Not long enough

We had a meeting with the Big Girls today, 12 of them, the ones in Secondary School.  We had an enormous lunch at our hotel — where the girls ate plates of food that weighed as much as Tina’s new baby.  “Africans eat when they get food,” laughed Isaac, the man organizing the lunch.

We sat in the gazebo and had girl talk, starting with their best memory or thing they were most proud of for the year — and these girls, who were skinny, shy, didn’t know how to hug, just 3 years ago on my first visit — were… incredible.  Confident, sweet, using strong voices, thoughtful, generous.  Elected Head Girl of the entire school.  Elected class Prefect.  Elected Gym Prefect.  Class Prefect.  On three committees.  Just finished A levels. All promoted.

One of their favourite moments of the year was sex education — our social worker and her friend. They talked about everything, they were so encouraged to be strong women who could look after themselves, that boys were wonderful but better for when they were done school.  They took it seriously, so appreciated two women being honest with them, helping them.

Sometimes our mantra of what this program is about sounds like a pipe dream — raise these kids to see a bigger world. to change their worlds, to believe anything is possible.  But these girls…. they’re leaders.  What they want to do — become a lawyer and fight corruption, have enough money to help needy people, be a journalist and tell people’s stories, have “my own industry someday!”, be an engineer.  (“My brothers can’t help me with physics, they are all ARTS”).

It keeps hitting me.  They’re beautiful, they’re healthy, they are *reflective*, they see injustice.  They’re grateful.  They veer from lofty dreams to requests for better quality knicker pegs and nighties and open shoes.  They understand when we say we have spend money on school fees and can’t also afford a bigger clothing budget. They are learning to solve their own problems.

They’re not perfect — I spent an hour this morning talking through the rough year of a gorgeous, tall, smart, sharp-witted girl I’ve always had a soft spot for.  She changed schools and it all went sour.  The ghosts in her new school are scary, some of the other girls are mean, she got off on the wrong foot and couldn’t get back. We talked about how hard it is to be a really emotional person, how I also struggle with being upset by things, how learning to get along with people you don’t like very much is part of growing up.  She came up with the solution of a list of commitments she’ll make for the compromise school. I tell her what I see in her.  She shines.

This story is repeated, over and over, a year’s worth of parenting in four days.  Two big boys who’ve had trouble in school single me out to apologize, and we talk through how their reactions to unfair treatment are what matter, how they can go forward.  Fred’s grandmother died, and he tells me the twisted tale of his birth, his mother pregnant during the genocide, then killed when he was three months old, his father refusing to acknowledge him for years. We talk about his skill at noticing things, telling stories.  I ask him what he loves the most and he explains painstakingly about learning new ideas, understanding that he can learn from people younger than him, can teach people older, can learn from everyone. I tell him in my world that’s called knowing many perspectives, and we talk about the history of Rwanda, and why many perspectives are important. We talk about Kagame’s authoritarian reign and how Rwandans will need to be able to create order that isn’t only enforced by structure, and what he might be able to do in life to help that.  He listens so deeply.

Some of our kids will be drivers, and mechanics, and seamstresses, and hairdressers.  Some might own shops or be soldiers.  And some, a precious few, will truly do things that matter, that transform their worlds.  I believed it, and now I see it.  They are so alive.  They make me so alive.  The most important thing I will ever do.  The most precious thing I will ever do.  I am so lucky.

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