Sandrine’s mother greets us at the door. My brother and I leave behind a small crowd of children pointing and yelling “Muzungus!” They must wonder why two Americans have driven all the way up a nameless road to their neighborhood along the outskirts of Kigali, Rwanda. Sandrine watches as we enter. Her large brown eyes dart about the room like a butterfly looking for a safe place to land. Sandrine is ten years old.
The Association Mwana Ukundwa, the “Beloved Child Association” has brought us here. A Christian non-profit organization, AMU advocates and cares for women and children with HIV/AIDS. This morning we have come to visit one of the families they serve. A staff member for AMU carries two paper bags; one filled with sorghum flour -the other with a second-hand dress for Sandrine.
As we find places to sit, Sandrine folds into a mute stillness. She has the body of a girl who has lived with AIDS for most of her life. She watches her mother hold up hand embroidered bedspreads. Designs of bright yellow pineapples and vibrant zebras unfurl in the dimly lit room. Sandrine’s widowed mother sells her handicrafts to tourists at local hotels, but it is never enough income to support her family of seven.
Sandrine sinks back into the faded couch. She is a beautiful girl. But she sits like someone who is used to being invisible- or wishes she was. At five years of age Sandrine was raped. Police and hospital personnel were unable to coax Sandrine into identifying her assailant. To this day Sandrine refuses to leave her mother’s side and the man who attacked her remains at large.
A portrait of Christ rests on the wall behind Sandrine. His heart floats out in front of his chest, like the pictures I saw growing up near the border of Mexico. But here in Rwanda, the picture of Jesus is infused with a different array of colors: magenta, lavender, and royal blue. His hair is mahogany, his skin a shade of mocha, his robe the color of sapphires. Jesus looks straight at me, but Sandrine will not.
“How are you feeling?” I ask Sandrine’s mother. She looks at the room’s one window and says, “I am like the weather. Sometimes the weather is good. Sometimes the weather is bad. Last night we did not eat. But today you have brought us flour, so it will be a better day.”
When we rise to leave, Sandrine’s mother asks me to pray for them. I take a deep breath. Making a small circle we gather hands, bow our heads, and pray.
No one says a word as we climb into the van and drive back down the crowded, rutted road. A bitter aftertaste lingers in my mouth. The words of my prayer feel like a mere pittance before the enormity of their needs.
After a lunch of sweet potatoes and chicken, ginger tea and bananas, we arrive at the headquarters for AMU in Kigali. Once a family’s home, the site has been transformed into office space for staff, as well as a community center for orphans. Here street children find sanctuary, visitors are welcomed, and young people sing.
For the afternoon’s cultural program, we are lead up the center aisle to the front of the auditorium. Hundreds of youngsters squirm and lean on one another as they attempt to get a better look.
I find my seat, but I can’t stop thinking about Sandrine: her hunger, her poverty, her illness, and her future. Where is Jesus when we need him?
Right as the programs starts, a downpour pummels the tin roof overhead. Water streams through pinprick holes and splashes on the concrete stage. But Rwandans are well acquainted with rainy seasons. As the rain thunders overhead drummers begin their drumming, children lift up their voices, and dancers dance.
Slender arms and graceful feet glide across the slick pavement. A dozen girls turn and circle with the elegant unison of a flock of regal birds. The beauty these children weave together, in spite of the rain, and the uncertainty in their lives, takes our breath away.
Suddenly the dancing girls jump off the stage and come to us. Coy smiles spread across their faces as they lead us to the stage. Drummers speed up the tempo. Now we get to learn one of their fast dances, on their stage, for all their friends to see!
Our first moves are stiff and self conscious, but our young teachers remain undaunted and gracious. Soon their beloved music and dance steps and beaming smiles become our own. Chaotic jubilation sweeps throughout the assembly. Between mobs of clapping, jumping children, I spy a small figure in bright blue, making its way to the front. The girl jumps on stage and grabs my hands and with a smile that could not stop smiling, begins to dance with me.
It is Sandrine.
It has been said that joy comes to us as only as a gift. As we held hands and danced, Sandrine’s face glowed. Dancing with her I realized it is our presence to one another that is the prayer. Even with fragile roofs and precarious futures, life is not all pathos. There is still joy to be shared, Sandrine shows me. For in these moments of profound connection with each other, we encounter a loving God.
Sandrine offered these gifts, as she looked straight at me and danced– wearing a dress the color of sapphires.