Chance Comes Once

Alayna is in her last semester at Texas A&M, preparing to graduate in May, 2018. It wasn’t easy re-integrating back into life in College Station after spending a semester in Grenoble, France.

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It wasn’t just the language and culture shock. It was the fact that most of her friends graduated last spring and life was going to look really different. She had one friend who remained, and a room in that friend’s apartment where she could put her mattress on the floor, and live out of cardboard boxes for a few months. I think we all figured she would grit her teeth and endure but hey, you only get one last-semester-of-college in life, and Alayna has never been one to pass up a chance at a new adventure.

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she flies through the air with the greatest of ease . . .
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in Rwanda, she’s always ready to engage with strangers who become friends

Last summer when she interned at Explore Austin she began to rock climb at a nearby climbing gym. What started out as a hobby turned into an obsession. Upon her return to College Station, she tried out for the Texas A&M competitive climbing team, the Craggies, and made it! For Spring Break she went climbing with friends in Arkansas.

 

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climbing in Arkansas

Since then she has competed in several competitions and most recently qualified for nationals in speed climbing!

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She is officially hooked. She makes multiple trips a week to Katy where they have a regulation speed-climbing wall where she can practice for nationals. She inhales climbing documentaries, and is asking for climbing gear for a graduation present. I am so proud of her for taking on this last semester with gusto, and re-inventing her life in College Station with this new passion. She’s met new friends, and she’s earned some gnarly callouses.

I know about re-inventing. I’ve been re-inventing my Rebeka book for almost a year now, revising and revising again. I’ve built up some tough callouses, taking constructive criticism and cutting some “darlings” to get to the heart of the story. My most recent revision was coming up with a new title when my agent wasn’t entirely happy with the first two. I had sent an email to a friend in Rwanda, asking her if the phrase “seize every opportunity and make the most of it,” was common in Rwanda. Something like “Carpe Diem,” or “seize the day.”

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Rebekkah in Rwanda, who gave me “chance comes once”

She responded that in Rwanda they say Amahirwe aza rimwe, which means “chance comes once.” The phrase captures perfectly the tension in Rebeka’s life. Many times she was given opportunities where saying “yes” wasn’t easy. At age five, she stayed alone at a clinic for eight months to receive treatments for her feet. She left family and friends and all that was familiar to come to America where she endured painful surgeries and challenging physical therapy. And when she returned to Rwanda, Rebeka left her family yet again to attend a prestigious boarding school located several hours away by car.

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Rebeka’s bed at boarding school the year she returned

They were all tough “yes’s” to once-in-a-lifetime chances. These two girls impress the heck out of me. They suck the marrow out of life, pushing themselves as they pursue new opportunities and continue saying “yes” to life’s adventures. I am forever grateful for the time they got to spend together.

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Chance comes once. Sometimes we get only one chance to take advantage of an opportunity, and these two girls embrace their chances with gusto. I did the same when I took the chance to tell Rebeka’s story, now titled CHANCE COMES ONCE: BASED ON THE TRUE STORY OF A RWANDAN GIRL’S JOURNEY, and I’m so glad I said yes.

Rwanda Revisited

In July of 2017 I made my first solo trip to Rwanda to do interviews for my most recent project, based on the true story of Rebeka Uwitonze. I had been to Rwanda four times previously, with family and sometimes teams, but traveling alone for the specific purpose of interviewing Rebeka, her family, and others who know her brought a new level of intimacy and understanding. It was a privilege, and I learned all sorts of things I never knew. I owe a huge debt of gratitude to Augustine, who made room in his busy schedule to translate for me and shuttle me around. We dug up old files and found treasure.

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Augustine was my translator and general “make it happen” man
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left is Rebeka’s sponsorship photo, right is Rebeka when she returned from US

Rebeka’s two youngest sisters have grown big enough to wear the clothes Rebeka once wore in Austin.

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left to right: nephew, Ooweetayka (sp?), Medi and me

Rebeka’s parents were gracious and invited me into their home two days in a row to tell me the story of Rebeka, starting with her birth.

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I got to see beyond the living room where we usually sit to the bedroom Rebeka shares with her sister, and the small dirt yard out back where goats and a cow hang out and maize dries in the sun on a blanket. I heard for the first time that Medi, Rebeka’s younger sister, was the first to go to school, before ANLM moved into the community, when the family only had enough money for one tuition. She would come home with chalk and teach Rebeka what she was learning by drawing letters and numbers on the concrete floor of their home. I saw the learning continuing with chalk letters on their back fence, scrawled by her little sisters.

