Thursday, September 1, 2016

Friends on a Thousand Hills - Rwanda 2016 Part 4

Love from the center of who you are; don’t fake it. Run for dear life from evil; hold on for dear life to good. Be good friends who love deeply; practice playing second fiddle. Romans 12:10

How do I turn our day spent in the Gihembe Refugee Camp in northern Rwanda into words? It seems impossible. The day overflowed with emotions - joy, heartbreak, love, relief, contentment, sadness, impatience, anger, hurt, worry, guilt. What is appropriate and sensitive to share? What words will honor my friends?

We spent Tuesday in the Gihembe Refugee Camp in northern Rwanda. Gihembe is home to 15,000 Congolese refugees, many of whom have lived there since 1997. They have married there. Raised their children there. Managed to create lives in conditions we Americans cannot imagine. Lives spent each day in small homes made of mud, dirt floors and no electricity. Benches or the ground their only furniture. Yet you won’t meet more hospitable people. These are generous people. Their love is big.

ADRA Rwanda Headquarters in Kigali
Our day began early. Representatives from the Adventist Development and Relief Agency (ADRA) arrived in the tallest SUV I’ve had to climb into (in a long skirt) and first drove us to their Rwanda headquarters in Kigali to meet the associate country director, Geoffrey Kayonde and field officer Epiphanie who accompanied us through the day. Without ADRA obtaining official - and I mean official rubber stamped letter official - permission from the Ministry of Disaster Management and Refugee Affairs (MIDIMAR), we could not have entered the camp. Outsiders are not allowed into the camp without authorization and a guide with them at all times. This is for many reasons. One is for our safety, but also maintaining order in a camp with that large a population, in that small an area is no easy task, and when foreigners enter the camp we immediately create a mob of followers.

Our first stop in Gihembe was to greet the camp manager of MIDIMAR. The purpose - for him to lay down the law - to tell us, “This is what you can do.” And. . .  “This is what you cannot do? No pictures of groups of people. We could take pictures of the school and school children and the families we came to visit, but nothing else.
Primary Classrooms in Gihembe
Next we toured the primary school. We went into the P2 classroom (second grade). Oh, the delight of those children. They begin learning English from P1 and love to talk in English, although we did have a translator explain our BIGGER thoughts. . . We introduced ourselves. Kevin was funny. I was funnier I’m sure. The children asked us questions: What is different about America? Do you have children? Do you like Rwanda? Troublemaker Kevin asked, “What is your favorite football team?” Then egging them on, Kevin said, “Who is better Renaldo or Messi?”
P2 Classroom
As we left the primary school and climbed the hill to the P7 classrooms, children swarmed around me saying, muzungu like they needed too point out that I’m white. I smiled. I asked Epihanie, “If I am muzungu, what are you?” She laughed and said, “African.” So I decided every time they call me muzungu I will reply “African.” As we walked, the children began touching me (this always happens in a crowd of children; it doesn’t bother me, but it is awkward), some children were lightly pinching me. One older boy pinched me harder and I looked him in the eye, gave him the mom look and said, “No!” All his friends laughed at him. Struggling up the hill amidst a swarm of children, I saw Kevin looking back with a  worried look on his face or maybe he was just jealous. . . 

We arrived at P7 where the children asked not to have the translator interpret. Their English was perfect. These children were more comfortable with us, asked lots and lots of question. We laughed so much with them. We told them we have friends their age in Boise who sat in this very classroom. I said, “Does anyone know Justin Karangwa?” Nearly all the hands in the classroom shot up. We showed them pictures of our school age friends in Boise. “I know that one. I know that one.” They said.
P7 Classroom
Then they asked, “What church do you attend?” We replied, “Seventh-day Adventist” and to our surprise they all cheered and clapped. Kevin and I looked at each other quizzically then asked, “Which of you are Seventh-day Adventist?” Every hand but one shot up. We laughed and I reminded them God loves all his children.

I prayed for them, asking God to bring them to Boise so we could be neighbors. As we left I said, “Remember you are important to God. You are loved. Study hard. Maybe we will meet again in Boise.”

We were blessed that day. It is not normally allowed to visit an individual family in their home. It can create danger for them if it appears they have rich friends. But we had come to see Agnes’ mama and papa (we call them Mama Agnes and Papa Agnes), but Papa Agnes was too sick to walk to the ADRA office. Our friend Dada (whose family has already been resettled to Boise), argued long and hard with the ADRA representatives and the director of MIDIMAR. And, well, I’ll just say we visited Mama and Papa Agnes in their home. Later I told Dada he should attend law school when he is resettled to America. He replied, “I do like to win every argument.”

