Heartbreak and hope in Rwanda
September 26, 2005
As we approach the tiny mud hut, my mind struggles to be logical and professional: I can’t catch AIDS just by coming into contact with people who have tested positive for the disease. Deep breath. The first thing that hits me upon entering the room is the smell – the sickening scent of animals, urine and illness. I have been told that both parents have full-blown AIDS and are slowly wasting away. But to actually see it is another thing.
The mother has horrendous headaches that rarely abate; she dabs continually at a film across her left eye, which weeps pus. The left side of her face seems to be paralyzed. The father has a deep chest cough that recurs every few moments, like the drumming melody of a strange song.As the two begin to talk to my boss, I can’t help thinking of my hometown, Aspen, and wonder what I would be doing if I were there instead of the Gikongoro province of Rwanda. It’s July, so I’d probably be hiking with friends.I moved to Rwanda in June 2004 to work for Africare, a nongovernment organization headquartered in Washington, D.C. Currently, Africare’s program in Rwanda focuses on the AIDS epidemic, HIV prevention for youth, home-based care for people living with AIDS, vocational training and micro-credit projects, which are activities financed by organizations like Africare that generate income for locals.During my time in Rwanda, I worked with 11 groups on such micro-credit projects, comprising both people living with HIV/AIDS and orphans. The focus was to generate income so that these people could finance their own medical and living costs. The idea was to grow each group every year by bringing in new people and helping them get on their feet. The goal was basic vocational training in food production, for both subsistence and profit, through such projects as pig- and chicken-raising. Africare did, however, give food to the people because, let’s face it, no one can concentrate on learning a new trade when their belly is empty.
At Johnny McGuire’s, an Aspen lunchtime favorite, a sandwich costs about $6 and the wait time is around five minutes. In Kigali, the capital of Rwanda, Le Cadillac is the locals’ favorite eatery. The meal is laid out buffet-style in a candlelit room, costs 600 Rwandan francs ($1), and is ready the moment you walk in the door. It is the same every day: rice, beans, sweet potatoes, plantains, cassava root, french fries and sauce. If you want beef, you can pay an extra 200 francs (20 cents). Sitting outside is not an option, because the average temperature during the dry season hovers around 95 degrees and a fine red dust coats everything.This is but one tiny contrast between Aspen and Kigali. In all honesty, the two cities could not be more different.In Aspen, we walk down the street and smile at locals and tourists alike, confident in the knowledge that we share some bond through our love of nature and outdoor explorations. In Rwanda, the shared bond is hardly a good one.Each week I meet new people in Rwanda, and I have never spoken with someone who was not personally affected by the genocide. In 1994, almost 1 million people were killed in just 100 days.
Most who survived either hid in the bush or lived in refugee camps in surrounding countries. Everyone has lost family members and some – like my boss at Africare – are the sole survivors of their family. Some 50,000 women were raped by Interhamwe soldiers during the genocide, and these are only the reported cases. Hence, there are an unimaginable number of children who are offspring of rape; men who killed their families and neighbors are these children’s fathers. Plus, the vast majority of these rapists were HIV-positive, which accounts for the fact that 13.5 percent of the population under age 12 is HIV-positive. In other words, Rwandans don’t walk down the road and smile at other locals and tourists – not unless they know them very well.Back at the hut in the Gikongoro, I recall that my boss had visited this family a year earlier. The woman was fairly strong then. She is now deteriorating rapidly. During his last visit, my boss spoke with the man about the importance of using condoms with his wife, who was pregnant at the time, because they should not bring any more lives into the world. They already had four healthy children, who they would be leaving behind all too soon.
A movement outside draws my eyes. I glance to my right and see a precious little 3-year-old boy playing with banana leaves, wading them up into a ball, which he rolls down the hill. He looks up at me and my heart breaks. I want to cry. He comes inside and gives each of us a big hug – even me, the only mzungu (Swahili for white person) in the room. At my request, he happily jumps into his mother’s arms so I can take a photo. It kills me to think that soon, this photo and memories are all he will have of her.Our conversation ends, and we step outside. The little boy stares up at me with eyes as big as saucers, full of emotion and innocence, yet with the knowledge of someone much older. My heart breaks all over again. I reach into my bag for the only salvation I can offer: a grape-flavored candy. I unwrap it and place it in his mouth. Those beautiful eyes light up, and for just a few moments, his world is happy as he focuses on the flavor exploding against his taste buds. Such pleasure is fleeting, though, as he is too quickly deposited back into reality with a hard thud. I turn to go.I say “urabeho,” Kinyarwanda for goodbye, and he replies with a shy grin. I climb back up the eroding hill to the Africare SUV and shut myself inside. The boy has walked up the hill to see us off. I wave goodbye as we ascend to the main road, and a little hand waves enthusiastically in return. I feel my heart constrict again.Three heartbreaks in one day … an afternoon, in fact, in Rwanda.Aspen High School graduate Melissa Arnold-Martinez is a fellow of The Institute for International Public Policy. In Rwanda, she worked for Africare and volunteered at Imbabazi Orphanage.