CHANCE COMES ONCE is a narrative nonfiction middle grade based on the true story of Rebeka Uwitonze, a Rwandan girl who came to America at the age of nine to have corrective surgery for her club feet. The story begins with her growing up with seven siblings, her mother and father in a small home made from the red dirt of Rwanda. It continues with her journey to Texas and her year undergoing medical treatments, and ends with her return to Rwanda. Interspersed with the third person narrative are first person whisperings in the dark as she shares her experiences with her little sister, whether they’re lying side by side in bed or she’s thousands of miles away.
This project began in 2012 not with words on the page, but living the story. When Rebeka arrived in Texas she did not speak English, she had never lived with electricity or running water, and she had only attended school for a few months. While living with me and my family she learned how to speak and even read English, won countless games of Uno and Memory, wore thirty-one casts, visited Dell Children’s Hospital fifty-eight times, and learned how to walk again on the bottoms of her turned-straight feet.
Rebeka was eager to collaborate on CHANCE COMES ONCE. She wanted to share her story, but she didn’t have all the English words she needed. Neither did I. In some ways I knew this girl. After living with her for nearly a year, I knew she was ticklish and fiercely competitive and did not like vegetables. But there was much I didn’t know about Rebeka’s early childhood.
I booked a ticket to Rwanda, my sixth visit to that beautiful country of rolling green hills and red dirt roads. I interviewed Rebeka, her parents, her teachers, headmasters, friends, a Mama in her boarding school, and anyone else I could find who knew Rebeka when she was young, before she came to America. I heard a lot of new stories.
I also studied the hundreds of pictures we took when she was with us, all my blog entries from that time, and the daily journal I kept. CHANCE COMES ONCE was translated into Kinyarwandan and recorded by the amazing Cyusa Lionel, a Rwandan young man attending university in the states. It was sent to Rwanda for Rebeka and her parents to hear and comment so that it is truly a collaborative effort between Rebeka and me.
There are hundreds of pictures and many videos of Rebeka and her time in Rwanda and in the states, including an eight-minute, professionally produced video done by Austin Stone Community Church. I kept a blog during Rebeka’s time with us that starts here. If you’d like to hear Rebeka read the words in the glossary at the end of the book (along with a little Davis commentary), check out the sound bar below.
From an early age, Rebeka seized every opportunity and made the most of it. Whether that meant walking three miles on the tops of her twisted feet to get to the school in her village, or coming to America to live with strangers so she could have treatments and surgeries, she was brave and resilient. She seizes the day, taking advantage of every opportunity. In Rwanda they don’t say “carpe diem,” they say, “chance comes once.” Rebeka knows when to go for it!