In the melange of 52 people who have been students of Nikibasika, Dorcus is kind of like the middle child — I’ve always noticed her as smiling, sweet, not talkative, very happy to participate in everything we do. One of my most indelible images of her is with a huge grin, singing loudly, face turned up to sing as fully as possible, stuffed into a minivan on the way back from an outing. When she was younger, she liked to sit by me, quietly.
Like every youth in Nikibasika, though, inside there’s a hard story, a history I know I can only begin to catch the shape of, only if I listen hard.
Dorcus finished her O levels last year with okay results, but not the kind that would indicate an academic path. After some career guidance, she chose plumbing. She stood up in our first meeting on this visit to Nikibasika, again with her enormous smile, and said “I am going to be a plumber because I want a job that keeps me healthy and strong. There are not many ladies in plumbing, but you can do any job with love and confidence.”
Her fellow plumbing student, the equally quiet and sweet Angella Brown, nodded.
I made a swirl of a “decision” to go on a little road tour after our annual visit to Niki. I wanted to see Smith, who is in medical school, and I wanted to visit the village of two of the boys who’ve been asking me to do that for years, and I wanted to go to Rwanda to the village of another family. Somehow in the planning, we realized Dorcus’ grandmother lived right near the other two boys’, and she wanted to see her. So we got a bigger van and set out, three women — me, Dorcus and the associate director Tina, and four boys. And two drivers (the second is to look out the side window to tell the first it’s okay to pass. Way more necessary when you’re stuck being a crawling fume-belching truck on a narrow dirt road than you’d think).
Ten long hot hours in the sweating van, the bumpiest of roads, dust flying everywhere. I fretted about the integrity of the dental work that would have paid for five kids to go to university, wished I’d worn a sports bra, kept dropping my little airplane pillow into the filthiest wheel well. Produced an endless supply of puzzling snacks for everyone, dried dates and energy bars. Dorcus smiling behind me the whole way while the boys cocooned themselves in their phones. A little chat about her happiness with her course, her joy at seeing her grandmother, but mostly just quiet, some giggling about the magnetic Frida Kahlo finger puppet that is my travel companion, which driver #2 took a shining to.
When we finally reached the point that marks the triangular border between Congo, Rwanda and Uganda, Dorcus announced for everyone. “We shall go to home tonight, no point in spending money on a hotel.” The grandmothers lived a 10 minute boda ride from the town (motorcycle taxi). The other two boys with the nearby grandmother erupted in flurry of angry Kinyarwanda. I didn’t understand the words but knew they were protesting staying in the village instead of in a hotel with a tv. Dorcus stared them down. Minutes later, they were climbing out of the car and onto the backs of bodas, holding the soap, bread and sugar we’d purchased for the grandmothers.
In the morning (yes, the hotel had a TV and there was apparently the final of the FA cup on, and one of the Rwandan boys didn’t even eat dinner he was so engrossed in the game), we drove up to the grandmothers’ houses. We passed the bore hole where they fetch water, which has to be carried at least a kilometre up a hill.
Dorcus’ grandmother’s place was set back from the road, dusty, hot and exposed. There was an aunt, a couple of small children, an ailing woman lying on a pallet out by the small building two ducks were trying to get into.
Her grandmother had splurged on sodas. A huge gesture of welcome. We drank the warm sodas quietly in the small sitting room papered with newspaper. I taught everyone how to clink and say “Sante”. After, I asked Dorcus to show me around.
She was a bit hesitant, and I put my arm around her. “Just show me what you want to show me.” I realized she was worried I would judge, was hesitant to reveal the shabbiness, the need. “This is the kitchen where I cook – it is not cleaned up because I just got here.” Kitchens are generally separate buildings with a fire, a few large pots, wood. This one was filled with rubbish, looked like there had been no recent fire, maybe no porridge for breakfast. Dorcus stood, worried. “I’m sure your grandmother is glad you’re here.” She nodded and held my hand.
I confirmed a bit of history about how she’d gotten into the project. The first wife of the man who selected the initial group for the project lived nearby. Her father is dead, her mother is around but unable to care for her. She prefers her grandmother. Her grandmother is 95, runs this little farm with no male help, looks after the woman with cancer. Dorcus’ worry about her radiated off her.
Dorcus showed me where she sleeps. Again, I could see that she felt a bit embarrassed. I felt the conflict of language, of class, of privilege. How to explain that I like to see this because it helps me understand her, understand myself and what I am doing here, not because it makes me pity her. “Do not cry aunt,” she said. “Be strong.” I wasn’t crying, but I understood what she meant. She was showing more of herself to me than she ever had. A lot was held in this moment.
“I’m really glad you will be able to work and earn money to help your grandmother,” I said. “She is a strong woman.” She nodded. “Like you,” I said.
We took a few photos, me and her and her beautiful grandmother, and a small cousin who boldly crept in. “She likes to sleep with me,” laughed Dorcus. “I’m not surprised,” I said.
She walked us back to the van at the boys’ grandmother’s house, hugged me fiercely, walked back alone up the dirt road, to spend two weeks making the little farm work before going back to continue her training as a plumber. Doing everything with love and confidence.