Back to School

All over the US, kids are going back to school, and it got me to thinking back to school in my life, and Rebeka’s life, what it looked like and how it ultimately brought us together. As I anticipate the launch of Her Own Two Feet, preparing for the party in October and participating in podcasts and blog posts and various interviews, it has given me the chance to look at Rebeka’s story through different lenses. The “school lens” is a pretty fascinating one.

If Rebeka hadn’t gone to school through a sponsorship with Africa New Life Ministries (ANLM), it’s quite possible we never would have met, and Rebeka’s feet would never have been turned. I can’t imagine life without photos like this one, those knee-high polka-dotted socks on this beautiful girl’s turned feet, sitting in my living room.

And if I hadn’t gone to graduate school, it’s quite possible I wouldn’t be writing this post about my upcoming book right now. About 20 years after I graduated from the University of Texas at Austin, I decided I wanted to get an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from a college I had heard about from tons of talented writers. Vermont College of Fine Arts (VCFA) has quite the reputation, and with Kathi Appelt and Cynthia Leitich Smith and so many other phenomenal teachers, it was perfect.

One of the most important things I learned was how to reimagine a project again and again, each time approaching it with confidence. This was helpful a few years after graduation as I reimagined Her Own Two Feet from a picture book to a narrative nonfiction middle grade.  The first time I wrote nonfiction work (in the form of critical essays) since I graduated from UT was at VCFA, and it helped me gain a voice in something other than my fiction “safe spot.” Graduating from VCFA changed my writing life and set me on a new trajectory in my career.

In Rwanda, school isn’t free and many rural families can’t afford to send their kids. Charles Mugisha started ANLM after the genocide in 1994 to help get orphaned and impoverished kids in school, and today they sponsor over 10,000 kids. Rebeka got sponsored in 2011 and started attending school at age nine, just a few weeks before Clay first met her.

Clay was in Rwanda to teach a small business seminar through our partnership with ANLM. If Rebeka hadn’t been in school through ANLM, Clay wouldn’t have met her while going out to meet sponsored kids.

When Rebeka came to live with us while having surgeries on her feet, she had only been in school a few months. In Austin, she received a different kind of schooling. The one on one time with me and a private tutor twice a week leapfrogged Rebeka from not knowing the sounds letters make or how to count to twenty to becoming fluent in English, reading short beginning readers, and performing addition and subtraction equations.

This summer I got to see Rebeka in action in her classroom as we filmed the video I’ll be showing at school visits. Her school is a beautiful, colorful place. Outdoor murals educate as well as decorate, and the cafeteria is just as loud and filled with energy as the cafeterias I remember when I was a kid.

New Life Academy is such a good place for Rebeka to learn and grow. This November she’ll be taking national exams. Students take them after 6th, 9th and 12th grade and their scores determine their future schooling. Rebeka can’t be in Austin for our book’s release because she’ll be preparing for this most important exam.

I can’t talk about our story without talking about school. It had unanticipated consequences, as I imagine it always does. I cannot wait to share Rebeka’s story with school kids, and encourage them to be “strong like butterflies” because sometimes “chance comes once.” If that doesn’t make sense, you will understand once you read the book, coming out in just a few weeks on October 1st!

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Book Club: Part Two

When I arrived at Rebeka’s school in Rwanda, someone got her out of class. Like one of those dramatic movie moments, we spied each other across the campus and it was all smiles and teary eyes as we hurried to hug.

While Rebeka knew I was coming, she didn’t know when, and wasn’t exactly sure why. We walked and talked and I explained that I had arrived with a microphone, a video camera, and the talented Serrah, a Rwandan videographer with Africa New Life. We gathered quite a crowd!

I also arrived with questions from ten curious American kids who each read an advanced copy of our book. Our goal was to produce a video that can be shown at presentations, so that even when Rebeka can’t be present, her voice will still be heard. And her giggle. I really wanted to make sure we captured her giggle.

I thought maybe Rebeka would be nervous about being filmed, which turned out to be a ridiculous concern. Rebeka was confident and poised as we found the perfect spot to set up, threaded a microphone under her shirt and clipped it to her collar. She answered questions easily, in fluent English that sounds better than the day she left Austin. She made us laugh, and she answered with honesty and grace, even for the hard questions. Then she took us on a little tour of her school where we saw the cafeteria, her dorm, and met some of her friends.

