozen Rwandese children singing. But the Rwandan internet is less solid than her people, so no dice. I will post it as soon as I am able.

I wanted to post it for you today, Amma, because although I don’t have any idea what these children are singing, I believe they are singing for you.

I believe the whole world is singing for you. I will always be.

Mourning and Learning

Yesterday was Genocide Memorial Day and the start of the official week of mourning in Rwanda. There is much to mourn here.

Sixteen years ago, a well-organized Hutu extremist group galvanized the most horrendous slaughter of an ethnic tribe since the Jewish Holocaust – seeking to eradicate the Tutsi minority from the country. More than 6 men, women and children were murdered every minute of every hour of every day for a hellacious one hundred days beginning April 7, 1994. By some figures, twenty percent of the country’s population was murdered in the Rwandan Genocide – neighbor against neighbor. The extremists numbered one militia member for every ten families in the country, and were organized nationwide with representatives in every neighborhood, armed with machetes and lists of the Tutsi neighbors they were responsible for killing.

In the bloodshed that followed, people who had shared the same streets, Sunday dinners and church pews, raped, tortured, mutilated and slaughtered their neighbors – in their homes, in the streets, and in the churches where they had fled for protection. Hutu civilians were forced to participate in the killings or be shot. Many Tutsis were tortured until they killed their own families. All told, close to one million people were slaughtered in one hundred days in a country the size of the state of Maryland. An additional nearly 500,000 Tutsi women and girls were brutally raped during that period as a weapon of genocide – more than 67% of the women raped were intentionally infected with HIV/AIDS. Two million people were forced into refugee camps. In one hundred days. In a state the size of Maryland. Sixteen years ago.

Rwanda has countless orphans and child-led families as a result of the atrocities of the genocide. Children walk around with smaller children tied to their tiny backs. 75,000 of the survivors were orphaned because of the genocide, and 40,000 are still without shelter. And because the prisons and court systems could not handle all those responsible or complicit in the atrocities, survivors continue to live next door to those who killed.

Yesterday was Genocide Memorial Day and the start of the official week of mourning in Rwanda. Everything was closed. I spent the late morning driving back to Kigali, the capitol, from the mountains. From the start of our trip, the mourning was palpable.

The usually boisterous streets were solemn – lined with thousands of silent Rwandese walking miles to their local village’s memorial gathering. There was a gathering of this type in every village we passed, and everywhere men, women, and tiny children were walking to them. The mourners – the country – met in fields and empty muddy lots, where most sat on the ground, some with umbrellas for shade from the Equator sun, and some with plastic chairs if they could carry them on the walk. And in the center of each gathering, men spoke to the crowds. Here is a photo from the street – far in the distance you see one of the gatherings we passed –and the thousands who met there to remember the unspeakable human cruelty and to resolve, against every human instinct, to live peacefully and gracefully in spite of it.

I do not know what these men where saying; it is a private affair, grieving the slaughter of your family. I do not know what these men said. I do not know what they could have possibly said to help heal the terror and quell the rage. I do not know how these people move forward from the torture of what was inflicted on them and their families, and what they were forced to do to their neighbors. I do not know how they possibly manage to radiate the generosity and peace that I have seen in them given what they have seen in this life. I do not know how or why they embrace me so warmly given the way the world abandoned them in their slaughter. It is a miracle – one made of extraordinary resolve and restraint, superhuman forgiveness and grace, and a breathtaking, stubborn will to live peacefully.

There is much to mourn here. And there is much to learn here. Much to learn in the miracle of these peoples’ joyful smiles and peaceful eyes, which have endured impossible cruelty. I do not understand it. But I know I will never be the same for having watched these brave people on this day.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Not a Bad Good Friday

Good Friday was my first day in Rwanda.
The jet lag and the energy-sapping awe of a new city make me pretty exhausted, so I will be brief, but here are some highlights, in pictures, of my first day here:

The first thing I saw when I woke was the mosquito net hovering over my bed. A different kind of first-morning sight.

After orienting myself, I looked out the widow behind my bed and saw my first daylight glimpse of my new home:

I then walked outside into the backyard of the guest house where I am staying for the next two weeks, where the father of the house and his 15-month old Rwandan baby Iranzi were hand feeding bread to their pets, two East African Hooded Cranes:

After that, Emily (one of my roomies) and I went to go look at the house we will be living in this year. The house is lovely: beautiful yard, beautiful tile, a close walk to my office, a guard house for a live-in guard, and a porch overlooking the Kigali valley that is took my breath away. Here is our porch and view:

And from the front of the house:

We then met our landlord over lunch, where we reviewed and revised our lease, trying to convince the landlord (through an interpreter) to put a cupboard (note -- a singular cupboard) in our kitchen as well as a stove. As currently situated, the kitchen has a sink and a tile floor. Period.
Thankfully, we prevailed. My first Rwandan legal maneuver! The translator said with some respect and mostly curiosity -- "You have, yes, the legal terminology?" So, here's my new street, in case ya'll want to come visit:

Later, in a more animated turn of events (even as compared to the intense cupboard negotiations), I was yelled at by a very angry man armed with a machine gun. This sounds a lot worse than it ended up being. I wanted to take a picture -- and did - of the remarkable fact that there are men with large weapons at the supermarket entrance. APPARENTLY, one is never supposed to take pictures of any armed men in this country. Note this, friends, before you come to Rwanda. The guard ran over yelling all kinds of unfriendly things (with accompanying hand gestures) at me and my Rwandan friend who was with me. After a couple of minutes, and after deleting the picture from my camera, we all decided I was an idiot, and actually the guard and I are now great friends -- saw him several times throughout the day and we shared multiple smiling fist bumps. Lesson learned, and a new friend --perfect! I regret that no photos survived the ordeal. [Also, don't take pictures of buildings either. Another guard was VERY disappointed in me and made me delete a picture of the Deloitte & Touche Rwanda building that I took for Kate Lynch and Hollis who work at D&T in DC.] Lesson seriously learned. I'm curbing my photo enthusiasm, don't worry. Can't fool me three times. But this guy apparently wasn't armed because he didn't confiscate my pictures:

I also got my Rwandan cell phone (only works in Rwanda and only comes with 3 and a half minutes loaded on it (what do they think we're going to accomplish in less than 4 minutes); took a very long, beautiful walk around the city (including many high fives with beautiful children who want to touch any white person they see -- called m); ate an outdoor supper and took my first moto-taxi home.

And last night I Skyped with my dearest JFL, celebrating one year of knowing him, and I more grateful than I have ever been for technology.

All in all, not a Bad Good Friday. Wishing you a joyful Easter from Kigali.