Tuesday, April 22, 2014


Life, indeed survival, was always difficult for 8-year-old Justus Uwayesu, but Sundays were particularly difficult. The garbage trucks did not run on Sundays and that meant his food would not be delivered to the Kigali City Dump where Justus lived as a double orphan. Justus’ father was executed (by immolation) for the crime of being born into a family to whom the Belgians had issued an identity card with the “Tutsi” box arbitrarily checked. His mother vanished shortly thereafter and no doubt met the same fate for the same crime, for she never would have chosen to abandon her 2-year-old child, Justus.

By the time he was 8, Justus had meandered more than 100 kilometers to the garbage dump for Kigali, the capital of Rwanda. The stench was unbearable for most people, but to little Justus it was a buffet he called “home,” or more specifically “home” was the stripped out, tireless car in which he slept on and under pieces of cardboard. The car had no windows, but it provided sufficient protection from the rain and the equatorial sun… and the pigs, those damn pigs with which Justus competed for food! They all preferred the waste brought in from restaurants and hotels, from which Justus separated out bottle caps, toothpicks, soiled napkins, and more disgusting things, before dining on the remaining scraps of food.
When Justus lived in the City Dump, there were no family or friends to take photos,... so this, of course, is not Justus.  But this is the all-too-common face of a child with no one.

Then one Sunday, the traditional day of disappointment and hunger, down the dusty road rattled a taxi transporting Clare Effiong, a visitor from the U.S., and the type of “do-gooder” that seasoned development workers are quick to disparage. She was on a mission, but not certain what it was when she awoke that morning. She spoke of “letting the Spirit lead” in a way that causes many to feel very uncomfortable and even suspicious.  But the Spirit had led her to Rwanda, and that day the Spirit had led her into that taxi and onto that dirt road. And when Clare saw a particular group of children (for their were many groups of OVC’s – orphans and vulnerable children), she exclaimed, “Stop!” Clare got out of the taxi and through an interpreter, she engaged the children in conversation asking each of them many questions, including “What do you want?” She heard the usual responses: some said money, some said clothes, etc. But when she asked little Justus, he said, “I want to go to school.” Of all the OVCs in that crowd, Clare told Justus to get in the taxi. Like the Samaritan who took the beaten and battered traveler to the inn for treatment and rest, Clare drove Justus to a friend’s home in Gikondo and told him to “educate this young boy and I will send money to pay for it: School fees, school materials, uniform, shoes, whatever." From his first day of school, Justus’ most distinctive attribute has been (and remains) his ever-present conviction that it is a precious privilege to have an opportunity to learn and study his way out of poverty.

When Clare pulled Justus from the city garbage dump, he spoke only Kinyarwanda. When he graduated form High School, Justus spoke five languages. But languages were not his focus. He had become a brilliant Math and Chemistry student and was selected to join 30 students (out of 1,200+ applicants) in the Bridge2Rwanda Scholars Program, a rigorous gap year program that prepares Rwanda’s most gifted and promising students to successfully compete for international scholarships. See Bridge2Rwanda.org. Justus obsessively studied Kaplan SAT and TOEFL test prep, English, leadership, entrepreneurship, and discipleship, and received B2R's guidance in applying for colleges and universities in the United States.

As stated in my prior post, all college applicants (and their parents) know that March Madness is not about basketball, but rather admission decisions. Emmanuel, another B2R Scholar and my housemate, invited Justus to our home the night of March 27, to search the internet for anxiously awaited decisions. They asked if B2R Founder Dale Dawson and I could stay up and be with them, for better or for worse. The anxiety was palpable. For Justus, it was all about Harvard.

At 11 PM, Rwandan time (5 PM EST), Justus went to the secure Harvard admissions site. He was so nervous he fumbled and struggled to get in. It was actually a bit pathetic and tensions rose. But then Harvard’s letter to Justus loaded, and all he could read was the first word: “CONGRATULATIONS!” Justus screamed with joy and fell to the floor (where he joined Emmanuel). Minutes later, he sufficiently composed himself enough to ask me with labored breathing if he could borrow my phone to call Clare in the U.S.: “Mom, MOM! I’m going to Harvard!”
"Mom. MOM! I'm going to Harvard!"
As I reflect upon this highly improbable story of a young boy gleaning garbage at the city dump he called “home” and then later matriculating at Harvard University, I necessarily reflect on the butterfly effect and Clare and all the others sandwiched between the two bookends of the garbage dump and Harvard: Clare, Dale & Judi Dawson, Anna Reed, Richard Siegler, Blayne Sharpe, Mary Claire Frazier, Joy Beth Bodie, Cassie Fuenmayor, Mark Karugarama, Andrea Redmond & Bill Ferguson, Dub & Val Stocker, Rod & Diane Dammeyer, Anne Heyman & Seth Merrin, Dan Nova, the generous people at Kaplan, and so many others – each of whom would quickly point out: “I’m no Justus. I’m no Emma (see prior post). I’m no Clare.” But without their willingness to play their particular role, Justus could still be gleaning at the city dump and Emma could be digging potatoes, barefooted. These good folks might ask themselves, "Who was/is there to help young Justus and give him a chance?" ...and properly answer the question: "just us." We are seduced to take great comfort in the self-deception that the problems are too big and too many, and we cannot make a difference. But these folks knew that they could and should give it a try, make a contribution from whatever they had, and as a result Justus is going to Harvard and Emmanuel to U Penn. And yet another Bridge2Rwanda Scholar is also going to Harvard, and still others were admitted to Dartmouth, Brown, University of Chicago, Northwestern, U.C. Berkeley, Claremont Colleges (Pitzer), Vanderbilt, Emory, Michigan State, Babson, Bates, Abilene Christian University, and other highly selective schools. As I continue on my own meandering journey, may I be like Clare and know when to tell the taxi driver “Stop!” And may I too have the necessary discernment and courage to respond to the opportunity before me… and act.

I also reflect upon Justus’ declarations that unmerited favor has been lavished upon him, and what has been done for him, he must now do for others. If he denies the poor, he denies himself, his own history, who and what he is. Self-affirmation requires him to pay it forward. Accordingly, Justus has established a nationwide charitable organization, SEVEN United for the Needy, which helps the poorest students by providing necessary school fees and supplies.

And lastly, I reflect upon an oft-asked question: “Why are you here in Rwanda?” I have many deeply embraced answers to that question, but after spending these recent days sharing life with Emmanuel and Justus, I will presently offer only this: Living in Rwanda is more thrilling than watching the best, most powerful, most emotionally rich and raw movies imaginable, and I actually get to have unvarnished, intimate conversations with the great actors as they are performing. Sometimes those conversations may even color and sharpen the performance. But whether or not I influence the performance, the performance always impacts and transforms me. I can hardly believe that I get to do this day after day. Each day I arise with joy and amazement that I get another one.
Justus (off to Harvard), Christian (off to Dartmouth), me (stayin' put), Jonathan (also off to Harvard), Emmanuel (off to U Penn). The painting behind us was collectively painted by their cohort of 27 B2R Scholars.