There is something that happens inside of me when I look into the eyes of a Rwandan child. My heart swells up and I wonder how it is possible that a beaming smile can be on the same face with such tired eyes. It is one thing if it is a single occurrence where I see the barefoot child in a ratty T-shirt sucking on some sugar cane, but it is another thing when it is everywhere. 42.9% of the Rwandan population is under the age of 15. In Rwanda, children ARE the future. In spite of this fact, many of them do not make it past primary school due to the expense of education and the lack of people to help work in the fields. Another handful of children never make it past their fifth birthday. The infant mortality rate is 64.4 deaths per 1000 births. 46% of the population lacks access to improved sanitation and 35% of the population lacks access to an improved water source. The statistics go on and on, but this is just to give you a glimpse into the scope of the issues for children in Rwanda.
Numbers are interesting things. They shock us on the offset and make us enter aid organizations into our Google search box. We want to give money and make the world a better place…this is not a bad thing. That is, it’s not a bad thing until the money is out of your bank account and you forget why you gave it in the first place. Try to remember the fact that behind every number in that statistic is a face. Behind every face is a story. And behind every story is a life that struggles to continue day after day after day. I have met many children since arriving, which is not surprising since there are nearly 5 to every woman. Some are wandering aimlessly down the street, others are carried on their mother’s backs. Some are walking home from school, others are helping out in the shop. Some are pushing tires with sticks as they run down the street, others are holding their hands out for money or food or anything that one is willing to give.
It’s hard to ignore those open hands. They are staring at me…they know that there is a 100 franc coin (about twenty cents) sitting in my pocket. They know I could part from it and it wouldn’t hurt me in the slightest, but I know that parting from it can immensely hurt them in the long run. To give them the coin means that they have seen value in not going to school and instead waiting on the street for the next mzungu (white person) to walk by seems like a good choice. This has been a constant struggle for me while I’ve been here. I must be honest with you: life here is not that different from life in Seattle. I go to work from 8-5 in an office (some days I am not in the office and I’m out in the field, but a majority of the work is done in the office…just like most of you who are reading this), I live in a nice house with a good family and I eat three meals a day.
When I walk home from work on the main street of Kigali there are groups of kids walking home from school. A group of five is in front of me and one turns around and sees me. I smile at him and his eyes get huge as he turns his head back around. Then one of the others turns his head. And the other and the other and the other. I’m quite the spectacle, this is something that has required a lot of getting used to. A little girl grabs my hand and looks up at me and says, “Good morning teacher.” I am not her teacher and it is 5pm, but that is the English phrase that all Rwandan students know, so that is the phrase that I hear time and time again as I walk home. When I turn off into the village, I see the life that most Urban Rwandans live. Ramshackle houses crammed into small areas, women walking with yellow jerry cans full of water on their heads and children everywhere. It is when I am walking through the village that I remember where I am. It is when I see the standard of living that reminds me why I’m here. It is when I look into the eyes of the children that I am reminded ever so painfully of who I am.
I am a healthy, wealthy, educated, young white girl. I have grasped more opportunities in my short life than many people only dream of. When a child holds my hand, I wonder what they are thinking. There was a little girl last night who Mama Becca invited to come play on the swings. Her name was Esther and she gave me a great big hug when she met me. Then she took my hand as we walked from the village to the house where I am living. I needed to put the milk inside, but she was not going to let go of my hand. “I’ll be right back, I promise,” I said as she reluctantly let go. When I came back out, her hand was entwined in mine, my bright white hands contrasting greatly with hers. She held it up to her nose to see if I smelled different and then carefully examined the shimmering blonde hair on my arm. And then she kept smiling and smiling and smiling. The thought in my head at that point:
When I look into the eyes of a child here, everything is right with the world.
Yet everything is entirely wrong at the exact same time.
There is a certain beauty found in the innocence and simplicity of the children here. They are happy simply to be playing with you. They are happy simply to be LOVED. But that’s where I see the problem. These children are not loved in the way that they wish they could be. Many parents here are proud of their children and love their children, but the parents here are busy. Not by choice, but out of necessity. Nobody chooses this life. These children didn’t CHOOSE to be here living their lives of poverty. That’s when it all seems wrong. And then I see them smile in spite of it all and I see peace. But why can’t all of us smile when we have nothing? Why is it that the poorest children in the world seem happier than the wealthiest? This is the surface of a great mystery I am trying to solve in Rwanda.
And so I ask you: How can you manage to be unhappy even though you are wealthier than 95% of the entire world? Take a hint from the Rwandan kids and learn to find joy in the miniscule things. The things that we find insignificant are often the things which can change us the most if we let them.