The next day we drove to her home. It’s a two and a half hour ride past green fields, cars and busses and trucks and motorcycles, past men pushing bicycles loaded down with sloshing water jugs or long bundles of reeds, women in brightly colored dresses, and children. Some were playing, some fetching water, others walking to and from school. When we arrived at Rebeka’s home, she introduced us to her family and showed us their goats and the lake where her father used to fish. I’ve got it all on film, and I’ll show it at the debut launch party (October 19th, 2PM, Bookpeople) and at school visits and presentations.

Before we left, we took a look at the new store her parents built in front of their home. About two years ago, before Scholastic bought our book, her family started forming bricks from red dirt and baking them in the sun. Today, the store is finished. In addition to generating income for her family, it provides much needed goods for the community.

“I’ll bring some books next time for the new store,” I said as we prepared to leave, imagining the green spines on the shelf beside the soap and lotions and flipflops. The translator, Jovan, shook his head and smiled a sad smile. “Most could not read it,” he said, and my heart sank a little. The majority of adults who live near Rebeka are illiterate.

But that is changing. Sponsorship organizations like Africa New Life help thousands of kids each year afford school fees and the Rwandan government has identified education as key to the country’s success. According to the Global Partnership for Education:

“Rwanda considers education a critical investment for the country’s future growth and development. This is evidenced by the increased share of the national budget allocated to the education sector.”

On October 1st, HER OWN TWO FEET: A RWANDAN GIRL’S BRAVE FIGHT TO WALK will be on shelves across America. Having a book on the shelf with my name on the cover is one of my dreams come true, and our book is all about Rebeka’s dream coming true. Now I have another dream, that someday there will be book clubs on both sides of the ocean.

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Peace and Frida

This post was originally titled Peace and Freedom, because I got Frida’s name wrong. Across a crowded dinner table, in a noisy room, spoken with that beautiful Rwandan accent, it was easy to mistake “Frida” for “Freedom.” I was at a dinner in Rwanda hosted by ANLM (Africa New Life Ministries), where I would hear the stories of young men and women who had been sponsored when they were younger. My co-author, Rebeka, is a sponsored student. I know sponsorship makes a huge difference in a child’s life, and I couldn’t wait to hear more inspiring stories.

Honestly, the writer in me was disappointed to discover Frida’s real name wasn’t Freedom. Freedom would have been perfect for a Fourth of July post! And not only is the fourth a celebration of independence in the US, this year the fourth also marks Liberation Day in Rwanda, the 25th anniversary of liberation from the genocide against the Tutsi minority in 1994. There is much to celebrate in both America and Rwanda. Like Frida.

At dinner, she was wearing glasses like me. She was quick-witted with excellent English, obviously intelligent and probably mischievous. Frida works as a pharmacist now, and her hope is to someday go back to school to become a therapist. She also expressed an interest in writing. We were kindred spirits, two bespectacled women across the table, talking fast and sharing stories. Her younger sister sat to my left.

Peace. Wearing dangling gold earrings and a black leather jacket, she works as a lab technician at the new Dream Center Hospital. As we ate she jotted in her journal, notes to herself about the story she would share after dinner. Peace and Freedom lost their father a few months before Peace was born. Their mother died shortly after Peace’s birth, and so it was just the six children, alone. Peace’s eyes filled with tears as she told us about those hard times. With no family to support them, the older siblings looked out for the younger ones to find food and try to provide. School was an expense they couldn’t afford.

When both Peace and Frida got sponsors for their schooling, the trajectory of their lives changed. They were not only allowed, but encouraged, to dream about their futures. They were able to graduate from high school and attend college. Now they are changing their world for others as they both work in the medical profession. It was a joy and a privilege to hear Peace and Frida’s story, and others who gathered that night. ANLM hopes to encourage many more people to sponsor children through this campaign. You can read more stories like Peace and Frida’s here.

Children like Gatesi Queen are one of many  awaiting sponsorship so she can make it through high school, and beyond.

