Group meeting, June 25th

(This entry is reconstructed from both my notes and Erika’s notes.)

After we met some of the kids at the marketplace, we hopped back in our bus and drove to the group meeting.

Our drive seemed kind of long and circuitous, but, lo and behold, as we were approaching the meeting place, we saw the same kids, who had apparently walked and beaten us. I guess they walked straight through the valley (or cove, in Appalachian mountain terms) we drove around, and they made good time. Pretty amazing, and I’m still not 100% sure how they did it.

Before we started the meeting, we all felt the need to use the restroom, which brings me to a point I hadn’t remembered about Zoe trips, but which might be important to some people: squat toilets are frequently the only game in town, at least, until you get back to the hotel.

We gathered outside the building where the meeting was going to be held (a pentecostal church of some sort) and I think they were able to keep an eye on us through the windows, because when we were ready, they started singing. It is quite the experience to walk into a church (through the side door) and hear 200 some-odd people singing TO YOU. And they danced, too. I got video, which I’ll put up later. ALL of the families, of three groups, were there, from toddlers on up. We were offered seats up front, facing the children, behind a table set on a small rug. It seemed ceremonious, as if we were both honored guests and people of importance, as if we were an examining board of some sort. It was an odd feeling because, from my point of view, all we did was show up. (Well, and support them with funding and prayer, but in that moment it just felt like we were merely showing up.) It was definitely a special occasion, for all involved, I think.

The three groups were the Dufatanye “Togetherness” group, the Urumuri “Light” group, and the Twitezimbere “Progress” group. The first two groups were partnered with Woodlands UMC from Texas (Mark and Nycki from Woodlands were with us) and the third group (“Progress”) was unpartnered. These three groups always meet together (meaning at the same time and place).

After we were seated, they sang to us songs in (I presume) Kinyarwanda. (Note, by the way, that Kinyarwanda is the language spoken in Rwanda and Kinyaswahili is the language spoken in Kenya. If I said “Swahili” earlier in this blog while writing about Rwanda, I probably should have said “Kinyarwanda”.)

I’m a little unsure of the lyrics (my notes are skimpy, and they were translated to us by Epiphanie), but they were things like “I missed you so much” (from Erika’s notes) and “Let us wash your feet”. There was also a song they had created just for Woodlands UMC. And I think the verse 1 Peter 5:14, “Greet one another with a kiss of love. Peace to all of you who are in Christ.”

Then, Francois spoke on behalf of the two Woodlands groups. He said they offer a prayer for a blessing on us. Before they joined the Zoe working groups, they didn’t know each other, but through the groups they discovered that they had many problems in common. They were exploited and unable to enjoy their childhood. They did not know how to, and could not conceive of any way they could improve their lives without external assistance. Their first meeting was their “vision” meeting, in which they thought about their futures and each constructed, individually, their dream chart (I call it a “chart” because it’s a pictorial representation of their dreams). (I think taking some time to think about the future and get your head out of the present is actually important. Also, having a dream is important. It helps to set a direction and a goal. So many life lessons here.) He thanked us for our support (well… he was probably thanking Woodlands, specifically, but, hey, I’ll take it).

Then, Pascal spoke. Pascal is 20. I have a picture of him. He does not look 20. He has four sisters, aged 17, 15, 16 and 10. The 16-year-old is deaf. (We later wondered whether she was born that way or not. Josh pointed out that untreated illness can cause deafness in children. We still don’t know for sure, but that’s a possibility. That just hurts my heart, honestly.)

Pascal’s parents died when he was ten, and his youngest sister was just a baby. He was too young to work, so he had to simply beg for food. He experienced malnutrition. (These kids present their stories without emotion, but the size of Pascal’s 20-year-old body speaks volumes to me. My own 20-year-old son is a giant compared to Pascal.) Also, Pascal’s house (his parents’ house) collapsed.

(On house collapses: we heard several stories of roofs collapsing during the rainy season. Epiphanie told us that this is because the houses are poorly-constructed in this particular area (it’s very poor, as I mentioned earlier). In addition to that, I make up another story: we saw many houses with really old, one might say “ancient”, tile roofs. I imagine parents who are living in poverty and simply unable to replace aging roofs. Maybe they know how to do minimal, cheapest work to keep them propped up, but then they die, leaving behind ten-year-old children who know nothing about house maintenance (or how to run a small business or what their rights are or how babies are made or the importance of hygiene and mosquito netting, or, or, or…). And after another year or three, the roof simply gives up and collapses.)

