Looking for Ebenezer and a really long story
This is a long overdue story I was asked to share/ report I was asked to write. I have to confess that I did proofread half of it because the first draft was started last month but had to finish it before the end of the year. It doesn’t quite feel complete, but without being able to give you the opportunity to share a buffet with Patrick, this is as close as I may be able to come to sharing what one person can do when they are impassioned, like he is. He has inspired me and I am forever grateful to have met him, share his friendship and be able to offer his story.
Most of my time in Rwanda was spent close to the big city of Kigali so when given an opportunity to visit a small village, I did not hesitate. I may have even instigated. And when I learned we would have to travel through Nyungwe Forest National Park, I even offered to invest some fuel money from my own tightly managed, extravagance-free budget. The small village is called Cyangugu, the opportunity was to visit Patrick’s grandma. Maria is as feisty as they come, barely showing her ninety years of age. Her sharp personality undoubtedly helps her to care for the fourteen children Patrick has welcomed into their home.
We met Patrick that morning standing alongside the road. He had his bag in hand with his son, daughter and “adopted” Congolese son there to see him off. We quickly realized the children could not be left behind when they are not often able to visit great-grandma and their siblings living six hours away. Besides, traveling in Rwanda is not complete without every available seat being filled at least once, so Micha, Peace and Robert piled into the back as well.
Our journey out of Kigali started slowly. Thrice delayed, we escaped city congestion, human congestion, traffic congestion and air congestion, for congested foliage. Immediately there were verdant green rice fields dotted with workers in bright orange, then we climbed hills for spectacular vistas with not a moment to spare for appreciation, rambling up and away towards Nyungwe’s 900+ square kilometers of rainforest. Two things I had not yet had the pleasure of experiencing in Rwanda were real actual forest or real actual rain. The National Park did not disappoint, except that she did not stop time and allow us to do a bit of hiking. We whizzed past half a dozen trail signs and each time I tried to imagine the unimaginable flora and fauna we were missing. But at the very least I did get to witness real rainforest rains. Gorgeous!
In the car, Patrick told me about his kids, life in Cyangugu and the corrupt Rwandan education system. And he does not hesitate to share his beliefs on anything (which is probably why I like him so much, but does not make his life any easier in Rwanda where speech is tightly regulated). Having lost his parents at a very young age, he was young when he met Grace, a 6 year old girl wandering alone. Being a man with a huge, sympathetic heart, he had few resources to offer his grandmother, much less another child, but he says he can remember being that lost kid without parents and thinking he was the only one like that. He knew he had to bring her home and offer her what family life he could. They were not the only orphans before the ’94 genocide and definitely not after. He wanted to provide family for all the parent-less kids like him.
Cyangugu is ten times smaller than Bukavu, a capital city just across the river in Democratic Republic of the Congo and life was hard. It is at the end of the road to DRC, the end of Lake Kivu, and the largest land boarder between the two nations. There are especially few resources for children. With super low wages, public school teachers are not motivated, much less inspired and may not even have the credentials to hold their positions. Motivation is monetary and seems to come from the parents. In 1997, knowing he had to work in order to provide more for all these kids, he moved away from Cyangugu for a job housekeeping in Kigali. Housekeeping means not just house cleaning, but also laundry, cooking, errands and sometimes even childcare. Literally keeping the house for its owners. He would be called a “house boy” which makes him sound like a slave. Not sure there’s an American equivalent? Au pair? Housekeeper on steroids? Ok. Slave might be the most accurate.
Ten years of housekeeping and he founds work at a guest house where he finally began making connections. Connections with people with resources to help Patrick in providing for his family. One orphan had led to another and today he has invited seventeen children into his home. Several have grown up and are now living independently, thanks to all his hard work for them. Patrick, his wife, their two kids and another teenager live in Kigali where he is currently looking for work in housekeeping. There is the problem of earnings, however. With no minimum wage set, he is at the mercy of homeowners who offer little more than enough to cover rent (about $120 per month).
While he tells me his story, we pass many children along the roads; playing, walking, lying out, working, living. He says they can start working as soon as they are strong enough to carry bundles of firewood on their heads. It seems training begins early. I saw one little girl who was barely walking steadily, holding three small branches to her head. It was adorable- she wanted to be just like her mom. Heartbreakingly adorable when I thought about the fact that she will probably never have any opportunity to rise above manual labor.
As we descended from the rainforest, through tea plantations, towards Lake Kivu, we are nearing Cyangugu. Patrick says this is one of the poorest areas and if numbers of children along the road is any indication, he must be right. From half a dozen sitting roadside waving as we pass to two small kids following mom who has a baby on her back and a sack of potatoes balancing on her head to the row of four children all under ten, each with a bundle of branches three times bigger than he was on his head to the boys herding pigs and goats as they graze. Hard lives as street kids. But what else would they do?