For my recent trip to Rwanda, I came to film Rebeka so I can create a video to share with people once our book releases. I left with so much more than footage. Peace and Frida’s stories were an unexpected gift, two more bridges across the ocean. Our stories connect us. My hope and prayer is that HER OWN TWO FEET: A RWANDAN GIRL’S BRAVE FIGHT TO WALK will be yet another bridge for many readers to connect with Rwanda. Student sponsorship is another way that can happen. Letters and pictures will be sent back and forth as you get to know your child, and a new story begins.

Happy Peace and Freedom Frida Day to you!

 

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Book Club-Part One

left to right-Warren, Amelia, Vera, Gia, Olivia and Natalie (not pictured Claire, Sophie, Stewart and Aliyah)

I recently hosted a special book club at my house for kids between the ages of 9 and 13 (except me, but we won’t talk about that). It was special because the book we read was HER OWN TWO FEET: A RWANDAN GIRL’S BRAVE FIGHT TO WALK. It was a major thrill to see our book in real reader’s hands!! But this wasn’t just for thrills. I had assigned these kids an important task.

Aliyah reading HER OWN TWO FEET: A RWANDAN GIRL’S BRAVE FIGHT TO WALK

I asked each kid to come up with questions for Rebeka and videoed them, so I can show Rebeka when I’m in Rwanda.

On June 19th I fly to Rwanda. In addition to answering her reader’s questions, Rebeka will also give a tour of her school and her home and introduce her family and friends. A little backstory: to have questions about the book we needed readers, and we wanted young ones. In what I can only call a miracle, within 24 hours of hatching the idea I had ten ready and willing kids, and my publisher was able to get me a few more advanced reader copies (thank you Scholastic!). A months later, my readers brought their unique perspectives and curiosity and notes to my dining room table. (I had a few who came early or late or couldn’t make it to our meeting, so I got their questions separately.)

starting on left side of table-Warren, Natalie, Gia, Meredith, Vera, Amelia, and Olivia (not pictured Claire, Sophie, Stewart and Aliyah)

Of course we had snacks, as every proper book club should. In addition to cupcakes with sprinkles, we had some treats reminiscent of Rwanda: guacamole (avocados in Rwanda are amazing!!), mangoes and orange Fanta.

Vera is touching Rebeka’s shoe as other readers look on and snacks wait to be consumed.

The kids got to see Rebeka’s shoe. They touched the black rubber sole made from tires, the same shoe that once supported the calloused top of Rebeka’s foot. It was sweet to see how Rebeka became a little more real to them. The goal is to bring a little of Rebeka to every school visit or book party, even if she can’t be there in person. I am so grateful to all of my readers, and I can’t wait to show people our video next fall! Stay tuned for Book Club Part Two (my time with Rebeka in Rwanda) and Book Club Part Three (when I share Rebeka’s responses with our readers).

left to right, top to bottom: Olivia, Amelia, Gia, Natalie, Aliyah, Vera, Warren, Sophie and Stewart (Claire not pictured)

And here’s Claire! (with my sister, nope that isn’t me :-))

 

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What You Don’t Know

Benji, Nate, Meredith and Alayna at Dayglow concert, BYX Island Party

I had no idea six months ago that I would travel with Alayna and Benji to see Nate play guitar and sing on stage, in a band, in front of hundreds of people.

Dayglow playing at BYX Island Party

Or that I would leave a beach with green sand on the big island of Hawaii to ride on the back of a rickety pickup truck with my sister-in-law and eleven strangers.

And I had no idea, after I signed my contract with Scholastic, what was in store for me. Following are just a few of the surprises I never anticipated.

I’m taking myself more seriously. I always felt like once I had that contract in hand, there would be this giant shift from unpublished to published, from writer to author. That did happen, but I didn’t realize that feeling would continue to grow. There’s something about updating my website, ordering bookmarks and writing my first proposal for a conference, that adds another layer of legitimacy on top of the book contract. It also adds a lot of fun, excitement and gratification.

I am stretched. It takes a different kind of writing muscle and a new level of confidence to write a proposal for the NCSS conference and a two-minute pitch for librarians I’ll meet at the Speed Dating Meet and Greet at TLA. My writing minutes, minutes that were once solely on my work in progress, are sometimes going towards marketing and promotional copy and school visit presentations. Honestly, I’m discovering that HER OWN TWO FEET is still a work in progress, just as much as the new manuscript I gave to my agent recently. The writing I do on its behalf now may be just as important as the writing that happened when crafting the story.

