Sunday, May 27, 2007

Thoughts on Rwanda's Kids

I brought some DVDs here to Rwanda to watch on my computer, and last night, in honor of Friday and a weekend of work ahead of me, I watched the South African film Tstosi (mild spoiler warning here, but also a strong recommendation to those of you who haven't seen it; it's an exquisite, heart-rending movie). After it ended, I stood in the window of my hotel room looking out at the lights of Kigali spreading below me and up into the hills that surround the city, and I kept thinking of all the suffering—and all the surviving—that was going on at that very minute in the very place I am right now.

There was so much in Tsotsi that is real. The ways that people will do anything to live, find any way to keep going and to meet the needs that each of our bodies and souls have. Somewhere below me and all around this country are children who are alone. Their parents might have died in the genocide or of AIDS, or maybe they were abandoned or left home like Tstotsi did, only occasionally looking back, fighting for survival through pain and sickness, hunger and trauma, and above all, loneliness. They may not even be able to feel anything or to remember a time before this one, but no matter what, they keep going. I guess life just seems worth living. There are people who are driven to do terrible things in the name of survival, but in the end they are still human, still motivated by the same things that cause orphans to band together, women to sell their bodies to feed their children, men and boys to jack cars and sell them for parts before going home to kiss their mothers and wives hello. Somewhere in the hills around me is a group of kids trying to survive as one, dealing with whatever memories haunt them, still drawn to human companionship despite it all, no matter how much people may have disappointed or hurt them in the past.

Sometimes the work I do starts to feel like just any other industry, the business of saving lives. We can argue over petty things sometimes, or lose track of the big picture as we get bogged down in strategic details. Some people even lose their connection to their hearts and compassion, the things that drew them to this work in the first place. In Washington or here in Kigali, surrounded by people who work for USAID and the Global Fund and the UN and all sorts of NGOs from around the world, it can occasionally feel like a job is a job is a job. People joke that I am a do-gooder, trying to save the world. Sometimes I think my friends say it because they have the confidence that I can actually make a difference, but sometimes I think it is a comment on the fact that there are so many of us and that global health, human rights and humanitarian work are themselves just another field, like business or technology. But the truth is that we ARE trying to save the world, as many lives as possible at a time.

Although it was just a movie, Tsotsi reminded me that I do this work for a reason. Yes, I'm a bleeding-heart who just cried through a movie and then cried harder looking out my window. Yes, I believe that people are good, and that when people do bad things they deserve our compassion and our effort to understand the experiences that drove them to it. And, yes, every now and then I feel like my job is just that: a job. But I look around the streets of Kigali and I remember what happened here in 1994 and I look at the hope that is here now, the very clean streets, the sense of complete safety I feel walking alone through the city or getting into any taxi I see, the sincere desire of the government to make this country the best it can be, and I know that through all the tragedy and trauma and sadness and heartbreak, underneath it we all want life. Joy and laughter and love, too, but most importantly, life. Yet, in trying to preserve life, we manage to sometimes find those other things, too, even when life is as hard as it can be.

In a meeting yesterday with the consultants writing Rwanda's Global Fund proposal we discussed the number of orphans and vulnerable children here in Rwanda. The new assessment is astonishing: 56% of all Rwanda's children are estimated to be orphans or otherwise vulnerable. The thing is that, unlike most of the rest of the world, this proportion is expected to decline over the next few years. While progress in fighting AIDS and in providing treatment for those who need it is part of the reason, another reason is that the last of the kids orphaned by the genocide will turn 18, will no longer be kids. So where does this leave them? I guess the lucky ones got services, got an education, will be able to have healthy educated families that will rise out of poverty and contribute to this new, post-genocide Rwanda. But many still struggle, living in shacks or in ditches or doorways, wandering the city barefoot and begging for food in a language I cannot understand (today one of my new young friends was needlessly hit on the head by a policeman's baton while he sadly watched me drive away in a taxi), shaking with malaria's fever or dying of AIDS.

It sounds so melodramatic, so hopeless. But it isn't. Here are a few truths: People will do almost anything to survive because something inside us tells us that life is an adventure worth living; and we can help them. Yes, my job is part of an industry dedicated to making the world a better place. But our goal is what's important, not the size and scope, or the fact that sometimes we spend too much time away from the reality that we try every day to get Congress to confront. So many people do not know pure happiness, don't remember their mother's loving arms or their little brother's laugh—or maybe even the sound of their own—but there are ways to make this world a better, brighter place. I guess in the end, no matter how sad it sometimes makes me, I'm glad I've found my way to contribute. I hope that everyone else can find a role to play, too.

1 comment:

Ling said...

Hi lisa, i stumbled upon your blog and this entry while trying to find materials to help me understand Rwanda for one of my MBA subjects. i thank you for sharing your thoughts and bringing bits of Rwanda's reality to me. i'm also inspired by your dedication to your work and vision. change doesn't come in a day but at least u've started your journey ... keep up the good work!