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.

With no direct contact from Rwanda, our home felt terribly isolated in the summer of 1994. Not only was the news of immediate family cut off, but now all news of the country itself was filtered through U.S. reporters after interviews with partisan French and Belgian experts or United Nations staff. Local newspaper, radio, and television reporters sought out Egide for a homegrown angle to this international horror. Telling his own story, instead of hearing it from everyone else, felt therapeutic.

Then came the terrible day when we learned that Letitia, a cousin, was not safely home in Quebec as we had presumed, but was in Kigali, the capital of Rwanda. Letitia and her family were the only in-laws I had met. She welcomed me at a time when I was desperately hoping for family acceptance. What an unhappy accident that she had chosen to visit Rwanda in the spring of 1994! Letitia is Hutu, but was endangered through her family connections. After several weeks, she telephoned that she had escaped the city and returned safely home. Egide asked about the area where his brother, Theogene, lived. A younger brother and two sisters had moved in with Theogene and his two little children in Kigali. Egide's two other brothers and his parents lived on farms near a village, Cyangugu.

Letitia asked Egide to describe the part of town where Theogene lived. "But the militia went from house to house there. No one is alive in those houses!" Egide went to his job, I went to my job. I felt like I was married to a wooden statue. We were in a limbo, waiting for someone to call from Rwanda with news.

My mother was home with Egide when the call came. I was grateful he was not alone. The exiled Tutsi army had taken the capital city and driven the militia out of Rwanda. The genocide ended only at this moment, when the militia and their families were forced to run for their lives. A cousin, Pie, had escaped the country early on. He returned to Rwanda and searched for survivors. Egide's parents and all of his brothers had been killed. Theogene and his younger brother had been dragged off in front of Theogene's two small children and shot. But the children and Egide's two sisters were alive. Egide was clear-eyed the night of the phone call. "We'll bring them here to live. If I cannot bring them, then we will live there and take care of them," he said.

In May, 1994, thugs had approached Theogene's house to drag away the men and kill them. The murderers shouted to the women and children that they would be back to kill them, too. The sisters grabbed the children and fled to their neighbor's house, where they stayed with neighbors until they were taken to a sanctuary: the children could be sheltered temporarily, but not the adult women. Beatrice and Dativa ran for their lives, hiding in the bush and living as fugitives. We are still learning what happened during that period. Only the children know their full story and they are just beginning to talk about it. After the civil war ended, the children and their aunts were reunited. The aunts were astounded to learn the children had survived, because they couldn't be found in the neighborhood after the massacre. Paul had starved to the point where he could no longer walk. Theogene's house in Kigali had been stripped. It had been a comfortable house, well-made and replete with luxury goods including a television, VCR, video camera, etc. Not only had every piece of equipment, furniture, and clothing been taken, but the toilet, the doors, the windows and their frames were ripped out. The reunited family camped together in the looted house.

Theogene had sent us photographs in 1993 of his daughter, Ruth, who was five years old, and his son, Paul, who was three. They were dressed up for formal portraits after the death of their mother, Monique. Monique had suffered complications in childbirth, and although she had good medical care, she died with her newborn son. The children in the pictures were solemn and familiar looking, with my husband's facial features. It took no imagination at all after watching the newscasts for the last few months to understand how desperate life would be for any survivors in Rwanda in the fall of 1994. Egide and I didn't discuss whether we would adopt the children or not. We were committed to them, and Egide prepared to go to them.

We received astounding gifts from the community in those first weeks and then throughout the next two years as we worked to bring the children home. Egide's coworkers at Josten's in Bloomington became our personal disaster relief force; in less than six weeks, they raised $4,000 among themselves. Jennifer from the cafeteria, Cindy Serratore, Merlin Olson, Greg Kahler, Jim Fisher, and many others stepped forward with life-saving acts of generosity. The company followed their lead with a contribution of another $1,000.

I work in fundraising for Minnesota Public you want something. I asked local businesses for contributions in goods to send along to our family in Rwanda. I came to understand in a concrete way the importance of independent small businesses: when the owner of a shop could be reached directly, there was opportunity for an immediate response.

