Cramped in the corner of a living room in the center of a Denver housing project, I watch 20 Rwandans and Burundians discuss a community wedding back and forth, like a game of ping-pong. Holding treasured blue and black pens, with a tentative agenda, the leader of the family reads necessary purchases to be made: “rice, plantains, meat, beans, cassava, soda, beer…”
Like a quick lesson in school, I learn the various places in Denver and Aurora that members of the African community shop for their preferred items: some consumer goods are available in bulk at Sam’s Club; others are carried at smaller African markets; still others are found at one of the restaurant depots for shop owners. Jacqueline, the wife of the appointed leader of this discussion, explains that because the venue, AfrikaMall will cost the family nearly $4,000, they are trying to discuss how to budget the food costs accordingly.
Everyone will contribute, that much is clear, and I smirk, realizing that culture is so powerful in its ability to take root anywhere even if existing in diaspora.
I lean in close, with a cool beer in hand. The bottles of Heineken, Leffe, and Coke create a centerpiece by which everyone operates. Men, predominantly, sit on the brown, leather couch, while women are stationed in the back of the room. I sit with Terese, Jacqueline, Maria, and Charlotte. They gaze at me – but they don’t stare. When they realize I can understand a great deal of what’s happening (who knew Kinyarwanda could be so useful?), I don’t hear calls of “umuzungu.” Instead, the women nod their heads in agreement, “ari wacu.” She’s ours.
Watching with intrigue, I felt like I was drinking up the culture like a large glass of cool lemonade; refreshing, sweet, and oddly familiar. The movements of arms; the gestures of body language; the smells of food cooking in the kitchen with stuffy air filling the room – it was all recognizable. I could hardly contain myself. I forgot how deeply embedded my passion for Rwanda is.
It smelled like Rwanda. It felt like Rwanda. It sounded like Rwanda.
The accents were like my friends greeting each other with hugs and handshakes; the colorful, traditional fabrics brought back the clothing choices you see on a Sunday morning in Rwanda; and most powerfully, it felt as if I had transplanted another world I knew into the world I had grown up in.
The collision of culture is a wonderfully fascinating thing; I admired the way in which this sub-culture was maintaining their identities in a world so different from their own.
As the family meeting came to an end (with a chosen date of June 26th for the wedding), I had a funny notion that overwhelmed all of my thoughts; what if all of that had somehow prepared me for all of this?
That being my life in Rwanda; this being the life I have now – and the new community I had just discovered.
When the formalities of the planning fell away, the questions about my own marital status became the focus of conversation. That didn’t take long, I thought to myself. I explained that I’m waiting and seeking a partner that loves Jesus, is adventurous, loves helping people, and can make me laugh. And, for good measure, I said they would have to have at least 100 cows in their family to give to my father. You see, the sharing of cows (read: money) is an old Rwandan tradition that I knew this family would find hilarious for me to be aware of. They laughed until beer spit out of their mouths. A good joke, indeed. When I mentioned my liking for banana beer, I think one of them might have peed their pants.
Some of the women went to the kitchen to attend to the food for the evening – cassava bread and isombe. I don’t think it was an accident that we would be eating one of my favorite foods (isombe – a leafy dish). I couldn’t stop smiling.
As the room became a bit smaller, I sat with Maria, a 27-year old Burundian mother who moved to the United States 8 years ago, by way of Tanzania. She lived in a refugee camp for 10 years. 10 years. Her family had arrived following the violence and genocide in Burundi in 1997; yet both of her parents died in the camp.
Slowly, but confidently, she shared more of her story. I didn’t have to ask too many questions, she embraced the conversation with enthused openness and interest without much prompting. She had lived in Virginia for a number of years but eventually came to Colorado after she married at 20. Now, with two children, her and her husband work to support their family tirelessly. She works at a nursing home as a cook. She loves the way she can lose herself in the process; it’s freeing for her. Still, she maintains big dreams: she wants to be an accountant. One day, she says, one day.
I asked the family what they felt like when they were in the airplane, coming to America. Some chuckled and said they thought they might die. But, Maria, she shook her head,
“oh no, I felt so happy. I felt free. I felt like my life had a chance.”
As we sat together, ready to share a meal as a family does, I mentioned that I would be happy to be a part of their small, close-knit community and help them in any way I could. Maybe that means helping with English from time to time. Perhaps, it might call for a bit of babysitting, too.
I made it clear: the time I had spent in Rwanda was possible because every day, someone helped me. That is no heavy exaggeration – I wouldn’t have made it in a new place, a new culture, without friends, support, and guidance.
Over these years, it has been brought to me in the deepest of provisions; and so, surely, I could pass it on.
Cheers. We clanked our bottles together, turned up the NBA basketball game, and gave celebration to the beauty of freedom and community.
As for me, I drove home that night, almost in tears. I had been praying for this – a sign of real, present community. I’ve been waiting. I didn’t know what it might look like. But that’s the kind of power that God holds; answered prayers often do not look like what we expect.