I met Clementine in June of 2009.
I was led to her by my friend Jaya, who had first met her living in a house that had fallen in after heavy rains. Clementine and her five children were still living in this house despite the fact that it was completely open to the elements. Jaya had sent me pictures of the broken home, and had expressed that she could not believe someone could live in such conditions. I agreed!
Jaya and our mutual friend Happy had already moved Clementine, and they were able to find a new home to rent and fund for the first few months. Jaya had bought her a bed mattress, food and basic necessities because she had none of these things. She asked me to meet Clementine and follow up with her on my upcoming trip to Rwanda to see what she still needed that perhaps we could assist with.
I promised her that I would. Little did I know that this promise would lead to a new friendship with a woman I’d never met who lived thousands of miles away and who would change my life forever.
The ride through bumpy, narrow, steep dirt roads and small traditional mud homes close together is my first real glimpse of what the poorer living conditions in Kigali are really like. Until now, I had only seen these areas from afar. Children run along side the car, laughing and excited. “Mzungu” they all call to us. It is a word you often hear that simply means white person or person of European descent. For a moment our car stalls as we try to make it up a rocky hill and a little girl looks deeply into my eyes. We reach out to each other and hold hands for a few fleeting seconds. Her eyes never leave mine and they pierce deep into my soul. We continue on. A few minutes later, we have arrived and my mind is filled with the sites and sounds that are new to me.
Happy points to Clementine’s house and says, “We are here.” I am pleasantly surprised by what I see, as these conditions are far better than what she’d been living in previously. I see a woman standing at the door with children around her. She has a t-shirt on with a traditional Rwandan cloth, wrap skirt. Her face is round and her hair is short. As soon as our eyes connect, she begins laughing and speaking at the same time… running towards us, child in arm. I cannot help but notice him bouncing around. She is running so fast I hope she doesn’t fall. All the children follow and surround the car.
I am making sure that I have my camera to give to Happy so that he can capture this moment. I do not know what she is saying but the joy in her eyes is unforgettable. Tears fall as we step out of the car. She hugs me tightly and we are both laughing aloud. She lets me go momentarily to get a good look at me, hugging me again as though she has known me forever. I wonder if she thinks I am Jaya as we could appear to look alike. Holding my hands in hers she talks to the crowd of friendly neighbors who gather around to greet us. They all raised their chins in a similar manner, as if to say, ”Ah, this is her!“
Some laugh, some clap hands with big welcoming smiles. This moment is precious and I feel a certain sense of gratitude flowing through me. Happy begins to laugh and explains that indeed, she has mistaken me for Jaya, but nevertheless, very quickly, as Happy explains that I am Jaya’s friend, she is just as happy to have us there. She leads my friends and I to the entrance of her home, leaving behind her friends, neighbors and onlookers who have now gathered forming a small crowd. A sense of pride and utter happiness emanates from every part of her being. Her children surrounded us, with excited eyes, full of hope and wonder.
Once inside, we begin to get to know each other. We share pictures of our families and a bit about our life and where we come from. We talk about her life and how Jaya met her living in a desperate situation. She shares how her life has changed and that she now has hope. She tells us about her children. We laugh and smile so much, our mouths and bellies hurt.
Here in this moment, in this small humble room, a lifelong connection that would impact the way I see, feel and experience life would begin. I was filled with gratitude to feel this connection and have the experience of joy in this moment. It was priceless. We came with small gifts of crayons and coloring books. We had brought blankets, clothing, shoes, a soccer ball and some little stuffed animals. We could not help but delight in seeing the reaction of the children who may never have received such gifts in their life. Their eyes were as wide as wide could be. Unsure, if this could really be for them. The energy of that first meeting will remain imprinted on my heart forever.
In the days that followed our first meeting, I taught Clementine how to make jewelry. While I taught her the basics of wire wrapping and beading, she showed me a new element of design. She worked hard, beading, creating, wire wrapping and designing. She discussed her ideas about new designs she wanted to try. One morning, she showed up at my hotel room with Happy to show me her collection of almost 20 sets she had made. I could not have been happier. She expressed that she could not believe that she who never had an education could make something so beautiful. We were all amazed by her creations and so very excited for the possibilities that lay ahead. They were unlike anything I had ever seen.