I am getting to know the story better. As I write proposals and librarian pitches, this story that Rebeka and I worked on for over a year, and pitched, and sold, is becoming even more clear to me. I recently heard Kate DiCamillo say, “I usually don’t find out what (my) book is about until I start to go out and talk to readers” (heard on the excellent podcast, The Yarn, #81). I am finding I know more about myself, and this book, as I try to explain it to others. I’m certain I will learn even more once it’s officially released and kids start reading it.

Meredith talking to a group of writer from the Badgerdog Living Well Workshop

I am humbled. I have so many generous published friends who have offered to go to lunch or grab coffee or hop on the phone and answer my questions. They are looking out for me. They read my ARC. They give me tips and share their own experiences and tell cautionary tales and they don’t have to. They are busy people who speak at schools and conferences and work under tight deadlines and have a wide network of people to keep up with, and yet they take time to talk to me. Totally humbled and gobsmacked.

Meredith Davis and Kathi Appelt

I see more of Rebeka! I’ve gotten pictures and videos I never would have gotten if our book wasn’t being published. There was the moment she first saw the cover.

Jeri Brock shows Rebeka the ARC

The moment she saw the president of her country, Paul Kagame, holding our book with her beautiful smile front and center on the cover.

Rebeka holding phone with picture of Meredith and President Paul Kagame

And there was an impromptu early morning phone call to say “hi” as she filmed a short video for Scholastic. Such a thrill!

All of this makes me look forward to the next six months before the book comes out with great anticipation. I don’t know what I’ll learn, or where I’ll find myself, but I can’t wait to find out!

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Cover Reveal-HER OWN TWO FEET

Coming out from Scholastic October 1, 2019

Rebeka and I know a little about waiting. We waited for the day she would come to America. We waited for her feet to heal from surgeries. And five years later, we waited for a book contract. Now we are excited to give the world a peek at the result of our hard work and waiting-the cover for our debut middle grade book HER OWN TWO FEET: A RWANDAN GIRL’S BRAVE FIGHT TO WALK by Meredith Davis and Rebeka Uwitonze!

One of the best parts about waiting is feeling anticipation build. We’ll have to wait a little longer to hold the book in our hands, to read the story of Rebeka’s childhood growing up in Rwanda, her time in America, and her return to her life back in Rwanda, walking on her turned-straight-feet. The book features over seventy photographs and twenty-five chapters chronicling Rebeka’s story. We can’t wait to share it with you! It will be published by Scholastic, and released October 1.

The design team at Scholastic did a fantastic job designing this eye-catching cover. How do I love thee? Let me count the ways:

  1. The cover incorporates the bright yellow, blue and green colors of the Rwandan flag, colors that pop off the shelf, catching the eye and demanding attention.
  2. Rebeka is front and center, sporting her famous smile, while wearing two casts filled with signatures. It shows her tenacious spirit, a girl who plays hard despite hardship.
  3. The title, which was decided after many weeks of brainstorming with Scholastic and my agent, captures Rebeka’s independence as well as the literal meaning that this book is all about how she learns to walk on her own two feet.
  4. Our names, right at the top. I could not be more excited to be partnering with Rebeka to tell her story. It is an honor and a privilege.
  5. That headband. Rebeka loved wearing them as her shaved hair grew out, and that big, bright daisy makes me almost as happy as seeing Rebeka’s beautiful smile.

Each time someone shares the news about HER OWN TWO FEET, they become part of Rebeka’s story, spreading her message of resilience and hope even farther. We invite you to partner with us! Share this post to build anticipation, and when the big day comes on October 1, 2019, we hope you will celebrate with us again!

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Out the Porthole

You’ll notice a different look to this blog, which has been incorporated into my new website in anticipation of the publication of HER OWN TWO FEET on October 1, 2019. It’s the same place-just remodeled.

We took a trip to Antarctica during Christmas break going the only way tourists can – via cruise ship. We booked with Quark Expeditions and boarded the Ocean Adventurer with 120 other passengers, a great number. Not too big, but plenty of interesting and well-traveled people to meet. Our family spread out in two cabins on the second deck, one with three beds and one with two. Benji got the top bunk, even though he’s now bigger than Alayna. Old habits die hard.