Media attention also opened doors. The now-closed Grandendale Pharmacy gave us armloads of scented lotions, toothpaste, deodorants; and many wonderful gifts for Egide's sisters. Creative Kidstuff contributed toys. Friends searched their closets for clothes. My sisters went shopping and brought back their best guesses at shoe sizes for two children on the other side of the world. When Egide left, he carried less than two changes of clothes for himself--and the weight limit for luggage for international travel in gifts and clothes for the family. Egide left November 8, 1994. I remember returning home that night from the airport to stand in our bedroom. Beside our bed stood a pile of clothes as tall as I am for Egide's sisters. Everyone wanted to give something. It turned out there would be a lot more opportunity to help.

Because the United States had closed its borders to Rwandan citizens at the onset of the massacres, we consulted a lawyer, Lesley Guyton, for assistance. She became our guardian angel. I haven't been able to laugh at a lawyer joke since I met her. We wanted to bring over Egide's sisters, Dativa and Beatrice, as well as Ruth and Paul. Egide, as the only surviving male relative, regarded his sisters as his responsibility. Although both sisters were in their twenties, their society would expect them to act on the will of their brother. An independent woman has no status in Rwanda. They needed Egide as much as the children did. There was only one possibility for allowing them quick entry to the States, a provision called humanitarian parole, wherein the State Department grants U.S. entry to foreign nationals in exceptional circumstances of danger and need. Any other route to legal entry would take months or years. Senator Paul Wellstone and Representatives Martin Sabo and Bruce Vento mailed letters supporting our plea for humanitarian parole to the State Department. But our plea was rejected.

Without humanitarian parole, our best choice for bringing the children to us was through adoption, and the quickest route for the sisters would be through refugee status. After arriving in Rwanda, Egide tracked through bombed-out streets for offices and clerks who could process the adoption of the children. It's usually required that a child become a ward of the state--or have an adoption recognized--in their native country before the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service grants a visa.

Egide's sisters did not want to leave as refugees. It would have required them to leave Rwanda immediately, to stay in one of the unstable refugee camps along the border where they would know no one and live in a plastic tent, with their names on an exit waiting list two years long. Better to stay with the devil they knew.

Egide worked to leave them in some comfort. He rebuilt the broken house and put in a working telephone. Before phone service was reinstalled, the telephone company required payment on $700 in long-distance calls made by the thugs who had looted the house. Dativa had found a job cleaning in a hospital. It was arranged for Beatrice to attend school. We still weren't able to acquire visas for the children before Egide returned home after two months in Rwanda.

Because of the progress Egide had made toward adopting the children in Kigali, we expected to finish the required bureaucracy and bring the children home within six months. We were helped by the African-American Adoption Project, and by a social worker with the soul of a mensch, Judy Haines. We completed homestudies, attended child-development classes, got fingerprinted for background checks, and otherwise jumped through all the hoops set up by the INS and the State of Minnesota and Ramsey County in order to bring our children home. Then the process was delayed when the adoption documents from Rwanda could not be found. Egide had left them with a friend to be notarized before he left Kigali. In this chaotic and revolutionary time, the friend and the documents were lost.

We waited. Perhaps too long. Our nerves were stretched taut. Egide demanded I cut up my credit cards and exercise to lose weight; I insisted we attend marriage counseling. We determined Egide must return to Rwanda to trace the adoption documents. A talented and successful musician, Dan Chouinard, offered to put on a benefit concert for us. Friends came forward (from as far away as Montreal, New York City, Washington D.C., and Los Angeles) to help, and my coworkers at Minnesota Public Radio contributed beautiful gifts toward a silent auction and made generous cash contributions. The benefit concert was a true extravaganza at the Cedar Cultural Center. The best names from the Twin Cities' music scene performed: Dennis Spears, Dane Stauffer, and Gwen Matthews, among other greats. Mixed Blood Theater provided an act, as well, and the concert generated $5,000. The fundraising hotshots at Josten's came through too, rallying their churches and digging into their own pockets to give us another $5,000. Egide left in October to bring the children home.

Then one of those small, unaccountable miracles happened. A woman in Minneapolis read in the Star Tribune about our efforts to adopt our niece and nephew. She clipped the article and mailed it to her daughter, Bonnie Harris, who was working for the U.S. State Department in Kigali. She encouraged Bonnie to try to help. This note opened the door of the Embassy to Egide. With Ms. Harris's assistance, Egide was able to reassemble the necessary adoption paperwork for the INS within a couple of weeks. The papers were mailed to me, and I moved to finish the work with the INS. Once we secured INS clearance, the ball would bounce back to the State Department, which would give us visas, and the children would come home.