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I met some of Rebeka’s friends who went running to find Rebeka when we arrived at her boarding school. She had no idea I was coming!

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left to right: Grace, Rebeka, Sharon and me

I had to break the news that it was just me visiting this time, and then I got to ask her a question that made a lump rise up in my throat. I couldn’t wait to tell her about writing her story, but what would she think? Would she want to tell it with me? Because I wasn’t going to tell it unless both our names were on the cover, side by side. It is truly her story. I just wanted to help her write it.

She said yes! She is excited to share her story and she answered my questions patiently. One of the things I have been curious about since she left in 2013 is how she described America to people back home. When I asked, she didn’t say anything about the fireplace that turned on with a press of a button, or the trampoline, or the grocery store filled with food. “I tell them about the ocean,” she said.

“What do you tell them about the ocean?” I asked her.

“I tell them it’s very big.”

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Clay holding Rebeka in ocean-California-Sprint Break 2013

The ocean is a great image, a great metaphor, for Rebeka’s time in America. It was big, from the surgeries to all her new experiences, including her first glimpse of the big blue ocean in California. Writing this book about Rebeka has been a little like wading out into the ocean. I’ve been knee-deep in facts, there have been some waves of uncertainty, but on the horizon is a big old story I can’t wait to share.

 

These Shoes Are Meant for Walking

I’ve been reading this great book by N.D. Wilson, called Death by Living.

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I want to quote the whole thing, my highlighter will run out of ink before I finish it, but here’s just a taste: “Drink your wine. Laugh from your gut. Burden your moments with thankfulness. Be as empty as you can be when that clock winds down. Spend your life. And if time is a river, may you leave a wake.” (p.117)

These words struck a chord with me. They reminded me of Benji’s shoes. See, our kids wear uniforms to school, and at the beginning of the year they get nice, new shoes. Regulation brown shoes like these:

Benji's 2014-15 school shoes.
Benji’s 2014-15 school shoes.

As we were getting ready for school this year, I discovered Benji’s old pair of shoes from last year.

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Benji’s 2013-14 shoes
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Benji’s 2013-14 shoes.

Benji lived a lot of good life in those shoes. He played a lot of gaga ball, chased friends, hurried to class, and wore a path to school and home again. He spent some life, and he left a few wakes. I loved finding those shoes. And I loved finding this shoe.

The shoe Rebeka wore when she arrived in the US, summer 2012.
The shoe Rebeka wore when she arrived in the US, summer 2012.

Talk about a shoe representing a life. I shadowboxed one and sent it with Alayna to college, and kept one for ourselves. Rebeka’s is a life filled with struggle and fight and victory, and we got to see some of it unfold on our own home soil.The shoe looks tiny because it only needed to fit the top of Rebeka’s foot, contorted and curled. The shoe represents such a big story, on a grand scale. Ten-year-old Rwandan girl travels to Texas to live with a family she’s never met and undergo painful surgery, unsure how long she’ll be here or if the surgeries will work. She learned how to speak English, how to read, how to turn on a light switch and a water faucet. That’s drama. But there’s drama in Benji’s old Sperry’s, too. Much to be thankful for in both of their stories. Here’s one more quote from Death by Living.

“Imagine sticking your finger on your pulse and thanking God every time He gave you another blood-driving, brain-powering thump. We should. And we shouldn’t, because if we did, we would never do anything else with our living; we wouldn’t have the time to look at or savor any of the other of our impossibillions of gifts.” (p. 108)

“Impossibillions.” It doesn’t matter what’s going on in our lives, whether life is good or life is hard, we have much to be thankful for. We take breaths, “pie smells like pie and hangnails heal and honeycrisp apples are real and dogs wag their tails and awe perpetually awaits us in the sky.” (p. 108) I framed Rebeka’s shoe, but I wonder if I should have framed Benji’s shoe, too. To remind myself that time is always passing, life is always being lived, no matter how “blog-worthy” it is, and it should be appreciated even if it can’t be held. Benji bought another pair of new shoes this summer, lacrosse shoes.

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They hold all the hope and promise of a wild, passionate time of his life as a new season begins. These particular shoes are made for running, playing, and stating to the world, “I am Benji, hear my turquoise roar.” And by the end of the season, may they be ragged and worn through, soaked with sweat and striving and learning and living well.