Each of our rooms had one tiny porthole that framed our view of icebergs, islands, and lots and lots of water.

One afternoon we got an announcement that there were humpback whales off the bow. We all raced up the stairs and down the narrow walkways to the front of the ship. There was, indeed, a humpback whale. There were lots of them.

I found a spot at the rail and admired their shiny black backs cresting out of the water as they ambled along beside us. I heard a gasp from port side and rushed over to hear people on the deck below yelling, “he’s going under the boat!” Back I ran to the right and sure enough, I could see the whole shape of the giant humpback as he passed from beneath. It was so close I could see the bright white of the side fins, and marvel at the size of the blowhole. I could fit inside that blowhole if I fell. I held on tight.

The whales stayed with us for quite a while. When we got an announcement to go to our cabins and bundle up so we could go out among them in the zodiacs, I was afraid they would leave before we were ready. It takes a while to get 120 passengers loaded into their parkas and hats and gloves and then onto the little black inflatable boats. We raced back to our cabins to add waterproof pants to our long underwear and fleece pant layers, and find all the little bits of winter gear. Clay got his camera, including the waterproof bag he rigged with a Ziploc, just in case.

The passengers were divided into five groups, and our group would be last to depart. I glanced out the porthole and noticed a guide in a zodiac floating just outside our room. He was scanning the horizon, and he looked disappointed. I was sure the whales were gone, but then he looked down and started pointing and yelling. A giant black humpback head come up right next to the guide’s zodiac.

Clay and I both freaked and ran out of the room with no parka or hat or gloves. The ship decks were almost entirely empty, everyone in their rooms getting ready for the excursion. There were five or six zodiacs in the water, empty except for guides. They were waiting for passengers to be loaded, and the humpback was curiously going from boat to boat. He was so close the guides could reach out and touch him. At one point he spouted out of his blowhole and coated one of them in mist.

I was jumping and cheering each time the whale came up to them, as if I was at a sporting event and my team was winning.

Eventually, the Shackleton Zodiac Group was called to board. We got into our boat and found another curious whale. He poked out his head to take a look at us, and splashed the water with his giant back tail fin.

He came so close we could see the white barnacles clinging to his back and his white side fin stretched out impossibly long towards us, revealing its massive size. If his side fin was that long, his body was three times longer!

He was so close we could smell his fishy smell and hear the breath exhale from his blowhole. I had no idea when I saw the whale come up under the guide’s boat that we would have the same experience. Even if that’s all I’d seen, that whale encounter framed through the porthole in our room, I’d still be writing this post. It was that cool, and then it was that much cooler.

I’ll share a few more Antarctica stories in future posts, and more news about the publication process for HER OWN TWO FEET. This is going to be an exciting year, and we started it off well as we said goodbye to 2018 under the bright Antarctica sky, the sun still shining at midnight.

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Chance Comes Once

Amazon and other booksellers link to this page instead of the book page for Her Own Two Feet. If you’re looking for more information on Rebeka and our book,  click here.

 

Alayna is in her last semester at Texas A&M, preparing to graduate in May, 2018. It wasn’t easy re-integrating back into life in College Station after spending a semester in Grenoble, France.

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It wasn’t just the language and culture shock. It was the fact that most of her friends graduated last spring and life was going to look really different. She had one friend who remained, and a room in that friend’s apartment where she could put her mattress on the floor, and live out of cardboard boxes for a few months. I think we all figured she would grit her teeth and endure but hey, you only get one last-semester-of-college in life, and Alayna has never been one to pass up a chance at a new adventure.

alayna trapeze

she flies through the air with the greatest of ease . . .

alayna rwanda

in Rwanda, she’s always ready to engage with strangers who become friends

Last summer when she interned at Explore Austin she began to rock climb at a nearby climbing gym. What started out as a hobby turned into an obsession. Upon her return to College Station, she tried out for the Texas A&M competitive climbing team, the Craggies, and made it! For Spring Break she went climbing with friends in Arkansas.

 

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climbing in Arkansas

Since then she has competed in several competitions and most recently qualified for nationals in speed climbing!

