I’m back from Rwanda! It was 2 ½ years between my last visits and so much has changed. The city is booming, with construction and development everywhere. Kigali retains it’s place as one of the cleanest cities in Africa, a result of many things, including the fact that the manufacture and use of plastic bags has been illegal in the country since 2008 and once per month all Rwandans participate in Umuganda, mandatory community service to keep their community clean and help their neighbors.
During my recent visit, I had such an awesome experience that I’m prompted to write this post. This is easily my most timely retelling EVER and a great way to reinitiate my blog postings after a long hiatus. 🙂 So what is it that brings me out of the writing drought? Nothing other than a reunion with a young girl and her father….
I met this girl (who I will not name to respect her privacy – if you know this family please also do not refer to them by name) in 2014 when I was volunteering in the small town of Gashora (Bugasera District, Eastern Province) Rwanda. Her dad was one of the construction workers on the project. Before he worked in construction he was in the army – as a morale officer! He doesn’t hold back when he’s happy. 🙂
His daughter used to come to the worksite with him and spend the day hanging out with our team. We didn’t speak the same language but who needs talking when gestures speak a thousand words? Even though (because?) she was extremely shy, we took to each other and she ended up sticking by my side throughout many of our working days. Well, that is, only when she wasn’t playing football!
I have trouble deciding between two favorite memories of her from that time. The first is when she really REALLY wanted to help us with our work. We were painting walls and windows and doors and after so many hours of the same repetitive action, I figured it couldn’t hurt to let her use my paintbrush for a while… She looked so proud as she carefully painted the door trim! The second memory is of when we were sitting down at a break and I caught her eying my work gloves and safety glasses. It was very cute! I knew that if she spoke English, or better yet if I knew more Kinyarwanda than just “hello”(muraho) and “good morning” (mwaramutse!) we’d be having a conversation. Anticipating her thoughts, I held out my gloves and she nodded eagerly. She put on my safety glasses but what happened next was a surprise. She looked at my gloves but wasn’t sure how to proceed – in a country situated close to the equator with a temperate, tropical climate, she had never had a need to wear gloves and was confused about how to put them on. We spent a few minutes with me demonstrating how to spread you fingers and slip them into the right slots before she finally got it. They were twice the size of her hands, but she did it!
When I left Rwanda that February, I felt a strong pull to help her. In a country where the majority of the population is under the age of 20 yet less than 40% have a beyond-primary school education, there is a clear need to support the education of young people. I saw her potential and knew that life was a struggle for her family. The problem was just finding the right way to help.
After some hit-and-miss attempts, I connected with Africa New Life – an organization founded and run by Rwandans while operating in the US out of Portland, OR. They provide sponsorship opportunities for over 7,000 children in several communities around Rwanda, opening up opportunities for education and community. My little friend was vetted and accepted into their program, yippee! She now receives support for school tuition, fees, and materials, participates in monthly programs with other sponsored children, receives medical care when needed and more. I hope her life has changed for the better. I know mine has.
So that brings us to my visit – after 2.5 years, I got a chance to see her once again! First I went to check out the Africa New Life facility in Kigali – the “Dream Center”. It is an oasis in the city and although there were no children there at the time of my visit, I could picture it on a busy Center day. There are many buildings on the grounds including a sponsorship office, a facility for training women who previously worked on the streets (learning to sew or enrolling in beauty school), a theological college with the largest theological library in Rwanda (approximately 20,000 books are available!), a day care center, some administrative buildings and (in progress) a new medical center!
While at the center, we picked up some gifts to deliver to her and her father. You may now be thinking of toys or a bike or other things that any American 12 year old would enjoy. But this is not America. Our most important gifts to her were those of nourishment – in the form of a 25 kg sack of rice, a 25 kg sack of corn flour, cooking oil and other related staples. I did bring along other gifts that were a little bit more “fun”…a backpack filled with pencils, paper, a coloring book, a dress and several pairs of socks. It’s all about perspective.
At last we were on our way to our visit. I had some difficult conversations before we got there about how tough her life can be. But all we can do is try our best to help and provide unwavering support. When things are difficult is the time to dig in and stand your ground.
We arrived in her community and prepared to walk through narrow, winding passageways to reach her home. How nice it was to be greeted by them both! Huge smiles all around. We reached their home and sat down to visit for a while, inquiring about each others lives and families while sharing smiles. I got such a big hug with my delivery of their gifts.
She has not become any less shy but I could see joy in her eyes. Her father was also excited to give me updates on his life. He recently completed his certificate in tailoring and now works regularly as a part of a local sewing cooperative. This is definitely a huge change from construction worker or morale officer, but it means a steady income and an increased capacity to care for his family. Who wouldn’t be proud of that?
When the time came to say goodbye, it was bittersweet. I’m thankful that I had the opportunity to make this visit and hope that the day was as happy for them as it was for me. I am grateful to Africa New Life for the wonderful work that they do and can only hope to hear soon of my friend’s next scholastic achievements. The road may not be easy and the path may not be straight, but with persistence anything is possible.
Best of luck to you my friends. I hope we meet again soon.