Braided Lives

From brutality, death, survival, and triumph, a family emerges

My husband, Egide, and I became parents because of the atrocities of war. Beloved family members died violent deaths. There was an unthinkable disaster, and while terrible things happened to so many, the outcome for me is a wonderful family with bright, beautiful, loving children. It's not fair, but I believe hereditary wealth and winning lottery tickets are okay, so I accept my own good fortune with grace and gratitude.

I met my husband ten years ago on a blind date. We were married within a year. People often asked if I was marrying him to help him get a green card, because it seemed like the hip, liberal kind of thing I might do. I was so offended by this frequent question that I embraced my friend Mark when he made the more traditional and very rude prenuptial query: "So, are you pregnant?"

People surprised me again when I told them Egide and I would be adopting his orphaned niece and nephew. "Are you sure you want to do that? It's a lot to take on. Were you planning to have children? Will you still have your own?" These questions amazed me. Egide and I had come together to become family. Now, members of our family needed us. There was no decision-making to be done. Of course these children would be our children.

We don't always make decisions together so easily. I knew that with our having grown up on two different continents in two very different cultures, there would be opportunity for conflict, growth, learning: all polite terms that mean we have bitter arguments. But it's better to have those arguments than to live my life with somebody wholly predictable.

The first time I ran out to protect my tomato plants during a frost warning, Egide objected: "Why would you make the place ridiculous by covering the plants with sheets! They are not people!" Later, he saw other respectable homes with sheets over gardens, but it took that seeing to convince him I wasn't going to start wrapping scarves on chilly-looking lilac bushes. Our first Christmas was pretty rough. I spent weeks mailing cards, decorating our apartment with evergreen boughs, shopping for nieces and nephews, wrapping gifts for our friends. Egide was appalled. "You are completely overdoing this, Kristen! Nobody spends this much money or this much time for a single holiday. You have no sense of proportion!" Then, he started to receive cards and gifts, and to visit people with entire fresh-cut trees standing decorated in their homes, and suddenly I appeared sane in contrast.

Decisions over caring for the children are not always so easy.

Egide left Rwanda in the fall of 1990 to become a student in Minnesota. His country was on the verge of civil war at the time. The population of Rwanda was comprised of members of three tribes: seventy-eight percent Hutu, nineteen percent Tutsi, and three percent Twa. The Belgian colonialists had used the traditional structure of the Tutsi ruling class in governing and subjugating the Rwandan people. When the country gained independence in the early 1960s, the Hutu majority immediately acted to overthrow the Tutsi power structure. In the ensuing chaos and violence, many Tutsi fled Rwanda to live as refugees in neighboring countries.

Some Tutsi remained in Rwanda, but education and job opportunities were difficult because of discrimination. My husband's family stayed in Rwanda, confident that Tutsi and Hutu would live in cooperation as they had before the arrival of the colonialists. The Tutsi who had lived as refugees outside of the country for three decades organized themselves and their children who had grown up in exile. They pressed to return to their homeland, but were perceived as a threat to the Hutu-dominated government. The refugee Tutsi faction armed themselves. Civil war broke out. Egide saw that he could join the army of his own tribe, the Tutsi, and fight against the Hutu who were his neighbors, his classmates, and even his extended family. Or he could join the Hutu and fight to preserve a system that would ensure his own family would always live as second-class. Egide recognized this conflict as his moment to go abroad to study the English language and American business practices.

On April 6,1994, the president of Rwanda was assassinated. Egide and I were not sure if this was good news or bad news, but within a few days, everything became bad news. Few reports came out of Rwanda--and those that did were impossible to believe. A slaughter of Tutsi citizens and political moderates was taking place. Young men, the militia, were killing men, women, and children, sometimes with guns, chiefly with machetes. We watched the news reports, looking at the faces of corpses and the faces in fleeing crowds, fearful of recognizing anyone. The Rwandan disaster had the distinction of killing more people in genocide in three months than any other comparable act of murder. No one picked up the phone when Egide called his friends and relatives in Rwanda--except once, and then it was a stranger who curtly told Egide not to call again. I didn't know about that phone call until I heard Egide recount it to a reporter. Communication between us was difficult. Egide would be nonchalant with me, saying he expected his entire family to be dead. But he kept making the phone calls and searching faces on the news.

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