Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Finding Love in Rwanda

            I never expected to find the love of my life in Rwanda. But sometimes life surprises you. In my case, that surprise was a four-year-old boy named Francois d’Assisi.

           A bit of background: I’ve never really been the kind of girl who’s dreamed about her future kids a lot. And I’ve been known to roll my eyes just the slightest bit when friends post a billion pictures of their kids on Facebook. Don’t get me wrong, I love being around kids. I’ve worked at summer camps, I’ve been babysitting since I was about 12, I enjoy a good game of hide and seek, and Disney movies are still my favorite. But at this point in my life I’m more of a “1,000 Places to See Before You Die” kind of girl and less of a “Good Housekeeping” one.

          This little boy changed everything for me. I can’t really describe him to you. There are hundreds of adorable children in my village, but he is different from any other kid I’ve ever met. D’Assisi, as we affectionately call him, is HIV+. He was abandoned at birth, and he’s lived with the nuns ever since. He has a problem with his legs and runs like a little airplane, arms stuck at a bizarre angle so he can balance on his tiptoes. D’Assisi sometimes wears little leg braces, and he has a problem with his eyes. But he has this excitement about life that’s contagious. He loves to play the drums and dance, anywhere anytime, even when he falls down half the time because of his legs.

D'Assisi interrupting the high school dance team's practice
He'll play for HOURS on this thing. Seriously.
              My heart feels like it’s going to burst when he airplane-runs over to me, laughing and shouting “Inshuti Yanjye!” (My Friend!) every day when I come home from work. We sing songs, color, read “Goodnight Moon” every night, play Candyland, go for walks with him riding on my shoulders (which other people in the village think is totally bizarre), and he helps me take care of my growing avocado tree nursery, even though it takes him about five times as long to water them as it does for me.

Francois D'Assisi's "airplane walk"
             D’Assisi wakes up excited about each day, and he almost always has a huge goofy grin across his face. It's funny, I think he's given more love to people than other people do their entire lives. He's certainly taught me more than I can ever teach him. Maybe it’s the fact that D’Assisi has grown up with seven nun-moms, but he’s always thinking of other people first, and he almost never has tantrums or even whiney moments. He’s a three-foot wonder kid.
His Sunday best
               But I also worry so much about him, more than I have about any other person, myself included. I worry about his health. He takes his anti-retroviral drugs (ARVs) every day, and we make sure that he has nutritious food to eat, but every time he gets even a little sick, I can barely focus on my work. I once looked up the life expectancy of a child born with HIV/AIDS, and I think I cried my body weight in tears. It breaks my heart into a million pieces every single day. I worry about his future. The nuns have told me they can’t take care of him forever, and they want him to be adopted by a Rwandan family. I can’t bear the thought of leaving him. When I leave Peace Corps, what if I never see him again? What if he doesn’t even remember who I am? What if I come back to Rwanda and I can’t find him? 
New school uniform. I die from cuteness overload. 
            Right now he is so, so full of joy and curiosity about life. But he also doesn’t know what HIV/AIDS is; he only knows that he has to take his medicines every day. Every month, when I help lead a group for people living with HIV/AIDS, I listen to some villagers talk about the incredible stigma they face here and their feelings of hopelessness and depression. There are others who do not speak at all, but their skeletal bodies and sunken eyes tell of a pain that I have never experienced. It breaks my heart, and I worry that the harsh realities of the world will snuff out D’Assisi’s joy.

            But more than anything, Francois D’Assisi has taught me to live in every single moment. A few nights ago, he was riding on top of my shoulders, in our little courtyard and we paused to look up at all the stars. It’s the rainy season here and it’s often too cloudy to see any stars at night. But that night, the Milky Way was out in all its glory, and there was an amazing lightning storm going on in the distance. We just stood there, watching the lightning flicker across the sky and feeling the gentle night breeze on our faces.
             It was one of those moments where the universe just seems to slow down, and you’re fully conscious of every sensation and every emotion. It was like a dream. And all my worries about him seemed to fall away. It was just the two of us, breathing. I could feel his blood pounding as I held on to his little legs wrapped around my shoulders. His blood, containing a virus that will eventually kill him.

              But in that moment, it was all okay. “Ndagukunda” I whispered to him. I love you. “Nanjye, ndagukunda.” Me too, I love you. “Turi kumwe.” We are together. I can’t predict the future. Neither of us knows what his health will look like a few years down the road, or where I will be. But I know that right now, we are both here,  and the love we’ve shared is real and nothing can take that away.

D'Assisi, thank you for all that you have given me. 


  1. Love is everywhere, and as you've learned Rwanda is no exception.

  2. Speechless and crying. Beautiful post, friend.

  3. Wow, beautiful, sad. Amazing. It gave me chills and goose bumps. Thank you Claire. You're writing is powerful and meaningful. Even to many, many people you've never met.

  4. I found your blog through a friend of mine who is a fellow PCV in Rwanda. Now I'm sitting here at work crying. Beautiful writing.