By Becky Johnston, author of You Can’t Make This Stuff Up
I seriously never wanted to go to Africa. It wasn’t that I was opposed to the continent; it’s just that when I made my travel wish-list, it wasn’t on there. I traveled to Europe a few times in the late 80s and then haven’t been abroad since. When I plan for my “big” trips now, they involve romantic destinations like Italy, scenic ones like Ireland, or even tropical, closer ones like St. John’s. Not Africa.
Africa, to me, was merely the place that Sally Struthers went to shoot those horrible commercials I would flip by. You know, the ones with the pitiful little babies that have flies swarming around their faces? I can’t watch them. I’m well aware that my $0.35 a day- merely the cost of a cup of coffee- could change a life. (And, sidenote? Where is Sally buying her coffee?? Mine costs way more than that!) I’ve seen that child’s eyes in the back of my mind for years… and I had no plans in ever visiting his homeland.
Then along came my best friend.
My friend, Laurie, and her husband decided to adopt from Rwanda. I cannot tell you the joy we’ve all felt for them over the last year as we’ve ridden the adoption roller coaster with them. We anxiously awaited the email which introduced us to their kids as if we were somehow their parents, too. In a true picture of community, we helped them prepare their home, we helped them raise the funds to be able to afford the (ridiculously expensive) adoption costs, and we prayed for those kids long before we knew who they were. We were 100% on board… and we even began to “get” a heart for Africa.
One Tuesday about 3 months ago, Laurie came to my house for lunch and presented me with a life-changing question. Over Happy Meals with our kids, she said, “So, what would you say if I asked you to go to Rwanda with us?” I immediately thought she was setting me up for some hypothetical scenario so she could tell me some ridiculous thing one of our friends had said. I said, “I’d say, sure!” She paused then said, “Um, no… I’m really asking you. Will you go to Africa with my family to bring my kids home?” They were going to take their 7 year old daughter along with them and wanted to have an extra adult around to help out. I told Laurie that if my husband was cool with it, I was in. And, he was cool with it… so off to the passport office I went.
We waited for weeks to find out when our departure date was. During that time, our travel plans changed, too. Rwanda doesn’t issue visas for children. This meant we would have to travel through one of their partnering countries to get the kids out of Africa. Originally, we were going to go through Kenya. As our trip firmed up, we ended up deciding to travel through Ethiopia. Again, not on my short-list of vacation spots, but at this point I was along for the ride no matter where we went.
One glorious Monday morning I got the call from Laurie that their referral email had arrived and to meet her at her house so I could capture the experience of their family opening that email on film. (I like to pretend to know how to take pictures, so in addition to helping out with logistics on the trip, I would also double as Adoption Photographer.) I watched as her family saw their children/siblings for the first time… we would be traveling to bring home Marie Therese, 5, and Jerrod Mugisha, 2.5. Less than 2 weeks later, we were on a plane to Rwanda.
When we arrived in Kigali, we all were obviously excited about seeing the kids. That was the point of our trip. But I’ll be honest… the traveler in me was excited to be in a new place. The sights and sounds of Africa were nothing I was prepared for. All of the years my dad (and now husband) would watch endless hours of National Geographic could not prepare me for what we experienced. The vivid colors and the contrast they had against the brown dirt. People walking in the street with no care for cars, and cars driving with a lack of turn signals and an emphasis on using horns to communicate. Women everywhere with perfect posture and beautiful baskets of produce balanced on their heads. Babies wrapped tightly on their mommas backs.
It was all new and beautiful and exciting.
This was the first trip I’ve taken where, rather than being a tourist, we had more of a “participant” role. We went to church twice, to the market a few times, and became “regulars” at two different restaurants. On the day that we passed someone I recognized from church in the market, I knew we’d crossed over the line from “just” being tourists. While the language was a tough one to learn (they speak Kinyarwanda), a few basic phrases made my friend sound fluent as she began to speak to her children.
We saw the beauty of the land, we saw the beauty of the people. I was not at all prepared for the affinity I would feel toward the people of Rwanda. Possibly the most surprising moment of the trip, for me, came in the form of an offer from someone we met along the way. Fidele is the attorney who represented my friends in court on the Africa side of things. He also serves as a minister for a local Four Square church. At dinner one night, he asked me to partner with some women in his church in helping to sell their crafts. These women are all HIV-positive, and the crafts (primarily beaded pens) they make will pay to support their families, as well as provide critical medication for their sickness. These women were likely raped during the Rwandan genocide by soldiers with AIDS who were hoping to kill not only this generation, but the ones to come through the transfer of HIV from mother to child. I met some of the 37 women involved in this collective (called “Kwishima”, which translates to “Rejoice”) at church on Sunday- a complete life-changing moment. To watch the horror of the genocide on a movie is one thing… to mourn the lives lost in a memorial… to read the stories… yet to meet the women who lost loved ones and are now infected with, to them, a terminal disease… absolutely life-changing.
We tried to explain to the American kids who were with us exactly what “HIV” and “AIDS” were. What struck me the most in describing it to them was this: we told them that in the United States, people with HIV aren’t necessarily headed toward death. We live in a blessed country with lots of access to medical breakthroughs. However, these women in Africa will likely not have the same fortitude. Theirs will likely be fatal due to not only financial struggle, but to the way their health care system is set up. (I was told, though a translator, that in Rwanda you can “rent” a hospital room for an entire year if you think you will need it. These women are in no place to take on that responsibility… so they will, in turn, suffer.)
The women excitedly told me about the items they’d made. They sent me back to the States with pens, drums, and purses. But as we talked, they began to brainstorm about what they could make next. In the coming months I will receive more of the previous items, as well as necklaces, baskets, and various other beautifully made items. Having purpose and shared creativity united these women in task and in spirit. Their items are beautiful, but not more so than they are themselves.
Africa changed my life… and I never even wanted to go. I’m still amazed that even though I went as a “helper”, the trip changed my life and helped me, too. My life became open to finding a specific way to help a people group I only knew “of” before the trip. Now I know them: Ann Marie, Beatrice, Zilpa, Mary… I will return to Africa, if for no other reason than checking on these women who are dear to my heart. Even as we were leaving Rwanda, I looked out our plane window and sobbed. I had no idea that my heart had been so enmeshed with this country- but I am thankful for the change in my life that has just begun.
Please visit the Kwishima facebook page where Becky will post updates about these women.