BECAUSE SOMETIMES IT’S NICE TO BE A FLY ON THE WALL. OR RATHER, IN THE ENVELOPE.
ALSO I DON’T HAVE STAMPS AND IT FELT WEIRD TO EMAIL THIS TO GEN’S PARENTS.
ALSO IT’S GOT A STORY IN IT, AND I SHARE THOSE NOW.
SO HERE YOU GO, A LETTER THAT WASN’T MEANT TO BE SEEN AT ALL BUT WITHIN THE LAST 5 MINUTES DECIDED TO BE COPIED AND PASTED HERE.
BECAUSE IT DOESN’T HURT TO BE REMINDED PEOPLE MEAN A LOT, THAT WE CAN’T DO THIS ADVENTURE & MEANING-MAKING THING ALONE
Dear Janelle and Steve,
Which is to say ‘Hello’ in Kinyarwanda. It’s pronounced “Mur- ah- hoe.”
Which of course, hardly anyone knows.
Which is a very strange, strange knowledge to have in your brain bank when you’re a twenty-three year old Caucasian girl who grew up in Southern California, trust me. One could almost find kind of lonely, to know such an obscure language about such a distant culture. One could almost feel kind of stuck, seeing a language barrier that millions will never in their lifetime try to climb.
Except I don’t feel lonely or stuck, not at all.
Which is why I’m writing you this letter. Let me explain, Feiners.
I want to tell you two about an instance in Rwanda that was very important to me. I want to tell you a quick story, if you don’t mind. A story not meant for anyone else in the world.
It was our last day in Rwanda, you see…
And I was sitting in a metal chair with navy blue fabric padding, identical to the other forty or so filled chairs in the large conference room we were in. It was impressive to see such uniformity in the furniture— as I’d noticed from our countless visits to cooperatives across Rwanda, uniformity was evidence of structure, and structure was evidence of good business, and good business meant a group of people were up to something very big, very powerful, very important.
And this conference room—this very last meeting of our entire trip— held the biggest, most powerful and important group of all: the leaders from each of World Dance’s 20 cooperatives. This conference room, with its tall ceiling and huge windows overlooking a bricked patio and bar adjacent to the hotel, hosted a collection of the most influential human beings I’d ever been in contact with in my entire life… and I’ve collected some pretty damn cool figures in my twenty three years, really.
But these ones were different. You could sense it in the air.
They were men and women who led their families and strangers through businesses they had at one point known nothing about; men and women who survived a genocide, had lost everything… and stood tall and strong in order to generate a future for their people. Men and women who didn’t live in the city, but rather in far distances of the Rwanda country-side where our visits led their children to see their very first white person. Men and women who volunteered to change their worlds, who led without wages, moving strictly to bring food and warmth to their community. I’d never met anyone who worked 24/7, around the clock without seeing a clock, for a group of people beyond their families for little to no pay. America doesn’t have people like that; it just doesn’t exist.
And these men and women were all sitting in metal chairs with nay blue fabric padding, watching our team expectantly. Like we had something to teach them or something.
“They want to hear from you all, one last time.” Justin translates from the front of the room. Justin, our most useful tool in communicating the Kinyarwanda to English and back again. Justin, one of the greatest speakers I’d ever heard. Whatever or however he said anything, the room would fall obedient. And so we did.
One by one—Debra, to Annetta, to Bryan, to Brett, to me, to Olga, to Danna—we went down the American line of chairs that faced the leadership group, one by one standing up and each (in our own funny way) assembling language so as to best convey that this trip changed our lives. Some of our women shed tears as they spoke, the boys did lots of shaking their heads in disbelief, and I can’t remember a single world I said. I just kept looking into all their eyes, drilling my heart into my gazes, desperately hoping they’d see! Not hear! how I was never going to be the same again! Please!
But I did not cry. I had only cried once on this whole trip, because Rwanda does not cry… It had been in the hospital room with Olga and Genevieve, when they both committed to staying another six hours to see my slow IV challenge through to the end. A tear appeared on my face as they sat down— aware that they weren’t going to be able to leave until midnight—while I laid hopeless in the stupid maternity bed. They both saw my face begin winding up for a cry and Olga looked alarmed, “What is it honey?”
“You guys don’t have to do this, I’m so sorry—I’m so grateful—’m so sorry.” I begin to sob. In seconds Genevieve walks over, smiling, and softly slaps my face. “Stop that right now. You know you’re being ridiculous, and after all we’ve been through this is not what’s going to break you. Pull yourself together, Katrina.” And I immediately stopped.
Which was weird. Was Genevieve kind of becoming…a Justin? I wiped my face, and swore no more tears would be spilled on my behalf in Africa.
And so, standing there in the conference room, I finish my speech without leaking any eye water.
Next is Genevieve, and as I sit she stands….
And leaves her chair.
