“Every child wanted to wrap their spindly arms around me, and I welcomed every embrace and smiling face.”
My first official day in Rwanda was a jumble of emotions and mental gymnastics. Emily and I woke up and were taken on a tour of the orphanage. For the first time I saw in broad daylight the living conditions of the children, and I was far from impressed. Their houses were very dark and dank. They had bunk beds and slept on ratty, old mattresses, but what little they had was kept very tidy.
The children were distant at first, but out of the blue one ran up to me and hugged me. After that, every child wanted to wrap their spindly arms around me, and I welcomed every embrace and smiling face. One child in particular shook my hand, but then would not let go. His name was Henry. Later, Patrick told me that Henry is handicapped. As time would pass, I would learn of other children who were also handicapped at the orphanage.
For lunch we had rice and beans with avocado. The food actually tasted pretty good considering there was absolutely nothing cooked with the beans, and not even very many beans. The food was simple, pure, and stretched as far as it could go. I felt a tinge of shame for the gluttony that North American’s are accustomed to expecting. There wasn’t room for waste or the luxuries of the first world. At the orphanage they ate to live, they didn’t live to eat, as we in America do.
Later while we washed dishes, the power went out, and Emily and I were left in complete darkness. It was the first of many power outages we would soon become used to. We gave up on the dishes and went and sat in the living room (if you could call it that). We lit a candle and used avocados to hold it up in a bowl of salt. I was sure this was not safe, but we were in Africa, after all.
We had a meeting with the orphanage’s director and accountant following another meal of rice and beans for dinner. I was so exhausted and jetlagged that I missed the majority of the conversation, and later had to be filled in on the details. Just one of the blessings of traveling half way around the world: your mind and body still think they’re back home and that nothing has changed, when in fact, all has changed.
Patrick, Emily, and I had a lot of down time when we first arrived at the orphanage. We spent our time applying ourselves to a lot of mundane things like compiling an inventory of all the supplies and children’s clothes. We soon realized that the orphanage had no official documents, so we set about recording everything and drafting mission statements, etc. just to be useful.
As I mentioned before, I had been told I would be taking care of the children, translating letters for sponsors, looking for sponsors, visiting other orphanages, and searching for ways to reconstruct our orphanage. Of course none of this happened the way it was supposed to. If I wanted to visit another orphanage I had to find it, contact its director and then pay for my own transport. Also there were no letters for sponsors, and nothing to be translated, and it also turned out that not all of the children were even sponsored to begin with.
Perhaps most importantly, teaching English to the children proved to be incredibly hard – impossible even – due to the fact that I didn’t speak Kinyarwanda, and there was no translator on site to help. Eventually I would hire a translator, but that would be months down the road. For now, I would struggle to find my place here in this strange new world, and to be of as much use to the dear children as I possibly could. Only time would tell where this new path would lead me.