Kigali, Rwanda 2015
We sat in a corner table within a prestigious hotel within the lively city of Kigali, Levi and I both knowing we were changed people. We had spent our first days in Rwanda with the idea of paying homage to the country’s history and had significantly felt the weight of the scars of the genocide that had happened just 21 years before, yet only as compassionate learners.
Her name was Jo, and she was just a couple years older than I was. What I loved about her was her giggly, light nature and the way she had with words. Every word she spoke came out of a smile.
We had been meeting because my trip to Africa was on business, but had very quickly thrown the idea of “business” out the door the second I’d arrived on the continent. It was just too powerful to close my heart to in order to remain the stoic business woman I had been sent there to be.
I explained to her how we had gone to the Genocide Memorial, and had spent a couple days around Kigali within some of the sites that acted as scheming grounds, killing grounds, and burial grounds from that terrible part in world history. Our hearts were shattered by what we had seen. I still don’t have the words to describe the feeling in Kigali.
“You must have been young during the genocide?”, I asked Jo.
“Yes, I was 12 when it happened. Both my parents and all my siblings were killed in 1994.”
I couldn’t pretend I could relate, I couldn’t be empathetic, but I could be compassionate, as I listened on.
“When the genocide was over, I was in an orphanage, and my only surviving relative was my Aunt, and I was to go live with her.”
Feeling like there was at least some light in having a surviving relative, I listened on further. I could tell there was the look of hope on my face that you have when you’re reading a really sad story that you hope has a happy ending.
“When I got to my Aunt, I was happy to see her. But she said to me: ‘YOU were the one who survived?’. She had favoured my siblings over me. She raised me, but begrudgingly.”
“Jo, I… I….” All I could do was erupt in tears, rendered completely speechless. I cried in the middle of the restaurant, all the tears I had been holding in after seeing the sites, the relics, the documents, the videos, and the photos of this point in history came out, right in front of Jo.
She came over and sat beside me, hugged me, held my hand, and comforted me as I cried.
“I am OK!” she told me through that smile of hers. And I knew she was as I felt her strength pour into me. A type of strength that I’ve had the privilege of not ever having to build myself, but a strength I felt privileged to witness on that day.
We connected that day as women, who were both so young in 1994, but had such different experiences. She sensed my sadness, my guilt, and my total helplessness of knowing all this had happened to her as I stayed in my safe, innocent haven in Canada. She knew what I was feeling, we didn’t need to name it, but I also knew she felt my love for her, love that she deserved.
Jo went on to devote her life to a better Rwanda. She works tirelessly with children who have been on the streets, who still bear the scars of the country who has on the surface recovered, but still suffers from what happened in 1994.