Monday, April 09, 2012

Forever and Today

In Canada, Easter Monday is a holiday. Nothing religious, just a reason for the banks and government offices to close, and most people get to sleep-in.
I'm working all day at one of the half-way houses, wishing I was outside in the chilly sunlight. It's a beautiful day.
Easter was yesterday, wonderful and full of food (including meat and chocolates) and friends and considering eternal life in Christ.

And today, I was reminded of life on earth from someone with a unique perspective.
Completing a life sentence for murder, and living under another life sentence of a chronic disease, she just received full parole. Soon, she will be moving out, and living her life with much more freedom. She described it as 'having got half her life back'. The other half, she soberly said, will forever be held by her disease, keeping her weak, on medications and treatments and controlling, limiting her abilities. However, I also considered if, she might never get her life fully back because of the life she took, of the crime she committed.
Yesterday was so much about eternity, and the promise of forever and the hope and joy that we have no matter what.
It was a nice contrast, a more complete view, to talk with this woman about our life now. The precious life on earth that we have- that we can do whatever we want with- for good or evil, for ourselves, for others, or for God. And those choices, the small ones and the big ones, will define our lives and shape our life.

She has been given back half her life now that she has full parole. She considered how much of her life- the decades she spent in prison, completing her rightful sentence and the years she has spent at this house, under watchful eyes, following her every move, stating rules and curfews. She still will have rules- rules she will have for the rest of her life, conditions she will always have to follow, and the ever-hanging chance that she could return to prison if those rules are not followed.
Our conversation really made me think about my life- the short time I have and the possibility in those years, the power in all the options and opportunities I have. She has been given such an opportunity with her full parole- what is she going to do with it?
I've always had those opportunities- what have I done with it?
(Not that I think I've wasted anytime. I don't think I have, not at all).

Its a nice, more full picture, going hand-in-hand with eternal life in Christ.

Monday, April 02, 2012

One of the Best

There was a family I stayed with in Uganda for two weeks. Not a family of two parents and three children, but rather of one grandmother, one uncle, two aunts (one of those aunts had her daughter with her), the other four children were nieces and nephews, their parents having been killed somewhere along the journey from Congo to Rwanda, or Rwanda to Uganda. And I believe they also journeyed to Tanzania sometime in the middle.

And so, I ate, slept and played with this wonderful family that took me into their home- me, a complete stranger who played soccer with their cousin/uncle in Canada.
They escorted me throughout the city on buses, sandwiched between me and the driver on motorcycle taxis and pedal bikes and translated Swahili and Luganda for me.
They insisted on driving me to the airport, although it would mean an hour taxi ride back.
And they sincerely adored me, I'm not sure why.
More than that, even six years later, they remember me. Including the four-year-old and six-year-old in the above photo.
The girl with the beads is Nunu, who knew she was adorable and inched her way into every photo I took. She was the baby of the family, cuddled, handle fed and carried more than she was permitted to walk.

Ahmedi, the little boy was very forward- approached me immediately and asked for whatever he wanted. Once, I brought them cookies and every since he would run up to me, asking for 'bisqueets?'. Another time, I bought a bag of popcorn, peanut butter and honey and created some peanut butter popcorn for them. Ahmedi cried when it was finished, scraping the pot with his spoon. He wanted more.

Their uncle, Shaffi told me that I was the first 'white person' he had ever talked to. He had certainly seen many in his travels, but he admitted he was shy and had never spoken to a white person before me. He had so many questions and was surprised to learn that the pigment of our skin did not make us so very different after all.

Zwadi was around seven or eight years old, her name means 'gift' in Swahili. She was young enough to help with practical things, like cooking (and she was much better at cutting uniform slices of carrots and potatoes in the air and letting them fall into the pot below [there were few surfaces and no cutting boards] than I) and young enough to play silly games, like on the evenings when there was no power, dancing to the spinning light of my flashlight.

Hamuza was ten, shy, but strong and brave. He loved sports and played soccer with the boys in the area. He was often the only child given the responsibility to take me somewhere, to buy eggs or something at the local store. He would quietly take my hand and walk beside me, feeling proud that this woman who everyone was turning to stare at was staying at his home.

Miriam was 12, and in her situation and current country, that meant she was almost an adult. She had the responsibilities to help take care of her younger siblings, as well as her grandmother, who, with her diabetes was beginning to lose her eyesight. Miriam, along with her aunt cooked dinners, but it was always Miriam who I saw starting the small charcoal fire over which dinner would be cooked. She has beautiful, glossy dark skin, and she would take a similarly dark piece of coal and break it into the size needed to fit into the small stove, check the direction of the wind and light a single match. And, Miriam has crazy hair. Thick, too thick for her head, so it cannot lay down, no matter how it is relaxed or brushed. It it just BIG hair.

Two months ago, I received an absurd phone call- "Ree!" (their uncle/cousin called me Ree, short for Marie, and sometimes it came out as 'Lee', which always makes me laugh).
"Who is this?"
"Who is this?"
"This is Nunu."
"Nunu?" That's the name of one of Biruk's aunts, but this was the voice of a young girl.
"I know you. You stayed with us. You are a white girl."

They had come to Canada at last! And within the first week they arrived, they got their cousin/uncle who I used to play soccer with to track me down and get my phone number.
They wanted me to come and visit, considering they were now in Canada. It didn't seem to bother them that there was a 14 hour drive between us, they expected me to come.

And so, three months later, I did.
Their cousin/uncle told them I would definitely be arriving on Friday and passed their address off to me.
I arrived just after lunch, buzzing their apartment.
Before I could even knock on the door I was bombarded with hugs, from all of the children.

