I have an hour and a half until dinner. Unscheduled time is rare on this trip and I am grateful for the time to sit and make sense of it all.
I just got back from a trip to Bombogo, about 30 minutes from our hotel, but still within Kigali city limits. A bus from Chabha, an umbrella organization that serves children affected by AIDS and HIV, drives us up the steep, windy, red dirt road to the agricultural project run by Amohoro (Rwandan for peace.). Twenty teens are learning skills to create kitchen gardens to help provide proper nutrition for themselves and 5 other homes.
I totter down a hill, partially created of compost, in my orange peep-toe wedges (I was not planning on observing this project today. For even I would have worn a more practical shoe.) and view the neatly planted rows of beets, carrots and cabbage. It is the dry season. The soil is poor, rocky. And yet the vegetables here look healthier than anything I’ve tended to in my garden in Seattle.
We join a class of 18 young women and 2 men, learning about agriculture. Following a brief class we do introductions. Our names, where we are from, our favorite vegetable. I spell Liora (my Hebrew name, which has been my Rwanda name as there are two Lesleys on the trip) on the blackboard because they do not understand it. “An American name,” says one of the English-speaking staff. I do not correct him. I tell them my favorite vegetable is squash and I am again greeted with blank stares. I tell them when I am not in Africa I give massages and help people to choose foods for healthy bodies (I am well aware that Weight Watchers will not translate in this place where so many are malnourished.). They clap for me, and for my three travel mates.
The students introduce themselves and say a few words, translated from French into English. One young woman says “Tell her I love her,” pointing to me. A young man has a question for Liora. “Is she single.” The class erupts in laughter. I say “Sort of. I am divorcing.” I am not sure they understand. My rabbi tells me to stick with single. I look at him and put my hand on my heart and they laugh again. A young woman is breast-feeding her baby in class.
We take photographs before we leave – me with both of my admirers. Patrick, a Chabha employee and our driver, says, “Liora, you should consider staying here.” I tell him I have never been this popular in my own country.
This laughter is a welcome reprieve.
Earlier in the day seven of us joined another Chabha project: Agape. We join staff on home visits to the poorest or the poor, whose children they sponsor. There are 87 families, 300 children receiving school fees or government insurance cards. Basics.
Agape was founded by volunteers after 1994. They saw children raising children and knew they had to help. Anna Marie, the “mama” of Agape, was one of those volunteers. Because of Chabha she now receives a salary.
We visit six or seven homes. We are not guests, like we were yesterday. Anna Marie and three of her staff are checking in on the state of the household, and if there are any emergency needs. Each visit is 10-15 minutes long and ends with spontaneous prayer by Anna Marie or Grace, one of her staff.
The first house we enter is pitch black, save for the holes in the tin roof. A painfully thin woman is inside. She is HIV positive and is too sick to work right now. And so, she has no food for her children. They are at school right now. They talk and Micheline (one of the Agape staff) translates. When we are planning to leave, this painfully thin woman who seems to live only in the shadows, prays for us. And then Rabbi Brant offers a Hebrew prayer for her. Tears are streaming down my face. I am humbled and awed and joyous and pained all at once. I have no words. I don’t need any. Instead, we just keep walking to the next house.
On our third visit we meet a woman who is also HIV positive. Her husband, who was also HIV positive, has died. She has two daughters. They are both HIV negative. She tells us that when her husband died, her in-laws tried to take her land. They told her to return to her family because she had not given birth to boys. She has no family. But she has a promise from her husband that this land would be hers. That he would care for her.
She fights for the land and wins. She moves her family from a tent on the grounds to a house she has built with some help from a pastor. He provided the roof. The rest is hers. She sells charcoal, owns goats and has built another home that she rents. Tears stream down her face as she tells her story.
On the way out, Rabbi Brant tells her she is a righteous woman. He says there is a story in the bible that is much like hers. She says she knows it.
Some of the homes have electricity. Others do not. One is a single room too small for all of us – 13 in total – to fit into. We are greeted warmly, and again, we pray. At the last house we visit, a boy of 16 pulls out an albino rabbit by its ears. We all squeal with joy, and he presents three babies, which he places in the hands of our group – two teenagers and a mom. The energy has palpably changed. Some kind of magic entets the room.
On our way out, we drop off Anna Marie at another house. It appears she will continue working. We will go to lunch. I tell my roommate Sue “I will never complain again.” I know that this is not true, and I tell her so.