As soon as we crossed the border into Rwanda, the six kids in the car began to bubble. The Uganda reserve dissolved and they sat more upright, animated. The land verdant, roads smooth of the "pitholes" of Uganda but too narrow. "These people do not move from the road!" said Tina. "They told me about this! They think we will see them!"
The staple food of Rwanda is "Irish" -- i.e., irish potatoes -- and since it was a market day, the road from the border was thronged with a stream of women in colourful wraps with huge lumpy sacks on their heads. Boys straining to push bicycles with enormous sacks of Irish up hills. "Bill Clinton made these roads," said Abdu.
I still don't quite understand what happened at the border, but it was an hour of denouncing two of the kids as "not Ugandan!" based on their long noses (a signifier of being Tutsi for generations now), arguments, accusations of human trafficking, requests for 30,000 UGX each, my being hustled away by the oldest boy so they wouldn't accuse me of worse or demand more money, a production of a voter registration slip and being vouched for by some random man our driver knew.
No one has anything resembling official documents. The permission to leave the district for our kids was handwritten by the local official on school notebook paper. The official travel documents of Rwanda are large sheets of what looks like pink construction paper, the photo's glue loosened and official stamps crowded on the back. Passports exist, but they're expensive and complicated, hence this combination of officiousness and chaos at the border, people refused clearance while market-goers move back and forth freely.
My guidebook had said Canadians didn't need visas for Rwanda, so I blithely showed up expecting to pay $50 or so as I had in TZ and UG; I was sternly lectured by Mr Immigration in a sharp suit and told to return to Kampala and apply online. "It only takes a few minutes." "I'm here now," I argued. "What can I do here and now?" After a lot of lecturing, and Sylver pleading my case as his sponsor, and a lot of hectoring about how I could know what hotel I was staying at in Kigali when I wasn't actually there yet, Mr. Immigration went off and got paperwork to sell me a visa. I'm still unclear what this was about, but I did have a chance to learn how to say "don't lose yourself by getting into a car with a sugar daddy" in kinyarwanda, the billboard overshadowing any official welcome to rwanda.
So we crossed, and I had a weird little forex moment that appeared to be a street transaction but where abdu claimed he was avoiding my getting cheated, and then we went to the village.
We have five kids from one family in the project, and they embody it for us, I think. Good, sweet, softspoken young adults -- the youngest is 13 -- who have a kind of essential spirit of kindness and openness. Carissa and I both hold this family in our souls, I think. But no one from the project had ever visited their home in Rwanda, and we have been trying to implement home assessments for all our kids. So I was privileged enough to visit.
The kids were excited to show me their tiny plot of land, subsistence agriculture where their mother lives without an income. They had a plot in Congo that they fled to before the genocide, and managed to survive it by staying in Congo for two or three years. But when they came back to Rwanda, Interahamwe hiding in Congo came across the mountains -- they're mere kilometres from the border -- and first their sister and then their father was killed. Separate occasions.
The mom is worn and stiff, probably close to my age but centuries have passed through her veins. She sees her five remaining children only at the holidays. She has no french or english, and my kinyarwanda is limited to thank you, I love you and help me. (The essentials, right?) There was handclasping and shoulder gripping that went beyond flesh. Such gratitude. Clean small house, larger than I expected, though the boys - and their cousin we brought along -- share one bed. Hard for north americans to fathom. Subsistence farming in the shadows of the mountain-gorillas park.
To give our social worker space to interview the kids and their mom, and to draw our driver away, I roamed the village with my camera. First two kids, then five, then eventually a snotty, filthy little mob, shrieking with joy and pressing me so hard I almost fell every time I showed them what I'd captured in the display. I quivered with a weird combination of joy that matched theirs and a soft horror I successfully quelled, especially when a slightly older one pinched a huge gob of snot off his brother's nose and wiped it on his shirt. So filthy, and so many of them, on this already chock-ful land. I told them to stop calling me mzungu, that my name was Cate, and one or two of the older ones understood enough english to translate. We moved up the hill, and I said "tous finis" -- and as they repeated "finish" through their mob, they started to grab my hands in a kind of sideways high five. I stood on the tiny rocky path, mid-fiving two dozen filthy children, as they chanted Cate Cate Cate Cate with a kind of glorious vigour. Their excited jostling squishing the smallest ones, and once or twice, almost knocking me down. Embodiment of the need and spirit here, too much, too crowded, such humanness.
I went inside the house, and they ran off and came back a few minutes later. They had picked me a flower and gave it to the driver - "tell that muzungu we love her and give her this flower."
I'm sure these kids smearing their hands all over me and my camera for an hour didn't help my ongoing gut rot, but I'm sure my issues are also partly my body's attempt to process the intense emotion of this place.
When we left, Odetta presented me and tina both with a piece of gorgeous fabric. Mine has birds on it. The same versatile cloth women turn into skirts, bathing wrappers, twirl around their entire bodies when they're cold. She would have had to barter to get this. She bought it with her nothing, to show us how grateful she is that her children will be someone.
I took the four older kids to Gisenyi today, did the 8 tedious transactions that were required to pay university fees for the oldest, and took the kids out to lunch. Our social worker and the driver had headed back to Kasese. Just me and the four, talking about where they would go if I gave them plane tickets to anywhere. South Africa. The UK. To climb mountains in British Columbia. Three boys and a girl, part of the village we're raising.
I hugged them goodbye and they solicitously put me on a boda boda (motorcycle taxi) and instructed him not to cheat me. Abdu handed me my bag, assured me my phone was in it, and patted my shoulder. The boy who's raising me.