Coming into town, I have the feeling there used to be life here, but things are eroding now . There are no new buildings. There does not appear to be much of a commercial district, although it may have been somewhere we did not visit. We passed one market with an impressive array of tea leaves with few other produce booths. “Booth” meaning a blanket on the ground against the bamboo fence. There are quite a few fishing boats on the lake, fish being the easy source of protein. Roads are in decent condition until we come to the bridge that leads into DRC’s big city. And turn down the dirt track instead. We turn left and go up a hill onto muddy lanes where cars are rarely seen.
These roads do not often see cars. Even more rare are muzungos walking on foot. Patrick and the kids knew where they were going, so we tried to follow their lead. Each person we passed had questioning looks, some laughed, others called out, several lent assistance, all were curious what had brought us out to their small umadugadu (village). Twenty minutes down the hill to Patrick’s house and everyone knew there were visitors. “Muzungo! Muzungo!” was raining down on us from all directions and once the alarm has been sounded, even kids across the river in DRC were getting excited. It can be a strange feeling to be so visible amongst people who are so rarely acknowledged.
The welcoming committee caught news of our arrival and ran to greet us. Greetings in Rwanda are elaborate and always make a person feel special. The best part of my day was surprising them with the arrival of their Kigali brothers and sister. Some of them have lived together as siblings and surely have regular updates from Patrick, but are separated with that insurmountable six hour drive. Seeing how these kids cherish one another more than the candy and books and toys and shirts and shoes we arrived with was really special. I mean, to get Geronimo hugs from the top of the hill was priceless, but to see the way Patrick and his kids were welcomed is unforgettable.
Arriving caked in red mud, our feet were washed for us before we were allowed to enter the house. Lori, who had falled down in the mud, was changed out of her muddy clothes and Maria dressed her in a fresh gitenge skirt. Each of Patrick’s kids introduced themselves:
Hello, my name is Peace. I am 7 years old. I am in second grade. When I grow up, I want to be a conductor.
Sadly, introductions were followed closely by goodbyes. Some shoes and clothes and gifts had been brought along which we distributed before quickly running out to try making it back before dark. We were not fast enough and I mucked the last hill by the light of Arnauld’s new light up toy. He proudly notified everyone of how well he was keeping me from falling- this little 45lb boy. He was lucky I didn’t slip, he would have been lost to the muck!
The next day, we were rushed to return to Kigali. We returned on slightly less sloppy roads, walked into a chaotic house full of new red t-shirts we had brought the night before. Patrick asked them to write each of us a letter. They were adorable letters demonstrating how poor the education system is- even the older kids were not very skilled writers without even considering the fact they were not writing in their first language.
I met with Patrick one last time before leaving. We had lunch at the $2 buffet because I told him I want to make him fat (very honorable in Rwanda as a sign of health and wealth. No wonder they all want to come to America!). He told me how thankful he was of our visit. For the people living in Cyangugu, it gives them hope, he said. Makes them realize there could be opportunities and help coming in from the outside world when they otherwise feel hopeless. And then he hands me photos of each of his children who does not have a sponsor.
It made me think of a person talking into the mirror to practice lines for a performance. But for him, it’s real life. He must have asked so many people for help so many different times that it has become something of a performance. An act he keeps repeating; emphasizing different acts, adding a bit here, leaving that bit out, showcasing this child or that, demonstrating their poor writing. Each time, hoping and praying for an active audience.
His life dedicated to these kids, recited for your entertainment. Telling him my parents wanted to be sponsors was to offer him a standing ovation. He knew I had no job and all I could offer was friendship, but when asked what I could do to help, he asked for prayers and that I share his story. Which my tightly managed, no frills budget allows me to do! Which also has me asking you to help me help Patrick. With Prayers, Sharing his story, Money if you can afford it or at least some Applause!
He has just started a website for the kids. To sponsor one of his kids would be around $750/year. My parents are paying through African Road, to ensure all money goes right into Patrick’s hands to be spent on the sponsored kiddo. I think there are only six of his kids left who are without sponsorship. That’s not that many kids! Six degrees of separation in the world, right? That means if each of you shares this, someone knows someone who knows a Scrooge who has had a change of heart with loads of guilty cash to pay out a grand each year for the next fifteen years. Tell him it’s a tax write-off and he’s really saving a life and saving himself money!
“The End” came somewhere towards in those last several paragraphs. I hope you end this year with more pazazz than I just ended that story… And start 2014 with applause!