Final hours

Her audible shivering wakes me. She crowds in closer, pulling the kitanga over her face and mine. A younger one’s stomach roars and I smell the spicy cabbage from dinner as the fart fills the air. Turning over, I feel the rocks below the thin grass mat of dried banana leaves.

I wouldn’t want to be any place else.

It is my final evening in Nkomangwa. All the children in my family (and some neighbors) are sleeping together under the stars for the occasion.

“Sleepover?” they echoed when I mentioned the idea. My description prompts fits of laughter and I don’t think they know I’m serious until we’re outside and Digioni’s borrowing my pillow and we’re all laughing as I climb into my sleeping bag liner and invite Muraza to join.

“Wasi, you’re cold,” I whisper, turning over to her in the night. “You could get sick. Ngibazo, jende ya murogo (no question, go inside).” She nods and burrows closer.

I persist, and she finally concedes, leaving for her room. Then she’s lonely inside and our sleepover quickly dissipates as she wakes each child and carries them to beds around the compound, bringing some roommates back with her.

Glancing at my clock, I’m impressed. We made it until 1:30.

[8 hours before]

“Your family, they want to give you gifts.” Noel explains as he arrives to translate.

The two of us wait while all of my family washes and puts on their finest clothes.

The whole family gathers in our living room for the occasion, the same space where I’ve shared countless meals with my sisters this summer.

Papa describes the symbolism of each gift while the kids hold it before me, each of them placing a hand on the elaborately wrapped present, an offering given to their departing sister.

We take a picture as each package is passed to me, faces somber in the Rwandan way.

A basket with sorghum grain, a blessing to bring prosperity, health, and many children.

I’m reminded of our neighbor who, every time I pass engulfed by chattering children, taps her breast and then mine, affirming that I really must have my own given my obvious aptitude (this message inferred as what she says is all in Kinyarwanda and with great speed).

A jug carved of wood to hold milk and serve it to guests. Noel explains that this is a hugely significant present given the place of milk in their culture. “Wow,” he gushes. “I think they really really love you. Like this, is a big deal. That’s why she’s crying,” he says of my mama.

And finally, a miniature wooden drum with RWANDA etched on the side. I’m told its because I’ll be “over everything.”

“What?” I ask, confused.

“Its for- they’ve been watching you. And they think you’ll be a leader in very big ways- this gift, its what they used to give to kings.”

As papa extends his hands, I’m humbled, honored. I feel their love and the strength of our connection.

[8 hours later]

I don’t hear the car pull up, but the children’s cries, “Motocar! Motocar!,” alert me as my sisters’ shaking shoulders intensify.

Its time to leave.

We take pictures outside, of everyone present, and then just my family.

The older ones hide their faces from me and retreat to the back of the homestead. Mama holds me and won’t let go, using my body to shield others’ viewing her tear-stained face.

I’m oddly composed until Digioni rounds the car for his third and final hug as I go to step inside the vehicle.

These kids, they have my heart.

[5 hours later]

I sit at the airport, preparing to check-in with this last sip of Rwandan coffee finished.

I smile, thinking of our closing event for the community the day before. We invited everyone to play capture the flag. Taking too long to explain the rules, I proceeded to cross to the other team’s side (we were playing mzungus and adults versus the kids). When the community organizer strategizing with the children realized what I’d done, he alerted the kid’s team. I suddenly had thirty children charging me, chasing me over the line.

Just before the game, we’d scheduled all of our community organizers- the locals who’d worked with us this summer translating and consulting for the scholars- to “work” while surprising them with a thank-you party. We played “pin the jigger jigger on the foot” and shared our favorite memories from working together this summer. Benjamin (a quiet-mannered community organizer who frequently would get so immersed in the work of the teams he’d act like he was on the team, voting and debating with members), said with tears in his eyes, “Sometimes at times like these, the words, they fly away.”

This feels about right for me. I don’t have a reflection on these final hours. Only precious memories.

And then, as I gather my bags, a scholar’s words from our closing team meeting runs through my mind: “I don’t really like the word ‘memory’. As if they’re passing, fleeting, happened upon by chance. I prefer remember; its active, to re-member. That’s what I want to do.”

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