Nunu, now ten is tall, with the build of a dancer. Her smile is exactly the same. And I cannot believe she remembers me. She is the only child in the family enrolled in regular school, based on her higher level of English comprehension. I was very impressed how well she speaks English. She is already making new friends and says she likes all of her subjects in school.

The other children attend an English language program, soon they will enroll in a regular school.

Ahmedi looks exactly the same as before, only taller, without the missing teeth. And, his personality is still the same, when I took them shopping he ran down the isle asking "could I get a remote control car?" (I could not find one in the store) "could I have a watch?" He has his first watch now. Still, unafraid to ask for what he wants. He loves soccer and playing sports, and spent a great deal of time playing games on the computer. I was amazed- he didn't own a computer or know how to type before coming to Canada three months ago, now he knows how to access the Internet and play an array of games. How quickly children learn! I gave him some T-shirts, and after modeling them and having his picture taken he immediately ran back into his room and returned the shirts to their hangers and lovingly hung it up in his closet. He is 12. I have never seen a 12 year old show such care for an item of clothing as this boy did with those T-shirts.

Zwadi also looks the same, except stretched like a piece of elastic. Her face, even her hair are identical to six years ago, only she is now my height! Thirteen years old and learning English, excited to practice it at every chance she can. She loves bright colors and asked to get sunglasses and eye liner. I wanted to say no to the eyeliner, but when I considered she was probably 13 or 14 years old, I reminded myself that I couldn't treat her as if she were the little girl I remember. She loves music and throughout my visit she pointed out what her favorite songs were and sang along to the popular songs, even though she didn't always know what they were singing.

Hamuza (pictured above, today), almost sadly, is all grown up. He has the same dimples, the same shyness, hiding from photos. But he is taller than me, shooting straight up with the build of a basketball player. He hugged with with genuine affection and after I left, immediately emailed me how much they all missed me. He does not look like a recent immigrant, as some of his siblings do. He dresses like a respectable sixteen year old boy, jeans that actually fit him and not over-sized shirts. I think his aging was the most evident; he's completely gone through puberty in the six years since I saw him last. He's not a little boy anymore, he wants to be a dentist when he is finished school. When I went shopping I miscounted and only bought three blankets (I had noticed that the beds were outfitted with sheets, but no blankets). I was so upset with myself that Hamuza would not have a blanket. When he saw the presents, he nearly tackled me with a hug and thanked me profusely and would not even hear that I had not bought a blanket for him.
I felt so bad about it that today, back in Edmonton I bought him a blanket and will send it through the mail.

Miriam is 18 (pictured above, today, and 6 years ago in the first photo). She is a little taller, and grown-up, but with the same glowing skin and ridiculously big hair. She loves me enough that I could demand that she select some hair accessories to tame her unruly hair without being offended. She is mature and very capable, which is good, as she is the adult of her home, now that the aunts and uncles are in separate housing. She is responsible to take care of her siblings and her now older, and more seriously ill grandmother. At 18, I thought I was so independent and mature because I was living on my own in another country, she is living, taking care of her three younger siblings and grandmother in another country, while learning another language and culture! She is an amazing young woman, I am so proud of her.

I hated that I only had one day to spend with them. They were shocked that I would not be spending the night. Zwadi stated "No, you are sleeping here." and Hamuza argued "No, you are staying with us for one month." They did not like that I would only be visiting for the day and then returning to Edmonton.

I went to see the grandmother, who is referred to as 'Madame', the Congolese-French coming out. She had a stroke about a year ago, leaving the left side of her body paralyzed, she walks with a cane, is nearly blind and needs alot of assistance from her grandchildren. But she is cheerful and friendly. When their cousin (not mentioned so far, but another crazy story about how I know him!) explained in one of their many languages who I was and that I really had come to visit- Madame fell back against her bed and clutched her chest, tears forming in her eyes. Translated, she said "You kept your promise. You kept your promise." Because I had promised them that I would see them when they finally immigrated to Canada.

The aunts took me back to their apartment (I think they live separately from the children because the children receive government funding for their housing which does not permit anyone else to live there) and demanded that I select earrings as my gifts from them. Then we talked about memories from when I stayed with them. These women remembered EVERYTHING I said or did while in Uganda, minute details, my every sentence, what types of things I liked or did not like.

The whole day was like a chaotic, good dream- tugged this way, smiled at that way, treated like some sort of royalty. And just genuinely loved in such a deep way that spanned six years of no communication. It is easy to see why I would love such a kind family who taught me so much about family and hospitality, who cared for me and watched out for me. But why do they love me? I don't understand it.

I went home in a whirwind, feeling like I was floating. It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience, reuniting with this family. I hope that I see them again, that they visit me in Edmonton, or that we have a picnic in a park somewhere, or I attend their graduations. But no day will ever come close to that day, where the children/teens mobbed me with hugs, the grandmother cried that I had kept my promise, and they made me a special dinner and each repeated how much they loved me. When I have really done nothing at all to deserve their love or affection- they just, simply, love me.

The best way I could think to describe it was to consider my favorite celebrity, and imagine spending the whole day with them. The celebrity being infatuated with ME. This was better, because these are real, good people with amazing, miraculous stories- refugees and orphans and strong adults who have risked their lives. And they love ME.
I went to sleep totally exhausted in the best way, thinking that I had just had one of the best days of my life and lived an amazing experience.

I'm still awed, and completely thankful for one of the best days of my entire life.