Preface: I wrote this essay after I went to Rwanda nearly six years ago, and it's still one of my favorite—and most personal—pieces I've ever written. It was accepted at a prestigious magazine and sat there for three years, during three different editorial regimes, while I waited. I waited for others with more power than I had to decide when—if ever—this piece I love would be published. When I finally received a curt email informing me that it was "killed," it felt brutal. I've been waiting for the right time and place to try again. This my act of faith on New Year's Day. I am making a firm resolution: I will never again allow others to kill my voice.
Will you be my mother?
The young Rwandan woman who asked this question five years ago still haunts me, hiding in the recesses of my mind and watching me. She steps out of the shadows unexpectedly with solemn brown eyes and earnest longing that are impossible to ignore. Impossible to forget. And I am still finding ways to fully answer her.
I’d been to third-world countries before, where saying no becomes a reflex—a necessity—as children follow you down the street asking for money, candy, your camera. How can you say “yes” to one child and turn the rest away?
I went to Rwanda on a leap of faith for my forty-fifth birthday. “Why Rwanda? That’s so… random,” a friend of mine commented when I told her my travel plans. I couldn’t really disagree. I was going on the pretext of being a journalist, reporting on American women working with orphans of the 1994 genocide. But I was also going to find answers to questions I couldn’t voice. Questions about my faith, my religion, and myself.
Growing up Jewish in the very German city of Milwaukee, I heard these two words over and over: Never again. I remember an elderly Auschwitz survivor with a faded number tattooed on his wrist, who came to speak to my fifth grade religious school class. We listened, but couldn’t really take in what the old man had been through. It was so far removed from our lives. I never forgot his stories though, and in my early twenties I visited Auschwitz and Dachau. I wanted not just to understand, but to feel what my relatives had been through. I was stunned by how sterile and clean everything looked, how easy it was to remain unemotional and unattached.
Bosnia. Cambodia. Darfur. I went to Rwanda looking for clues of how the world could continue to let this happen, again and again.
I arrived at the Genocide Memorial Museum early on a clear sunny day. Dozens of people where walking in the garden on the hillside overlooking Kigali. A tour guide explained that 250,000 people are buried in the large cement rectangles surrounded by trellises with cascading purple flowers, fragrant pink and red rose bushes. I sat on a shady bench and admired the beautiful garden. Too beautiful. I walked over to a partially open grave where a single coffin was visible.
A young African girl, maybe fourteen, walked past me, looked straight into my eyes and smiled, as if she recognized me. Maybe it was the setting, but she appeared almost angelic: closely cropped hair, glowing ebony skin, and big brown eyes. I returned her smile, transforming her back into a normal teenager wearing jeans and a striped t-shirt, glancing shyly away.
I headed toward the main building, where a guard told me that only one section was accessible because of a power outage. I walked inside and down a dark hallway. So still. So peaceful. I was completely alone as I discovered a small room with sunlight streaming into the windows, exposing larger than life black and white photos on the walls. The blown-up images of young children were so beautiful that they were almost shocking, and I stood frozen in the doorway. Underneath each photo was a plaque with small, concise, block lettering.
My eyes were drawn to a serious-looking boy in a starched white shirt, sitting in front of a photo of himself in a football jersey. The plaque read:
David Mugireneza, Age 10
Favorite sport: Football
Dream: Becoming a doctor
Cause of Death: Tortured
I was mesmerized by David, standing in front of him, letting the sadness of his short life sink into my bones. I imagined him as a thoughtful physician. I could not imagine him any other way.
I glanced out the window toward the growing crowd in the garden, thankful to be alone with my feelings as I studied each photo. A boy with wild curls, playing in a sandbox. He wore a huge grin, waving a little red shovel and staring into the camera as if to say, “Look at me!” I imagined his father standing on the other side of the lens, laughing and encouraging his precocious son.
Patrick, age 5
Best friend: Alaine, his sister
Favorite food: chips
Favorite thing to do: Make people laugh
Cause of death: Whacked by a machete
I caught myself reaching up to touch Patrick’s face and stopped. What if an alarm went off, and I was surrounded by armed guards? Instead, I just held the boy’s open, trusting gaze for a moment and then walked on. At the far end of the room was a small slate tablet centered on a wall that read: “Children, you might have been our national heroes…”
Tears filled my eyes as I thought about all that Rwanda had lost. David, who dreamed of becoming a doctor. Patrick, who just wanted to make people laugh.
Suddenly, I realized that someone had joined me in the shadowy room. I turned to see the girl from the garden approaching me. I quickly wiped away my tears, embarrassed to be so vulnerable in front of a stranger — a child. Embarrassed to feel so damn uncomfortable as she stared at me. It was as if she’d asked a question and was awaiting my answer. I didn’t know what to say.
The electricity snapped on and I blinked against the harsh light. “Looks like we can go into the rest of the museum now,” I said brightly, hearing the bustle of people pouring into the building. As I turned to leave, she asked her question again: “Madam, will you be my mother?”
“I’m sorry, I can’t give you any money,” I responded, certain that’s what she really wanted.
The sincerity in her eyes was humbling as she shook her head. “I don’t want money. I am an orphan. I have lost my brothers and sisters, and my parents. You are older and wiser than me. I need your guidance.”
She smiled again, so open and warm, touching a piece of my soul so tenderly that it was painful. A part of me desperately wanted to answer, “Yes, of course I will be your mother.” But I didn’t know how to say these words.
“I’m sorry, I have my own children,” I replied, turning quickly to walk away. “I can’t be your mother.”
I sat in the garden overlooking the city, big oval sunglasses hiding my guilt and my relief. Then it struck me: those wide eyes, that small voice, the way she had followed me into the museum. This girl was genuinely asking for my help, and I couldn’t give it to her. Was I any better than the housewives who lived just miles from Auschwitz and smelled the burning flesh?
I stood and walked around the garden, then into the museum again, trying to find the young woman I had turned away. She was gone.
I still mourn for the connection I lost that day. I could have reached out and hugged that young woman looking for guidance. I could have walked with her in the garden and simply listened. I could have told her that I cared she was confused and hurting. I’m also grateful for what I found in myself that day: a sliver of raw compassion. I’ve held onto it, and there have been many times since then that I’ve thought of that young girl and answered others with an emphatic, “Yes.”
Jennifer Haupt is the co-author of I'll Stand by You: One Woman's Mission to Heal the Children of the World. (Dutton, August 2012; paperback, Plume, April 2013.) She is currently working on her debut novel. For more information, visit jenniferhaupt.com and check out Jennifer's Facebook wall.