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She is officially hooked. She makes multiple trips a week to Katy where they have a regulation speed-climbing wall where she can practice for nationals. She inhales climbing documentaries, and is asking for climbing gear for a graduation present. I am so proud of her for taking on this last semester with gusto, and re-inventing her life in College Station with this new passion. She’s met new friends, and she’s earned some gnarly callouses.

I know about re-inventing. I’ve been re-inventing my Rebeka book for almost a year now, revising and revising again. I’ve built up some tough callouses, taking constructive criticism and cutting some “darlings” to get to the heart of the story. My most recent revision was coming up with a new title when my agent wasn’t entirely happy with the first two. I had sent an email to a friend in Rwanda, asking her if the phrase “seize every opportunity and make the most of it,” was common in Rwanda. Something like “Carpe Diem,” or “seize the day.”

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Rebekkah in Rwanda, who gave me “chance comes once”

She responded that in Rwanda they say Amahirwe aza rimwe, which means “chance comes once.” The phrase captures perfectly the tension in Rebeka’s life. Many times she was given opportunities where saying “yes” wasn’t easy. At age five, she stayed alone at a clinic for eight months to receive treatments for her feet. She left family and friends and all that was familiar to come to America where she endured painful surgeries and challenging physical therapy. And when she returned to Rwanda, Rebeka left her family yet again to attend a prestigious boarding school located several hours away by car.

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Rebeka’s bed at boarding school the year she returned

They were all tough “yes’s” to once-in-a-lifetime chances. These two girls impress the heck out of me. They suck the marrow out of life, pushing themselves as they pursue new opportunities and continue saying “yes” to life’s adventures. I am forever grateful for the time they got to spend together.

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Chance comes once. Sometimes we get only one chance to take advantage of an opportunity, and these two girls embrace their chances with gusto. I did the same when I took the chance to tell Rebeka’s story, now titled CHANCE COMES ONCE: BASED ON THE TRUE STORY OF A RWANDAN GIRL’S JOURNEY, and I’m so glad I said yes.

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Baby #2: No Operating Instructions

I introduced baby #1 in June 2017. Baby #2 came to our family in September of 2017. She was much different than baby #1, partly because she wasn’t a baby. She was a thirteen-month-old bundle of energy and destruction and yes, cuteness. The cheeks, the chunky thighs, the poofy pom-pom ponytail that sprouted from the top of her head in a fountain of black curls, were so very different from any of our biological kids or foster baby #1.

She came as an emergency placement in the wee hours of a Friday morning and we knew very little about what she ate, when she slept, or whether or not she had a lovey (she didn’t arrive with one). As the caseworker went over paperwork she sat in my lap, rested her cheek against my chest, and was content to be held.

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It was soon apparent that we had received a child with no operating instructions. She had arrived with only the clothes on her back and a blanket supplied by CPS, a can of formula, and some diapers. We discovered baby #2 loved bananas. And screaming. And opening all drawers and cabinets, and pulling all books from bookshelves and dumping the dog’s food and water and yanking blinds and smacking dogs and picking up anything and everything that wasn’t a toy and putting it in her mouth. Clay and I spent hours following her around and trying to toddler-proof what we thought was a pretty safe house.

 

We knew she was exhausted, and most likely afraid, bewildered, and anxious. So was I. She clung to me and I tried to keep my composure and not break down into tears. Our sweet, quiet home had turned into a disaster zone. Over the next few days it became apparent that while baby #2 was awake, one of us was one hundred percent on duty.

But Baby #2 had no interest in books.

Baby #2 had no interest in stuffed animals except to body slam them to the ground and chew on their noses.

Baby #2 had no interest in sitting still. She crawled or cruised from place to place, stopping only long enough to throw or hit or somehow destroy whatever was in her path.

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she loved pulling everything out of cabinets

Those were the first two days. Hour by hour we began to figure baby #2 out. Clay thought music might help distract her and calm her so he told Alexa to play some jazz. Baby #2’s hand shot up like a conductor and she began to beat perfect time with the rhythm, shaking her hips and shimmying her shoulders. We had made our first breakthrough!

We decided a warm bottle right before bedtime might help her sleep through the night and lo and behold, she slept over twelve hours. We learned that sometimes she just needed to wail in her crib for a while to wind down. We’d give her a few minutes and she’d roll right over and sleep twelve hours. She grew to tolerate, and then love, her bath. She started reaching for Clay, and allowing me to the leave the room without breaking down.

