Squeezed together on the bench seat of an old van, Speciose and I couldn’t help knocking into each other as we bounced over potholes, swerved around pedestrians crowding the red clay roads of Kigali, Rwanda. She speaks Kinyarwanda to someone on her cell phone, clothed in vibrant African dress, hair braided like a piece of art.
I only know one language and this woman, living in a third world country, can speak four. I am one of several visiting Americans shifting through her world, fascinated by her skill in translation and bartering.
We eat lunch at separate tables on a crowded terrace overlooking the metal roof skyline of the city. I notice a faraway look; she picks at her food quietly. It leaves me curious.
On my last day in Rwanda, during a final embrace she reveals what haunts her. “The children are starving and we have no way to feed them. Do you think you can help,” she asks hesitantly.
I accept the challenge and together, over five years, we manage to help sustain eighty children – orphaned in the genocide and living in a village of child-headed households. Her courageous question is the seed for our blooming friendship.
Years later, on her first visit to America she sleeps in my guest room, soaks in her first bubble bath, and learns how to load a dishwasher. We share concerns for our children, laugh about picking up after our husbands, shop at Target. Surprised by what we share in common despite our individual circumstances.
Last fall, I find myself seated across from Speciose sharing a meal at her own dining room table, surrounded by her three children. But before we sit down, I ask to wash my hands.
She brings an empty coffee pot with water and asks me to follow her down a narrow hallway, outside to a dusty back yard. On the way, I notice she has no kitchen sink, refrigerator or stove, just a small burner over hot coals lying on the floor.
She gently pours water over my cupped hands and I rub them together. The precious water she carries in a plastic jug for a few miles on foot.
Today, I turn on the faucet to fill my electric kettle, open the cupboard for a tea bag and notice the Rwandan tea I bought with Speciose at the market. I think about how tea makes the list of necessities we purchased for the orphans. Remember asking her, “What about toilet paper, do they have any,” and how she laughs in response, “They are fine to use old magazine pages.”
The day before I leave Rwanda, we’re bouncing over potholes again when she taps my shoulder from the back seat. I turn around to see her smile as if she has a secret to share. She tells me how she finally receives a visa to visit her sister in Canada and thanks me.
They approve a visa because I brought her to the United States and her passport stamps show that she returned to Rwanda, unlike others looking for a way to escape poverty.
She takes flight a few days later, and never returns. Our friendship freezes in that truck like a movie on pause during an interruption that lasts over a year now. And it haunts me like a dream I can’t figure out.
Have you ever had a friendship end abruptly, without explanation?
Some of you may recognize the first half of this story as my essay selected as a finalist for Real Simple’s Simply Stated Blog Contest about unexpected friendship. I decided to share it here with a postscript as I think about how many things in life happen without explanation or happy ending. How faith resides in the the tension of unresolved acceptance.