Benji's 2012 lacrosse team.
Benji’s 2012 lacrosse team.

 

Catching up with Rebeka

For all the Rebeka fans out there, the ones who followed her journey to Texas, her surgeries and casts, those who prayed for her and cheered for her and loved her story, here’s another little chapter. My dad, my sister, and her three kids recently traveled to Rwanda and while there, they were able to visit Rebeka.

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From left to right, Wyatt, Leslie, Rebeka, Emma, and Claire, with my dad in back.

I asked my dad if he could make sure Rebeka wasn’t wearing her braces anymore. Her physical therapists had stressed before she left that if she wore the braces after she had grown out of them, they could rub blisters, and because of the arthrogryposis, she may not feel them. These blisters could get infected and . . . well . . . my imagination filled in enough scary details to make me just a wee bit worried. I knew she had been wearing her braces recently because a friend had seen her in them at church, and I knew she must have grown out of them by now because her toes were at the ends of them in November.

Dad sent this video the afternoon they saw her. Notice the lack of braces. Notice how quickly and easily she’s walking around. How strong her legs have become. Notice how long her hair is, all braided and coiled into a bun in back. Notice how she wears those cute pink tights under her skirt (that’s our Rebeka) and notice that cute-patootie mousey  shirt that was one of my favorites. It makes me sad to think she’ll grow out of it soon, but this video, it makes me very, very happy.

I worry too much. I know that. Our oldest is about to leave for college and it feels a little like Rebeka leaving all over again. She’ll be far away and I won’t be able to check in and see what time she went to bed, if she ate a good breakfast, if she’s tired or needs a smoothie. Yes, she’ll just be a few hours down the road in College Station, but still. She won’t be here, sleeping under our roof, and I’ll miss her terribly. I know she’s ready, though. She’s ready to race into her future and meet new friends and learn new things and walk without the braces of our home and all things familiar. Rebeka was ready to fly. Alayna is, too. They were the best of friends, almost sisters, for about a year.

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There will always be something special between those girls. They shared a room, and their lives, and they learned a lot about each other and themselves. One of Rebeka’s old teachers came up to my dad while they were in Rwanda, and couldn’t wait to tell him about Rebeka’s transformation. The teacher said before Rebeka came to America, she never smiled. She had no friends, and kids at school called her a cripple. She spent a lot of time in the principal’s office, and she didn’t do well in her classes. But when she came back, she was smiling. She makes friends easily, and she’s respected by her classmates. She even finished second in her class!

It made me think about Alayna and her transformation. While not nearly as dramatic, she learned a lot from her time with Rebeka. She learned she could do hard things like take care of a leaky nerve block bag at 2 in the morning. She learned how to have perspective about getting braces after watching Rebeka get cast after cast after cast. And she learned that she might want to be a physical therapist, after watching Rebeka at her appointments. We may never know how much those girls shaped each other’s lives, but I do know this. Alayna has shaped up into a beautiful young woman, and we can’t wait to see where her path will take her. Godspeed, sweet girl. We love you.

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Waiting

I intended for my next blog post to be about home visits in Rwanda. I have all these great pictures I wanted to post, of the different sorts of houses our sponsored kids live in, and what it’s like to be on the bus while someone else does a home visit. The kids that gather, their mortal fear of puppets, and their love for stickers and arm hair. But what’s on my mind, as I sit in the waiting room at Arise Medical Center, is not home visits, so I’ll save it for another day. Here’s a picture. I can’t wait to tell those stories.

This is our sponsored child Ruth's home.
This is our sponsored child Ruth’s home.

I have definitely spent more time in hospitals this past year than I ever have before (except maybe those ten days I spent in the hospital when my appendix broke).  First with Rebeka, as we went in for surgeries and subsequent cast changes. Then with Clay, about a month ago. Those of you who haven’t heard about his daring (Clay says “dumb”) banister feat and resulting broken ribs and punctured lungs missed a great story. Maybe someday I’ll do a blog post about it.

Clay in the emergency room.
Clay in the emergency room.

But this morning, it was Alayna we checked in, for jaw surgery. We’ve been meeting with her oral surgeon for over two years, and we’ve known for over a year that jaw surgery was in her future. It has been carefully planned between the end of dance team football season and cross country season, and departing for college. Her biggest concern leading up to this morning was whether or not her braces will be off before she goes to college, but I imagine there will be more immediate concerns once she wakes from anesthesia. We’ve been armed with a very large bottle of pain medication, liquid since she can’t take pills. Alayna hasn’t been able to bring herself to smell it.

