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Hallelujah

For the days we would be building gardens, we stayed at the Akagera Lodge, which was kind of like one of those Best Westerns that markets itself around having breakfast built inside of a zoo cage. We had to stop on the way in and have a presentation in an open pavilion filled with animal bones. I stood near an elephant skull the size of a macabre end table while the rest of our group curved around a giant crocodile skeleton as the guide briefed us on the animals in the national park, and most alarmingly, on the fact that they have five varieties of deadly snakes. (Later, while riding in an open top safari vehicle that knowledge would be helpfully amended with the fact that they were often in trees and sometimes dropped down.) 

The first night while we were having our evening debrief – a lengthy roundtable conversation that began with the question of how God spoke to each of us that day, and segued into emotional connections (Neither of which figure anywhere in the list of the top 100 things I’m good at doing.) we heard a large animal behind us move many times, and make a low growling sound so close that we all got up and moved to different approximations of safe space. I peered with Eddie over a ledge trying to get a confirmed ID on the source of the sound. It varied between Rhino and Elephant. We all moved away for a bit and eventually some of us got brave and went into the dusk with a flashlight to check the vicinity, and when we heard a closer rustling, tripped over each other in a cartoonish, tangled mass trying to run away.

The next morning we all met and piled into the van to go to Church in Kageyo. I’d heard that name a lot from people who’d been on the garden building trip before. They spoke of it with a fondness, a love even, I didn’t yet understand. Kageyo was my first real glimpse into what I would call TV Africa. Sally Struthers Africa. And even that was an evolved version. I remember when I was a small child not wanting to eat the horrible crusts of my sandwiches, and my mother saying: “Eat them! There are starving kids in Ethiopia.” To which I would cheekily reply “Well, send them these.” Do I think these kids would eat the crusts? Maybe some. But so do I.

One thing that is incredibly endearing is that all of the children wave at you. Even most of the adults wave at you, but the children get genuinely excited to see people. They smile, wave, yell “mzungu!” (white person) in chorus; they ran alongside the white van and reached for hands that extended out the windows as we rolled along slowly toward the church, like a lonely motorcade. The church was a nondescript flat building in a vast area of hard packed orange soil. Ours was the only vehicle.

A number of adults from the church quickly made their way to the entrance and outside to greet and welcome us, their kindness bridging the gaps in language. An entire section of plastic lawn chairs had been left empty right in the front, though the rest of the simple wood pews were filled, and we made our way to them en masse, a conspicuous group of differently dressed and mostly white people. I felt equal amounts grateful for the cocoon of familiar strangers and ashamed for staying in it. And a little like a spectacle, a feeling that would intensify tremendously, a feeling that would make me incredibly uncomfortable, and a feeling that seemed like a fraction of recompense.

They really front loaded the entertainment portion of the service. It started with fantastic, warm welcoming music and dancing; the kind that might greet one when they go to heaven if heaven is an all inclusive resort (fingers crossed for this!) Then they doubled down and had children come up and do the same thing. During the service part, a few things surprised me: It was a woman minister who did the majority of the service and they did it in Kinyarwandan and then English. The English was entirely for our benefit and I was struck by how generous it was: Kageyo is a small, very poor village, but making sure we understood and felt a part of the service was obviously important to them. After about three and a half to four hours, they announced that they were cutting the service short because they needed the space for another event. I wondered what the standard duration was, but was also glad I didn’t have to find out. When the service ended, the people of Kageyo were even more welcoming than when we’d come in, the majority of them came over to hug us: to speak without words because of our language barrier. I hugged more people that day than I have in the past five years totalled up.

This was at the beginning of the trip when my mindset was simplistic enough to think I’d come to help them by building gardens and didn’t think about getting anything in return. I actively didn’t want anything in return including emotional connections. I’m not a cold person, quite the opposite actually, but I don’t mind being seen that way. I always think that not everyone is meant to understand everyone else. That people see what they want and you can’t change people’s minds. The people that are meant to understand you will, and it won’t be like spending the duration trying to push a boulder of truth uphill.

You say I took the name in vain
I don’t even know the name
But if I did—well, really—what’s it to you?
There’s a blaze of light in every word
It doesn’t matter which you heard
The holy or the broken Hallelujah
Leonard Cohen – ‘Hallelujah’

After church, we were told we were going to watch a football (soccer) game, and walked through the village to a large open field on the other side, accumulating children with every step. I saw a big dichotomy on this afternoon. Some of the kids sidled up and said things like “Give me my football” and my first instinct was to bristle a little bit. I am someone who ascribes to Hannibal Lecter levels of politeness, and had to remind myself that a: that was more english than I knew of kinyarwandan, and it’s easy to say literal phrases in second languages, and b: it seemed like an easy ask. Lots of groups and lots of individuals from our group had given footballs. It probably looked like the odds were good that we all had them for the asking.

I had a bunch of bubbles in my backpack, and being a little bored with pretending to watch football, I had the idea that I’d blow them and the kids would try to pop them or chase them, and it would be an idyllic, adorable moment. What actually transpired was that when I went to pull them out of my backpack the group of about ten in front of me swelled to about thirty and they all started grabbing for them, without knowing what they were. It was a little scary actually, and I felt awful because there weren’t enough individual bottles for each kid that wanted one. The ones who had them, with one exception put them into their pockets, and the ones who were overlooked in the distribution looked at me with bitterness, as though I had more in my backpack but had chosen to hold out on them.

And then there was the contrast. It would be conjecture of me to say the difference was between the unsponsored kids and the sponsored kids, but these specific anecdotes would suggest something like that.

One of Eddie’s sponsored kids had been at the church service earlier and she stood beside him. She was maybe about fourteen, dressed in really cool printed pants and a white shirt, and it was a sweet scene. I could see the love between them: the concern Eddie had for her and how much he genuinely cared about her, and I could see how happy she was that he was there. They had a familial conversation about her life.

Since before we left Canada, I could tell how much Eddie’s aunt Val was looking forward to meeting her sponsor child, Lillian. She spoke about her like they’d already met and were family. Full of love. When we saw things in Kageyo, she wondered aloud about Lillian: “I wonder if her house looks like that?” She draws it like that” “I wonder if any of these kids know Lillian?” “I wonder if she goes to this church or another one?” It was very endearing, and the kind of relationship anyone would want for their child and another family member: that level of concern for their wellbeing and attentiveness, that level of care and love. Val had previously invited me to go to her home visit when she met Lillian for the first time. It was incredibly generous, but I hadn’t confirmed because I thought it was going to be a highly emotional moment. I was sure Val would cry, and maybe the family would cry.

While we were standing in the field, more than two teams worth of men playing soccer on two teams, and all of the kids paying attention to us, I stood beside Val as she talked to a group of kids in front of her, and mused about Lillian in comparison to these kids. Then she stopped, went silent and looked at a single face. “What’s your name?”

“Lillian.” 

It was an incredible moment, and an incredibly emotional moment, even my eyes filled up with tears. Then Eddie’s cool sponsor daughter, regarding this scene says: “She’s my neighbour.”

Kismet. There’s life for you.