And moves to the front of the room…
And laughs. “I want to see all your faces!” The group beams at her, and it slowly dawns on me that something is happen here. I fumble for my phone camera in a rush to catch her next words, acknowledging I’d missed one of the most impressive listings of the 20 cooperatives mankind has ever seen outside of Janet. The World Dance boys are nudging each other as she speaks, “Holy sh*t, did you just hear that?” I hear Bryan whisper to Brett. I hit record but make a point to watch Gen with my real eyes.
Her grace is a contagious stillness, and no one’s moving. Her voice is calm as she addresses the room of heroes: “We’re lucky enough to know the real Rwanda. YOU are the real Rwanda. Real Rwanda is not what happened in 1994… it’s YOU. And to know that people come to visit this country and never leave their hotels! They come to see the gorillas, they do the Jungle Canopy walk… they don’t know Rwanda at all.
Because you’re all that Rwanda is. And—” she laughs, “I’ll let Justin translate that up.”
Applause occurs as Justin reapplies her words in a form they understand. And as the applause goes, as these leaders gaze up at Genevieve like she’s their leader….
I see my best friend standing tall, strong, and important waiting until Justin has finished. She’s completely the girl I met in France, and then, somehow not at all. I can’t put my finger on it, but as I replay the power of her words, my eyes start to well. To quote myself, I said earlier that ‘I’d never met anyone who worked 24/7, around the clock without seeing a clock, for a group of people beyond their families for little to no pay. America doesn’t have people like that; it just doesn’t exist.’
And this time it was not Genevieve that slapped me, but reality. Someone like that did exist.
It was Genevieve. I got chills, and tears slide down my face without my permission.
It’s what she’s saying and how she’s saying it that moves the room.
“Thank you, Justin.” I hadn’t noticed he’d finished translating. Gen continues:
“You’ve all transformed our lives in so many ways, many of which we are incapable of understanding… but we do our best. We know that you’ve taken such strides in your development. And you—our leaders….
Being a leader is not an easy thing. It’s in fact a very difficult thing. It requires great courage and great bravery. And it also requires you to know when you need help, when you have to fall onto the people that you’re leading… and you all do that so beautifully. you don’t separate yourselves from the people, you’re a part of the cooperative equally; that allows for the entire cooperative to move forward alongside of you.
And we feel so equally in that partnership with you: you are trying to improve your lives, we’re trying to improve our lives, we are doing it together. We learn from you, you learn from us—it is such an equal partnership.” She, again, beckons to Justin to suggest he begins translating. I’m in compete shock, aware I’m not the only one in the room transfixed and breathlessly waiting for her next words.
“We often refer to the future of Rwanda—the future of all countries—lying with in the youth… and that’s true. But that is only dependent on the kind of leaders they have in front of them, to learn by example, and to learn new things, and to develop. It’s because each one of you, being the leaders, there is no doubt that the future of Rwanda lies in very good hands.
“It is because of you, who are training the youth. With Justin or Janet—I mean, me personally—I couldn’t have better leaders. And now, to have that extended by all of these different but equally powerful leaders… there is no question that Rwanda has a very bright future, and for that the entire world is eternally grateful.
And we are so, so excited to see what happens, how we go forward in this. I personally know that there’s nothing else I ever want to do in my life other than work beside all of you and your cooperatives, and Justin and Janet…”
Genevieve laughs—it seems more to herself than the room—and gives one clap of finality, as if to close a very good, long book. “And… Murakoze cyanne.”
And with that final thanks, she walks back down.
And the applause starts up.
And my jaw drops down.
And my heart fills up.
My best friend is just showed up as the coolest person alive.
And I think to myself, right there on the navy blue metal chair…
When I get home, I want to thank the people who raised her.
I want thank the people who made sure I’d be in Rwanda, who ensured my eyes could catch the magic their daughter was unknowingly and modestly spreading.
And so now I’m home, safe and sound…
And I can write to two very incredibly strong, important people in my life, who indirectly helped me realize that the act of parenting is the act of leadership… and visa versa.
You are leaders to my life, and—to steal a quote from your oldest child’s speech— you’ve transformed my life in so many ways, many of which I am incapable of understanding… but I do my best.
And so the greatest gift I could give you as thanks is a story acknowledging that you brought one of the greatest gifts into this world… and the world is eternally grateful. Whether it knows it yet or not.
Somehow– despite being a twenty-three year Caucasian girl in California with bits and pieces of Rwanda under her skin– I do not feel lonely and I do not feel stuck.
It’s because your badass daughter is my latest company, and she slaps me whenever I whine about being lonely or stuck.
Ya did good, Feiners. You did good. Your support holds up the strongest in a far away nation, know that.
Trust me, I saw it.
Murakoze with all my heart,
P.S. I’m getting feeling back in my left hand! And also insurance really did take care of the car accident! And wow, you guys are the best for handling all my stumbles! It’s just the price I pay for all the life jumps… thanks again for always catching me.