We got baby #2 at an exciting time in her development. She went from cruising along furniture to letting go and taking her first independent steps.

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She went from saying one word (“gog”, everything was “gog,” from the dogs to her cup to Clay), to ba (bottle?), guh-gog (same as gog?), cuh-cuh-cuh (cracker?), and mama. Oh, that one was hard. I was not her mama, but when she was sad she would cry “mama” and reach out for me. And I would take her. Because for a time, hour by hour, I realized I was the mama, in all it’s scary, frustrating, rewarding glory.

She was placed with another family a few weeks after we received her. I sent her onward with a few operating instructions, notes about what she liked to eat, when she slept, and the small victories of learning not to pull the dog’s nose hair.

I have to admit we were a bit shell-shocked, being thrust back into the toddler years, and not just any toddler years but the life and times of a distraught little girl who had been through too much in her short life. It took a Vulfpek concert with Nate and some of his buddies . . .

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A big bag of Larry the Cable Guy Cheeseburger Tater Chips at the airport . . .

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And a trip to visit Alayna, who spent her fall semester abroad in Grenoble, France, plus a giant pot of melted cheese . . .

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to fully recover. What did I learn from this whole experience? Baby #2 reminded me I’m never really in control of my life. She reminded me to delight in small victories like discovering jazz and watching first steps. She reminded me I am flawed. I still have a lot of growing to do, just like baby #2. I am grateful for the reminder, humbled by the experience, and fully re-integrated into “normal” life. Until the next phone call . . .

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Rwanda Revisited

In July of 2017 I made my first solo trip to Rwanda to do interviews for my most recent project, based on the true story of Rebeka Uwitonze. I had been to Rwanda four times previously, with family and sometimes teams, but traveling alone for the specific purpose of interviewing Rebeka, her family, and others who know her brought a new level of intimacy and understanding. It was a privilege, and I learned all sorts of things I never knew. I owe a huge debt of gratitude to Augustine, who made room in his busy schedule to translate for me and shuttle me around. We dug up old files and found treasure.

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Augustine was my translator and general “make it happen” man

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left is Rebeka’s sponsorship photo, right is Rebeka when she returned from US

Rebeka’s two youngest sisters have grown big enough to wear the clothes Rebeka once wore in Austin.

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left to right: nephew, Ooweetayka (sp?), Medi and me

Rebeka’s parents were gracious and invited me into their home two days in a row to tell me the story of Rebeka, starting with her birth.

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I got to see beyond the living room where we usually sit to the bedroom Rebeka shares with her sister, and the small dirt yard out back where goats and a cow hang out and maize dries in the sun on a blanket. I heard for the first time that Medi, Rebeka’s younger sister, was the first to go to school, before ANLM moved into the community, when the family only had enough money for one tuition. She would come home with chalk and teach Rebeka what she was learning by drawing letters and numbers on the concrete floor of their home. I saw the learning continuing with chalk letters on their back fence, scrawled by her little sisters.

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I met some of Rebeka’s friends who went running to find Rebeka when we arrived at her boarding school. She had no idea I was coming!

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left to right: Grace, Rebeka, Sharon and me

I had to break the news that it was just me visiting this time, and then I got to ask her a question that made a lump rise up in my throat. I couldn’t wait to tell her about writing her story, but what would she think? Would she want to tell it with me? Because I wasn’t going to tell it unless both our names were on the cover, side by side. It is truly her story. I just wanted to help her write it.

She said yes! She is excited to share her story and she answered my questions patiently. One of the things I have been curious about since she left in 2013 is how she described America to people back home. When I asked, she didn’t say anything about the fireplace that turned on with a press of a button, or the trampoline, or the grocery store filled with food. “I tell them about the ocean,” she said.

“What do you tell them about the ocean?” I asked her.

“I tell them it’s very big.”

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Clay holding Rebeka in ocean-California-Sprint Break 2013

The ocean is a great image, a great metaphor, for Rebeka’s time in America. It was big, from the surgeries to all her new experiences, including her first glimpse of the big blue ocean in California. Writing this book about Rebeka has been a little like wading out into the ocean. I’ve been knee-deep in facts, there have been some waves of uncertainty, but on the horizon is a big old story I can’t wait to share.

 

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