I tried so many times- dozens upon dozens of times. For weeks. For months. A whole year I tried to reach Tate.
Those who have known us since the beginning of our Africa years will likely remember hearing about her- the teeny tiny umukecuru [old woman] who lived in our tight little compound in Musanze during our first six months in Rwanda.
She didn’t speak English; we were only beginning to learn Kinyarwanda. We came from utterly different backgrounds, and we forged the sweetest of unlikely relationships. She taught me how to cook over charcoal and scored me premium fresh milk that wasn’t watered down, and I cooked potatoes for her and made sure she took her medicine at night. She hunted isanane [grasshoppers] with Ben, and we sat on our concrete steps days on end and talked in our bits of words and used gestures to make up the difference.
And then we moved to Kigali, but I called to check on her with fair regularity. Talking on the phone in Kinyarwanda is much more challenging to be sure, but we made it work. We even managed a few visits while she was in Kigali with some health issues. And then I had an unsettling dream about her one night and called her the next day but she didn’t answer.
And she didn’t answer the next twenty times I called. Or the next twenty. We stopped by our old place in Musanze when we were passing through that part of the country one day, but a stranger answered and said she had moved. I had phone numbers for two of her friends, one who never answered and one who had no knowledge of where she might be or how to reach her.
An entire year went by, leaving us with a dwindling window of time in these hills before leaving for the States. I’m not going back to America without seeing her, I would tell Paul. But how exactly does one find a person under such circumstances? My two best strategies were to a) pray and b) keep calling the same number that hadn’t worked for a year.
And so as we prepared to leave for a few days of work in Musanze last week, I hoped against hope and called her again.
And there she was.
“MAMA NOAH!! NDAGUKUMBUYE CYANE CYANE!!” [I miss you so, so much!] Joy! Just… Joy! I asked where she was staying these days and she said Ruhengeri- which is another name for Musanze. Wonderful! I told her we would be there to do some work and would come visit her.
But when I called her the next afternoon after finishing the days’ work in Musanze, I could not understand her explanation of where she was. So I went and got a Rwandan friend who speaks English to get the directions and translate for me. But even he could not understand.
“Tell her to come to the Anglican church near the market,” I said. “I will meet her on the road.”
So he told her, and she said she would be there.
And I waited.
For an hour, I stood on the street while every two minutes a new person to the scene shouted “Umuzungu!” or hissed at me or cried, “Give me money!” or simply stopped and watched me. And all my nostalgic feelings about living in Musanze took a hiatus, and all my more mature spiritual leanings fell a little flat and the four year old inside me just wanted to shout, “Leave me alone! All of you! I just want to see Tate. And why for the love is this so hard!?”
And I called her again and asked when she would come. And she said she was already waiting on the road outside the church. But I said I was also on the road outside the church. And I asked some other questions to which she gave answers that perplexed me, and I despaired and perhaps shed a tear or two out of sheer helplessness, after which a very kind Rwandan man at our hotel asked if he could help me with whatever problem I had.
Warm feelings restored, I said yes and thank you very much, and he took the phone and talked to Tate for a few minutes before turning to me and saying, “You know she is not in Musanze.”
Sigh. No, I obviously did not know that. “But she said she was in Ruhengeri,” said I, very bewildered.
“Ah, no. She is in RWAN-geri,” he clarified. (I can only guess at the spelling of the name as it is not a place I had ever heard of and still partly believe was only invented in that moment to thwart my sanity.)
Well, this alleged “Rwangeri” was said to be a thirty minute bus ride from where we were (which could mean literally anything), and so then I really began to despair. But she told the man she would take a bus in the morning because she wanted to see us, and he gave her directions to the hotel where we were staying.
In the morning I sat outside the hotel and waited. She had said she would come at 8, but by 9 I was starting to wonder how long I should sit there. However, it was only a few more minutes before there she was, as giddy as I was and shouting, “Oh Mama Noah- ejo. [yesterday] EJO. EJOOOOO!” And we laughed together at all the impossible telephone calls and misunderstandings of the previous day. And she explained that her phone hadn’t worked for a year or so but she hadn’t known til a friend figured it out for her very recently. Bless her.
So we sat together and caught up on the last year, and she just held my hand and said how handsome and strong the boys looked and how she remembers everything about our time together in that compound and how she had thought maybe we would only see each other again in heaven. And as people happened to pass by us she would tell them random facts like how Papa Noah had taken her to the hospital in his motor car one day or how I brought her amatunda [fruit] from the market and that we lived in Kicukiro now and she was so happy.
My heart was exceedingly full as we went our separate ways that morning.
I share this story (and actually it is the shortened, less complicated version) as a part of my answer to the question we are receiving more and more frequently as our departure from Rwanda draws near. With just over two months here left, people often ask- how do you feel about that?
On the surface it’s the most reasonable question in the world, but in reality it’s an impossible one to answer. Everything. We feel everything. Excited. Sad. Joyful. Angsty. Relieved… it is more complicated than can be managed by an adjective.
The episode of trying to reach Tate serves as an excellent example of how emotionally complicated my experience here has been. How do I feel leaving Tate? Deeply grieved. She owed us nothing but loved us joyfully and sacrificially with no agenda and no pretense. I learned from her and was nurtured by her in the most organic and heartfelt ways against a host of challenges and barriers. There is no price that can be put on such a gift. I don’t want to go.
On the other hand, how do I feel about leaving a place where
S O M A N Y T H I N G S F E E L S O H A R D
B E C A U S E T H E Y A R E S O H A R D?
I feel pretty good about that right now. I have never worked so hard to accomplish so little, and I am tired. I’m not sure if that sounds as I intend it. I do not mean “little” in the qualitative or meaningful sense but in the purely quantitative sense by which my American type A-ishness is so utterly bewitched. Is it reasonable that I should feel the need for a vacation after simply arranging a visit with an old friend? G.K. Chesterton, brilliant as he was, once wrote, “An adventure is only an inconvenience rightly considered. An inconvenience is only an adventure wrongly considered.” I try to remember such things, but honestly, people, sometimes there is just only so much “adventure” one can handle before needing a break.
I don’t want to go, and I want to go… and everything in between. And this is only the part where I deal with leaving Rwanda. Then there’s the whole aspect of returning to America, which carries some pretty heavy bags of its own.
So, friends who have been emailing or face-booking wanting to know how we’re handling the transition and about what is next for us… I have not been ignoring you or avoiding you. It is an overwhelming thing to process, but we do want to keep you posted on how we are and where we are headed.
In the mean time we have lots of goodbyes to arrange and many logistical details to take care of over the next two months. I am preparing for the adventure!
by Sarah Stehlik