Today I had the privilege of going to the home of one of my students, Diane, to create images about her life as a girl in Rwanda. As is often the case, I could not have predicted the experience that awaited me and the emotions that the day would bring to all us, myself and my Rwandan friend and translator Dida, as well as Diane. I left with a greater understanding of their lives, and about how people sometimes have to bear unimaginable things, as well as how strong the human spirit can be as it tries to endure and even thrive.
I was overwhelmed by the hospitality and love that Diane and her mother showed me, giving me hugs and big smiles, as they welcomed me to their home. She told us that some of the other girls in our class asked how she could have me over to her house, wasn’t she embarrassed by being poor? Not at all she told them, she was proud of her house, her mother and their life. Her pride was evident as she eagerly showed me around and I saw the neatness and the care with which they treat their home. It is a simple house, Diane and her mother share a bed, but as with many things in Kigali it is striking how clean and organized her house was. Their beds are made to almost military standards (whereas I can’t remember the last time I made mine).
They served us a snack of fresh fruit, apples and these tiny bananas that they have here, that are much more flavorful than the ones in the US. Diane, ever observant, said she had noticed me with une pomme at class one day, an apple, and so had gotten some for me. Her mother brought us a basin of water, some soap and towels to wash our hands before we ate. Dida explained that travelers in Rwanda, anyone who was making their way across the country, used to be able to stop into any home and be offered a place to stay and food to eat. That has changed a lot since 1994, but they still treat their guests with enormous generosity and kindness.
As we walked around the house, talking about some of their daily routine, I was taking pictures, and talk turned to how many brothers and sisters both girls had. I knew instantly from the look at Dida’s face that this was not an easy answer for her. After a deep breath and a pause, she went on to tell me that there had been 10 siblings in her family but that she had lost 7 of them along with her mother and father in the Genocide. While this should not have surprised me, I was unprepared for hearing that my friend had personally been through such pain and horror. What I had until then only read about, and had tried not to focus on since coming here so that I could experience the country for what it is now, was hitting me with such force that I felt it was hard to breathe and could only reach out and hug her. It’s okay she said, we are used to this. But it’s not okay, it was not okay to me what she had to endure as a six-year-old girl, and ever since.
I liked both Dida and Diane as soon as I met them, they are in their early 20’s, and give off an infectious positive energy, curiosity and confidence. As we are working towards teaching them to be photographers, and looking forward to the opportunities this could bring them, I had not yet allowed myself to think too much about the past they carried with them. There are moments on the street or during an interaction with someone at the market, especially if a person is old enough that you know they were around in 1994, that you are struck by wondering what their story is and what burdens they carry with them from the Genocide. You of course don’t want to pry with those you don’t know well and honestly it’s hard to think about it too much without feeling weighed down by the sadness of it, so you move on.
I think that many Rwandans are struggling to figure out how to bear such pain and heartache, yet try to move forward as they work hard to help their country heal. They are asked to remember what happened over and over, on national anniversaries like the one coming up in April, in part to help make sure it never happens again. Yet they are trying to move beyond it as well to find a way forward, as they are working at a reconciliation, a peace with something that most of us could never imagine having to make peace with. You feel sometimes like they are giving everything they have, every last bit of energy, trying to will themselves and their county forward to a better place.
As you can imagine, it is not an easy path. Every day they choose to be optimistic, they fight to push past any depression or despair, but it isn’t always enough. Yet they have fierce determination, and I can tell you that if these two girls are any indication of the people who will be determining Rwanda’s future, the country has great reason to have hope. I am in awe of their strength, work ethic, bravery and most of all the capacity they still have for joy and laughter .
The three of us sat on Diane’s bed for hours, like any girls would do, talking and laughing about life. She sang us a song she had written, and then proudly showed me her school books, as they both talked about how much school means to them. It is a chance to make a better life for themselves and their families and to try to make a difference in their country. Only a few references were made to the genocide or to moments that they feel overwhelmed or discouraged in their lives. Mostly it was about their optimism and how hard they wanted to work to create opportunities in their lives, to help other people, and to be part of Rwanda’s progress forward.
As we laid on her bed talking, Dida translated from Kinyarwanda to English and back again, sometimes with a little French thrown in. I was still trying to absorb what this must be like for them. The experience of the genocide that so many carry with them, is something I know I cannot, and should not ignore, but nor do I want to dwell on it too much either. I will find my own way to include the reality of it in my experience here while still choosing most of the time to focus on the present and the future, on the amazing love and hope that I am seeing everyday on the faces of people I meet in Rwanda. I know that is also what Rwandans want, to be known for the beautiful country that they are, not just for one dark period in their history.
This day has without a doubt stirred something profound within me, as I have come to know these amazing young women who are forging ahead with through so much difficulty, yet with so much spirit. I was incredibly moved to be embraced by them in such a trusting way. We reflected on how special the afternoon had been for all of us, Diane telling us she loved us and asking Dida and I if she could come to us for advice. What an honor to even be asked to offer wisdom to someone who probably could teach me far more about life. We made an important connection with each other, a sisterhood, and to me that is what it is all about. Women supporting other women, and younger girls, to be sure they have opportunities to grow and succeed, and to know that they are not alone, that someone cares. After all, isn’t that is what we all want, no matter where we are from.