How do you say “dolphin” in runyankole?

When kiisa wants to look at pictures, he doesn’t ask for “snaps” or photos like the older kids, he makes a swiping motion with his fingers.. Half an hour squished up against a dozen other kids looking at pics on my ipad and he’s vaulted from the red dirt village where he saw his mother “chopped” to death when he was 3 to a tactile interface.

Showing the kids pics of themselves, of their various supporters and well-wishers, my friends, the Triadventurers, I include some shots of my trip to Baja.  I ask them if they know what those are, pointing to a trio of white-sided dolphins arcing in unison. “Emamba,” says Baba confidently.  “That’s what they’re called in runyankole.”  I look at him, smile — you have a word for that in runyankole?  I try to imagine the pragmatic, deeply localized Bantu language  evolving to include “dolphin.”  I explain what a dolphin is, ask if they’ve seen a whale, assure them that whales are actually bigger than elephants.

It’s space time compression here, wormholes, folds in earth and history, wifi under the mosquito net.  The children stretching out of subsistence agriculture to a life doing things that haven’t been designed yet.  One generation from illiterate to university.

Last year, it took three days for the hugs to become longer and tighter.  Today it took one.  My sweet 13 year old boy leaning against my chest, full lean weight on me, asking me if I have my mother still, weeping quietly for 10 minutes, just with me.  I whisper over and over that I love him, that he will grow up to be a good father and a good man with a family that loves him, that he will do things that mean something in the world.  His tiny voice:  “You have helped us so much.”

So many stories, joyful Saphra putting on the pink sparkly top sent by Stephanie and exalting in how smart she looks.  Delighted as she nudges me and says I am fat like her.  (In Africa, I am very fat.  No one thinks twice about commenting on it).

Three of our secondary students graduating this year, anxious through their exams, but confident, assuring Daddy Gabriel that they will pass.  I talk with one, earnestly, and suggest that his talent is advocacy, pointing out he is always the one coming to us to broker other people’s problems and hopes with diplomacy and care, that he might want to rethink his plan to study accounting.  “You always give me proper advice, Auntie,” he says.  “I will research what I can do.”  I hug him, tuck some money into his pocket so he and his family can go out for dinner and celebrate his accomplishment over the Christmas break.

On one square, it’s knotty questions about the boy who got expelled from school after being implicated in a prank that involved feces on a teacher’s desk, or the girl who doesn’t like her school but can’t say why except that she doesn’t like the teachers, on another it’s bubbling children asking to see pictures of the people who wrote them letters, on another it’s the constant awareness that every move of kindness, support, steadiness, brings with it a bundle of additional needs.  Fatigued with the tedious administration, the bottomless bucket of requests, the tight love that involves promises that terrify me in the night. How do we have faith we can provide for these kids as we’ve promised?  Every decision to spend money — on a table, a school that costs more, a wifi stick, new bags to replace the ones they’ve lost again — makes me worry about what won’t be covered.  I recall my friend P once showing me an expensive pedicure and ruefully saying “remind me beautiful my toes were when I’m living out of a cardboard box.”  I worry about knowing which decisions are about beautiful toes.

And I press forward, making promises, buoyed on the support of my community, Kagame pressed against me, Andrew’s resurrected delight in life, the new confidence of Enock, of Britah, of Rebecca, of Melon. Jennifer pressed in the longest hug I’ve had.


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