Six hundred kids. Thirty Texans. Camp for two days, 9AM-3PM.
Since Rwanda is below the equator, this officially qualified as summer camp, Rwanda style. We arrived armed with Oriental Trading Company ornament kits, barrel swivels to make bracelets, white Christmas lights and extensions cords, Frisbees and soccer balls. We traveled by bus and van to Bugesera, an hour south of the capital, to the school where Rebeka’s sister, Medeatrece, and until recently, Rebeka, attended. All the kids in the community had been told of our arrival, and when we arrived we found them gathered, waiting for us.
I saw Rebeka’s sister, Medeatrece in her pretty pink dress (Rebeka has a matching one), and wearing a Spiderman pajama top wrapped around her waist. It was the same top Rebeka had brought to America, and it wasn’t until Rebeka had been with us several months that I realized she didn’t think of it as a pajama top, but a jacket. Seeing the familiar face of Medeatrece made me a little less nervous. At least I knew two of the hundreds of kids that had showed up for camp that day.
They were divided by age into six groups, each with an animal name. I was one of three Texans assigned to the giraffes, a group of kids ranging from ages seven to ten. Our first activity took place in a classroom, making ornaments that said either “peace,” “hope,” or “joy.” The giraffes filed in and settled, three or four to a wooden desk and bench, and stared at us.We had an hour to fill.
A translator helped us tell them the story of baby Jesus, and then we passed out the crafts. The whole time the kids were silent and wide-eyed. These kids do not have much exposure to individually wrapped crafts, self-adhesive backing, or fake jewels. I expected them to rip into their small plastic bags, I expected bits and pieces of their crafts to get scattered all over the floor, and for them to charge ahead without listening to directions. I expected possible tears when their ornament didn’t turn out right. Instead, each child patiently waited until every craft had been passed out. All eighty of them.
They sat and stared at us some more. “First, you open the bag,” we explained, but they were hesitant to open the bags. I went from desk to desk, and each child would solemnly hand me their bag to tear open. “Look, you just do this,” I explained, sticking my finger into the plastic and making a small tear. “See, you can do it.” Still, the majority of the kids wouldn’t. Rebeka, who was in my group, was one of the few who was familiar with crafts, after her initiation in the states. She would prove invaluable as the day went on, helping us communicate with the kids and showing them what to do.
After we finally got all the bags open, it was time to take everything out. The kids took great care, emptying their bags. Next, we showed how to take off the sticky backing. And again, they wanted me to help. They were so timid. I never really figured out if they were worried they were going to mess it up, or were just unsure how to do it. Maybe they kept waiting for the punch line. In a life where the day is taken up with basic tasks of survival, getting water, making food, washing clothes, what is the point of this strange, American craft? They seemed even more puzzled when we brought in the two fake Christmas trees and showed them how to hang their new ornaments on it. I was worried they would be sad, giving up their precious new creation to sit on a tree. What strange people we are! But they seemed non-plussed, eager to please, happy to give what they never really counted as theirs in the first place.
That’s not to say that we didn’t find a few sticker jewels on kid’s ears as the day wore on. Remember, this was only the first station. The more time we spent with each other, the more comfortable they all became. We moved on to some more active games outside. Rebeka sat in the shade, since running around with a large group of kids is still difficult for her.
A small group of kids gathered around Rebeka when she sat out, and I admired how easily she seemed to assume the role of interpreter and answer all sorts of questions about these people from Texas. Sometimes they would point to us, giggle, then go back to talking.
At lunchtime everyone raced to the water cistern to wash their hands, then raced to the food line. Two days later, I was asking one of the translators what activity she thought the kids liked best. Was it football? Or maybe making those cool bracelets which soon became a sort of currency with the kids, some stretching to necklace length as trades were made. Or did they like volleyball best? Maybe duck, duck, goose? “No,” said the translator. “I think they’re favorite activity was lunch.”
She wasn’t joking. For all the planning we did (and don’t get me wrong, the kids had a lot of fun), what they really needed was to have a basic need met. Food. Rice. Potatoes. A banana. And meat, a real treat for these kids. And to top it off, a Fanta.
There was another basic need we met in those two days of camp. Touch.
I never had fewer than four hands on me. They entangled their fingers with ours. Sometime the littlest ones scored a ride in our arms. If they could reach our hair, it was braided or knotted.
They soaked up physical touch like dry sponges, saturating themselves with affection. At the end of the day, our bus rolled away and the kids started home, some walking three or four miles down dirt red roads. A few kids wore remnants of the ornament crafts on their faces, stickers on cheeks and foreheads. A few had bits of a broken Frisbee tucked into their pockets. I hope they all went home with their bellies swollen and their hearts full. Our Texas bodies may have been weary, but I know our hearts were very, very full.
Nelson Mandela is smiling.