I have written before about my amazing friend, the nurse and widow, who worked with me in Rwanda and supported her children, sisters and nephews. I don’t know how Marie-Josee and I became such good friends. I think it started with a sick visit.
One of our Rwandan colleagues, Francis, was sick in bed for a few days sometime during my first two months in Byumba. I learned that the local custom is to visit a sick person to offer company and conversation. I joined some Ugandan colleagues during the visit – the people with whom I shared living space.
The small room, barely big enough for a bed and a couple of chairs, was filled with people. A couple of Ugandan nurses, some Rwandan nurses, assorted friends and neighbors.
The Rwandan members of our team didn’t live with us, so I had not yet had a chance to get to know them. Marie-Josee stood out to me that evening. Tall, thin, dark-skinned, she was the only French speaker of the group. Many of our Rwandan colleagues had lived in Uganda, and so spoke English. But Marie-Josee had lived in Burundi.
We began to meet regularly, when our schedules allowed. Marie-Josee worked in our trauma hospital as a nurse, assisting our Zairian doctor in surgery.
And boy did she have a house full! A widowed younger sister, in her early twenties, with a toddler son, took care of the house and kids while Marie-Josee worked with us in the north. A teenage sister required secondary school fees and stayed there during school breaks. The educational system is opposite ours. People pay for primary and secondary school; university is free. Fabrice, Yves and Herve were Marie-Josee’s sons. During my time there, several married siblings died and Marie-Josee took on more nieces and nephews.
Despite all the weight on her frail-looking shoulders, she bore it with a smile. And despite the vast differences between us, we became as close as sisters. Marie-Josee listened to my stories of family, about my crushes and adventures, and was always my biggest supporter.
She even let me stay in her full house during weekend visits to the capital. I shared one of the two bedrooms with her family, used the latrine out back, bathed in the bedroom with a tub of warm water, a plastic cup and a washcloth. I shared meals of manioc paste, beans and sauce. I listened to the Kinyarwanda chatter of the kids.
Why return to Rwanda?
I asked Marie-Josee once why it had been so important to her to come to Rwanda, when she had spent her entire life in Burundi. She had even been born in Burundi, her children were born in Burundi. She was still in Burundi when her husband, a doctor, died in Rwanda during the war.
“Because I’m Munyarwanda,” she said. “Rwanda is my home.”
Munyarwanda means a person of Rwanda. Notice she didn’t identify herself as a Tutsi.
Kinyarwanda (Language of Rwanda)
Marie-Josee and her English-speaking colleague at the trauma hospital, Cecile, taught me Kinyarwanda. Just a few words and phrases to help me be polite and get through the military checkpoints on the major roads.
Things like, I don’t understand (simbyunva), which came in handy after I greeted a soldier politely in his language and then he let loose with a stream of Kinyarwanda.
I learned to count to one hundred, and phrases like “I’m hungry, I’m cold, I’m thirsty, come here (ngwino hano)”. I could ask someone his/her name (witwande?). I could read various medical-related phrases in the pamphlets we prepared to teach people hygiene and sanitation. And I knew some foods (which I no longer remember).
Where is she now?
Unfortunately, I don’t know where she is. I sent her several letters by various means in my first year home. I tried sending the letter in the care of the Zairian doctor with whom we worked (who I’m connected to on Facebook – he’s now in Kinshasa). I tried sending it in care of our organization’s office in Uganda. As far as I could tell, my letters never reached her. I ran out of options.
My cousin spent a summer working in Kigali a couple of years ago. He couldn’t find her.
Someday I’ll have to return to Rwanda and find Marie-Josee. She’s worth it!