“Imagination will often carry us to worlds that never were. But without it, we go nowhere.”
I scuffed my foot back and forth in the dirt and watched the red puffs of dust float away in the breeze. Leaning back against the dried-mud wall of the house, I held up one bare foot and wriggled my toes. I couldn’t help but wish for the rainy season to hurry up and come; it had been so hot lately, and I loved walking on the cool, wet ground.
Hearing footsteps, I turned my head and watched as my uncle Rukundo came outside and sat on the stone step outside the doorway. He didn’t speak to me or acknowledge me in any way, choosing instead to stare silently into the distance. Uncle had lost one arm in the genocide; back in 1994, before I was born. Mama said he had changed since the genocide. I was too young to remember the happy, laughing man he had once been. Now, he rarely spoke to anyone. Since he had only one good arm, he could not work to provide for his only sister, my mother, and the rest of us. He was forced to take only menial, odd jobs in our village. Mama did her best to provide for us by taking in sewing jobs. Most people said we were lucky because Mama had been taught a trade. She always insisted the word was “blessed,” not lucky.
Both of us sat quietly for a while, soaking up the hot sunshine. Through the shimmering heat waves dancing over the ground, two small figures came into view. Squinting, I recognized my friends, twin sisters Umutesi and Umutoni. They were the same age as me, ten. As they passed by the house, I called out, “Ugiyehe?”
“To the well,” Umutoni called back, swinging the yellow water containers in her hands. She and her sister each carried two, holding about five litres of water each. The trek to the well was a daily job for each of us, as well as gathering firewood, sweeping the dirt yard outside of our homes, and a multitude of other jobs.
As I shaded my eyes with my hand, watching them disappear from view, I heard my uncle get up abruptly from his seat. I watched him stalk towards the center of the village. I didn’t know where he was going, and it was not my place to ask.
I was just leaned my head back against the wall, when suddenly…
I jerked around to see who was calling my name. It was my little brother, Benimana. Benimana was only six years old, and right now he was panting for breath and waving his arms like a mad person.
“Iki?” I yelled back.
Finally he got close enough to reply. “Abazungu! In the village!”
My heartbeat quickened. White people? Here? I had only seen a few white people in my lifetime, and then only from a distance. My sense of curiosity was aroused, and I jumped to my feet. “Let’s go!”
I only ran a few steps before I realized my brother was not following me. “Come on, Beni! What are you waiting for?!”
My brother looked at me hesitantly, and then blurted, “Mbarushimana said he thinks the white people eat Rwandans!”
I burst out laughing. “Benimana, you know better than to believe anything Mbarushimana says! He is always full of crazy stories. Now, come on, let’s go see what they want!”
Both of us ran towards the church, where Benimana said he had seen the Abazungu. Soon enough, we saw a big white van parked in front of the church, surrounded by a crowd of people. Leaving my brother to hang back at the edge of the crowd, I squirmed my way towards the front. Glancing around to see if there was anyone I could ask, I spotted Hitimana Moises, the pastor’s son, who was twelve years old. I liked Hitimana; he was always kind to everyone.
“Hitimana! What’s happening?” I called to him.
He turned and grinned at me. “I don’t know, but the white people are giving out clothes… and sweets!” Just then, we heard a booming voice, which belonged to our neighbor, Chance. He usually went by his English name, since he could speak the language. “Please be patient, people… everyone will get something!”
I was so busy listening to him that I jumped with surprise to see the white man standing in front of me. “Muraho,” he said with a big smile. We all giggled at his terrible pronunciation. Turning, he spoke to the white woman in a strange language, which I guessed must be English. She reached inside the van and pulled out a handful of sweets, and I felt Hitimana nudge me in excitement.
The white man handed us each a candy on a little white stick. We lost no time in unwrapping them and popping them in our mouths. Even Benimana approached the white people when he saw the treats; he must have decided the abazungu weren’t too bad!
As the three of us chattered excitedly among ourselves, I noticed Chance and Hitimana’s father, Pastor Jean Claude, helping the white people unload huge bags from the back of the van. I wondered what it was that they had.
A few minutes later, I was again startled when the white woman approached me. “Witwa nde?” she asked in the same strong accent, smiling broadly. “Ishimwe Soline,” I answered. Then I pointed to my brother, “Benimana Patrick,” and to Hitimana, “Hitimana Moises.” The white woman nodded, then pointed to my feet and asked a question in her own language. I couldn’t understand what she wanted, so I shrugged and spread my hands. She repeated the question, pointing to her own feet and then to mine. Is something wrong with my feet? Finally, Chance came to our rescue. “She says, ‘Where are your shoes?’” he told me.
I looked back at him, puzzled. “I don’t own shoes.” Chance quickly turned and translated my reply to the muzungu, and she turned away and hurried to the van. I shot a questioning glance at Hitimana, who shrugged in reply. A minute later, though, she was back; with a pair of shoes! Kneeling by my feet, she motioned for me to hold out my foot. Carefully, she slipped the purple sandals on first one foot, then the other. They fit perfectly; they were even a little big, meaning I could grow into them. I took a few tentative steps, feeling the odd weight of the shoes on my feet. My first real pair of shoes!
I carefully bent down and removed the shoes from my feet. I didn’t want to spoil them by walking in the dirt, and I had to show them to Mama! I felt Chance touch my shoulder and remind me, “What do you say?” Quickly looking back at the white lady, I blurted, “Murakoze! Murakoze cyane!” Chance laughed as he translated my thanks, and the white lady touched my cheek affectionately. Then, I noticed the white man coming towards us with a small black box in his hand. Chance told me, “Ishimwe, the muzungu wants to know if he can take your picture.” I nodded and proudly cradled the shoes against my chest, standing tall and straight. I tried to stay serious, like Mama was in the picture pinned to our wall at home, but I couldn’t keep my smile inside. New shoes! Wait until I showed Mama and Uncle! Wait until I showed my friends!
Just then, I heard a yell from Benimana. Rushing up to me, he waved a bright red shirt in the air. “Look what the muzungu gave me!” he hollered. Obviously, I wasn’t going to be the only one with exciting news to share! “Come on, let’s go tell everyone!” he shouted. I’d never seen him this excited.
I turned and raced up the hill after my brother, still clutching my precious shoes. Then, I turned around to catch a last glimpse of the abazungu. I caught sight of them lifting their hands to wave to me, and I waved back, calling, “Imana aguhe umugisha!”
As I ran after Benimana, I heard their voices faintly reply, “God bless you, too!”
NOTE: this story is imaginary. All names and events are fictional. However, the pictures above are of a real little girl who was given a brand new pair of crocs by the Shelter Them during one of their Rwanda visits. Notice the lollipop in her mouth, and the huge grin. I’ve tried to bring to life how a child like her might feel, receiving a new pair of shoes. We don’t know her name, but she certainly appears grateful! Do you know that YOU can help children like Ishimwe, Benimana, and the little girl pictured above? Find out more by clicking this link: Shelter Them