Friday, July 5, 2013

The Limits of Saving the World

            Last week, I was on my way to go visit my brother Paul, who is volunteering this summer at Rusayo Orphanage, about 40 minutes away from my site. It’s a nice walk, through a valley filled with banana trees and little stream that meanders through the fields. As I was walking down the small dirt path, a very thin woman with a baby tied tightly to her back walked next to me and we struck up a conversation. I’ll call her Violette. We went through the usual questions that come up in every Rwandan exchange: How are you? Are you strong? Where are you going? Where are you coming from? As we walked past the orphanage, I went to turn off the path towards the entrance, but she grabbed my arm with a scared look in her eyes.

On the way to Rusayo
            Violette asked me if I could help her. I told her that I could at least try. In a voice so quiet it was difficult to hear, Violette told me that she has developed AIDS, and she has three children who are HIV+.  Another villager walked by us, and Violette abruptly changed the subject. In a culture where everyone knows everyone’s business, stigmas run rampant, and medical confidentiality is virtually non-existent, I can’t imagine how much shame she had already experienced. I held her hand and we headed to a little field off the path that was a bit more private, and Violette continued. She quietly asked me if I could help her children when…her voice trailed off. I asked her to repeat, my brain still trying to piece together her quiet kinyarwanda. Violette replied, “I want you to tell me my children will be okay when… I go to God.”

            I had no idea what to say. We just stared at each other for a few minutes, her face gaunt and her eyes clouded by little grey patches. At last, I broke the silence and said I could try to help any way that I could. I asked the names of her children, and she told me each of their names and ages with such pride, her whole face lit up. I asked about her anti-retroviral drug regimen and she said she takes them every day. I said I could come visit her and help her farm her little field and improve her family’s nutrition. She seemed happy about that, and then asked me the question I was silently dreading, “When I…go to God…will you take in my children?” I wanted so, so badly to tell her yes, but I knew it was a promise I couldn’t keep. I’m only in Rwanda for one more year, and I’m not in any position to adopt three kids right now. I asked her to talk to the nuns at Rusayo Orphanage to see if they could help. I knew it wasn’t the answer she wanted to hear, but it was the best I could do.  

            In theory, I know that it’s not humanly possible to help everyone. There are SO many causes and so many people that I care about, both here and in the U.S. I know in my head that I can’t save the polar bears and the rainforest, solve world hunger, provide clean drinking water to everyone that needs it, cure AIDS, stop oppression and discrimination in all of its forms, and generally just save the world. I can’t solve every problem and bear any burden. It's a difficult thing to come to terms with, that there are not enough hours in the day, nor enough dollars in my bank account. I know all of that, theoretically. But in my heart, I haven’t accepted it yet. 
            Even though I can’t adopt her kids, I’m hoping that I can at least spend time with Violette and her children every week and show her that she is valuable despite the negative stereotypes she encounters, and that she matters, no matter what her health status is.

“God give me the grace to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change what I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”

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