Today 680 women, the largest class yet in Rwanda, was graduating. We arrive at the “playground”–it looks more like a big field, there are so many people I can’t imagine the number. Later I’m told more than 2,000. I can hear music in the background beyond the sea of bodies and umbrellas. Today the sun is bright and it is African hot, at least to me. We get out with hundreds watching my every move. Without any words spoken, they part and let me pass. They stare, some smile and a few reach out and touch me. I don’t really understand why at the moment. Later I will discover they have already been told a special guest from America is coming. And I just thought I was going to observe–silly me.
I am escorted to a tent-covered V.I.P. area. Even the simple plastic chairs are covered in white fabric. Our country director, Berra, was speaking, or trying to. My arrival is causing a bit of a stir as people stretch to get a glimpse of this special guest. I’m still clueless. Finally Berra gives in and introduces me as a sponsor who has come a long way on behalf of other sponsors in America. She asks me to stand and wave. I’m overcome when the crowd erupts into applause, waves and huge smiles. They are so happy I’m here. Okay, now I get it.
The program continues with various talking heads, dancing and songs. Even a skit that demonstrates what the women have learned is presented. One of the talking heads is the vice mayor. She has much to say. The crowd loves her and is very responsive to her speech. Fortunately, sitting next to me a Women for Women International staff member is explaining what she is saying. At one point she starts to really urge the women to save some money, stay clean and make sure their children go to school. Then, much to my amazement, she talks about family planning and how important it is. She even asks them by a show of hands who is practicing family planning. Most every hand goes up. “Good,” she says, “do not have more childrens than you have money for; this is very important.” I keep trying to imagine my mayor standing up at some big event and encouraging everyone to bathe and practice family planning. I love their raw honesty.
Berra is once again addressing the crowd. Then I realize she is talking about me. She asks if I will come forward and talk to the women on behalf of all sponsors. No pressure here. “Muraho, amakuru ki?” They love this–white woman speaks Rwandan. That’s all I know so know Berra helps me from here. I tell them, it is an honor to be here. Everyone of your sponsors are so very proud of you and each of them wishes they were here today. They are all proud of what you’ve overcome and what you are accomplishing now. They know it has not been easy for you, that it is still not easy for you but because of your hard work, it is getting better. I mention the Women for Women International slogan, Strong Women Build Strong Nations and say, “and because of your strength, you are building a strong Rwanda. Murakoze cyane.” Thank you very much.
At the end of the ceremony, some two hours later, a final celebration dance erupts. Others sitting in the V.I.P. area are invited to join in the dance including yours truly, the muzungu. When I do so another eruption of clapping and cheers. Try to picture it, under a hot African sun, in the middle of a field, hundreds of Rwandan women dressed in traditional outfits dancing around a crazy white woman who is trying desperately to dance with them. It must have been a sight. At least the film crew thought so because the next morning I’m told by hotel staff, “Hey I saw you on TV last night.” I can only hope this doesn’t make its way to You Tube.