Reality Cafe

My eyes had never been so heavy. The dimly lit room of Alice’s restaurant “Dignity Café” was coaxing a slumber out of me I had never known, and it felt more like 3am then it did 8pm. I powered my eye lids to lift and survey the table. Thirteen people sat around a large square table, perfectly still in plastic chairs; twelve china plates were empty of Alice’s home-cooking of rice, avocado, tomato, beef stew, potatoes, and chicken; twelve people were staring at the man next to me; one man slowly cut his beef; the same man was speaking.

The Rwandan man named Justin. Justin.

Desperately my eyes latched on the glass bottle of orange soda directly in front of me, using the nearest item to anchor myself to the dark, flickering reality of the room.

Reality. That was it. That was what my eyes and ears and skin and mouth and mind and heart and soul had been roped into. I had wrestled and danced with reality in one day more than I ever had in my entire life.

It was lovely and horrifying at the same time.  I did not have enough, it was all too much, my body was shutting down, there was more to do….

Reality.

Finally, my disease of overthinking was done. My existence had wrestled and lost to reality. Our first stop had been Cokawi, where I spent most of my time with the four boys. Eric was 16. I asked Eric where he would go if he could go anywhere he wanted in the world… He said Uganda. I asked why. He said knowledge. I asked why he wants knowledge. He said he wants to be a doctor. I asked what he loved. He said God. I then turned and asked Porre where he wanted to go. He said the United States of America. I asked why. He said he wanted to be a teacher. I asked what he loved. He said his mother. Porre is 12.  They showed me their rabbits, we jumped ‘1, 2, and THREE! GO!’  across the gaps in their marshland, they taught me how to say ‘I love you’ in Kinyarawandan. “Ndgakunda” I said to them, over and over again. They laughed. They said they loved me back.

I had surrendered after seeing such displays of humanity. Minutes before we arrive at Murindi, as we rattled down the dusty road in our group’s bus, Justin tells us that this next cooperative is comprised of widows who survived the genocide. We’re greeted with their dancing, their huge beaming faces. They set us in a large mud room; they guide us to the side with couches and they sit on the opposite side of the room on wooden benches, some women standing. As everyone settles, Justin tells us that one woman here had suffered sexual abuse during the genocide, has AIDS, has diabetes, and had her entire family murdered. Genevieve tells me that Justin’s use of “sexual abuse” is incredibly tame…. and then Justin says she’s the woman in the black scarf. I gaze through the twenty or so pairs of eyes—I find the woman in the black scarf. She looks about 50.

The leader of the cooperative—Anne-Marie—begins her speech. She speaks about the prayers they sent our journey and describes how the cows have changed their life. Anne Marie tears up when she talks about the anniversary of the genocide being hardest time of year for them, and yet World Dance’s sending of cows last July transformed their sadness into incredible happiness. Her eyes are filled with tears—she explains that they are tears of joy. Anne-Marie admits that the Genocide Survivors Fund (the money that the government provides them with) ended without warning two days before we arrived… we’re all in shock. But how will they pay for their health cards? Janet keeps asking Justin how the government can do this, and Justin has no answer except “That is the government”. Annetta, one of our World Dancers, speaks to the silence—“I’ll pay for it.”

Everyone looks at her. “What?”

 “I’ll pay for their health cards for the rest of the year.” Everyone’s stunned, and then everyone’s applauding, and then everyone’s glowing. The room was absorbed by the generosity of the moment.  

The celebration grew even more dense. They bring out a crate of Coke, Sprite, and Fanta glass bottles—they’ve had gifts planned for us.

When the bowls of peanuts came out, I get up and sit next to the woman in the black scarf woman. She keeps telling me something, and one woman who speaks French translates her Kiryarwandan to French— tells me her mother’s name was Catrina, she begins to call me mother. They are passing out eggs from their chickens. The woman on my right smiles and opens my hard-boiled egg for me, while the woman on my left puts salt on it for me. They watch me eat it, and laugh with me as I tell them how good it is.

We’re passing out our gifts now, giving them our clothes and bras. They’re all crowded around Janet, who’s teaching them how to use the reusable pads. We’re all hugs, we’re all taking pictures…we move outside to the shed and we’re by Faith, the cow World Dance donated.

It’s so hard to leave these women, but we have to. Janet mentions that she feels like we’ve known these women our whole loves. We dance our way to the bus, we’re all holding each other and conveying our love. This next bus ride takes us to a calf for a naming ceremony. In the grand moment, Janet announces: her name is Annetta. Everyone is overcome with surprise and emotion.

Reality switched me back into Dignity Cafe. Then it caved, it was sinking into the plastic chair. It was not a slumber I was slipping into here in Alice’s restaurant… it was true submission. The cure to cancerous obsessive self-obsession lay in the realness of Touching the Other.

My eyes could not wander; they could only be open. My mind could not overthink; it could only be open. My ears had no power to filter; they could only be open to—

Justin. I had never been around someone who transformed the air with every world he spoke. The newfound room in my ears suddenly allowed for me to listen and know at the same time.  Sound suddenly had new flavor of Truth I’d never heard before. The Fanta glass had dew drops slipping down the sides. The air was hot.

The dark man—in his crisp dress shirt, dress pants, and pointy shoes—was cutting his potato as he spoke. He reminded me of a king, but the most humble king. His actions were smooth, slow, steady, and exact. His presence had all light and all dark, as if he’d seen a genocide—as if he’d seen families murdered, babies thrown against walls, women raped— and yet still only knew love in his heart.

And his words, atop this body, made me think of God.

I’ll write out what he said tonight.

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