Saturday, April 19, 2014

Nightmares, dreams, and tears

Two weeks ago Emmanuel Nkundunkundiye observed "New Year" as he does every April 7. Quietly, he "commemorates" the senseless slaughter of his father upon the outbreak of the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi, followed a few days later by the brutal attack upon his mother which rendered her physically unable to care for her 2 year old son and left deep and disabling emotional scars that remain to this day. That is how Emmanuel measures time: he reviews and concludes the past year, and indulges his hopes that this New Year may bring something better.


The start of Emmanuel's life was an unimaginable nightmare that, no doubt, partly explains his tender, pensive spirit. But maybe that tender, pensive spirit was shaped more by his grandmother, Emertha, a desperately poor but saintly widow who "registered" and raised Emmanuel as her own son. Together they cultivated and harvested her small plot, and she cared for him as best she could in her mud hut, with neither water nor electricity. Emertha was much more than a grandmother. She was mother, mentor, and teacher, who told Emmanuel that the only inheritance she could leave him was what she was teaching him. Fortunately, in time, a kind man provided the modest school fees required for "Emma" (as he is called by friends) to attend school. Not a good school. An overcrowded local village school made of mud bricks. No electricity. No water. No qualified teacher. But it was a welcome alternative to passing time alone on the streets.

Then in December, 2008, local government officials placed Emma's name on a list of "OVC" (orphan and vulnerable children) to be considered for admission to a newly opened institution, Agahozo Shalom Youth Village (ASYV), a 4 hour drive from the only foot paths Emma ever new. Emma was selected to attend ASYV, and spent his first year focused on what is called "tikkun halev," healing the (broken) heart. During that year Emma emerged as a fine artist and learned English. It was also during this time that he developed an extraordinary bond with Anne Heyman, a University of Pennsylvania graduate who founded Agahozo Shalom Youth Village atop a mountain so that she could teach (and demonstrate to) her 500 children: "If you can see far, you can go far." At ASYV Emma maintained his tender, pensive spirit, but also revealed his indomitable, enduring spirit as he cared for and lead his fellow students.

During his four years at ASYV, Emertha died and Emmanuel had to leave and return to his village to burying his grandmother. This was the first time Emmanuel ever cried. Emmanuel had no father, no mother, no grandmother, no family to cheer him when he graduated from ASYV. But Anne Heyman and her husband Seth Merrin were there. So was President Paul Kagame. And Emmanuel was selected as the Students' Representative to address, encourage and inspire them and the entire community.

Emmanuel was then selected to join the Bridge2Rwanda Scholars, a rigorous program that prepares Rwanda’s most gifted and promising students to successfully compete for international scholarships. Bridge2Rwanda.org.  Because he had no other place to stay, Emma moved in with me. When I pointed out early on that he did not seem to eat much, and Emma responded matter-of-factly, "I resist hunger." Emma 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. Thanks to the Kaplan curriculum, Emma improved his SAT score more 600 points! Emma dreams big, and his unimaginable, immodest dream was blended with extreme improbability when he applied to the University of Pennsylvania ("Penn"), the alma mater of his great hero and inspiration, Anne Heyman. He so wanted to please and make her proud by following in her path of rigorous academics and action to make the world a better place than the nightmare into which he was born.

I knew that something was wrong when I awoke pre-dawn on February 1,... but I did not know what. I walked out of my bedroom into the hallway and saw a silhouette against the wall. Quivering. Whimpering. "Emmanuel? EMMANUEL?!? What's going on?" After an unbearable pause, Emma whispered "Anne is dead" and he cried for only the second time in his life. We both cried, for I too adored and was greatly impacted by Anne. Through tears, Emma explained the reason he studied so hard, all of his work and achievements, were for Anne as his way of assuring her that her efforts were not in vain and that he loved and appreciated her. Lincoln spoke similar sentiments more than 150 years earlier when he explained: "I am a success today because I had a friend who believed in me and I didn't have the heart to let him down," ...an inspirational reminder that we can all be such an encouraging friend and plant the seeds of greatness in others. [Anne Heyman, a most amazing person who blessed and inspired thousands in the US, Israel, Rwanda, and around the world, died as the result of an equestrian accident on January 31, 2014.]

As all college applicants (and their parents) know so well, March Madness is not about basketball, but rather admission decisions. Emma asked if he could invite a fellow B2R Scholar over to the house on the night of March 27, and if B2R Founder Dale Dawson and I could stay up with them. The anxiety was palpable, and Emma did not want to be alone when he received such news and the resulting ecstasy or crushing disappointment.

At 11 pm, Rwandan time (5 pm EST), Emma clicked on the U Penn portal site. Nothing. Reload. "C-O-N-G-R-A....." and Emma fell off his chair onto the floor and cried,... for the third time in his 22 years, but for the fist time they were tears of joy. O, how we all wished that his father and mother, and his grandmother, and Anne Heyman could have celebrated with us. (By the way, the other B2R Scholar who was with us that night received word the very same minute that he has been admitted to Harvard,... but that story deserves its own separate blog post.)

U Penn-bound Emma (left) with Harvard-bound Justus (right)
30 minutes after release of admission decisions
My intellectual capacity and promise is far eclipsed by Emma's. I am not his peer, but he sees that my soil has been tilled decades more than his, and thus he comes to me with an endless stream of questions that American youth simply do not ask their parents. "Tonto [Uncle, as he calls me], What are the attributes of a true friend?" "How do you discover your passion?" "When you were my age, how did you use your free time?" And just this morning, "Do you think 'effectiveness' can be learned?" I am greatly privileged to sow in him whatever I may have, and his soil is so rich and receptive. For example, last Sunday morning I asked whether we would be going to church together. Emma reply "No, my black shoes have finally given out and fallen apart, and I had no shoes to wear to church." I knew that he had other lesser shoes, but he did not think it appropriate to appear at church in them. I assured Emma that he was not required to go to church, and that he does not even need a reason or explanation for not going. However, I challenged him on his illegitimate reason: "Do you really think that anyone notices or cares about Emma's shoes? Do you think God cares about the condition of your shoes? Or, the condition of your heart? Do you notice and judge other people by their shoes?" And we talked about pridefulness. I really did not think it was important whether Emma went to church last Sunday or not. But upon reflection, he stated that he really wanted to go, and we went,... and he stated afterwards that the message was the greatest message he had ever heard and he would carry it with him his entire life.

Emma recently vowed that he will serve his country not as a job seeker, but rather a job creator. As I write this blog post, Emma sits across the room reading Peter Drucker. He is the most focused, disciplined person I have ever known, and he has committed to reading 100 pages every day until his Penn classes start, and then he will increase his reading. Quite impressive for a young man who comes from a non-reading culture, and had never even held a book nor spoken any English until five years ago. At church last Sunday, the Pastor spoke of there being "purpose beyond pain." Emma joyfully declares that pretty much sums up his life,... and it pretty much sums up Rwanda.