Today I am writing to share another story, a story with joy and struggle.

Today I am writing to share another story, a story with joy and struggle. Being here as the mentor for the Intercordia program, left me in a space of trying to find something to do while the Intercordia students volunteer at The Ubumwe Community Center. As much as I am drawn to the Center, I wanted the Center to be their space.

Ubumwe has a ‘home visit’ program; this program facilitates connection to those who are unable to reach the Center. My initial reaction was excitement, visiting people in their homes and helping them in whatever assistance they needed sounded like my forte. The first ‘home visit’ I went on though, changed my view. The woman we visited talked about her situation; this was all in Kinyarwanda, my thoughts, “I am going to be useless at this.” After a couple days, I approached the coordinator again and explained more about my position here. The next day, we were in a jeep heading to Claudette’s house.

Claudette is 7 years old and has cerebral palsy. She lives with her parents and two brothers in a two bedroom home. There is no kitchen and the outside toilet (hole in the ground) is shared between all the people who rent in this little compound of nine houses. When we entered, Claudette was so happy to have visitors, her face radiated with joy. We came and talked to Maman Fiston about how things were going. Gentile, the coordinator, and I stayed for a couple hours and played with Claudette. After this visit, I began to visit Claudette on my own.

Sometimes when I arrived, I would give Maman Fiston a hand washing clothes. Although I don’t think I am very good at their system of hand washing. Sometimes I would help prepare lunch or wash dishes. Maman Fiston only speaks Kinyarwanda which was worrisome at first. However, her spirit and welcome to me was so gentle, I felt warmth being with her. Sometimes I arrived and Claudette would be on her bed home alone, I liked these days because it would be just me and her playing, singing, stretching. Your reaction might be, ‘a 7 year old can’t be left alone!’ Yes, you are probably right, but there isn’t any other option. And I admit, my first reactions to meeting this family was, what can I change about this? How can Claudette get to The Ubumwe Community Center everyday? What education needs to happen on her disability? What can I do?

But the more time I spent with Claudette, the more I realized the beauty of being here with her, and my visits started to become precious to me. I can’t offer sustainability or money or anything but myself here and now. Seeing Claudette glow as I enter her bedroom, brightens my day and the inevitability of me having to leave her, leaves her wailing in tears, it is a circle of emotions. I can only imagine her circle of emotions and thoughts as she spends most of her time on her bed.

I have been drawn to Claudette in many ways and I thought my purpose was solely visiting her. Yesterday, Claudette’s uncle was over, he could speak some English (sigh!). Maman Fiston said that it has been nice that I have been visiting because no one visits her. My heart sank. This family is incredibly precious.

As I close this relationship here, I am grateful for the moments of joy I have shared with Claudette and her family, sharing beans and potatoes out of the same plate, singing ‘you are my sunshine’, washing clothes, and sometimes just sitting. There is simplicity in this relationship, beauty in being with each other and sharing time. This culture has taught me the importance of visiting our neighbours and friends and the immense gratitude that comes with having a guest.

Endnote: Claudette’s family is moving further away from The Ubumwe Community Center to Mahoko, outside of Gisenyi because rent is cheaper. She likely won’t attend school in the years ahead. In Mahoko, there might be some transitional classes, a class of people with disabilities who meet once a week. Maman Fiston just told me that they can’t afford to pay for the children’s health insurance for the next year. It is RWF10,000; I am in the process of finding out of The Ubumwe Center can cover this for their family. Dear friends, I share this with you not to sadden you or to propel stereotypes of Africa but to share their story, however difficult it may be. Naturally, I have hopes for Claudette; these are my Western hopes though. Even if Claudette could come to Ubumwe everyday, there would be many challenges of supporting her here. I leave at this time grateful and prayerful. What I have experienced is that there is a clear love and joy for Claudette and Maman and Papa Fiston are trying their absolute best to provide for their children. 

I have included some pictures of Claudette and her family and I.

Peace from these beautiful hills of Rwanda,

Marian

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