Wednesday, 2 January 2008

This morning the internet was down at the hotel, so we didn’t know whether our travel agent had been able to find us a new flight. We were picked up at 9 to make the long anticipated ride to Kayonza, where we’d get to see the school and the two girls we’ve been sponsoring. We’ve been sponsoring Annet for three years now, $29 a month enables her to go to school, have a uniform and shoes and a meal each day for lunch. Our sponsorship for Violet, $59 a month, gives her a chance to live at the Timothy House, one of five orphanages on campus at the school. The money also allows her to attend school, have three meals a day, food and necessities she needs to survive. (You can check out this organization at

The hour long drive to Kayonza was beautiful, we passed green, rolling hills. I was surprised by how hilly Rwanda is, and so lush. Farms were everywhere, tiny squares of growing things with winding red paths leading up into the hills. People lined the sides of the road, walking and walking. When driving with Charles a few days ago, he remarked that he was surprised when he visited America that nobody seemed to walk, everyone drove wherever they went.

In Rwanda, almost everyone walks. There are some with bicycles, loaded down with extra passengers or supplies. We were amazed by the huge loads some of these bikes carried, from firewood to stacks of red crates, full of bottles to recycle. Many people carried oil containers, now being used to cart water. Children smaller than Benji would carry two of these, each holding at least a gallon, walking along the hot street with their siblings, no parent in sight. Some had shoes, many didn’t. Most walked with siblings or friends, talking and laughing as they carried on with their tasks.

What we didn’t see were motorcycles, except the taxis. We also didn’t see the number of donkeys or carts that we saw in Morocco or Egypt, maybe it’s too expensive to keep the livestock. Something that surprised me as we drove along were tiny plots of land planted not with life-sustaining crops, but beautiful flowers that spilled towards the road, inviting you to the simple mud-walled house beyond. I wondered about the men and women, and possibly children, who tended these pretty flower beds, making something pretty to see each day as they went about their business. I’ve attempted to grow flowers before, I am no good at it. Maybe here, in the lush soil of Rwanda, I would be more successful. Or maybe it’s more about the person than the soil, a person who cares enough to tend and grow things amongst a schedule that’s much more important than mine. A schedule that means life or death, as they gather water, tend crops, and mend the collapsing walls of their mud houses.

We arrived at the school first, where we were met by Rebekah, a woman who works with the child sponsorship program. She showed us one of the orphanages, where sixteen children live with a “Mama”. They sleep on bunk beds three beds high, and the houses are clean and tidy, with a small living room and dining area, where the kids do their homework. In front of the house, someone has tended the earth and flowers and plants sprawl across the ground, it is a pretty place. Clay was amazed by the new progress since he was here two years ago, there is a beautiful new hall where the kids eat their lunches and a church meets on Sundays. In back is a kitchen that looks positively modern compared to the pictures Clay brought home from his last visit, of pots sitting on open campfires, cooking students’ lunches.

After touring the school, which is still out for the holidays, we headed to a store to buy some provisions to give as gifts to Annet and Violet’s family. All the orphans are sent to stay with relatives (aunts or uncles) or friends during the holidays. Violet is staying with her uncle, while Annet lives with her mother, brother, and two sisters. We bought each family a sack of rice, a sack of sugar, a sack of corn flour, a jug of oil, and some bars of soap to wash clothes. These bars weren’t like the bars of soap I’m familiar with, they were blue rectangles a foot long and pungent with the smell of clean.

While Clay was paying, I stayed outside with Benji. The small store barely had room for four or five people. The shop was located on a narrow street, bordered on both sides with small stores and businesses, people milled about. I noticed a man coming our way who looked a little off. His clothes were strange and he was yelling things. People he encountered either laughed at him or looked the other way. He looked crazy. He came closer to Benji and me. I considered going into the store with Clay, but it was already crowded, so I kept a tight hold on Benji hands and tried not to make eye contact. It didn’t matter, a muzungu mother and her small muzungu child are bound to attract attention, and this man had noticed us.

He came near and leaned against the wall, rattling off a bunch of foreign words, the only one I understood was the word “muzungu”. A crowd of men had gathered around us, all men, laughing at the man, or maybe us, I wasn’t sure. I looked up at the crazy guy, smiled and said “hello”. This was met by peals of laughter from the men around us, the crazy guy just leered. Luckily, Clay and the kids and Rebekah finished up in the store right about then and we all grabbed our supplies and headed for the car. Nobody in the store had noticed the crowd gathered outside.

 I was just starting to get scared, just about to grab Benji and squeeze into the crowded store, just to get away from all these men. I was wishing I had worn my baggy pants instead of my cooler skirt. It was the first time I had felt afraid or threatened while in Africa. I was fine in the souks in Morocco, fine in the slum streets of Egypt, fine sitting five feet from a female lion. This was different, and I was glad we were leaving, glad I wasn’t by myself.