We couldn’t help but remember and compare the hospital experiences of Alayna and Rebeka. Rebeka always arrived with “Georgie” (her Curious George stuffed animal) and her little baby doll (the one Clay sat on). Alayna arrived with her purple unicorn pillow pet.

Rebeka with Georgie and Baby
Rebeka with Georgie and Baby
Alayna with Sheila the Unicorn Pillow Pet
Alayna with Sheila the Unicorn Pillow Pet

But while Rebeka was deathly afraid of needles, Alayna tolerates them just fine. She just looked the other way when they inserted the IV this morning.

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We never saw Rebeka’s IV inserted. She required Versed (a medication that makes you very sleepy and kind of happy) before she would even put on the “clown nose,” with its flavored orange smell that would send her off to dreamland. They inserted here IV back in the OR, It was a difficult procedure since her veins were small and hard to find, due to the arthrogryposis. One time she even had to have the IV inserted in her jugular because they couldn’t find a vein.

Because Alayna could have her IV inserted first thing, they delivered her Versed by IV. Rebeka always took hers orally, and it tasted horrible. She would be armed with a couple paper towels to wipe off her tongue (no drinks allowed), and there was lots of complaining and horrible faces when she took it. We remembered how scared she was, that first time she went in for the operation. No amount of preparation could have prepared her, or us, for that moment we kissed her cheeks and they wheeled her through the big swinging doors. That first time, she couldn’t speak much English. She was so afraid. That first time she didn’t take Versed, but she did every time after.

Alayna was big smiles just moments after the Versed hit the IV. She started giggling and covered her face, laughing, which made us laugh. Part nerves, part hilarity, I had tears rolling down my face, same as when they took Rebeka back. It was a good way to go to surgery, I think, laughing this time.

As they wheeled her away, we called, “Goodbye” and saw her hand flop in a wave from over the back of her bed.

As we waited, I tried not to think about the cuts her doctor was making in her jaw. I completely trust him, but still, he was cutting her bones apart Re-adjusting them. Three hours, and lots of prayers, later, we got a call. He was “closing her back up.” With Rebeka, we always scrubbed in and were with her as she woke up. Maybe because it was a children’s hospital. But here, we won’t see her until they move her to her room. I was anxious, wondering if she was afraid as she regained consciousness. Wondering if she hurt. She is eighteen years old. She signed her own release forms. I was sure she’d be fine, but all those protective instincts were tilled up to the surface, and I don’t like waiting.

So much of life is spent waiting. As a kid, we can’t wait for Christmas morning. I’m waiting for a book contract. Alayna’s waiting to hear from colleges. And I had to wait all morning to see my girl again. She can’t wait for the swelling to go down, and for the braces to come off. But I’m trying not to spend so much time looking forward, I forget to notice the here and now. We have plans to watch a movie this afternoon. Alayna will be on the receiving end of sweet friends and family in the days ahead, sending love and prayers and encouragement and soup recipes (liquid diet, two weeks). This has been a forced pause in the holiday hustle and bustle. I’ve realized, as I remembered Rebeka and received sweet texts and taken time to just sit still and pray for my daughter, that sometimes the wait, itself, is worth the wait.

Summer Camp in Rwanda

Six hundred kids. Thirty Texans. Camp for two days, 9AM-3PM.

Since Rwanda is below the equator, this officially qualified as summer camp, Rwanda style. We arrived armed with Oriental Trading Company ornament kits, barrel swivels to make bracelets, white Christmas lights and extensions cords, Frisbees and soccer balls. We traveled by bus and van to Bugesera, an hour south of the capital, to the school where Rebeka’s sister, Medeatrece, and until recently, Rebeka, attended. All the kids in the community had been told of our arrival, and when we arrived we found them gathered, waiting for us.

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I saw Rebeka’s sister, Medeatrece in her pretty pink dress (Rebeka has a matching one), and wearing a Spiderman pajama top wrapped around her waist. It was the same top Rebeka had brought to America, and it wasn’t until Rebeka had been with us several months that I realized she didn’t think of it as a pajama top, but a jacket. Seeing the familiar face of Medeatrece made me a little less nervous. At least I knew two of the hundreds of kids that had showed up for camp that day.