Clementine had previously made a living breaking rock and carrying it for miles. When she was able to do this, she would earn the equivalent of fifty cents a day. Now that she had become an avid jewelry maker in just a matter of days, I decided it was time to show her how to price the jewelry she made. I taught her how to value her time. The more intricate and time-consuming, the more expensive! The better quality beads should be priced higher, and so on. We decided to be her first customers.
“Clementine, what will you give this to me for?“ I asked
She smiled and shook her head as if to say, now this piece is special.
‘This is very expensive.,” she said. ‘These beads are not easy to find and I do not have many. For this, I will charge more, the others you can have for less, but if you want this one, you will have to pay my asking price.”
I smiled contentedly, she had learned well.
We did learn bits a pieces of Clementine’s story as time passed. At the time, Clementine had five children. She now has six. She took us back to the home where it all began, where Jaya found her living hopeless. She showed us where her and the children slept. The holes that were scattered across the entire roof were the size of golf balls. This place was mosquito infested and filled with crawling ants and bugs. I imagined what it must me like when there were torrential downpours. Even worse, an entire wall had fallen in, and she’d endured months of living like this. I cannot imagine how a mother and her five children could live like this. She and the children slept on the floor on pieces of cardboard, from boxes. As the light came through the window, you could see a thick cloud of dust floating… she told us it was always like that and sometimes it caused the children to become very sick.
I could not help but imagine all the times I ended up in hospital with my kids or the nights of fevers, virus, vomiting and diarrhea they’ve all at some time or another endured over the years but at the end of the day, they were always living and sleeping in a clean, safe, dry environment. They always have the comfort of blankets and medicine to stop the pain. My children have beds, clothing, food and water when they need it. They have a roof over their head at night. I could not help but imagine what her nights must be like. Nothing but the damp mud floor, the cold night air with flimsy blankets to wrap their cold bodies in. What did they do when it rained? I know that millions of people around the world live like this, but here I was now standing with one woman who did and hearing her story. Seeing it, feeling it deep in my heart. I wanted to make a difference in her life.
We were curious as to what Clementine’s experience might have been during the Genocide, and so we asked her. Clementine shared a few details about her experience.
“I remember, we left home that night and we went to Kicukiro and that’s where I lost my mom. I also lost my father after the Genocide to disease. I could not do anything about my loss, so I had to move on… It was tragic and sad what happened here in Rwanda. I never discuss it with my children.”
After we parted ways, I continued to stay in touch with Clementine. After our fist visit, she produced enough jewelry that we were able to have a combined jewelry show featuring her work and the work of the street boys who we had also taught on that trip. It was a great success and the funds she made enabled her to live well for a while…until the beads and the jewelry findings ran out. If we’d have found a way to continue supplying her with the beads and jewelry findings she needed, she could have made a living from this craft, but I am sad to say, it was not as easy as I thought it would be. She’s since moved out into the country where life is a little easier than living in the city but nonetheless, she still struggles to make enough money to feed, clothe and send all of her children to school.
There is something about Clementine I cannot explain. A bond, a love and a dream I have for her and her children that remains in my heart. I know she has the same dream. I imagine a better life for them, and I believe it can happen. I think of them always and pray for their wellbeing. Jaya and Laura also hold her close to their hearts. We’ve held fundraisers and shared her story with hundreds. I love the way that communities have come together to help her.
This past summer, Clementine allowed herself to be filmed, sharing her life experiences, for she believed it was important for people around the world to hear her story… a voice from Rwanda, a voice of a mother, a daughter, a woman. A survivor.
Through her stories and her life, Clementine also helped me find a part of myself I’d somehow lost touch with over the years. She helped me to feel my purpose, to remember my passion, to feel deeply my compassion and to acknowledge my love for humanity. My intention was to help her, but perhaps, instead, Clementine has helped me more than I could ever have known.
Our goal for Clementine is to help her to find a new sustainable way of making a living for herself and her children. We continue to assist her and it is because of the generous donations of those who have heard the stories over the years of Clementine, that we are able to help her. A percentage of profits from her story bracelets go towards our Family sponsorship program which supports families who need assistance with food, medicines, housing, education and small business start ups.