My Rwandan Children…

By Gavin Sword KF9 Rwanda

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I know this is not the first time that I’ve mentioned that my children are Rwandan.  We adopted Savilla and Christian in 2006 when they were both babies. Our girl turns 4 this month while our boy is a few months past 4.  They are the cutest, most adorable little people one could ever hope to know.  They are loving and friendly, kind to each other and to the people they meet.  Part of the reason I wanted to come to Rwanda as a Kiva Fellow was so that they could have the opportunity to spend time in the country of their birth.  To give them a chance to learn the language, make Rwandan friends and live in a land of people who look just like them (not the case in our current home, Vancouver, Canada). Our thinking was not that they would necessarily fully remember the experience, but that it could inform their identity and give them a sense of belonging.  Well, this was the idea anyway.

For our part, my wife and I have been making an effort to immerse the children in the culture. We enrolled them in a local preschool, we chose to ‘home stay’, meaning, we live in the lovely guesthouse of a (delightful) Rwandan family in their large and comfortable compound on the outskirts of Kigali.  This family has 3 children, ages 6, 12  and 13 who are now on school break and love to spend time with our little ones.  Their two older cousins act as babysitters for us, and we are encouraging them all to speak Kinyarwanda with our children.

To their credit, our kids have really made an effort to learn the language (as much or more than I have so far!), which delights everyone they meet.  And they are making friends, but even though they have made new friends in Rwanda and they are undoubtedly Rwandan by birth, they are still viewed differently.  It is not a friendship like one would experience in the West – it is hard to describe.  The fact is that they have many ‘friends’; they are very popular because they are different, though they look the same. In some sense, I sometimes fear they are more like curiosities–amusing to the other children.  They don’t really blend in – I have encouraged them to stop assuming other kids know all about the Jonas Brothers.

My point is we no longer have ‘Rwandan’ children–even at just four years old, they are Westerners now.  To me this feels sad, but short of moving here for good, I can’t see how to change it.  Then again, we’ve only been here one month and who knows what another 2 months will bring.  Though, if I told them that we could fly home tomorrow they would jump with glee – of that I’m certain.

So this is the real truth.  After (just) one month, this profound life-changing experience for our children is not happening like we expected or planned or hoped.  Drat! At times it feels like we are managing their impressions of this experience, which feels a bit forced/awkward.

As much as we try to convey that Rwanda is not better or worse than Vancouver, New York, or Naples, Florida (our previous hometowns) they aren’t buying it.  These are very sweet, candid, perceptive and loving children.  Being immersed in such a now-foreign land for them has amplified their ongoing, unfiltered commentary, asking questions that are at times adorable and others cringe-worthy beyond the normal bounds that most parents expect to endure.  And as parents we are doing our best to offer real answers but sometimes it’s just not easy.  Allow me to list a few below.

Why are there so many bugs here?  Why do the buses travel packed with people like that?  Why aren’t they using forks and knives?  Why does he/she smell so bad?   What happened to his face/leg/arms?  This place is filthy, isn’t it?  Where are those kids’ parents?  Why aren’t they wearing clothes?. Why is there no TV?  Why does the power always go out?  Why is everyone staring at you (Dad)?  Why do people live in such small houses?  I don’t like the smell of this place.  (When beggars run up to our car)– What are they trying to give us?  Why is our house (which is HUGE by Rwandan standards) so small?  Why is the bedding so scratchy?  My pillow is too thin.  Why do we have a guard at our house?  Why does he live outside in a hut? And why is our fence so high?  Why do fences have pieces (shards) of glass on the top of them?  Why is there no hot water for baths?  Why can’t we drink the water?  Why doesn’t anyone have any good toys to play with?  Why do people carry things on their heads?  (They love this skill and are practicing it daily with random, unbreakable, household objects) I don’t like all the mosquitoes, why so many?  (Walking is a big part of the culture here and any distance beyond half a kilometer, our children begin to behave like it’s a death march)  Why is it so far? My legs are too tired, you have to carry me!  (Which seems a bit cushy given that many kids their age and younger are walking FAR greater distances.)   Why is the money so dirty?  Why are the roads so bumpy?  Why do you and mommy want to live here?  When do we go home?  We don’t really like it in Rwanda.

We tried to enroll them in Karate the last two weeks (a bit ambitious at 3 and 4 when the average age was 7 or so). They hated it.  They lacked the ‘discipline’ of the Rwandan children who do as they are told without a break (for 2 hours!).  This did not work so well with little Christian and Savilla, after the novelty of the new karate uniforms wore off (30 minutes or so, they were quite ready to leave and cried until I came to get them).  So, now, I am looking for a soccer group for them to join of their own ages and think that might be a better solution.  Fewer drills, more free form. Also, I am tending to think that the expatriate community may be an easier one to blend with even though it feels like a cop-out or missed opportunity to engage in the Rwandese culture.  But at this point I just want them to have a good time and positive memories.  For me, living in Rwanda isn’t easy either and having the constant questions and unintended criticisms to thoughtfully respond to is exhausting.  Work at my MFI is a cakewalk compared to handling the kids in this culture. It’s hard enough to have many of their thoughts in my own head, never mind voiced within earshot of other locals who are often mightily intrigued by whatever response we offer.

Was it a mistake bringing them here?  Should we have waited till they were older and let it be their decision to come back here and not ours?  Am I just not answering their questions well enough or maybe being too honest?  Perhaps 3 months is not long enough for them to really immerse themselves in Rwandan life – or way too long for their first visit and just a two-week trip would have sufficed?  Have we raised entitled, wimpy North American kids already!?  I surely hope not.

As an aside, we recently returned to the austere but loving orphanage where we got our children, and it was a deeply moving experience.  Not so much for our children–they were happy to be the stars of the show among hundreds of kids. They handed out candies and treats and enjoyed the attention. On the wall of the room full of cribs was a photo of our family, sent from a happy Christmas in Florida, collaged with other photos of families of adopted children abroad.  A symbol of hope for those still there, though we learned that out of 140 children only 6 were slated for adoption this year.  For my wife and I, it was a moment that will take time to process.  Maybe that is the whole point of this, we are trying to process and understand this experience for our children.  They are just being kids, asking lots of questions/making comments.  If we just relax a bit more, it mightn’t be such a big deal. Rwanda will always be a part of their life even though this experience is not unfolding quite the way we expected.  As they say in Kinyarwanda; Ibyiza biri imbere – ntugire ikibazo.  Roughly translated into English it means; No need to worry – everything is going to be just fine”

So I’ll end with a little story. As I mentioned, we live in the guesthouse of a Rwandan family. The little boy, six-year-old Jimmy, is very fond of our four-year-old Christian.   Jimmy is learning to speak and write English and last night he made a big deal about coming over to give Christian a note-card he had written to him that read:

Dearest Christian,

How nice that you are here.

You and I will never be friends.

God Bless, Jimmy

Christian, of course, was thrilled when I read it to him (slightly corrected).

How nice that we are here, indeed.

Please consider a loan to an entrepreneur funded by Vision Finance Company in Rwanda – if there are no loans listed on the site for funding, please check back again in a day or so and we will have uploaded more inspiring stories.   We are short staffed and working as hard as we can to get as many worthy people funded as possible.

Also, you could join the VFC Lending Team which is a small but growing group of individuals committed to allocating their interest free – karma rich cash to the inspiring entrepreneurs of Rwanda.   Or, if you’re new to Kiva – why not join today!

PS – Gavin is beginning to meet with clients in the field and wanting to share the connection of being a fellow entrepreneur he is having a devil of a time explaining that he sells motorized shades.


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