I am in love with all of these girls with shaved heads and big almond eyes. We stare at one another like sisters. At least I do.
I take photographs of me with my African sisters and they are excited to see themselves on my smart phone. “That’s me!” “That’s me!” “Yes,” I say. “Beautiful.” And they are.
We’ve taken the bus named Malcolm X up to Nyoconga – where WE-ACTx leads programs for children with HIV and AIDS, or whose family members are infected. A year ago these children were listless. Today, we walk in to find them dancing and singing. And we are invited to join in. David and Pretty lead the activities. They are called “Peer Parents” – appropriate as many of these children are orphans, many taken in by other families. It is hard to imagine how they feed another mouth. But they do.
The younger children want to touch us. Sit on us while playing a version of Duck Duck Goose. I am taken by a girl about 13 (She may be older. Many appear younger due to malnutrition and stunted growth.). She is wearing a black skirt and a red, shiny shirt with buttons. I have one like it in green at home. I don’t want to leave her. I cannot say why. My heart hurts when we get back on Malcolm X and wave. I think of Rabbi Beth in Seattle asking me if I am going to bring a baby home from Rwanda. I understand how this happens.
After lunch we go to the Kigali Memorial Center (National Genocide Memorial). I have read just enough of Philip Gourevitch’s “We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families: Stories from Rwanda” to not be surprised by what I am learning. I rent the audio companion and read the screens in English, French and Kinyarwanda. I break down in the room dedicated to the children murdered in the genocide. Softly. There are photographs of children with simple details. Favorite Food. Favorite Drink. Best Friend. Known For. How Killed. Machete. Grenade. Thrown against a wall. On a post is a small glass plaque – a quote from a child survivor. He says that he looks for his brothers in the market still. But he will never see them. So simple. So real. So utterly human. And I cry.
One of the young girls on our trip is also crying. She is 16. Her mother is not here, but her aunt is. Some of the group seem overly concerned about her tears. We walk to the bus together and I tell her that I am a cryer too. I put my arm around her and tell her it is good that she cries. It means she feels. We talk all the way to our next destination. She agrees that she will journal about this and will call her mother. She tells me she is glad to talk with me.
We get lost trying to find William’s studio. He is the painter who led us in creating a mural at WE-ACTx the day before. Up and down red dirt roads riddled with potholes. Trash ground into the grass at the side of the street. Several cell phone calls later we are at the studio cooperative where William and other artists paint and show their work. We have stumbled across the “it happening” in Rwanda art. I am told so by Kate, a gallery owner from London putting together a show for Emmanuel. He is beautiful and charming with tightly wound, skinny dreadlocks. He speaks perfect English. I buy a small painting from another artist in the co-op — apparently he is well known. It is the first piece I see. My rabbi comments it has a Picasso feel. It reminds me of sitting naked with my arms wrapped around my knees. Many of us buy art. One woman commissions a piece. The artists take the larger works off their wooden frames and roll them up for traveling. The will be re-stretched in the States. The artists invite us to their opening next Saturday. We are excited, as we will be here and can attend. I take a photograph with Emmanuel and Kate says “Isn’t he gorgeous?” I agree. “Come back next week for the opening…who knows what will happen,” she says. And we giggle like the shaved-head schoolgirls in the street.
We wait for Malcolm X for a long time. Mark, our bus driver, has gone to pick up a woman from Nairobi, Kenya. She has ridden a bus for 2 days to get here. Her sister lives in Chicago and knows participants on our trip. They were separated during the genocide in 1994, when the elder was 8 and the younger was 4. They only recently learned that the other is alive. She joins us for dinner. Just as Gourevitch writes, she speaks in shorthand – “Before.” Before the genocide.
She tells me a little over her story over Indian food and promises, “I will tell you my story tomorrow.”
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