Dada led us through a maze of homes until we reached their home. There were so many family members waiting for us. As I stood there a bit overwhelmed, a woman came and stood before me. Dada said, “This is Mama Agnes.” Mama Agnes looked at me, grabbed onto me and I said, “Oh I’m going to cry.” And then we hugged the hardest hug. We share a daughter, you see. Earlier this year when Agnes was preparing to give birth to her daughter, she talked with her mom on the phone and her mama was so worried about Agnes being alone in Boise. But Agnes replied, “Mama it’s okay. I have found another mother here.” Mama Agnes told me this as we sat in her home together. Tears came to my eyes as I responded, “We will share her now and she will have two mamas.”

The family of Agnes and Justin
I don’t know what to say about this. This strong woman was sharing her daughter with me. This strong woman who raised an incredible daughter, the most generous and kind woman whose laugh can bring joy to the saddest day, this daughter is now mine also. I am humbled. My life has been easy. I cannot know the struggle she endured to raise Agnes into the person she is today, but I am so grateful to be a part of this family.

As we gathered in their home where benches lined the walls, Mama Agnes pointed Kevin and me to the chairs in the room but I said, “No, I want to sit beside Mama Agnes.” And so we squished together on a bench, never letting go of each other.

Later, Papa Agnes slowly made his way into the room. He was very sick. I could see it in his face, but he had put on his best suit to join us. When I saw how painfully he walked into the room I wished he had not risen from his bed. But I could see the joy of being in the room, the honor he showed us, was greater to him than the pain of his illness. The hospitality of African culture is beautiful. We can learn much from it.
Papa Agnes
We pulled out photographs Agnes had sent - beautiful photos of her little family, two month old beautiful, just learned to laugh, Rachael and her big brother Justin, who also is pretty cute but can’t compete with Rachael. Sorry Justin, but I’m sure you know this already.

We then settled into visiting. We stayed for hours, drinking Fanta and eating the delicious tiny bananas. We shared stories about Agnes and Justin. Good stories. Mama Agnes said, “Justin says he is always at your house.” We showed them pictures of Justin being baptized and Kevin brought out the video Justin had made especially for his grandma. He had a long message for her. I don’t know what he said. It was in Kinyarwanda, but grandma listened to it three times and then passed it around to each family member. Great grandma held it against her ear so she could hear his words, nodding her head all the while. Then grandma recorded a message for Justin. I don’t know what she said, but I’m pretty sure it was a lot of love and reminding him keep following Jesus.

As we sat there loving each other, children began pouring into the room. Young children ages five, four and a little two year old. Each came directly to us and hugged us. When the two year old cutie hugged me I said, “Oh! I’m taking this one home with me.” The room roared with laughter. But seriously. . . 
As our visit ended, we gathered in front of their home for a family photo - because we are a family. We crowded together and Dada said, “Shawna stand by Kevin.” I said, “No. I’m standing by Mama Agnes.” Then ensued a ten minute laughter infused photo shoot. At one point Dada wanted me to hold Agnes’ baby niece, but she was having none of it. She fled back into her uncle's arms and gave me a look that said, “I heard you were going to take one of us home with you and it’s not gonna be me!”

Talking to Agnes
During our photo shoot, Agnes called her brother Jackson on video chat. Can you imagine the joy of standing next to her mama while seeing the face of Agnes (in Boise) on the phone and both of us talking to her. One of us in English and one in Kinyarwanda? What crazy world is this where such technology is possible yet her family lives in the harsh reality of a refugee camp?

Praying with Papa and Mana Agnes
As we said our goodbyes and walked back to our ADRA vehicle, I hugged Mama Agnes and tried not to cry.  We got into the car and as we waited for our driver, tiny children came in droves to my open window, said “Hi” and wanted to shake hands with me. An older teenager stood beside the car. His eyes were sad as he said over and over, “Help us. Help us.” I could only look at him and say “Sorry.” It is a paradox that to spend time amidst poverty you must have both a soft heart and a hard heart. But I know if I absorb too much of another’s pain, I will not survive. 

Today, I’m holding on extra tight to these words from Jesus in Matthew chapter 5.

You’re blessed when you’re at the end of your rope. With less of you there is more of God and his rule.
You’re blessed when you feel you’ve lost what is most dear to you. Only then can you be embraced by the One most dear to you.
You’re blessed when you’re content with just who you are—no more, no less. That’s the moment you find yourselves proud owners of everything that can’t be bought.
You’re blessed when you’ve worked up a good appetite for God. He’s food and drink in the best meal you’ll ever eat.
You’re blessed when you care. At the moment of being ‘care-full,’ you find yourselves cared for.
You’re blessed when you get your inside world—your mind and heart—put right. Then you can see God in the outside world.
You’re blessed when you can show people how to cooperate instead of compete or fight. That’s when you discover who you really are, and your place in God’s family.

Read Friends on a Thousand Hills - Rwanda 2016 Part 5 here

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