‘Hope is the fire within us that, when it burns brightly, lights the way for us. It is the creative energy that moves us and enables us to dream our lives and create new worlds of possibility. It is our life force. Without hope, we are numbed into silence.’~ Tina Klonaris-Robinson
I had never before seen someone who could be living and yet look half dead. When I met Olive, she appeared to me to have experienced hardship beyond my understanding. I did not know what her story might have been but I yearned to reach out to her and simply hug her. Woman to woman, mother to mother, but I did not, for I could not at this time know if this was something she wanted. I could sense that this woman had experienced pain and intense worry. Intuitively, I felt a weight on her heart that showed on her face… I could see the heaviness in her eyes, her cheeks, her mouth. They all told a story only I could know yet what that story was. She looked hopeless and it appeared her thoughts were far away. She was in another world… so far from anything I could ever know. She held in her arms a young child dressed in tattered and stained cloths. It was difficult to asses the age of this little boy, for his face appeared to be that of a 14-18 month old, but his body so frail and tiny made me wonder if he was perhaps much younger. The doctor explained to me that she and her child were very sick. Both were HIV positive. She explained that their living conditions were deplorable and we decided that perhaps there might be a way that we could assist. We made a decision to travel with her to her home and look at what her immediate needs might be.
Upon arrival, her daughter ran towards us with joy and excitement in her eyes. She was playful and radiant even although her life experiences in my mind were harsh and difficult. Immediately, she wanted to play with my hair and so I leaned to the ground and let her. Something about her smile drew me in. She was 6 and my daughter Meah had she been living would have been six. I tried to hold back tears as my heart stirred with emotion. I felt an immediate love for this child that I had only just met. Somehow it felt as though my heart knew and loved her forever. We walked up the hill towards her home, her daughter’s hand in mind swinging back and forth as though we were headed towards a joyful event of sorts. I stared up at the brown building before me. The energy of it was eerie to me. The men lying on the bare concrete as we walked in gave me a strange feeling of uneasiness. I noticed one of them had only one leg. Others just stared at me, not greeting me, but looking at me with what felt like intense disapproval. I had a very strong knowing that I didn’t feel safe here. We walked directly to the door to her one room space. Once in this tiny room, she explained to us that this building housed mostly angry, drunk men who had experienced the trauma of war as soldiers. It was the only place she could afford. I could not help but notice a large hole in her door. Anyone on the outside could look into her room and see everything. It was the size of a tennis ball and looked to me as though it had been kicked in. I asked why that was there and she explained to us that the men at night get drunk and angry and try to break her door down. They want to hurt us, they want us to leave. She explained. They tell as we are the walking dead and they do not want us here. They believe that people with HIV are bad luck or a bad omen. I looked at her young daughter and my heart ached as I imagined the fear they must all experience on a daily basis. In this room, men could watch her and spew their verbally abusive violent anger towards her at any time. This poor family was constantly being violated and had no other options.
I knew that we had the means to move her and I didn’t give it a moments thought. It was my first priority. We asked her to find a home that was close to the hospital as she had to make daily visits for baby Fabrice. We wanted her to find a home she would be comfortable in. We asked her to let us meet with the landlord so that we could make arrangements for her to stay in this home for the year that followed. We asked her to pack her few belongings and be ready to move, we didn’t want her to spend another night here. We did not have much time as I would be leaving Rwanda in a couple of days so we had to move quickly. She had no food, no bed, nothing. We spent the next few hours shopping and preparing. We bought her a few months supply of food with a good supply of a special porridge given to children with HIV to help him to gain strength. We got her two small bed mattresses for the floor and paid for one year of rent in her new home. It was small and simple, but it was quiet and peaceful. We knew she could begin to feel hope again and in my mind, this was the most important start for healing this woman. We paid off her medical debt leaving her debt free and my only hope in the short time was that this mother who had been through so much would be able to have some of her burdens lifted. I wanted her to know that she was loved and cared for… that she would not be alone, that I would be willing to help her in any way that I could. Through all of this, I began to notice a glimmer of light in her eyes but it was ever so faint. The time had come for us to say our goodbyes. I felt the desire to reach out and hug her and so I did. Immediately, I felt her body tremble and shake… she put her head into my neck and sobbed. Loud belly heart felt sobs. I could feel her tears on my shoulder as she held me tighter and tighter. My heart hurt for what ever this woman was experiencing and in this moment, my tears began to flow freely and we did not need a translator, I understood her and she understood me. We were no longer strangers.
It has now been one year since I met Olive who we now call ‘Mama Fabrice’ It is customary in Rwanda to call the mother by the name of their youngest child. Since meeting her, we’ve been able to help her to rent land for farming. She’s been able to feed her family with the food she grows and has been able to make a small amount of money to help her to bring her three other children back home to live with her as they had been living with her mother since she had not the means to take care of all of them. We’ve also helped her with medical bills and we have friends visit with her and offer words of encouragement. She has since shared her painful life story with us.
When we asked her what her happiest memories of childhood were, she expressed that she had none. Most of her memories are sad. When the genocide began she was only 14 years old. Her father and every family member from his side were murdered during the 90 days of the killings. She herself was almost beaten to death. She survived only to be attacked again by a man who wanted to rape her. When the genocide ended, her Hutu mother’s family no longer wanted her around and treated her with such anger and hatred, she decided to leave them. She married young, a soldier who took her to the Congo. There she had 3 beautiful daughters, Liberata, Joselyne and Josiane. Her marriage however was failing and so she returned to Rwanda where she met her second husband and had her fourth daughter Delyce and her son Fabrice. In 2010, however, she learned that her second husband had given her HIV. He also left her to fend for herself. She expressed to us that she cannot sleep at night. The only thing she thinks of is what will happen to her children if she dies. She did however share that she does believe in God.
‘My life reached a very crucial state and I prayed for help. That is when I met Tina. I wasn’t capable of raising all of my children and so they were living with my mother. Now that has changed, because of the help Tina was able to give to me through The Meah Foundation. My children are now with me. It is not easy but my life is still better than before. I advise people to pray, never stop praying.’
I believe that healing happens in many ways but perhaps the most powerful begins with energy that comes from Connection, love and hope. With these things, the burden of worry, sadness and pain can be transformed enabling miraculous change to take place in the lives of those hurting and those who are witness to it. My life was touched by my meeting if this remarkably strong woman. She empowered me with her life story. She is a fighter, a courageous woman of faith who allowed hope and love into her heart. She believed in her ability of her power within to create change for herself and her children. We as a community her made a difference in her life just as she made a difference in ours.