This story is by Jacqueline McAdam and was part of our 10th Anniversary Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
My ticket was booked to Nairobi, but three weeks before leaving, a letter arrived from a man I had previously been involved with, stating he would like to see me if I came to Africa. He lived two countries away in Rwanda; it was not like going down the street for a cup of tea; it required an additional plane ticket and a visa. It had been an on-and-off relationship for the past six years! When we were in the same country, it was on; otherwise, it was off. We met at the onset of the war in Somalia. I worked in Mogadishu when my team was told to gather up our belongings as we prepared for our evacuation to Kenya. The sound of the bombs is deafening, as I left behind the beautiful ancient city of ornate Islamic structures as two rival militant groups sought to take power leaving only a memory of the city.
He sat next to me on the plane. He was comically chatty. He referred to me as “Pippi Long Stocking” a reflection of the two long red braids that framed my face. It was not the first time I had heard this reference; it was a frequent conversation starter. He was working for a missionary group. A term I only knew in relation to a sexual position based on my very secular and extremely liberal upbringing. I was a child of the sixties, my parents frequently referred to as hippies, kept the “Joy of Sex” in the dining room next to the “Ascent of Man.” He was from Alabama. Our worlds were fundamentally different, but it only seemed to increase the sense of intrigue and fascination.
Nairobi was my base for the next six months. He went back to Somalia to assess emergency health care needs. We connected on his frequent trips back to Nairobi to get supplies and write reports. That was six years ago. We had met in various places around the world, either coming or going from different war zones. We had an amazing week in Paris in 1993. He was leaving the continent, and I was returning to work in Kenya. The adventure was enticing, the romance and sexual connection powerful. We had yet to live in the same country. I asked a friend what she thought about a potential trip to Rwanda, her comment;
“Are you crazy? That country has just gone through a major genocide.”
“I need to figure out this relationship. It is Africa; war is a part of the equation, be it civil or regional.”
I knew nothing about what was happening in Rwanda. In 1994, the papers were covering the OJ Simpson and Paul Bernardo cases. My euphoric state of romantic love, reflective of the denial that often foreshadows the beginning of a relationship, fueled my desire. I continued to reflect on my reasoning to my friend.
“I mean a life without risks, without vulnerability, is a life void of rich and exciting possibilities. I am going! I don’t want to live any other way.”
My friend gave me that look. The one that let me know she loved me regardless but equally supported my desire to “figure out this relationship”. After all, she had been listening to stories about this man for the past six years.
I landed in Rwanda in December 1995 and lived in the region for the next three years and worked as a consultant for the United Nations. Rwanda was now in a post-conflict situation, but the remains of the conflict were ever-present. The tribunals began, public executions took place, mass graves revealed, and healing began amid the trauma. The fragile nature of the human condition was evident within the midst of immense resilience. My interest in the concept of resilience germinated in Kenya. I was working with youth from a large slum on the outskirts of Nairobi. What these youth people lacked economically was compensated for by their incredible sense of psychological resilience. This was not the case for youth I had worked with in Canada. My experience in Rwanda was similar. Many had lost their whole families, but they maintained a sense of hope. I wanted to know more. My motives were philanthropic and selfish, as I sought to help others and myself more adequately address life’s adversities. The significance of the events in our life that shape our future self is never fully realized at the time.
Twenty-eight years later, I am giving a keynote address at the Anniversary conference for the Rwandan Genocide. I walk onto the stage to address an audience committed to making the world more just and equitable. I take a deep breath and look down upon my family sitting in the audience to ground myself in the present moment. I place my notes onto the podium and begin.
“My experience in Rwanda just after the genocide and numerous trips back over the last twenty years affirm my sense of hope. The resulting trauma of my time in Rwanda was not realized until many years later, but I know that without action, change is not possible. My time in Rwanda taught me about the strength and resilience of the human spirit. It was the catalyst for my professional journey that addresses the psycho-social trauma for children of war. Rwanda set precedence regarding the number of children separated from their families. Many lost family members, and many were reunited with their parents and siblings through child tracing efforts. Tracing efforts were limited in the early ’90s at the onset of the internet and more advanced technology. I attended a community tracing meeting in a rural township. The children’s names residing at the tracing centers are delivered over a megaphone to hundreds of people sitting in a field. A man stands up and says,
“That is my child, but please keep my child; I have lost everything and can no longer provide a future for my child.”
This man’s authentic unselfish actions reflect a desire for the highest good. My husband and I adopted that child. I had met my husband on an airplane when we were both evaluated from Somalia in the early ’90s. We were both acutely aware of the impact of war on children. Joshua is the eldest of our three children. We have provided the opportunity for him to have continual contact with his family and provided support when necessary. Our son, of twenty-seven years, has returned to Rwanda. He is committed to making a difference. My research on resilience has taught me that luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity. My actions of service are minuscule in comparison to the needs, but nothing will change without action. Dr. Schweitzer, the winner of the Nobel peace prize in 1952 in his speech “The Problem of Peace”, denotes the importance of taking action, not only for ourselves but for the world, be it on a large or small scale.
The events of the Rwandan genocide are unfathomable. For many, it is probably hard to know what to do or how to make a difference. Each of us will have various levels of adversity in our lives. My time in Rwanda was the precursor to my marriage to a man I met in a war zone, lived in a war zone, and eventually created a war zone resulting in our divorce. Society often defines divorce as a failed marriage, but similar to the rebuilding of Rwanda; it is an invitation to redefine a relationship. I now reflect on the anniversary of a friendship of thirty years that I have with the father of my three children. I do not define our union as a failure. I committed a long time ago to love this man unconditionally, but marriages are not unconditional. I believe each of us experiences our own sense of a war that challenges all of us. Actions of love and compassion that leave the world a better place and reflect the highest good for all are necessary to validate and commemorate anniversaries, such as the genocide, or to redefine the ending of an anniversary in the case of a wedding. I has been an honour to speak to you today at this anniversary event. I want to thank you for the actions you take that create peace in our families and the world.”
I walk off the stage; my red hair has lighted and hangs just above my shoulders. I hear my husband, ex-husband and children clapping as I descend to my seat. I am grateful for the opportunities that life has presented.