We went to Annet’s house first. She came running from around the corner of their simple, mud home, smiling and giving us all a hug and saying “welcome”. I got all teary-eyed, it was so good to meet her in person and find a beautiful girl who was happy to see us. She invited us into her home, where Clay and I sat on two wooden chairs, the only chairs in the home, while our kids, Rebekah (interpreter extraordinaire) Annet, her sister and her mother sat on a straw mat laid on the ground. There were no decorations on the mud walls, other than a faded calendar page with a picture of Jesus and Mary. Above our heads was a metal roof, with rough-hewn logs forming the supports. A window cut into the mud wall let in the sun and fresh air, it was nice and cool inside. A wooden door hung at the entrance, big spaces underneath where it didn’t meet the floor. Curtains covered the openings from room to room, it looked as if there were two living areas, and two bedrooms. The whole structure was very tiny.

Rebekah was wonderful, perfectly at ease and helping us communicate with each other. Annet and her younger sister sang us a song, we knew from Annet’s letters that she likes to sing. Her mother was very polite and genteel, she wore a brightly colored dress of blue and yellow, a scarf wrapped around her head. Annet proudly wore the Africa New Life t-shirt she’d been given at the Christmas party a few weeks ago. Her younger sister, Irene, sported some polka-dotted sandals. Angela made an appearance later, sitting on the floor with her sisters. She was very shy, when we took pictures outside we had to really kid her to get her to smile, which she quickly hid with her hand.

Annet’s mother thanked us for the things we had brought, thanked us for coming, told us of God’s blessings in her life. Annet told us how she helped her mother by cleaning their home and working in the garden. She told us about the things she’s learned to cook. She told us it takes her twenty minutes to walk to school, and that she passed her exams and will be advancing to the fourth year. We were so proud of her. She just turned thirteen, Alayna is younger by about eight months, but stands several inches taller than petite Annet. A bright smile never left her face, she is a lovely girl and we look forward to watching who she will become.

We wished we could have more to say to each other, wished we could find more common ground. Later, I wished we had brought a ball of yarn. Alayna could have taught Annet finger weaving, it would have been a great thing they could do together. Next time we will remember. Clay said a prayer for all of us, as we bowed our heads together in the dim living room, the sunshine and green world waving outside. Then we took our pictures, and bid our farewells.

We visited Violet next. We were invited into her aunt’s home, she is a sweet woman with a kind smile. This time there was a couch and two chairs, so we seated ourselves while the aunt went past a curtain to fetch Violet. We waited several minutes, and I wondered what was going on beyond that curtain. Had Violet run off to play with friends and couldn’t be found? Was she too embarrassed to come out? We heard a baby begin to cry, there were other children beyond that curtain. Finally, Violet emerged, smiling shyly and shaking each of our hands before sitting in the corner of the couch. She was obviously painfully shy, and since we’ve only sponsored her less than a year, we hadn’t received as many letters and didn’t know as much about her.

She said her favorite subject was English, that she was in the second grade, that she was ten years old. Her answers were short, and she ducked her head as Rebekah interpreted for her. Her aunt sat on a chair next to her, smiling, and after a while two of Violet’s cousins appeared. A little girl named Brinna, who is also a sponsored child with Africa New Life, and a baby girl named Rachel who was just one-year-old and very sweet.

I felt sorry for poor Violet, a family of five muzungus coming to see her in a house that wasn’t her home, all eyes on her, she was so nervous. We smiled and told her we’d been praying for her and were proud of her. We asked as many questions as we could think to ask, she had no questions for us. We prayed with them, too, took some pictures outside, and then said goodbye. Perhaps next time she won’t be so shy, we’ll send letters and pictures and she’ll feel as if she knows us a little better.

We took Rebekah back to the school where she lives and said goodbye to her and her dog, Scooby Doo. We took a picture with her, much to her embarrassment. We crazy muzungus and our cameras! I loved her hair, braided in tiny braids all over her head, and I loved her smile. I was so glad we had a chance to meet. The drive back to Kigali was so pretty, I couldn’t get enough of just looking out the windows at the landscape slipping by. Our driver, Stephen, was a quiet man, but very friendly, stopping for Clay and me to take pictures along the way.

When we got back to the hotel we began checking emails, hoping for word from Jesse, our travel agent. He pulled through for us in a big way. He was able to get us tickets flying through Ethiopia instead of Nairobi, Kenya, a huge blessing. The pictures on the television and news through the internet were horrible about the status in Kenya. More were dying, some people in a church had been burned alive, machete wounds and people lying motionless in the street flashed across the screen. Visions of Hotel Rwanda ran through my head, the movie about the genocide that happened in Rwanda just fourteen years ago. The situation in Kenya looks eerily similar, and I worry about Cosmos and Mengo, our guides when we came through Kenya just a couple weeks earlier. How quickly things can change.

After settling the new plans, Clay and I conked out for a nap while the kids played with the legos. Two hours later, they were still intently building and creating with the legos. Alayna had made a herd of cattle, Benji made a space ship, Nate made a house, and somehow all these elements were being pulled together in some bizarre, intricate game. None of us were hungry for dinner, and I hated to break up the kid’s fun, so I ran downstairs and got three baguettes and two sausages in a roll. I told the kids that we were eating the way Violet and Annet eat most of the time, and Clay said “No, they eat better.” True. They usually eat rice and beans. No matter, we were all satisfied by our slightly stale bread and shriveled hot dogs. Actually, nobody ate those shriveled dogs.