I’ve met so many fascinating people and heard so many powerful stories during my stay here. I want to share some of them with you, not only so you can share my experiences but also so as to give voice to stories that may never be heard again otherwise.
I met Claire at a barbeque two days ago. She was introduced to me as the “orphan that Ronald sponsors – he pays for her education, her house, her food, everything.”
Ronald is an older man (I initially guessed his age to be around forty or fifty) contracted in Rwanda from the Philippines to work with construction. His square face is leathery and pock-marked, and he moves around slowly, shifting his bulk from one silent corner of the living room to another. While the other guests laugh and chat over Primus beers, Ronald sits in the shadows, occasionally reminding us of his presence with a low series of grunts. Perhaps it is the language barrier – he can barely speak English – but when the karaoke starts up, his entire countenance brightens. His sudden movements toward the microphone are startling, only to be outdone by the rich powerful tones of his voice when he breaks into song and belts out lyrics in perfect English.
Claire sits at the table with me and the rest of the guests, but she may as well be sitting in the shadows with Ronald. Her silence is quickly dismissed by the host who asks loudly, “Do you want to introduce yourself, Claire? INTRODUCE YOURSELF? Do you want to tell these nice people who you are?” When Claire quickly shakes her head, he laughs. “Do you want me to introduce you?” he says, and then turns to the guests as if she’s not there. “She doesn’t really speak English,” he explains. He then explains to the guests that Claire is “the orphan that Ronald sponsors – he pays for her education, her house, her food, everything.” A low grunt from the other side of the room affirms this statement.
We start eating. I pass the chicken to her and see the sudden anxiety that flits across her face. She takes the dish and quickly snatches two pieces of chicken, hesitates, and then takes one more before hurriedly passing it to the next woman. As everyone commences cutting their chicken and shoveling in forkfuls of rice and potatoes, I see Claire cautiously pick up both knife and fork and start sawing at her chicken. One piece falls off her plate and she glances up quickly before swiftly scooping up the fallen piece into her mouth. She finishes all three pieces of chicken before I even finish one, and I see her eying the chicken dish longingly. Her right hand draws circles on the tablecloth while the other fidgets with one of her braids.
I haven’t finished my own, but I pick up the chicken dish, help myself to another piece and hand it to her. The relief that floods her face as she takes two more pieces is accompanied by a shy glance up at me. I smile. Then, I see a genuine smile break out on her face for the first time all evening.
After dinner, as all the other guests head outside, I stay inside with Claire and in a mixture of broken-French on my side, and broken-English on hers, we start communicating.
“Desole, mais je ne peux pas parler tres bien en francais,” I say slowly.
She laughs. “And me, I speak no English.”
But we manage to understand each other and over the course of the evening, I learn her story. She is my age (twenty-one years old) and an orphan of the Genocide. She was five years old when soldiers broke into her house and chopped her father and two brothers with machetes. Her mother and sisters were in hiding, but she was there and she saw everything. She makes a chopping gesture at her neck when she says “ils ont tue Papa avec la machete.” One look at the mistiness that comes into her eyes and you know that she still remembers everything. Vividly. The soldiers then killed her younger brother who was also in the room.
“But – mais – they didn’t do anything to you?” I ask, struggling to remember the French I learned in high school, “ils n’ont fait rien a toi?”
“Non,” she says, shaking her head.
I wish I could retain her response in French, but my handle on the language is too limited.
Her response, translated: My younger brother was too young to remember anything. But I was old enough to remember. So they killed him. And they left me alive.
Later, her mother was also killed.
Now, Claire lives with her sister, who is married and waitresses at a cafe. She met Ronald through her sister when he came to buy a cup of coffee. When he heard about Claire’s story and her “probleme,” he decided to “adopt” her and finance her education, pay for her house, and provide for all her needs. She tells me that he has given her “tout” – everything.
She tells me that she has tried to call Ronad for days because she ran out of money a couple weeks ago. I ask her what happens when she does not have money. She laughs. “When I have no money, I don’t eat.”
I ask if she still goes to school when she is hungry. She shakes her head.
“Then, what do you do?” I ask.
“When I hungry, I sleep!” she says, with another laugh, “What else can you do?”
She tells me that when she does not have money, all she can afford is one beignet per day.
No wonder she was so apprehensive about the food during dinner!
We continue talking and eventually the subject shifts to boys (of course). She tells me that she doesn’t have a boyfriend, but she doesn’t want to be with a Rwandan boy.
She says that Rwandan boys only think about sex. She is Catholic, and she wants to save sex for after marriage. Rwandan boys only want sex, she says, and the moment any of them pressure her to sleep with them, “c’est fini” – it’s finished. They can tell you that they love you, but actions are more important than words. “True love does not exist without actions,” she tells me, and if a boy truly loves her, he will respect her decision not to have sex before marriage.
“Mais pas tout les garcons Rwandans!” I laugh, “Je suis certain qu’il y a quelques garcons Rwandans qui sont bons?”
She shakes her head adamantly. “No. None. They are all bad.”
She tells me that she wants to marry a foreigner. “Ronald is good to me,” she says, peering over at the sullen man in the corner, “He has the actions.”
I raise my eyebrows. “Ronald?”
She laughs. “Yes. I tell him no. I tell him he come to my family. He talk to them. He ask marry. There is no problem. But before marry, no.”
I can’t believe my ears. “He likes you? Il t’aime? Did he try to sleep with you?”
I have no words. Instead, I suddenly feel exhausted and nauseous.
“But – mais – he is so old. Il est vieux,” I eventually say.
“Ouais,” she says and smiles sweetly, “But I tell him no. He still helps me. He give me tout.”
“How old is he?” I demand.
She blushes and twirls one of her braids around a finger.
“Quel age a-t-il?” I repeat.
“Il a quarante-deux ans.”
Forty-two years old. He is twenty one years older than her. Twice her age.
“Do you love him?” I cannot help asking.
She laughs. “No. No no. But he is good to me. And if he come to my family. He ask to marry. There is no problem.”
I shake my head and she can see that I am upset. Immediately her brows furrow. “But you, you don’t say to him,” she says quickly, “No tell him. You say nothing.”
I nod, and smile – but barely.
At the end of the evening, we exchange numbers and email addresses. I tell her to contact me if she ever needs help and to stay in touch. She nods and gives me a parting hug. She tells me not to worry about my own future and she shares with me her ultimate conviction that “God will choose for me someone.”
My heart is so heavy.