Rebeka and her sister, Medeatrece
Rebeka and her sister, Medeatrece

They were divided by age into six groups, each with an animal name. I was one of three Texans assigned to the giraffes, a group of kids ranging from ages seven to ten. Our first activity took place in a classroom, making ornaments that said either “peace,” “hope,” or “joy.” The giraffes filed in and settled, three or four to a wooden desk and bench, and stared at us.We had an hour to fill.

A translator helped us tell them the story of baby Jesus, and then we passed out the crafts. The whole time the kids were silent and wide-eyed. These kids do not have much exposure to individually wrapped crafts, self-adhesive backing, or fake jewels. I expected them to rip into their small plastic bags, I expected bits and pieces of their crafts to get scattered all over the floor, and for them to charge ahead without listening to directions. I expected possible tears when their ornament didn’t turn out right. Instead, each child patiently waited until every craft had been passed out. All eighty of them.

They sat and stared at us some more. “First, you open the bag,” we explained, but they were hesitant to open the bags. I went from desk to desk, and each child would solemnly hand me their bag to tear open. “Look, you just do this,” I explained, sticking my finger into the plastic and making a small tear. “See, you can do it.” Still, the majority of the kids wouldn’t. Rebeka, who was in my group, was one of the few who was familiar with crafts, after her initiation in the states. She would prove invaluable as the day went on, helping us communicate with the kids and showing them what to do.

After we finally got all the bags open, it was time to take everything out. The kids took great care, emptying their bags. Next, we showed how to take off the sticky backing. And again, they wanted me to help. They were so timid. I never really figured out if they were worried they were going to mess it up, or were just unsure how to do it. Maybe they kept waiting for the punch line. In a life where the day is taken up with basic tasks of survival, getting water, making food, washing clothes, what is the point of this strange, American craft? They seemed even more puzzled when we brought in the two fake Christmas trees and showed them how to hang their new ornaments on it. I was worried they would be sad, giving up their precious new creation to sit on a tree. What strange people we are! But they seemed non-plussed, eager to please, happy to give what they never really counted as theirs in the first place.

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That’s not to say that we didn’t find a few sticker jewels on kid’s ears as the day wore on. Remember, this was only the first station. The more time we spent with each other, the more comfortable they all became. We moved on to some more active games outside. Rebeka sat in the shade, since running around with a large group of kids is still difficult for her.

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Rebeka's sister Medeatrece is running around for duck, duck, goose!
Rebeka’s sister Medeatrece is running around for duck, duck, goose!

A small group of kids gathered around Rebeka when she sat out, and I admired how easily she seemed to assume the role of interpreter and answer all sorts of questions about these people from Texas. Sometimes they would point to us, giggle, then go back to talking.

At lunchtime everyone raced to the water cistern to wash their hands, then raced to the food line. Two days later, I was asking one of the translators what activity she thought the kids liked best. Was it football? Or maybe making those cool bracelets which soon became a sort of currency with the kids, some stretching to necklace length as trades were made. Or did they like volleyball best? Maybe duck, duck, goose?  “No,” said the translator. “I think they’re favorite activity was lunch.”

She wasn’t joking. For all the planning we did (and don’t get me wrong, the kids had a lot of fun), what they really needed was to have a basic need met. Food. Rice. Potatoes. A banana. And meat, a real treat for these kids. And to top it off, a Fanta.

There was another basic need we met in those two days of camp. Touch.

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I never had fewer than four hands on me. They entangled their fingers with ours. Sometime the littlest ones scored a ride in our arms. If they could reach our hair, it was braided or knotted.

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They soaked up physical touch like dry sponges, saturating themselves with affection. At the end of the day, our bus rolled away and the kids started home, some walking three or four miles down dirt red roads. A few kids wore remnants of the ornament crafts on their faces, stickers on cheeks and foreheads. A few had bits of a broken Frisbee tucked into their pockets. I hope they all went home with their bellies swollen and their hearts full. Our Texas bodies may have been weary, but I know our hearts were very, very full.

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A Pink Dog and Snowflakes, Deep in the Heart of Rwanda

Our family spent Thanksgiving week in Rwanda. I gathered images in my journal, and now I spill them here. Because there are so many stories worth telling in this world, and I feel like we had our tank filled to overflowing. Twenty-four hours of travel, across the wide ocean, we stepped off the plane Saturday night, bleary and excited, eager to see Rebeka for the first time. She would spend the night with us until Thursday, five nights of sleepovers, sharing a bed with Alayna at the guest house, sharing meals with our team of thirty Texans. This trip wasn’t just about Rebeka, but she’s where it all started, at the airport, hugging her familiar neck.

