In my fifth time to this project, the impressions are less vivid, the surprises less jarring. The stories build on the previous ones, the haphazard plumbing a familiar irritant.
One of the kids turns out to be probably the son of the man we used to employ as the driver, who took him without our knowledge to Rwanda over the holidays, and then he had malaria and didn’t come back at the same time as the other kids. He calls him uncle, shows us the watch he gave him. When he came yesterday, teeth now filling the gaps, so much bigger, grin larger than the Rift Valley, he jumped into Blair’s arms and held on, grabbed me for five minutes.
One of the kids is in post-school, post-training limbo. The project director says he is “pulling ropes” with her mother, who is demanding we give her money to start a business without understanding any of our expectations about a business plan. It’s okay, he says. Even if the mother curses, it’s like a chicken cursing a kite.
I translate kite as a predatory bird to some of the Canadians. Then it feels know-it-all-ish – it doesn’t really matter.
Joel is studying software engineering, gentle and warm as always. He is working with the project directors to create a new management system. Saphra had a job working for TV Africa but couldn’t manage the hours with her university program in community psychology, comes back to the project svelte with sculpted hair. We talk about managing money, what it means to be living on your own.
Sylver finished his BA in Gisenyi and comes to the project after arduously chasing his passport for three days, his bony narrow face split with beaming at the sight of me. He takes me aside and gives me a gift, with the deepest words of love and appreciation I’ve ever heard. His gratitude has a pulse to it I can feel. I unfold the patchwork bag, know that I have nothing meaningful enough to put in it.
Maureen also takes me aside and gives me a gift, a yellow and green bisengi, a traditional wrap, bubbling about how I can wear it on my body or sit on it with my family on the ground. When I found myself at the university, it was such a SURPRISE, I never knew I could do that. I was so surprised! Her hair is braided with extensions with trendy dark red highlights, and she too is trim, wearing clothes from the city. She’s studying human resources. Two years ago, she couldn’t look me in the eye when she talked to me.
On the road across from the project, a tiny girl staggers toward us carrying a huge yellow jerry can of water. Inured, I take her photograph. Blair walks up to her and asks her where she’s going, carries it for her. I’m abashed, storytelling, not humanitarian.
Later, he and Lisa buy sugar and soap and bring it over to the family. The three year old is pounding ground nuts with a mortar and pestle. Everyone is in rags.
I ask our kids the difference between their experience in the project and what their lives would be like in the village. When the video camera is on, what they say is forgettable. When the battery dies, we spend an hour with four of the boys, who grow effusive. In the village, if they see this , they will run away, or they will beat you. In the village, they stand like scarecrows in the garden, and they throw stones at birds. In the village, if they see Europeans, they will not talk to you. In the village, if we bathe and change our clothes after three days, they say eeeeh, where are you going, why? My uncle, he killed a rat, and he took it across the border to DRC and sold it for food.
These 15 and 16 year old boys understand at some deep level that in the village, change is feared. That in the world they want to live in, they need to know about things that are different, have to learn about the things that might scare them, have to make choices. The hour Steph and I spend with these boys and their wisdom is one of the best of my life.
The world seems so full of possibilities, and so constrained at the same time. I talk to the big boys in their room, four of them sorting the colourful plastic beads we bought them on the bed in the centre.
They ask about what it is like for Africans who move to Canada. I’m honest about racism, that most of my cab drivers are East Africans, many of whom are trained to do something else. We talk about the “backwards tribe” of eastern Uganda the wife of the President has made a special project, and whether Canada has an equivalent group who “refuse” to become modern, to put on clothes. I tell some of the story of the relationship between white people and native Canadians, how the history has led to this group “suffering,” as they would put it. That we don’t see it as “backward” but about trying to be successful in this world while maintaining identity and tradition. They know this story from the inside. They nod, thirsty, hopeful.