I have written before about my amazing friend, Marie-Josée, the nurse and widow, who worked with me in Rwanda and supported her children, sisters and nephews. I don’t know how Marie-Josée and I became such good friends, but it started with a sick visit.
One of our Rwandan colleagues was sick in bed 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 Rwandan members of our team didn’t live with us, so I had not yet had a chance to get to know them. Marie-Josée 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-Josée had lived in French-speaking Burundi.
We began to meet regularly, when our schedules allowed. Marie-Josée worked in our trauma hospital as a nurse, assisting our Zairian doctor in surgery. She spent her weekends in the capital, Kigali, with her family.
She supported a widowed younger sister, in her early twenties, with a toddler son, who took care of the house and kids while Marie-Josée worked with us in the north; a teenage sister who required secondary school fees and stayed with the family during school breaks; plus her own sons, Fabrice, Yves and Hervé. During my time there, two married siblings died and Marie-Josée took in several nieces and nephews.
Despite all the weight on her frail-looking shoulders, she always wore a smile. And despite the vast differences between us, we became as close as sisters. Marie-Josée listened to my stories of family, about my crushes and adventures, and was always my biggest supporter.
Maybe she’s the reason I feel so strongly about writing “Kwizera Means Hope”, and getting it right. It isn’t her story, and yet it is. Just like my character, Cecile, my friend Marie-Josée survived personal and national tragedy, yet her inner strength and goodness continue to shine.