Seeing Rebeka in the Kigali airport.
Seeing Rebeka in the Kigali airport.

It was our third time to Rwanda. We would visit all of our sponsored kids over the week, seeing some for the third time, tracing their growth through six years of pictures, delighting in small changes and slowly growing, long-distance friendships. That first night we fell into bed, and woke to Rwanda. Misty morning, bird tapping on the window, soldiers running past outside, chanting. We stumbled into the day, wide-eyed. We ate breakfast as we gazed at the capital city of Kigali, spreading down the hillside in front of us, cupped by some of the “thousand hills” Rwanda is so famous for.

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View from the back porch of the guest house.

Breakfast was warm bread and sliced bananas. We drank water from a bottle, careful not to ever drink from the tap. Then the team loaded up and took a bus an hour south down bumpy red roads to Bugesera for Sunday morning church service. As the world slipped past I saw and remembered. People walking, everywhere, hundreds of them. Crazy motorcycles, perilous traffic, and then into the country. Dusty, smiling children and lush, green hillsides.

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Mud homes with metal doors, or curtains for doors, or sometimes no door at all. Cassava drying on a blanket outside, chicken pecking at it. Small children carrying big yellow cans, fetching water. Children chasing our bus, calling “muzungu” (white person!) and waving hard.

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Women washed clothes in plastic tubs and hung laundry on bushes.

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Cows with long, dangerous horns, walked gentle down the road. A baby crawled two feet from our passing wheels, women walked with huge bundles on their heads, men pushed bikes up hills, loaded high with bananas or water cans. Clothes tied on sticks were scattered in the fields to scare birds from the maize.

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Rebeka’s sister Esperanza was at the church service in Bugesera, though we didn’t know it until after. She came, shy and curious, once it was all over (the two hours of dancing and singing and murmured prayers in a foreign tongue all around us, hands held high, two sermons, delivered passionate, translated for us).  Esperanza hugged us, smiling, and sat quietly, sharing our lunch, trying popcorn for the first time. Rebeka translated for her big sister, proud and comfortable.

Then we were in a van, bouncing down a red dirt road. We stopped to pick up two women dressed in bright church clothes and gave them a lift, three or four miles down the road. From the backseat, Rebeka said, “My dad!” pointing at a thin man walking down the road, wearing a blue shirt. We stopped and picked him up, too, and he squeezed into the front seat. He was all big smiles and shaking hands and then we were off again. Rebeka’s dad chatted with the driver, Clay told me later he had already been to the lake near their house to catch fish, walked six miles to the road to catch a ride to the capital, took an hour there and back to sell his fish, and was walking home again. It wasn’t one o’clock yet. Had he fished in the dark?

When we arrived I recognized her house from the pictures, beautiful lake shining on the right, house up a small hill on the left, and neighbor children already gathering to witness the spectacle of muzungus arriving in their van. The first thing I saw when we stepped into the house was the pink dog.

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When Rebeka first arrived in America a sweet little neighbor girl started bringing presents. Little bags with treats. The small, stuffed pink dog with giant eyes arrived on day two, and Rebeka kept it faithfully clipped to her shorts for weeks.

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Now here it was, hanging from her ceiling, along with paper snowflakes and a few other assorted toys.

As we sat on either side of a small coffee table, and the translator helped us talk to each other, my eyes kept straying to the ceiling. That dog, those snowflakes, they told so much about this family. I have never been in a sponsored kid’s home that was decorated this way. There may be a calendar picture tacked to the wall, maybe a faded picture of the sponsor family, sent across the ocean, but this was special. This spoke of a mother who gave freedom to her children to express themselves. It was a reach beyond fetching water, washing clothes, cooking meals, and all the basic survival tasks that occupy their days. It spoke of creativity and imagination and the desire to make things pretty no matter what the raw materials. I hope if I had a small house made of mud in Rwanda, there would be snowflakes hanging from the ceiling.

We would spend seven full days in Rwanda, seven days worth of stories we encountered on those red, dirt streets, but I wanted to start with this one. This hastily sketched picture of what it looks like, what it feels like, to be in this country. And what it was like that first day, meeting Rebeka’s family and seeing that little pink dog.

Rebeka's family, three younger sisters, a brother, and mom and dad. Her older sisters aren't pictured here.
Rebeka’s family, three younger sisters, a brother, and mom and dad. Her older sisters aren’t pictured here.