That first full day in Africa is one that makes the head spin. The sun comes up in Kigali, Rwanda and I stand on the balcony to take in a view that the darkness had hidden the night before. There are hills, buildings, and the movement of people everywhere. I watch as folks pile into and on the constant parade of taxis. Half of them are vans. The other half are motorcycles!
Our morning begins by meeting Rev. Samuel Rubambage, Compassion Rwanda Country Director, and several members of his staff. As it is everywhere with Compassion,they are all nationals. After just a few minutes we realize that we are in the presence of people who are very bright, very capable, and very committed. From that point on, every Compassion staffer we meet is that type of person. “Excellence” might be the best word to describe the Compassion staff on the ground.
After a bumpy ride out of the city and into the village of Rusororo, we see our first Compassion project and the kids they serve. Simply unbelievable. The morning unfolds like the rest of our mornings in Africa will unfold. We arrive in our van to be greeted at the entrance by a host of happy, smiling, young African faces. The irony is evident. This is a place of great poverty. This is also a place of great joy. The kids are thrilled to see the “wazungu” (white people). They begin to laugh as I approach them and happily announce our arrival as I mockingly point to myself and say “mzungu!” (white person). Then, the touching begins. The excited children crowd around us and stroke our arms. They pull the arm hair. They pinch my skin. I’m not exactly sure what the fascination is other than they’ve never or rarely seen people like us before. They especially love Lisa’s white skin and blond hair. They keep touching both. Within seconds we fall in love with these kids who have little or nothing, but yet love life so much.
We spend some time visiting the three classrooms that meet in the crude and barren school building. Simple desks, no electricity, blackboards at each end of the room, one composition book per student, and kids in uniforms. . . that’s what it looks like. The classrooms are age segregated. The youngest in the first classroom are early elementary age. By the time we get to the last classroom we are sitting with 12 to 15 year-olds. Several things strike me as we visit each classroom. The discipline is evident. The lessons on the board. . . well. . . they were in English and the depth of the material made me a little nervous. I wouldn’t have been able to answer many questions or pass many tests. The students are eager to learn and value their education. The kids sing for us and recite Scripture from memory. As we leave the classroom I turn to some folks in our group and say, “This makes American kids and the American educational system look bad.” Great things are happening in the Rusororo school with the absence of physical resources and the presence of great commitment, energy, time, and love. There’s a lesson there for us.
Following an extended period of time playing (my binoculars are a hit! I’m glad I brought them) and interacting with kids (including the participation of me, Marv, Duffy, Doug, and Chap in a traditional Tutsi dance – film of which we hope is never seen by human eyes!), we embark on our first home visit. Our home visits are to Compassion sponsored children. We want to see how they live and how Compassion has changed their lives.
We walk through the village to John’s house. John is 13-years-old and has been sponsored by Compassion for a few years. Duffy, Maggie, Lisa, Mike, and myself walk into the crude but immaculate house to be greeted by John, his older brother, and two older sisters. This is the entire family. There are no parents. We hear John’s story. His mom and dad were both killed during the genocide. His 25-year-old sister Christina (in the red shirt) is the oldest sibling and the head of the household. Christina has HIV/AIDS. She contracted the disease when she was ten. How did that happen? It was during the genocide. Like many girls her age, she was raped by HIV/AIDS infected Hutus who used the disease and rape as a weapon. When doing the math in my head, John’s age seems to indicate he was born after the genocide. That leaves me scratching my head and pondering who his mom really is. Stories like these are common all over Rwanda.
John and his family have a small business that they run out of their living room. . . more specifically, off a small bench in their living room. On the bench sits a simple produce scale, some tomatoes, some onions, and some charcoal. As we visit, neighbors come by to make their purchases. As with everyone we meet in these villages, life is spent sustaining life day-to-day.
John and his family explain how his Compassion sponsorship has helped. He says, “It has changed my entire family’s life.” Compassion rebuilt the family’s three-room home. The sponsorship provides food, medical treatment, an education, and Christian nurture for John. As with all sponsored children, John’s family has benefited as well. After praying with the family, we leave a small gift of a bag of rice, two bags of flour, some cooking oil, and two bottles of concentrated juice. The smiles of appreciation are bigger than anything you’d see on the face of an American kid on Christmas morning. As we leave their home and say our “goodbyes,” I am flabbergasted at the story I’ve just seen and heard. I am equally amazed at what a $32 a month sponsorship from a Canadian man named Dennis and his family has done for John and his family. I know about Dennis and his family because John proudly showed us their picture.
As we walk away our little group talks about what we’ve just seen. The walls of the gathering room in John’s house are sparsely dotted with handmade pictures depicting scenes from Bible stories and Scripture verses. Faith is central to this home. But there is one other thing on the wall that is very, very interesting. I should have asked about it. It’s a poster of an American mansion with a fancy car sitting off to the side. I hope and pray that this is not how we in America have chosen to define ourselves. . . but I know better. I hope and pray that this is not how John and his family define who his white American visitors are. I hope and pray that those lost in poverty don’t fall into the trap of believing that redemption could ever come through the accumulation of stuff. That road’s been traveled far too many times before. . . . and it’s a dead-end.