Inconceivable Heroism Amid Horror

My siblings and I grew up in a large family: two boys and four girls. I am the second and oldest girl; but this post is not about me. I want to share with the world about the fourth child, my little brother Jean Eric Claude. I vividly remember when he was born, I was almost 5 years old. He was a big baby (about 10 pounds), extremely beautiful with chubby cheeks and so much curly hair. I asked my mother if I could hold him, but I was unable to because he was too heavy for me. I am sure you are wondering if I am describing the right person basing on the below picture. By the way, that makes two of us! I am not sure how he grew up to become thinner than the rest of the family.

When Eric was young, him and I used to fight a lot. I am sure I provoked him but he was not that easy either. He played outside always, and was injured all the time from different utensils he collected or perhaps some fights he may have been involved in. He was a stubborn little guy.

On Sunday afternoon, April 24th, 1994, exactly 17 days since the Rwandan Genocide began, everything changed! God must have stirred something unimaginable in this 8 year old’s heart after my Mom, my old brother Jean Felix, my cousin and I were led by the infamous interahamwe militiamen to the mass grave in the lower Kanombe, suburbs of Kigali, to be killed.

Sparing you the details for now, I miraculously survived but my Mom, brother and cousin didn’t. Although death was everywhere, I undoubtedly cherish that afternoon because God gave me another chance to life. However, the same day I got separated from my brother Eric, and sisters Alice and Mireille, who were all under 10. At this point, they were so certain I was dead, and I thought the same for them.

My handsome brother
My handsome brother, now a grown up man! I’m eternally honored to be called his sister.
With no instructions on what to do next or a moment to think about it, my baby brother immediately assumed the role of a big brother and a parent. Fleeing amid rain of bullets, blood thirst machetes and hiding in unfamiliar areas, he tied up a piece of blanket around his neck so his two sisters could hold on to it.

Sigh…

I often wonder how the blanket didn’t choke him or how he figured out that this would be the best approach for his dear sisters. Few times, the youngest Mireille who was 3, got separated from them; unable to decide what to do, she would simply stay wherever she was left. Was she scared? When you are aware that death awaits you any minute, the sense of feeling becomes numb, even at such age.
As soon as my brother realized that she was missing, when parents left babies to cry to death and everyone was just running for their life, my brother turned around to look for Mireille. No wonder why their hearts have been knitted together ever since!
Also each time they found something to eat after days, my little brother would let my sisters eat first. After they have had enough in their little tummies, only then he would grab some.
Their stories after we got separated still wound my heart greatly. It certainly is where my forgiveness is tried the most. But I praise GOD, for keeping them safe, allowing me to be part of their precious lives, and His amazing Grace!

The spoiled brat quickly became a MAN at that young age, a selfless one. I doubt I would have been able to put my life in danger to find my little sister or keep them safe, when sounds of terror and weeping voices of sorrow rang across all corners of the country. Only extraordinary, rare people would do that. I often wonder what was in his mind, but the LOVE he had for his little sister sure overcame his fear and selfishness of saving his own life. God Almighty knew well that I was incapable of doing such a heroic act and led me alone.

Mireille and Alice: My greatest happiness!
My Beautiful Girls, my Greatest Blessing, my Treasure! Mireille (left) and Alice (right).

Only those who have been through the Genocide can understand my inability to describe the cruelty of the humans who became ferocious animals: babies were cut out of their mothers’ wombs and smashed against walls; relatives denied each other, neighbors turned their back on their friends, husbands killed wives and children, hell engulfed Rwanda. Amid terror, my little brother didn’t care about death that surrounded him, and God used him to keep my little sisters alive. He is my hero, my best friend! If I could get hold of the whole world, I would freely give it to him; if I was part of the Nobel Prize organizing committee, he would get at least a few of those!

My brother’s last name “Mudacumura”, means “innocent in both English and French. This truly depicts who he is. He has every quality you can possibly look in a great man: selflessness, humility, passion, compassion, a big heart, brilliant, kindness, funny, sweet, down to earth, loves God, handsome, a true gentleman! Until this day, he puts his siblings’ interests before his. He is the rock of our family, an exact replica of our father.

I CANNOT wait already for the day he will tie the knot with this incredible woman of his dreams, probably the luckiest girl on this planet. No one deserves happiness more than him. And I can’t wait for the day we will again see our parents, so I can narrate all about a little boy they left behind, now the most amazing man in the whole wide world.

I love my brother with everything functioning in me. Him and his two sisters are the reason I am alive, there is no doubt about that.

They will never, EVER, need anything my ability can provide; God and my parents in heaven have my word!

It hurts my feelings when I think that one day I may not be the first person they all run to for help. Of course I work hard for their independence, but it will greatly shatter my heart. They will always be my children, little in my eyes. And they certainly have all my love and attention, all my days!!!

And this, my friends, is the source of my strength and hope: God, the great I am!

“Rwanda…..is it that next to Texas?”

No kidding. I wish this was a joke but it actually happened, when a Northeastern man, who shall remain nameless, approached one of my friends to ask where she is from. It is true, United States is massive, with many large states that I call countries. By the time you fly from New York to LA for example, someone who had left about the same time may have landed in London and rested. Rwanda is only 395.18 sq miles larger than the state of Maryland. Maryland ranks 42nd in size, out of 50 states. Per Wikipedia, the continent of Europe is only 135, 899 sq miles larger than the United States as a country (this includes water for both). So don’t blame me if I call states countries. It’s no wonder some Americans imagine their country as being almost the whole world and everything else tiny and surrounding it.