So, Pascal was sleeping on the street (or in the bush). He was unable to keep his siblings together. He used to sleep where charcoal was burned, both for warmth and for safety from animals. By age 15 he was laboring for food, but he was underpaid grossly. He was frequently ill (yay, malnutrition), and, since he didn’t have health insurance, he simply had to suffer. Between his frequent illness and hunger, he didn’t really grow well. And he was always separated from his sisters. (I can only barely imagine the strength of character required to join a Zoe group under these conditions, knowing that Zoe does not feed children, but instead teaches them to care for themselves. It’s not an instant fix.)

After he joined the Zoe working group and completed his initial training, he got some seeds from Zoe. He had no idea what to do with them. The social worker for his group (one thing Zoe provides groups is social workers; and I believe we pay their salaries with our support), Delphine, told him to plant them on some land. He went to a landowner and asked to borrow to some land on which to plant the seeds. The landowner said “no”. So, Pascal goes back to Delphine to tell her he’s stuck, and she tells him to offer to share the crop with the landowner. That worked. He was able to plant the seeds.

I feel like this highlights an important aspect of Zoe. Pascal had a problem, but Zoe didn’t solve it for him. They taught him, they coached him, they gave him a script, and they gave him support. But he solved his own problem. This is an important first step.

Amaranth grows fast. As Pascal saw it growing, he was very excited. (Imagine seeing your first crop sprout and imagine having a longer view than just day to day.) The landowner loaned him more land on which to grow vegetables, for a similar promise to share the crop. Pascal has now harvested his first crop.

He got a micro-grant which he used to buy bananas (wholesale, again) and is selling them retail.

He has finally managed to gather his family under one roof, and they are all now sleeping in the same bed. He pays 3,000 RWF per month in rent. (That’s about $3.00.) They still don’t have enough to eat, but at least they can eat every day. (Imagine not having enough to eat, but feeling fortunate to be able to eat every day. It boggles the mind.)

Pascal now has hope. To him, Delphine, the social worker is like his own mother. His appearance has changed unrecognizably from his earlier appearance.

(At this point, Kelly, who is from Bayside Church, near Sacramento CA, asked Epiphanie to translate as she read the beginning of Isaiah 61 and all of Psalm 103.)

At this point, the groups (through their spokesperson) informed us that it is a tradition in Rwanda to share the first harvest with your parents, so they had chosen to share their first harvest with us. And several members of their group came out with a lot of fresh fruit on platters, all of which they were giving to us. It was an embarrassment of riches. We can’t take fresh fruit through customs on the trip back and it was more than we could eat, so Epiphanie helped us out by explaining that we couldn’t take it all, for those reasons, but that we would take some from each platter (along the platters themselves, which were also gifts to us). We snagged the mangos. I’ve mentioned how delicious fresh mangos are when prepared professionally by the hotel staff. Honestly, the grocery store mangos here just do not compare.

Mark and Nycki then also told the group they had bought a chicken at the small marketplace I blogged about yesterday (? I think it was yesterday), and, since they couldn’t take it home, they were hoping they could leave it with the group for safekeeping. The two Woodlands groups agreed to help out by taking care of the chicken.

Then, there was more dancing and singing. They even dragged us in (including me, even though I was trying to pretend that I was some sort of Official Videographer — I am NOT a good dancer).

At the very end, the Woodlands group spokesperson pulled Epiphanie aside and asked her to translate for us that they had consulted among themselves and decided to give the chicken to the third, unpartnered group, since they didn’t have a partner. That group, Progress, chose a child from among themselves to be the chicken caretaker. She will distribute chicks from the chicken to other members of her group. And so, Mark and Nycki’s gift will grow.

(And, finally finally, after we got back home, Erika figured out that UUMC has enough funds to partner with another group. So, we are now partners with that third group, Twitezimbere “Progress”. I hope that I or somebody from UUMC will be able to go back in a year or two to see that chicken or her descendants.)