This should have gone more quickly than it did. The INS required a document from a local government office. I left work to introduce myself and hand deliver the necessary information to the appropriate clerk, because the additional twenty-four hours of postal delivery was time we couldn't waste. Leave from Egide's job was generous, but not indefinite, and our money was finite. If the work was not completed by January, choices would have to be made, including the possibility of relocating to Rwanda. The clerk heard our story and promised to complete the material and mail it the next day. I continued to work to fulfill the other INS requirements. But the process came to a standstill: the clerk at the government office didn't move on our papers for two weeks. I was a mad bull when I phoned her: "If you do not complete this work immediately, it won't be the fault of the INS or the State Department or the government of Rwanda that these two children are living without parents, it will be your fault, your own personal responsibility!" I picked up the completed forms the next day.

The INS officer asked for additional information from Rwanda. "Telephone your husband tonight, and get back to me tomorrow," she requested. She hadn't been listening: the infrastructure in Rwanda was already poor before civil war broke out; since the massacres, I could expect to spend up to two hours trying to get a single call through, and that was when the phone lines were operating. Egide stayed in different places, with his sisters and with friends, often without access to a phone, depending on available transportation. I didn't always know where he was. If I left a message at the Embassy, I could expect he would check there every few days. My calls had to be made after midnight Central Standard Time, because of the eight-hour time difference. Telephone Egide and get back to her tomorrow? Where did this clerk think Egide was? Exasperated, I went to the offices of Representatives Bruce Vento, Martin Sabo, Jim Ramstad, and Senator Paul Wellstone. Their people made the magic calls, and the INS cut six weeks off of the projected timeline to issue our clearances. I remain deeply grateful for this gift of time.

During the last week of November, the State Department proceeded on the visas, but the Embassy in Kigali was not equipped to handle them. Egide brought the children to the U.S. Embassy in Kenya. Ms. Harris came through for us once again: she called her contacts in Nairobi to arrange for the official doctor to come in from his Christmas holiday to make the required examinations of the children. She helped Egide find places to stay, and she convinced her colleagues to work through the holidays to process the visas. It's hard to think back on these kindnesses now, in the wake of the Nairobi Embassy bombing in 1998. Good people worked in that building.

On December 30, 1995, Egide and the children arrived at Hubert H. Humphrey International Airport. He hadn't confirmed the flight to Minneapolis until the day before, so my mother and I met the plane alone. It was a gray, snowy morning. We carried coats and hats for everyone, gifts from Egide's coworkers. I called KSTP TV to cover the homecoming. They would broadcast to everyone who had worked so hard and prayed for us that there was a happy ending; the children were finally here. The reporter clipped a mic to my coat while we waited for the plane to land. I turned to my mother and said in a loud, cheerful voice: "Mom, look, I've got a mic!"

I was too subtle. My mother looked at it and said, "It's really too bad none of your sisters are here. I bet they could have come if they had tried." Oh, Mom. That wasn't an observation we needed to share with TV land. People disembarked the airplane, and finally, there was Egide with two tired children. Egide introduced me right away: "This is your Mama," he said in Kinyarwandan. I was afraid to touch the children. I didn't want to frighten them: me, the strange, white woman who was suddenly the new Mama. They politely embraced me. I stood and tried to look friendly. The only experienced parent at hand took control: my mother grabbed Ruth and hustled a winter coat onto her. "Come on, Kristen, Egide," Mom said, "Let's get these kids dressed and get them home."

The first few days were pure celebration. We ate, we slept, we danced; the children met family and friends, and they accepted everything. They ate the food, they slept in their beds, they delighted in their toys. The only immediate difficulty was with Ruth's teeth, several of which were rotted so she couldn't chew comfortably. My dentist took her in as soon as his office opened and fixed her up. Everything was easy, the dragons were slain, and the young prince and princess were saved.

Then Egide decided it was time to put his life back on track. He couldn't stomach postponing school for one more quarter. He signed up for evening college classes to start the second week in January. He worked forty hours a week and was preoccupied weekday evenings with classes and all day on weekends with studying. Ruth and Paul and I didn't have five words in common, but I was the primary caregiver. I worried about how schooling and day care would fall into place while I worked full time. My parents recognized before I did that they had two new grandchildren whom they wanted time with: they willingly took over the immediate day-care responsibilities.

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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