Some citizens, especially in New York City have this pride of thinking the city as it being the whole state. I attended grad school in Rochester, NY. Recently though, I met someone in Long Island who is from Brooklyn; when I mentioned that I lived in New York, this person answered: “FYI, we don’t consider upstate as a part of New York.” Go figure! Oh and by the way, there is a map that shows how a New Yorker sees the rest of the US. I did not want to attach the image because it uses some language I wouldn’t feel comfortable sharing, but New Jersey is apparently considered the armpit of NY. The mid west is called Tornadoes and Jesus and it has just one big city or something (Chicago!); the north west is a place you fly over to get to Seattle. And that’s the entire north, pretty much. I am sure a Texan sees United States differently too. You gotta love these people.

8391 miles apart
Kigali is about 8391 miles from Houston 😀

So you see, it’s not just the rest of the world viewed as a miniature by some Americans, it’s everyone else. As an advice, if you are from another country, don’t be offended if someone tells you that they never heard of your country before. Many Americans have not visited all 50 states either. But I just like the sense of humor in it all. One day, I volunteered for the Shepherd’s Table Soup Kitchen, a Christian organization that feeds the homeless. I met a very sweet woman, probably in her 60-70s. Shh, I am terrible at guessing age. On one occasion, I met an other lady on the plane and we became friends. During one hour flight, she insisted so many times that I guess how old she was. When I relented, I was 10 years off :(. She really looked like my auntie Angela who is 95.

So this wonderful lady at the Soup Kitchen asked me where I come from. By the way, some people think Africa as one country, so often I try to spare details and introduce myself as from Africa. Normally when I say just that and someone answers: “cool”, then I know they don’t really know much about Africa or where it is. But I wanted to keep a conversation going so I asked this lady: “Do you know much about Africa”?  And the sweet lady answered innocently with excitement: “Yes of course I do. I have been on a mission trip to HAITI”. YEP. True story!

Actually, I was not any different before I first arrived in the US. I thought that Canada was in Europe, because they speak French. I was shocked that just on the other side of the Rochester’s Lake Ontario lay the Canada’s Toronto. BUT this was my ignorance; since last year, I made it my goal to learn the world map. I must say that I am doing pretty good. My intention with this is not to point out anyone’s flaws or judging. I am just writing what I have seen, that’s all. We are after all brothers and sisters.

  • Weight versus Age

These two are a big deal in these two countries, and this is especially for just women. Back home, some women throw birthday parties until they turn 25, and after that, they just stop counting. The following year may be another 25th birthday. Unlike in the US, I don’t remember the last time I was asked about my age in Rwanda. At a birthday party, you come, eat and go. You simply don’t ask how old someone is. It’s not being rude, it’s just our culture I guess. After I arrived in the US, I was shocked to hear someone asking me how old I am, in front of a group of people. Seriously? Why? I wondered. But in the end, I realized that it’s just as asking your name. BUT the weight, it’s a no no. Do never ask someone around here how much they weigh.

On the other hand, the weight number isn’t a big deal in Rwanda; but the way we approach it, it can get sensitive and personal. It’s just more than asking you how much they weigh. If you gain so much weight in Rwanda, someone may walk to you and let you know that you might be bursting out soon if you do not stop eating whatever you are feasting on those days. They will remind that you should join a gym or starve. They don’t use polite or sweet expressions such as you have put on a few pounds; they will make you aware that you are fat. Facebook isn’t that helpful either; if you post a picture, someone may ignore a cute dress and shoes you have on to comment that you are simply huge and asks you what had happened to you. We somehow learned to laugh it out. After being in a culture that reacts differently, it made me wonder if it hurts people back home to be told such things.

By the way, did I mention that gaining weight may be a complement somehow? When a woman gets married and doesn’t put on few pounds, she must not be happy in her marriage. Losing too many pounds may be equally negative. When I first arrived in the United States, I lost several pounds; it took me a while to get used to the food around here. And guess what? Rumor had it that I must be poor and starving here. Yep. As a proof, most my Facebook pictures have such comments asking me why I am so thin. Of course this is nothing hurtful comparing to gaining weight.  Don’t get me wrong, Rwandans are the most hospitable people I have ever met. This is just another casual conversation. I will write more about hospitality in my next post.

One day I joked with friends about this weight topic. One of my friends made it clear to me that she would rather be asked how old she is than her weight. She is very tiny by the way. And I let her know that I would rather repeat my weight to everyone rather than my age. It is very interesting how different cultures can be. Needless to say, that night was full of laughter. Our mutual friends teased this friend that next time when they see her with a few extra pounds, they would ask her if she’s been feasting on McDonald’s. Another friend mentioned to me that if she came to Rwanda and someone told her that she looked fat, she would simply cry. Sadly, I told her that I was just preparing her in case it happens!

  • Being On Time

This is just a language we don’t speak where I come from. When I first arrived in Rochester, New York, I was blessed to have someone to give me an advice. He was a Rwandan Professor at RIT. He said that if I wanted to succeed in this country, I would have to be on time. He said that if it’s 10 am, I should plan to arrive anytime before 10 am and wait by the door if needed. He made it clear that if I was a minute or two late, they may not take me in. I was scared and in rush always. Why is that? Okay so in Rwanda, when you arrive at a place on time, it probably means you are not that important and have nothing else to do. If you were such an important person, you would have been busy with other things.

It took me a while to arrive at 7pm to a party that starts at 7. Not because I am important, but because I was used to show up when I can. Ceremonies in Rwanda end when everyone leaves! When you host a party, 7pm probably means 9pm. And people won’t even display any sign of remorse for making you wait for them, or arriving late. Everyone just somehow thinks that the time is there to get you going, not necessarily to follow it. One American writer who currently lives in Africa said it well: “the African time runs a couple of hours  behind the real time”. This is nothing but the truth!

If you have lived in another country, what were key takeaways in the new culture comparing to yours?