Braided Lives

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

At first, naturally, Ruth and Paul spoke Kinyarwandan exclusively. They told their concerns to me at length and in detail. It was frustrating for all of us that I, the designated Mama, was nearly useless in resolving disputes or explaining plans for the day.

Before the children had been here two weeks, they started school. We developed a routine. My father, who was retired, would drive to our home every morning as I left for work. He walked with the children to their two different bus stops. Ruth was enrolled in an English as a Second Language program at Homecroft School. Paul was enrolled in a mainstream kindergarten class in our neighborhood public school. After the children boarded their buses, Dad walked our dog around the neighborhood. He waited at our apartment until the kindergarten bus let Paul off in front of the building. Everyday, my father would fry two eggs for Paul's lunch. Paul would watch a little TV and then nap until Ruth came home. Egide would arrive at about four o'clock each afternoon and relieve my father. I would return at 5:30 p.m., and Egide would then leave for school.

Euro-Americans who think "equal" and "the same" have identical meanings have created a bad reputation for mixed race families in hair care. All hair is not the same. Well-intentioned African American women, complete strangers, have taken me aside at the grocery store to ask if I know to use a pick comb and hair oil for my daughter's hair. Ruth had worn her hair in a close-cropped afro from the time she arrived until she was able to comb out a longer afro on her own. This is an unusual hairstyle for an American schoolgirl, so women in the grocery store have been checking up on me.

I've been networking through friends, coworkers, and my church to find someone to braid Ruth's hair, but you'd think I was seeking the Holy Grail. Everyone who offered help either knew someone who was expensive or would only braid using extensions or lived too far out of town to help on a regular basis.

My own attempts at braiding only underscored why my knitting projects never look like garments. Then my mother stepped forward, took her grandchild in hand, and fixed her up with no fuss. A blessing. Ruth wants to be a long-haired princess, I want her to feel confident, and her father wants her to look African. Conservative Rwandan schoolgirls wear their hair very close cropped, only growing it out as they become young women. Women protect their hair in headcloths for workdays and comb it out full for occasions. All of the extensions, colorful plastic clips, and hairbands seen on African American children give Egide the heebie-jeebies. "I want my children to look like who they are, not just any fashion they see," he'd say. In a home in which I am the only U.S.-born Euro-American, hair as straight as growing wheat, hair becomes an issue that spans continents. Now, Ruth is wearing her hair in French braids; she looks adorable, she likes it, I like it, and--the big achievement here--Egide likes it.

Ruth and Paul had often been locked in the house in Kigali while their aunts were gone for the day. With her trusty sidekick, Paul, Ruth was in charge, alone for hours, nearly every day, at six years old. Before she could speak a sentence in English, she started tidying up our apartment: she was used to being the housekeeper. Now, she was with a teacher or grandfather or father or mother or baby-sitter every single moment of every day. Someone else was always in charge. We couldn't always communicate with words, but Ruth would pull a face on me that expressed everything about her resentment at this loss of status. After she learned more English, she pulled me aside: "I'm learning to be a good child. Are you learning to be a good mother?" I hope so. I hope so.

Paul used language for more material concepts. In February, he pointed to a picture of a bicycle in a book. "Snow go; Mama bicycle big, Papa bicycle big, Ruth bicycle not big!" I interjected, "'Not big' is 'little.'" Paul incorporated this immediately. "Ruth bicycle little, Paul bicycle, little?" Yes, in the spring we would all have bicycles to ride. This was very exciting. And puzzling for me. Egide didn't speak to the children much in Kinyarwandan, he embraced the concept of complete language immersion. How did Paul know about spring, when all he had seen here was snow and bitter cold? Egide had told the children about spring. "I couldn't let them think it would always be like this, I had to have mercy on them," he explained. So in the spring, we all climbed on bicycles. We have been learning to ride ever since.


Kristen Gay is a St. Paul writer and parent who continues to encourage women with hair tips to come forward. "My daughter appreciates the attention and I still need the help, please!" This is her first (of many, she says) contribution to Minnesota Parent.

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